Who was? The late Christopher Hitchens, and according to Patrick Cockburn in today's Independent. Cockburn was friends with Hitchens for more than 40 years, and wrote a warm tribute to him shortly after his death. But the two of them disagreed about military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and noting the absence of this topic from the recent memorial event for Hitchens in New York, Cockburn thinks his support for these wars should not be avoided merely out of piety or embarrassment.
I highlight Cockburn's latest column because it doesn't happen all that often that an opponent of the war in Iraq allows there was a case for it, let alone a cogent one. In fact 'cogent' isn't necessarily Cockburn's own word, since it is used only in the headline to the piece and not the text itself. But he does say that Hitch 'was the most intelligent and eloquent defender of these interventions as a means of removing dictators or preventing massacres', before going on to spell out why he thinks he was wrong all the same. He also has a qualified 'compelling' in his concluding paragraph.
What, then, was the nature of Hitch's cogent - or intelligent or compelling - defence of the two wars. Simply this:
The central theme of Christopher's case in favour of foreign military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq was that, if these wars had not been fought, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban would still be in power. He said that to be anti-war was, in effect, to allow the continuation of tyrannical and merciless regimes. "The anti-war people have a lot of explaining to do," he would say.
Christopher used to say that he had "seen Iraqis... throwing sweets and flowers at American troops during the invasion". I remember replying: "That was because they wanted to be rid of Saddam, not because they wanted to be occupied by the US."
So there was that kind of case. For Cockburn himself it didn't suffice and Hitch was therefore wrong, because regime-change interventions become ipso facto imperial ones, and people don't welcome being occupied by a foreign power. Disastrous consequences soon follow.
I won't resume the argument. Everyone must know where they stand on all this by now, and I've probably devoted as much space to the Iraq war on this blog as I have to anything else. I will just note two things. First, how welcome it is to encounter a critic of that war willing to concede that there was a case for it, and a compelling one if only apparently. Second, to point out that the core of the case in some sort still stands: without military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq the regimes that were overturned might still be there at who knows what further human cost. In Syria today, we are witnessing one type of non-interventionist scenario: the massacre continues, the maiming and the tortures - for how long more?
The real difficulty of understanding relates to opponents of intervention in such situations who are impervious to the idea of there being any case at all in favour; who believe that slaughter and the rest are just to be endured until they can be halted by those on the receiving end; and who have contempt for anyone who thinks differently.