The crowd was hungry for blood last night at New York's Baruch College. A who's who of the lefty intellectual elite and their activist foot soldiers had gathered to see their most high-profile turncoat Christopher Hitchens finally put in his place by controversial British MP George Galloway. So far, the former Nation columnist and current neocon apologist is undefeated in public debates. In Berkeley, Ca. in 2003, for instance, The New York Review of Books' Mark Danner was roundly outwitted according to friends of mine in attendance. On Bill Maher's Real Time and The Daily Show, he was sharp as a buck knife. This was going to be different, the crowd seemed to want to believe. No one could read the blood-soaked news coming out of Iraq and argue, as last night's debate topic posited, that the war was "just and necessary" with a straight face. Yet here Hitch was, sober and stylishly disheveled, ready to argue that the Iraq war was America's gift to the planet.
It was a warm, muggy night and the line snaked around the block. Metal detectors checked all who entered in case any Zionists were gunning for the pro-Palestinian MP or any Trotskites were looking to permanently shut up their former comrade. In a strange act of hands-on pre-debate lobbying, Hitchens planted himself outside the auditorium and personally handed out homemade pamphlets denouncing Galloway's ties to Saddam and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. His assault on Galloway is summarized in this pre-debate screed on Slate. Read Hitch's full dossier on Galloway here.
The crowd got what they wanted. Galloway, tanned, neatly coiffed and dressed in a slick tan suit and cream tie, delivered. The bombastic Galloway laid into Hitchens from the opening bell, proclaiming, "Ladies and gentlemen we are witnessing a great moment in natural history. For the first time, a butterfly has metamorphosed into a slug. And every slug leaves a trail of slime."
Hitchens, he declared, was willing to "fight to the last drop of other people's blood. How I wish he would put on a tin hat and pick up a gun and go and fight himself."
The crowd ate it up.
Hitch was not without his supporters. But despite a surprisingly large cheering section, the prolific writer, who relied on his dark sense of irony as his most potent weapon, seemed tired and not entirely concerned if he was winning or losing. He was often heckled by a raucous and off-kilter contingent of antiwar activists.
Hitch began the debate with a moment of silence of those who had died in Wednesday's brutal suicide bombings across Baghdad. It was a clever ploy, which underscored his central argument: that the insurgents in Iraq are not courageous anti-imperialists or noble nationalists, they are cold-blooded Islamic fascists.
Galloway argued that the insurgents were almost overwhelmingly Iraqi (he's correct) and that people have the inalienable right to resist a foreign invader. Then he blasted Hitchens for his mean-spirited assault on Cindy Sheehan.
Hitch made a crucial error in his response that few, if any, in the audience picked up on. He tried to point out the logical inconsistency of Galloway at once supporting Cindy Sheehan and the people who killed her son, insinuating that he had been killed by the same people who were blowing up civilians with suicide bombs. But Casey Sheehan was killed in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum populated exclusively by Shia. In other words, he was killed by the very people who Hitchens argued were "liberated" by the U.S. invasion.
The fact is the insurgency is not easily definable. Both men are correct, and wrong. The bulk of the insurgent leadership is most likely Sunni, former Baathist officers and secret police. They are joined by foreign jihadists like Jordanian Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (who, despite mainstream media reports, split with bin Laden). But there are also scores of local insurgent groups who are made up of everyday Iraqis, be it Sunnis in Fallujah or Shia in Sadr City.
It was bizarre, but Galloway didn't bring up Abu Ghraib once. That is crucial because the revelations about American abuse at Saddam's former torture palace marked the beginning of the end of the U.S. project there. It was shortly after the story broke that the Shiite militias under Moqtada al-Sadr rose up in solidarity with their Sunni compatriots in April of last year. The Shiite revolt subsided. But the rage and sense of humiliation didn't.
The fact is the majority of Iraqis (including the leading Shiite coalition in the parliament) want U.S. forces out of their country. But it wasn't always so.
Most lefties don't want to face it, but the "liberation" of Iraq from the clutches of a brutal dictator was (in theory, at least) a noble act. The Shiite majority didn't greet us with garlands, but most were relieved to be rid of a man who had brutally oppressed them for decades. But the U.S. blew it. They instituted a heavy-handed and unjust occupation that has turned the nation, and the world, against us. And rightly so.
In the end, last night's debate over whether the war itself was just or necessary was irrelevant. It was a giant intellectual jerk-off. The only thing that matters is what to do now. Moderator Amy Goodman asked the withdrawal question towards the end of the night. But neither man offered a substantial answer.
Until someone on the left comes up with a better plan than the vague and unrealistic "bring them home now" we're going to be watching rematches of this debate, as entertaining as it was, a decade from now.
You can listen to a stream of the debate here .