Noted journalist Christopher Hitchens squared off against College of William and Mary government professor Lawrence Wilkerson on U.S. Middle East policy Monday night.
The Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium was packed to full capacity with students and faculty, who gathered to hear the Vanity Fair columnist and author debate Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in June, causing speculation about his ability to make it to the debate.
The debate opened with both men being asked what was, in their view, the greatest misconception about the Middle East.
Wilkerson took the opportunity to discuss his credentials as a Vietnam veteran and self-described “grand strategist.” He stressed the importance of making foreign policy decisions with regards to long-range consequences.
He said that America’s current role as a power broker was unsustainable, and that the nation cannot afford a war with Iran.
Hitchens criticized what he viewed as an evasion, saying that the Israel-Palestine conflict in particular has many common misconceptions.
Hitchens criticized what he viewed as an evasion, and replied that the commonest misconception about the modern Middle East is the persistent belief that solving the Israel-Palestine conflict would bring peace to the Middle East, elaborating that the regions difficulties ran much deeper.
The debate then shifted to the topic of regime change in Iran.
“[American leaders] don’t have an objection to throwing some of the mullahs out,” Wilkerson said.
However, Wilkerson did not consider it an immediate possibility, saying that the question of practicality needed to be asked. He stressed gradual regime change, saying that anyone who thinks the military ought to involve itself in Iran needs to be ready to volunteer to fight.
“Are you going to be amongst that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population that has served in Iraq and Afghanistan?” Wilkerson said to the mostly-student audience.
Hitchens said that Wilkerson’s assertions were demagoguery, and compared his rhetoric to criticism of Abraham Lincoln’s involving the nation in the Civil War, despite not having serving in the Mexican-American War.
Hitchens went on to argue for intervention against Iran with a story of his experiences in the Middle East.
“I was at a Hezbollah rally in South Beirut,” he said. “[I] can’t recommend it.”
Hitchens also said that he supported an India-centric policy in South Asia, and that Pakistan has acted as a rogue state.
“The Taliban was another name for Pakistani imperialism in Afghanistan,” he said.
The question and answer section of the debate focused primarily on religion. Hitchens discussed his own boyhood rejection of religion, and told the audience that the rejection of organized religion would bring more comfort than the religions themselves.
When asked whether atheism was as much a matter of faith as belief in a deity, Hitchens dismissed the idea. He said that it was a “false equivalency” and said that it was not illogical to not believe in something when no proof for that thing is given, and when “every ontological argument has been unconvincing.”
Hitchens was asked about the character of his Marxism, and whether or not he supported government intervention in the economy. The polemicist said that the ultimate goal of Marxism ought to be “The replacement of government of men by men by the administration of things by men,” but said that in the modern world “Socialism has lost its prescriptive power.”