Three Years, Few Regrets

Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya on what's gone right and wrong, and what the possibilities are, on the third anniversary of Saddam Hussein's fall

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Reason: Do you feel that the U.S., because of its setbacks in Iraq and despite its rhetoric to the contrary, has lost all momentum in advancing Middle Eastern democracy? Are we destined to see Washington returning to its former reliance on Arab autocrats, or is this no longer possible?

KM: The momentum has been lost as far as Iraq goes. I am not sure that is true of democracy promotion elsewhere. The U.S. government and the American people in general are confused. They thought that for the first time in 50 years of American foreign policy in the Middle East they were finally doing something the Arab peoples wanted. There was something quite naive in the way that most Americans thought about democracy promotion. Now they realize that it is much more complicated. But I don't see any return to deep-seated support for Arab autocrats. Here and there the U.S. will support this or that autocrat for a short time. But the Iraq war has unleashed a tidal wave in the region, the effects of which we are only just beginning to feel. It will take a long time. But I don't see any turning back, at least not for the next few years.

Reason: The country that seems to have most benefited from the situation in Iraq is Iran. Are we entering a new phase where Iran is turning into a regional hegemonic power, with at least part of Iraq becoming an Iranian back yard?

KM: The danger is there, but it has not turned into reality yet. There is a deep fear and anxiety about Iran, even among the Arab Shiites of Iraq. There is hardly an Iraqi family that did not lose someone in the Iraq-Iran war. And those kinds of memories die very slowly.

Reason: You've often been accused of bringing an intellectual's sensibility to Middle Eastern politics, which is a nice way of saying your approach is divorced from reality. How would you respond, given that it is indeed the gunmen and thugs who are dominating in Iraq?

KM: In my books I was more realistic than in my activism. I let my heart run ahead of my head. But I am not ashamed of myself. In politics one must work at the margins of what is possible. I despise politics that begin and end with the lowest common denominator of a situation. A people that has been abused is simultaneously capable of very great and very terrible things; it is our duty, if our point of departure is love for that people, to work on the basis of the very best that this abused population can offer, not the worst.

Reason: To borrow from a chapter heading in Cruelty and Silence, whither Iraq, both in the short and long term?

KM: To be honest, what I said in that chapter of the book still holds: It is up to us, Iraqis, to determine whether we fall into the abyss or pull back from it. In particular it is up to the politicians, and among them it is the Shiite politicians who shoulder the greatest responsibility of all. If the country plunges into civil war, history will determine that the responsibility for this was theirs in the first place.

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