Hitchens: What’s Wrong With Our Debates About Sexual Harassment and Afghanistan

A wartime lexicon.
Nov. 7 2011 12:51 PM

Herman and Hamid

Why is it so hard to speak honestly about allegations of sexual harassment or our corrupt ally in Afghanistan?

Hamid Karzai.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Photograph by Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images.

There were two generally depressing controversies last week, in both of which an exercise of free speech might have done more harm than good. The first concerns our disordered policy in Afghanistan and the second our ongoing and increasingly dishonest discussion of sexual harassment.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

In the first instance, it was announced by Gen. John Allen, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, that Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller had been “relieved of his duties” as deputy commander for the Afghan army’s training mission. This demotion, which may or may not result in the major general’s reassignment or retirement, was a direct consequence of an interview he gave to Politico. And this interview followed a speech made by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in which he had said that, in the event of a war between Pakistan and the United States, Afghanistan would take Pakistan’s side.

This was too much for Fuller, who nonetheless restricted himself to calling Karzai’s remarks “erratic.” He extended himself a bit as he went on: “Why don’t you just poke me in the eye with a needle? You’ve got to be kidding me. … I’m sorry, we just gave you $11.6 billion and now you’re telling me, ‘I don’t really care?’ ” Referring to what he termed unreasonable requests from his army-to-be, or army-in-the-making, Fuller continued: “You can teach a man how to fish, or you can give them a fish. … We’re giving them fish while they’re learning, and they want more fish! [They say,] ‘I like swordfish, how come you’re giving me cod?’ Guess what? Cod’s on the menu today.”

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Fuller may be showing some signs of emotional excitement on the fish question, but I don’t believe that he was fired for that. I believe that he was fired for giving vent to an inconvenient truth about Karzai, a truth that is pretty widely known: Our expensive client-president in Kabul, in addition to being celebrated for making remarks that are far more deranged than merely “erratic,” is well-known for being half in bed with the Taliban and with the unsavory forces in Pakistan that underwrite them. Fuller was only saying what any officer involved with the training of the Afghan army already knows very well. To silence him is to establish a stupid culture of denial in the ranks.

After Karzai made his demented remarks about Pakistan, there was a scramble among civilian officials to try and “clarify” what he had said. Some of these could be construed as being vaguely in sympathy. But nobody was disciplined or downgraded. So an essential unfairness creeps in. Perhaps some genius will now seek to make this fairer still, by forbidding our soldiers to talk to Politico at all. Then we will have ensured that we have no idea what is going on in their heads, and they will have grasped the notion that they are not being paid to think, or to speak freely. A splendid strategy with which to cover our orderly and dignified retreat. (I was pleased to see that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was also unreasonably sacked for talking to the press, was invited back to Afghanistan recently on a private visit, as I had recommended. But it was still a pity that it all had to be so shame-faced.)

Republican presidential candidate and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain.
Presidential candidate Herman Cain

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

In the second development last week, a Washington attorney named Joel Bennett issued a statement about a female complainant in the case of Herman Cain. She makes a claim of sexual harassment, which in Bennett’s formulation consists of “a series of inappropriate behaviors and unwanted advances.” In a related commentary, Charles M. Blow of the New York Times and others have brought us polling data, to the effect that a majority of committed Republican voters do not give a damn whether Cain is guilty as charged. And Cain himself has continued to soak up the cheers and applause, even as reports surface of another female complainant. Indeed, the figures seem to show Cain sharing the lead with Mitt Romney, which in some if not many ways is absurd.

Blow’s conclusion, that the right wing doesn’t care about Cain’s victims, would appear to have a corollary, which is that the left wing doesn’t give much of a damn, either. Or at least that no numbers can be found to suggest the contrary. For liberals, Cain is no more than a ghoulish puppet of the Tea Party, a pathetic insurance against charges of racism, a lobbyist and a front-man devoid of ideas. The notion that there might be some wounded woman employee in his past is, to most American radicals, one of pure irrelevance. Why does this somehow not delight me?

Why does it also not delight me that the extent of the allegations against him, at least on some showings, is “unwanted advances”? It might be argued, by the cynical or the naive, that all “advances” begin that way. True, a period of a matter of months is specified, but don’t I seem to recall, in President Obama’s jaunty account of his courtship, that it took him a certain amount of time to “wear down” his intended target? I dare say that many of us could say the same, while reminiscing among friends, and still hope to avoid getting too many sidelong looks. But in the present circumstances there seems to be a danger of a straight-out politicization of the sexual harassment issue, with many people deciding it in advance on the simple basis of campaign calculations, or—to put it more crudely—of whose ox is being gored. This appears to represent a general coarsening by silence, and yet another crude element in a depressing campaign.

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