Christopher Hitchens Stands Trial

May 22, 2015

Christopher Hitchens Stands Trial

With great vim and gusto, a new book dissects the ever-controversial Christopher Hitchens.

By Gregory Shupak

What emerges is a picture of Hitchens as an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, “often lacked depth” and was “either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.”

Seymour at LSEBy the time of his death in December 2011, Christopher Hitchens had built a status perhaps outstripping that of any contemporary intellectual: His passing was considered worthy of the New York Times’ front page, and he was mourned by Tony Blair, Sean Penn, David Frum and Patrick Cockburn, among others. It is from this altitude that he is yanked down by Richard Seymour in the clever, incisive Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens. The slim critique of Hitchen’s ouevre focuses on his engagement with British politics and literature, his work on religion and his double-armed embrace of American imperialism.

Though only 35, Seymour has made a name for himself as a thoughtful political analyst, notably in his book The Liberal Defence of Murder, on how the language of humanitarianism helps camouflage imperialism, and on his blog Lenin’s Tomb, an indispensible source for analysis of neoliberalism, the War on Terror and Islamophobia. Ironically, Seymour’s literary style often evokes that of Hitchens at his best. Some of Seymour’s turns of phrase are positively Hitchensian, such as his opening salvo in the introduction to Unhitched: “This is unabashedly a prosecution. And if it must be conducted with the subject in absentia, as it were, it will not be carried out with less vim as a result.”

And when writing in the prosecutorial mode, Seymour has, like his subject, a gift for reeling off an entire firing squad’s worth of bullets in a single sentence: “Hitchens was a propagandist for the American empire, a defamer of its opponents, and someone who suffered the injury this did to his probity and prose as so much collateral damage.” Seymour is also a Trotskyist, as Hitchens once was. But there the comparisons end, because Seymour is plainly a caliber of intellectual that his subject is not.

Accuracy, Seymour demonstrates, was not a major hang-up for Hitchens. Hitchens referred to Hugo Chávez as “the General” even though the Venezuelan never held that rank; said that Muammar Gaddafi turned over a “stockpile of WMD” although Libya never possessed even one such weapon; claimed in February 2003 that an invasion of Iraq would be justified because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s presence in that country demonstrated a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda even though Zarqawi was an opponent of al-Qaeda at the time and it wasn’t clear that he was in Iraq at all; and asserted that Tunisians revolted against the Ben Ali regime because they did not have to fear violent repression on the same scale that Iranian protestors face despite the fact that 224 Tunisians were killed in their uprising as compared to the 72 killed in the Iranian dictatorship’s crushing of the Green Movement in 2009.

What emerges is a picture of Hitchens as an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, “often lacked depth” and was “either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.” Here Seymour adduces Hitchens’ gross misreading of Edward Said’s Orientalism, his travestying of Marx’s view of history, and his crude theological discussions: for example, Hitchens interprets the biblical Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as divine endorsement for the murder of children, an unpersuasive claim given that the story had precisely the opposite function in the historical context in which it was written and received.

Hitchens’ record on intellectual honesty is also rather blotchy. Seymour is not the first to note this; he points to John Barrell, who argued in the London Review of Books that sections of Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man were lifted from other sources without proper attribution. Seymour contends that Hitchens’ The Missionary Position was a re-write of research done by an Indian author who does not receive credit in the original hardback, and demonstrates convincingly that Hitchens’ essay “Kissinger’s War Crimes in Indochina” borrows from Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s The Political Economy of Human Rights without crediting the authors.

If Hitchens was a serial plagiarist who failed to get even the simplest of facts right, was allergic to nuance, and made no scholarly contributions, one might reasonably conclude that he ought to be ignored, and that a reader’s time and Seymour’s considerable talents be put to better use. But Hitchens matters precisely because of the inverse relationship that the quality of his work has to his status. His career reveals much about the function of the public intellectual.

The familiar narrative of Hitchens’ career has it that he made an abrupt turn from Left to Right in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but Seymour complicates this, noting that traces of Hitchens’ sympathy for empire could be detected much earlier in his career. As an example, Seymour cites Hitchens’ 1992 claim that European colonization of the Americas “deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto.” While Seymour notes that Hitchens did some important writing prior to his ideological shift, particularly in his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, he says too little about the high-quality work Hitchens did in the 1980s on Palestine and Reagan’s wars in Central America.

That said, Hitchens’ later years and the enormous celebrity he enjoyed during that period are a case study of just how handsome the rewards are for those willing and able to serve as attack dogs for the dominant powers of their place and time. Hitchens’ main service to the American elite was to employ a combination of innuendo and character assassination to cast aspersion on virtually every high-profile figure critical of American foreign policy after 9/11—a roster that includes Julian Assange, Noam Chomsky, George Galloway, Michael Moore, Harold Pinter, Edward Said, Cindy Sheehan, Oliver Stone and Gore Vidal.

Hitchens could never have amassed such a large following—and perhaps more importantly, such a powerful following—had he not so entirely embraced American power and its corresponding ideologies after 9/11. Would Hitchens have been invited on as many talk shows if, rather than writing fawning biographies of safely institutionalized figures like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, he had taken as his exemplary subjects two others he professed to admire even near the end of his life, C.L.R. James and Rosa Luxemburg? If, instead of levying facile criticisms of organized religion primarily at the United States’ enemies, Hitchens had selected neoliberal capitalism for his most ferocious late-career critiques, is it likely that 60 Minutes would have profiled him when he was ill with cancer, or that his audience would have been extended to readers of Newsweek, much less the Weekly Standard?

Seymour’s book makes clear that Hitchens provides the best evidence one can find for Chomsky’s hypothesis that as intellectuals achieve increasing degrees of power, “the inequities of the society will recede from vision, the status quo will seem less flawed, and the preservation of order will become a matter of transcendent importance.” Nor is there a more perfect embodiment than Hitchens of Said’s argument that “Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performance as much as … patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.”

To put the matter another way, consider Seymour’s justifiable revulsion at Hitchens’ revealing shifts in political friendships after 9/11: “It is one thing to sell out Sidney Blumenthal to the GOP, but to exchange Edward Said for Ahmed Chalabi? To smear Noam Chomsky yet endear oneself to Paul Wolfowitz?” Hitchens’ is the logic of an intellectual opportunist, of a man who has figured out the benefits of taking a clear stance with the established order: Relationships with Said and Chomsky will impress in certain circles, but they won’t get you the ear of the President of the United States or help you become chummy with the Prime Minister of England.

unhitched in 3dHitchens was what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic intellectual”: a person who claims to speak for the interests of either a hegemonic or counter-hegemonic class. And, despite Hitchens’ protestations and pretensions of working-class sympathies, Seymour’s book makes clear Hitchens sided manifestly with the ruling class, particularly those factions of it that are concerned with foreign affairs. The most concrete expression of this was probably his joining the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which was initiated and headed by Bruce Jackson, a former vice president of Lockheed Martin. However, the primary task that Hitchens took up for America’s elite was to attempt to de-legitimize its opponents. In addition to his vicious but generally insubstantial attacks on critics of American empire, this took the form of him repeatedly asserting that all anti-capitalist movements were dead and that market forces are the world’s truly revolutionary force; of his sliming the alter-globalization movement and his justifying Arizona’s racist immigration laws (though these last two are among the few points that Seymour overlooks).

Hitchens thus stands in contrast to an organic intellectual of the counter-hegemonic kind—one who practices what Chomsky sees as the responsibility of intellectuals in Western democracies: to utilize “the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”

By no means is Seymour the first to call Hitchens a hack and a sell-out. In the aftermath of his full-throttled embrace of gunboat diplomacy post-9/11, unmasking Hitchens became almost a cottage industry for Left intellectuals. Among the finest of these are Tariq Ali’s chapter on his former comrade in Bush in Babylon, Clare Brandabur’s “Hitchens Smears Edward Said,” Norman Finkelstein’s “Hitchens as Model Apostate,” Glenn Greenwald’s counter-obituary, and more work by Alexander Cockburn and Terry Eagleton than I could list. But Unhitched offers a more thorough and in-depth discrediting of Hitchens than anything previously published. And in doing so, Seymour has made an important contribution to understanding the political role of the intellectual celebrity in our time.

Greg Shupak writes fiction, non-fiction and book reviews. He teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph.

Only just tell the truth, says Ambiga to Najib

May 22, 2015

Only just tell the truth, says Ambiga to Najib

by Hafiz

pinnochioThe New UMNO-BN mascot for GE-14

Former Bar Council chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan has advised Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak not to not depend totally on paid advisers to improve his image.

In mocking Najib, Ambiga, also a former Bersih 2.0 chairperson, tweeted that she was givingambiga the Prime Minister advice free of charge, and that is, for him to tell the truth. She made the comment in response to a news report in The Malaysian Insider today that advertising and public relations guru Lim Kok Wing has been appointed Najib’s special programme coordinator.

Lim is no stranger to public relations, having established the nation’s first private advertising company and the first creative arts university, Limkokwing University of Creative Technology.

He has also helped negotiate several explosive problems, including the MCA internal war between then President Dr Ling Liong Sik and Lim Ah Lek.

He was also one of the pioneers to help the African National Congress in its first election The Besieged Malaysia Emperorcampaign for a free South Africa, helping Nelson Mandela to win the election. Lim ran the advertising campaign with video clips and banners depicting Mandela with children of various races, thereby creating a wide appeal among the international community – which also stamped the ANC leader as the viable face of South Africa.

The Limkokwing University of Creative Technology at present has campuses in London, Botswana and Cambodia plus Cyberjaya and Kuching in Malaysia.

Felda students too

Under Lim’s stewardship, the university began accepting students from Felda settlements to do their diploma programme under Felda scholarships. Previously, Lim had also advised former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad and helped UMNO Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar in his election campaign  for the Rembau constituency during the 2008 general election.

Previously, it was reported that the government had denied paying ex-Apco Malaysia boss Paul Stadlen (photo) for his services, which allegedly includes managing Najib’s media relations operations.

“Up to now, the government did not provide any remuneration to Paul Stadlen,” Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Shahidan Kassim said in a written parliamentary reply to Mohamed Hanipa Maidin (PAS-Sepang).

Besides Lim, it has also been reported that Najib has four official advisors namely UKM academic Prof Dr Abdullah Mohd Zin, Kubang Pasu MP Johari Baharum, and former cabinet ministers Rais Yatim and Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.

The Positions he Takes on The Rights of Man

May 22, 2015

The Positions he takes on The Rights of Man

by John Barrell

Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography by Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens on Paine

If the rights of man are to be upheld in a dark time, we shall require an age of reason,’ wrote Christopher Hitchens last year on the dust jacket of Harvey Kaye’s recent book on Paine on the dust jacket of Harvey Kaye’s recent book on Paine.​* Thomas Paine and the Promise of Revolution. And as if to reinforce that message, he has now himself published a little book on Paine, a ‘biography’ of Rights of Man.

It begins with a dedication, ‘by permission’, to President Jalal Talabani: ‘first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people’s army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful, and will inspire emulation.’ However selective this description of Talabani, who has been all this and almost everything else at one time or another, it is an opening that encourages us to expect a tract for the times: a demonstration perhaps of how Paine’s book can help us understand the complexities of the situation in Iraq, perhaps even of what his theory of rights might have to say about the legislative and judicial innovations introduced into the US and Britain as part of the war on terror.

Will Paine help us adjudicate between the rights of those who died in the Twin Towers and those who have been tortured in Guantanamo and elsewhere? Between the non-combatant victims murdered by the suicide bombers of the insurgency and the non-combatants murdered by the Americans in Fallujah or Haditha or Makr al-Deeb? By the end of the book, Hitchens still seems to believe that he will. ‘In a time,’ he writes in his final sentence, ‘when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend.’ In the event, between the dedication and the final sentence the book says nothing about Iraq or the war on terror, perhaps in silent acknowledgment of the difficulty of knowing quite how to depend on Paine in these dark times, perhaps because Hitchens believes it best to let Paine speak for himself and to leave President Talabani and the rest of us to make the connections. I would be more persuaded by the wisdom of this method if the book made more effort to expound and to summarise Paine’s political philosophy. But compared with any other book on Paine I can think of, this one is casual, even perfunctory. Long before I reached the end of what is a very long short book, I was at a loss to know why it had been written.

Discussing the reasons why Burke, who had supported the revolution in America, should have been so hostile to the revolution in France, even in its earliest and most innocent phase, Hitchens remarks that ‘it is a deformity in some “radicals”’ – he has Marx particularly in mind – ‘to imagine that, once they have found the lowest or meanest motive for an action or for a person, they have correctly identified the authentic or “real” one.’ Quite right too; and if any radical, misled by George Galloway’s description of Hitchens as ‘a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay’, should suggest that this book was written out of vanity, he would surely be mistaken.

A vain man would have taken care to write a better book than this: more original, more accurate, less damaging to his own estimation of himself, less somniferously inert. The press release accompanying the book led me to expect something much livelier; Hitchens, it exclaims, ‘marvels’ at the forethought of Rights of Man, and ‘revels’ in its contentiousness. There is a bit of marvelling and revelling here and there, but it is as routine as everything else in this book, which reads like the work of a tired man.

Too tired, to begin with, to check his facts. Rights of Man (not The Rights of Man, as Hitchens persistently calls it) was written as an answer to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Hitchens tells us that among others who wrote replies to Burke, along with Joseph Priestley and Mary Wollstonecraft, was William Godwin, which he wasn’t. He says that, unlike Paine, Wollstonecraft advocated votes for women, which she didn’t. Paine himself, Hitchens says, was not discouraged from writing Part One of Rights of Man by the rough treatment he received at the hands of a Parisian crowd following Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes. Nor should he have been, for Part One was published several months before the king fled and Paine was manhandled.

According to Hitchens, Part Two was produced partly to explain to Dr Johnson the need for a written constitution, and partly to endorse Ricardo’s views on commerce and free trade, but when it was written Johnson had been dead for seven years and Ricardo, not yet 20, had published no views that required endorsing.

Paine was charged with seditious libel for publishing Part Two, and to escape arrest he fled to France, accompanied by the Wykehamist gentleman-lawyer John Frost, described by Hitchens as secretary of the London Corresponding Society (LCS). The LCS was a society of radical artisans, not a gentleman’s club, and its secretary was in fact the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. The trial proceeded in Paine’s absence, and according to Hitchens the future prime minister Spencer Perceval ‘opened for the prosecution’; in fact, though Perceval read the indictment to the court, the prosecution was much too important to be left to so relatively junior a barrister, and was opened by the attorney general himself.

In 1794 Paine published The Age of Reason, ‘probably’, thinks Hitchens, in reaction to a sermon by Richard Watson, the bishop of Llandaff, though, as Paine himself tells us, he had not heard of the sermon until it was advertised in Watson’s reply to The Age of Reason, An Apology for the Bible.

This is only a selection of the many errors in this book, and they are not trivial; they misrepresent matters of fact that are essential to an understanding of the context of Paine’s writings, and it is in the course of Hitchens’s attempt to describe that context that they occur. It is the more surprising to find these errors, as none of them occur in John Keane’s biography of Paine (1995), on which Hitchens depends heavily – it must have been lying open on his desk as he was writing this book. Here for example is Keane on Watson’s Apology:

Watson … went so far as to admit that parts of the Pentateuch were not written by Moses and that some of the psalms were not composed by David … Paine took particular pleasure in some of the Bishop’s curious admissions. For example, The Age of Reason questioned whether God really commanded that all men and married women among the Midianites should be slaughtered and their maidens preserved. Not so, the Bishop indignantly retorted. The maidens were not preserved for immoral purposes, as Paine had wickedly suggested, but as slaves, to which Christians could not legitimately object.

And here is Hitchens: Watson, he tells us,

was willing to admit that Moses could not have written all of the Pentateuch and that David was not invariably the psalmist. But he would not give too much ground. Paine was quite out of order, wrote the good bishop, in saying that God had ordered the slaughter of all adult male and female Midianites, preserving only the daughters for rapine. On the contrary, the daughters had been preserved solely for the purpose of slavery. No hint of immorality was involved.

Or here is Keane on the problems Paine encountered in his efforts to publish Part One of Rights of Man:

Paine finished the first part of Rights of Man on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791 … The next day, Paine passed the manuscript to the well-known London publisher Joseph Johnson, who set about printing it in time for the opening of Parliament and Washington’s birthday on 22 February. As the unbound copies piled up in the printing shop, Johnson was visited repeatedly by government agents. Although Johnson had already published replies to Burke’s Reflections by Thomas Christie, Mary Wollstonecraft and Capel Lofft, he sensed, correctly, that Paine’s manuscript would attract far more attention and bitter controversy than all of them combined. Fearing the book police, and unnerved by the prospect of arrest and bankruptcy, Johnson suppressed the book on the very day of its scheduled publication.

And here is Hitchens again:

Having completed Part One on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791, Paine made haste to take the manuscript to a printer named Joseph Johnson. The proposed publication deadline, of 22 February, was intended to coincide with the opening of Parliament and the birthday of George Washington. Mr Johnson was a man of some nerve and principle, as he had demonstrated by printing several radical replies to Burke (including the one by Mary Wollstonecraft) but he took fright after several heavy-footed visits from William Pitt’s political police. On the day of publication, he announced that The Rights of Man would not appear under the imprint of his press.

Although Hitchens’s debt to Keane is palpable in passages like this – the same selection of facts in the same order – there is of course no question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of fine writing that allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired choice of ‘heavy-footed’, for example, to describe the visits of the police, or the tellingly patronising phrase ‘the good bishop’ – though if Hitchens had taken the trouble to find out more about Watson he would perhaps be less dismissive of him. Like Burke, Watson was sympathetic to the cause of the American colonists but strongly supported William Pitt’s war on terror, and so, like Burke, was regarded by radicals as having abandoned his principles.

Hitchens nowhere acknowledges the debt he owes to Keane’s narrative, though he does have footnotes to Keane, eight in all, which cite him simply as the source for quotations. With unexpected generosity, indeed, he three times acknowledges Keane for quotations that he must have found elsewhere, for the versions he gives are considerably longer than those in Keane’s book.

Hitchens’s casual attitude to facts is not compensated for by a corresponding precision with ideas, or any concern for the range, the richness, the complexity of Paine’s thinking. For example, we will not learn from Hitchens anything much about what Paine thought the rights of man actually were. ‘The great achievement of Paine,’ he tells us, ‘was to have introduced the discussion of human rights … Prior to this, discussion about “rights” had been limited to “natural” or “civil” rights.’ I have no idea what this means. For Paine, the rights we have by virtue of being human – the rights of man – take the form of ‘natural’ rights, ‘civil’ rights, ‘political’ rights, and he discriminates between them with increasing care; but he would surely have been puzzled by the notion of human rights as something beyond, something different from, not ‘limited’ to, natural, civil or political rights.

Hitchens seems similarly at sea in his brief discussion of Paine’s theory of revolution which he understands entirely in terms of ‘the sudden return or restoration’ of a lost golden age, holding Paine responsible (among others) ‘for the “heaven on earth” propaganda … that disordered the radical tradition thereafter’. This is entirely to ignore the trajectory in Paine’s thought from a ‘full-circle’ theory of revolution as a return to the founding contract of society, to one in which, as Mark Philip pointed out in his superb short book on Paine (1989), revolution is represented as a new stage of social organisation made necessary by social, economic and intellectual progress.

Edmund Burke: Conservative at heart

May 22, 2015

Phnom Penh

Edmund Burke: Conservative at Heart

Commentary by AC Grayling

AC GraylingConservatives in the United States began a post-mortem on their defeat with predictable calls for a return to the first principles and basic tenets of their political faith. High on the rhetorical list was a demand to revisit (or as some pointed out, to visit) the ideas of the man whom some call the father, others the patron saint, of conservatism: Edmund Burke.

What makes this 18th century Irishman, a Whig sympathetic to American independence, the patron saint of conservatism? Was he a political conservative before the French Revolution and its excesses? How does one square his tender sympathy for the Queen of France with his support for rebellion against the King of England?

Some of the answers to these questions are found in Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (William Collins, £20), a lively new biography by the Conservative MP Jesse Norman, Policy Advisor to David Cameron. The book is not a comprehensive academic work, but rather an affectionate account of the life and thought of one of Norman’s heroes. “Edmund Burke is both the greatest and most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years,” says Norman in the book’s opening sentence, setting the tone for what follows. Norman seeks to defend Burke from the familiar charges that he is inconsistent, irrelevant and reactionary. His Burke is the man who “forged modern politics” by establishing the principles of the party system and setting out the case for representative democracy. He highlights Burke’s arguments in favour of religious tolerance, his criticisms of liberal individualism, and his hatred of the injustices perpetrated by the British in America, Ireland and India.

In his bid to claim this 18th century figure as a light for our own century, Norman sometimes overstretches, as when he describes Burke as “the earliest postmodern political thinker.” But Norman’s biography is an engaging attempt to show how the intellectual debates of the 18th century can be deployed in today’s politics.

Burke was a conservative in his bones, and this means that it was not the sanguinary aspects of the revolution in France that made him one. Both of the great revolutions that occurred in his time prompted conservative responses in him, and similar ones. To see how, consider his outlook.

For Burke, the great opposition in political attitudes is that between respect for tradition and Burke by J Normanespousal of metaphysical abstractions. He was in favour of the first and emphatically opposed to the second. His thinking went as follows. Revolutionaries are motivated by the thought that reason can change and improve both people and institutions. But the problems generated by abstracting and idealising uses of reason are such that it would be better for people to rely on tradition, in which is deposited the accumulated experience of the past—“the general bank and capital of nations and of ages” as Burke put it.

Reason leads people to postulate principles of morality and politics which, because they are a priori idealisations, are disconnected from historical realities and their particularities. Principles only have their life and meaning in context, in relation to each other and the facts on the ground—and any attempt to thwart the course of history and its traditions by means of fancy new notions is “sophistical” and “delusive” and will lead to disaster.

On these grounds Burke dismissed the idea of equality between people, urged the importance of belief in a god, argued that the meaning to be found in life comes from such belief together with tradition and folklore, and committed himself to the somewhat Jungian idea of a collective mind, which is marinated in the old wisdom, beliefs and ways of living that traditions bring down to us.

He was, therefore, a Counter-Enlightenment figure, and in invoking the geist that informs tradition he was a political Romantic before the letter. The Enlightenment saw reason—in the form of scientific method applied to society and morality—as the liberator of humanity from the hegemonies alike of crowns and churches, those profiteers from beliefs about how sacrosanct we must think tradition to be. This is why Burke rejected that core Enlightenment thought. For him the nation is to be modelled on the family: social relations are or should be as close as blood relationships, and the forms and principles of political life should be like the “little platoons” of family, church and community, which pass down the traditions which alone, he claimed, give us meaning. One therefore sees why Burke attracts not only moderate British Conservatives such as Jesse Norman, but also the modern American right: God, family, tradition, and—in line with Burke’s “little platoon” notion (could it be stretched to cover gun possession?)—“little government,” too.

Too many people today know so little history and have such little awareness of the influence of ideas on its realities that they fail to gather the full implications of invoking names and theories given heroic status by the passage of time. Burke opposed the tendencies of political thought that gave us democracy, regimes of human rights, collective provision of such fundamental social goods as education and healthcare, which together help to promote social justice and to protect the weak against the strong; that is the respect in which he was a conservative.

BOOK Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia

May 21, 2015

Phnom Penh

BOOK Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia

Din MericanYI see H.E. Prime Minister Hun Sen differently. He has done a lot for Cambodia in terms of peace and reconciliation and economic development. He outwitted and defeated the Khmer Rouge and brought peace, political stability and international recognition to his country. No doubt he is tough and demanding and has the uncanny ability to spot and develop talent for his party, The Cambodian Peoples Party and his administration. A weak leader cannot survive here, especially during the period of international isolation in the 1980s. The author Sebastian Strangio, is seeing Cambodia with western liberal eyes.

obama_hun_sen_234_N2I lived in Cambodia from 1992-1997 and kept in touch with my colleagues in Phnom Penh for more than two decades.  I studied its history and culture and interacted with politicians, civil servants, civil society leaders, academics, foreign journalists, and students. I can see peace and progress upon returning to be with the University of Cambodia this month.

Hun Sen-The Strong ManTo know Hun Sen as Leader of his people, understand his political beliefs, foreign policy and development strategies and his vision for Cambodia, I recommend Strongman: From Pagoda Boy to Prime Minister of Cambodia by Harish C.Metha and Julie B.Metha (Revised and Updated, 2013, Marshall Cavendish) and General Nem Sowath’s, Civil War Termination and The Source of Total Peace in CAMBODIA (2012). In addition, I suggest Cambodia’s Economic Transformation edited by Caroline Hughes and Kheang Un (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2011).–Din Merican

by Joshua Kurlantzick

Although the Vietnam War, including the “sideshow” war in Cambodia, has been the subject of thousands of books, post-war Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have gotten relatively little treatment from Western writers. This despite the fact that Cambodia suffered one of the worst genocides in history, Vietnam fought another war in 1979 against China and then remade itself into a strategic and economic power, and Laos remains one of the most authoritarian states in the world.

There have been a tiny handful of quality books on post-1975 Cambodia, such as Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, and David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia. Even fewer have analyzed Cambodia in the 2000s and 2010s. Other books, like Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by former New York Times journalist Joel Brinkley, had some fine attributes but tended to succumb too easily to glib generalizations about Cambodians and about Cambodian political culture. Still other books on Cambodia were overly academic accounts of Cambodia in the present that were almost impossible for policymakers and the general public to understand.

Hun Sen's CambodiaNow, a new book by Cambodia-based journalist  Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, has set the standard for compelling and accessible histories of modern-day Cambodia. In particular, the book is the first to offer an accessible but thorough biographical portrait of longtime Cambodian Prime Minister—and Strongman—Hun Sen. Strangio details in compelling form how Hun Sen rose from a skinny, totally uneducated and unworldly senior official in the Vietnam-installed post-Khmer Rouge regime into a smooth autocrat who has dominated the country for decades. Over time, Hun Sen also has become fabulously rich and has become an increasingly powerful player in Southeast Asia, due to Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN, Hun Sen’s longevity, and Hun Sen’s ability to play his patrons Vietnam and China off of each other.

Strangio delves into Hun Sen’s early life and his time serving the Khmer Rouge, before he defected and joined the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Strangio also clearly reveals how many of Hun Sen’s closest associates in the Cambodian government almost surely committed atrocities during their time in the Khmer Rouge, before they defected.

Most important, Strangio’s portrait of Cambodia reveals how Hun Sen has been able to dominate the country for so long. (Indeed, Hun Sen now is the longest-serving non-royal leader in East Asia and the seventh-longest-serving non-royal leader in the world.) By January 2015, Hun Sen will have been in power for thirty years, and will have been the only leader most Cambodians have known, since the country is extremely young, a result of the massacres of the late 1970s. Strangio lucidly shows how Cambodia’s other political leaders allowed themselves to be bought, controlled, or otherwise co-opted by Hun Sen, and how the devastated country never built the political institutions that could stop the strongman from gaining power. He reveals how, at least for a time, Hun Sen’s version of iron-fisted stability and growth—albeit growth with high inequality—also truly made the strongman popular with the public. Strangio shows how Hun Sen alone, among Cambodia’s major political figures, understood how to build a nationwide party organization and how to appeal to the rural population, in much the same way former King Sihanouk appealed to the Cambodian poor. Indeed, Sihanouk, in Strangio’s telling, wished that Hun Sen had actually been his son, since Hun Sen possessed the popular touch and political acumen that Sihanouk’s actual sons did not.

Strangio also offers a devastating indictment of the foreign donors who financed UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), the early 1990s UN-led aid and peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, following the end of Cambodia’s civil war. The same donors continue to pour money into the country today, even as Cambodia’s political culture remains corrupt, Hun Sen’s government is utterly destroying the country’s environment, and growth has enriched only a tiny coterie of elites, mostly in Phnom Penh. Yet even though foreign donors for years enjoyed great power over the Cambodian government, they rarely tried to use that power to really push Hun Sen’s government to change, and Hun Sen was savvy enough to allow a thin veneer of political freedom and civil society. This veneer was enough to allow donors to claim that the country was always becoming more open and more democratic, though this was always a falsehood. In reality, though Cambodia retains a degree of independent civil society, trade unionists, journalists, and activists of all sorts are routinely arrested, beaten, or summarily executed in Cambodia. What’s more, now that Hun Sen has cultivated China, which has become the biggest donor in Cambodia, the group of donors—mostly Western nations and Japan—who for years financed much of the Cambodian budget have less influence over Phnom Penh anyway.

Strangio’s book has some flaws. Unlike Brinkley’s book, which had both sizable strengths and deep weaknesses, Strangio does not get the chance to put the pressing questions about Hun Sen’s rule to Hun Sen’s inner circle itself, other than a few of Hun Sen’s business allies. He is not able to confront the most corrupt in Hun Sen’s circle with their graft, to ask the prime minister’s closest aides the hard questions about how Hun Sen has dominated Cambodian political culture and institutions. Brinkley somehow was able to get face-to-face with Hun Sen’s closest circle and put these questions to them, and often get surprising answers. Strangio instead mostly relies on his own analysis, on interviews with a few Hun Sen allies, on many field reporting trips that examine the impact of Hun Sen’s rapacious economic and political strategies, and on outside analysts to show the impact of Hun Sen’s rule. Overall, Strangio’s approach is far more nuanced and thorough; but, I would have liked to see some of Hun Sen’s senior-most aides—or the prime minister himself—squirm in front of the tough questions they never face from the Cambodian media.

Finally, though Strangio worked on the book for years, compiling what appear to be mountains of research, the book seems to have been finished before the shocking Cambodian national elections of 2013, in which the opposition almost defeated Hun Sen’s party despite state media showing only Hun Sen and Hun Sen’s party engaging in all sorts of pre-election intimidation of the opposition. According to many election observers, if not for widespread fraud by Hun Sen’s party during and immediately after election day, the opposition coalition would have won a majority in Parliament in 2013.

Even so, the 2013 election results showed that, after decades of Hun Sen’s dominance, Cambodia finally might be on the verge of change; Hun Sen’s control of the media had been undermined by the Internet and social media, while opposition politicians who once just squabbled with each other worked together this time and ran a successful campaign. Strangio inserts a kind of postscript on the 2013 elections and its aftermath, which included months of negotiation between the opposition and Hun Sen’s party about the election results and about control of Parliament. Still, the postscript is not enough to capture the 2013 elections thoroughly and to analyze what they might mean for Hun Sen’s long rule and for Cambodia’s future.Overall, this is the finest book on Hun Sen and modern-day Cambodia that has been released thus far.

Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.


This book, whether in its 1999 or 2013 edition, remains the only work in which Mr. Hun Sen talks of his life at length, and from his own perspective.

Book Review: Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping

May 21, 2015

Phnom Penh

BOOK Review

Book Review: Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping

by John Berthelsen

Renaissance, reform or retrogression?  By Willy Wo Lap Lam. Routledge, 323 pp, softcover, available in local bookstores

China by JBIt often appears there are two Chinas – one fast-rising, showing an aggressive face to the world, building an infrastructure empire, a network of Silk Roads that stretches from Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to the corners of Southeast Asia, dominating the South China Sea, pillaging resources from as far away as Africa, with all roads leading to Beijing much as they led to Rome in the Roman Imperium.

There is a second China, however, that is in a welter of ferment.  It is this China that preoccupies Willy Wo Lap Lam, a widely recognized authority on China, who has formerly held senior editorial positions with the South China Morning Post, CNN and Asiaweek and is now an academic. From the very introduction of this book onward, it is clear that he is a pessimist on China and is not a fan of Xi Jinping, who has battled his way to the top.

“While China is on course to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy soon,” he writes, “Chinese who do not belong to the ‘red aristocracy’ – a reference to the unholy allowance between top cadres and their offspring, on the one hand, and big business groups, on the other, see no cause for optimism.” 

Certainly Xi represents a dramatic change from his predecessor Hu Jintao, who with Premier Wen Jiabao presided over historic economic change while the party stultified and fell into a stew of venality. But although Xi has kicked off the biggest anti-corruption campaign since the advent of Communist government, with as many as 200,000 people arrested or otherwise disciplined, it is still unclear whether the cleanup masks a surgical expedition to clear out Xi’s enemies and potential rivals.  The  biggest to fall is famously Zhou Yongkang, “Uncle Kang,” the former head of China’s security apparatus and an ally of Bo Xilai, the now-imprisoned boss of Chongqing and a major opponent.  Zhou is the highest public official ever to be prosecuted. But Xi has also cleared out the entire top of the country’s oil and gas sector – where Zhou’s son was a top official.

Lam’s 323-page analysis of Xi’s rise to power is deeply detailed and essential reading for anybody who is interested in the China that lurks behind the confident consolidation of government that has gone on since he became the head of the government in November 2012.  In particular,  of interest is the reversal of philosophy from that put in place by Deng Xiaoping, who in the wake of the terrors and capricious actions that characterized Mao Zedong’s later years, created a collegial and collective leadership. 

Xi is clearly having none of that. He has sidelined or pushed aside most of his rivals. The first to go was Li Keqiang, the prime minister put in power as his Sancho Panza, who quickly learned that he was a distant number two. Li rose through the ranks in the Communist Youth League and was an ally of Hu Jintao, the former leader. Hu was unceremoniously dumped by Xi in the 2013 party conference that brought Xi to power, unable to retain any of his former titles including those connected to the military. Although Li is a trained economist and touted “Likonomics” at the outset of his premiership, Xi is clearly in charge of economics, along with everything else.

“…Compared to both ex-presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu, the leader of one-fifth of mankind is a relatively simple person committed to defending what he regards as self-evident truths,” Lam writes. Including those is a notion that “the nature of the Party will never change.”  There has been no  thought of democratization and no letup on the war on intellectuals, the press and those who do not believe in communist orthodoxy. “Any idea that the party will undergo ‘peaceful evolution’ is out of the question.”

The Internet, perhaps the most opportunistic venue for subversion, is being tightened even further. Since Lam’s book has come out, the “great cannon” has been added to the “great firewall” as a new tool for censorship, pouring massive sprays of traffic against enemies in an attack called “distributed denial of service or DDOS target two anti-censorship sites in the US and closing them for days.

David Shambaugh, for decades one of China’s most optimistic backers in the west, shocked the world of sinologists by saying the China system was inevitably doomed.  Is Lam that pessimistic?

“Even more than factors such as shifts in China’s foreign and defense policies,” Lam writes, “the most important determinant of the trajectory of China’s development in the twenty-first century will be domestic questions. Foremost is whether China will pick a development path that favors the construction of a real market economy and a just and passionate society that embraces values such as the rule of law and equal opportunity.”

The next decade of China’s development under Xi probably isn’t going to meet those goals. Lam quotes Xi as saying the country could be undermined by “subversive mistakes.” What he meant, Lam says, “are economic, social or political policies that would compromise the monopoly on power that is enjoyed by the CCP – or more specifically, the party’s ruling elite, also known as the “red aristocracy.”  That is not a cause for optimism.