- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

'Mind your manners, Christopher. It's the only thing you Brits have left that's worth [a plugged nickel]." . So said historian Peter Collier in 1987 at the "Second Thoughts" conference, a gathering of recovered political radicals.

Mr. Collier was admonishing Christopher Hitchens, the British-born essayist who was for decades a proud Trotskyist. With close friends Alexander Cockburn and Sidney Blumenthal and sundry other unreconstructed radicals, Mr. Hitchens had been volubly heckling repentant ex-lefties from the peanut gallery.

How things change.

Today, Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Blumenthal no longer speak to each other, their friendship a casualty of Mr. Blumenthal's zealous defense of President Clinton during the Lewinsky affair. Mr. Cockburn is publicly accusing his old friend of homosexuality.

And today, Mr. Collier's partner in organizing "Second Thoughts," David Horowitz, is among a growing number of neoconservative political intellectuals eager to encourage the apparent rightward migration of one, Christopher Hitchens, whom some consider the finest political essayist writing in English today.

Not everyone on the right is so eager to kiss and make up with Mr. Hitchens, whose pen has inflicted some sharp puncture wounds that have yet to heal. Like Norman Podhoretz, who could fill a book with all the friends with whom he has broken over political disagreements. In fact, he has filled a book with all those ex-friends. He called it "Ex-friends."

Should Mr. Hitchens be welcomed into the club? Or must he first perform some public act of contrition for past sins, political and personal? Does Mr. Hitchens need anybody's "permission" to become a neoconservative? And for that matter, does he even want to be one?

So went a sizzling recent series of e-mails exchanged among Mr. Podhoretz, the longtime editor of the neoconservative flagship monthly, Commentary; Mr. Horowitz, the author of "Radical Son," a memoir about growing up communist; and neoconservative historian Ronald Radosh.

If you don't follow the sectarian squabbles of political intellectuals, here's a recap: After September 11, Mr. Hitchens, a widely published polemicist and frequent TV commentator, publicly split with his old "comrades," resigning from the left-liberal Nation magazine and full-throatedly supporting war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Then, in an interview with Doublethink, a conservative-leaning quarterly journal, Mr. Hitchens revealed he would vote for President Bush if an election were held today, claiming neither the left nor the paleoconservative right was serious about waging war on terrorism.

Put these clues together with his carnivorous journalistic campaign against his old Oxford acquaintance, Bill Clinton, and his earlier dissent from left-wing orthodoxy on abortion, and you have the makings of an ideological mystery story: Is Mr. Hitchens doing a political 180, becoming, as journalist Jason Vest puts it, the "John Dos Passos" of his generation?

Mr. Radosh, author of "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left," thinks so. He says it's time for conservatives to embrace Mr. Hitchens.

"Hitchens hasn't re-evaluated some of his older positions," says Mr. Radosh, "but he understands the issues so well now."

The central question facing intellectuals and writers, he says, is the war against terrorism, and there Mr. Hitchens is on the right side. Mr. Radosh says he's willing to forget their past ideological and sometimes bitterly personal differences.

"The left really believes in its gut that America can only produce evil," Mr. Radosh says. "Hitchens sees that isn't true."

Mr. Horowitz, too, thinks Mr. Hitchens is a changed man.

While he hasn't made a "clean break with the left," Mr. Horowitz says, Mr. Hitchens has been "moving for a long time."

"I think what's he has done is courageous," Mr. Horowitz says.

But Mr. Podhoretz, who has feuded with Mr. Hitchens for more than 20 years over many issues, including Israel and interpreting George Orwell remains cool to the notion of reconciliation.

"I, for one, do not embrace him," Mr. Podhoretz says. "He continues to hold to the anti-American positions he took during the Cold War and even afterward. He wrote very vile things about this country. He has also written vile things about Israel, not to mention his demented attack on Henry Kissinger."

In his book, "The Trial of Henry Kissinger," Mr. Hitchens accuses the former secretary of state of complicity in various Cold War-era war crimes from the bombing of Cambodia to the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile.

"The fact that he insists on sticking by this garbage discredits him," Mr. Podhoretz says.

In his first public reaction to being fought over by the neocons, Mr. Hitchens says he has no interest in political or partisan allegiances of any kind, and isn't interested in Mr. Podhoretz's pardon.

"I do not want what he may offer," Mr. Hitchens says from Berkeley, where he's teaching a graduate course on dissident literature.

"I've been doing this for its own sake," Mr. Hitchens says of his support for regime change in Iraq. "The struggle against [Saddam] Hussein and for the Kurdish people is a just cause, not a question of ideological opinion."

If anything, he continues, it's the right that's been moving his way. The first Persian Gulf war, he says, was waged as much to protect the Saudi royals as to liberate Kuwait and specifically ruled out regime change in Baghdad.

And, he adds, many conservatives stoutly opposed intervention in the Bosnian conflict as well as the bombing campaign in Kosovo to protect Albanian Muslims from ethnic cleansing.

"That's for conservatives to answer. I don't feel I owe them an explanation," Mr. Hitchens says.

"For me, the real moment of confrontation with theocracy came not in September 2001, but in February 1989, with the [Islamic death warrant against novelist Salman Rushdie], a full-frontal attack on Enlightenment values," he continues.

Some neoconservatives, Mr. Hitchens avers, believed Mr. Rushdie brought the death warrant on himself by offending Islam in his novel "The Satanic Verses."

"On that occasion, I remember incessant jeering from Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer and Abe Rosenthal."

Still, while he may not be ready to fall into the waiting arms of the neocon right, it's clear that when it comes to the left, Mr. Hitchens has said goodbye to all that.

"I think the left may have completely thrown away its moral claim with the unbelievably narrow way in which it defines the war against Saddam," he says. "The American left has in many ways ceased to exist."

Where exactly that leaves Mr. Hitchens is still an open question. Wherever it is, it sounds a little lonely.

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