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


In two much-lauded works, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (written under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil) and Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World, Kanan Makiya provided, perhaps more than any other writer in English, intellectual ammunition for those opposed to the savagery of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. Though Makiya has since been accused by many an Arab or Arab-American publicist of being Washington's stooge, his early political career began as a militant in the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (which he left in the mid-1970s). His disillusionment with his onetime comrades was most powerfully expressed in Cruelty and Silence, a two-part book on the cruelties of Ba'athist rule and the silence of Arab intellectuals. ("Those I wrote about all read the second section," he told me, "but not the first one.") In supporting an invasion of Iraq, Makiya took his commitment to democracy a step further, but now faces the uncertain consequences of that effort. Makiya is currently a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University near Boston, and is founder of the Iraq Memory Foundation.

Reason: The U.S. Army has decided to place captured Iraqi documents on the Internet to be translated by non-experts. As someone who has been collecting such documents for many years, and who now heads the Iraq Memory Foundation, what are your thoughts about this?

Kanan Makiya: I applaud the impulse to open up these dark corners of dictatorship to public scrutiny, but I worry about the privacy implications as regards Iraqi society and individuals. Consider this fairly typical case: A young woman seeking employment in a small factory is forced to commit herself to disclosing to Ba'ath operatives the actions and thoughts of her colleagues. In a regime where speaking ill of the president earned you the death penalty, her collaboration surely led to tragedies. A decade and a half later, this woman may be a wife, mother, and an active member of her community. The unmitigated disclosure of her cooperation with the regime may end up ruining her life. Is she guilty of collaboration? Isn't the revelation of her involvement part of the justice that Iraq needs for closure in the post-Saddam era? These questions can only be resolved in an atmosphere of understanding, accountability, and responsibility by Iraqi society itself. The documents should have been released only after the mechanisms, and laws, regulating disclosure had been established inside Iraq. Unfortunately to this date they have not been. On the contrary the conditions for abuse of the kind of information that is in these documents have increased.

Reason: As a prominent actor pushing for U.S. intervention in Iraq, do you feel you were right?

KM: I still think that in the long run history will judge this to have been a morally just war, one that will in time produce a better Iraq than the one ruled over by the Ba'ath Party. And yet I now realize I was wrong on a whole number of questions. I misjudged, for instance, the damage done to the Iraqi state and institutions by 13 years of sanctions.

And while de-Ba'athification and demilitarization were right in principle, they were mishandled in practice and that was partly because we in the Iraqi opposition did not think through the other side of dismantling enormous bureaucracies of repression. That other side was winning over the people who were in these institutions and reconciling them with the new order.

The Ba'ath party was hated, but it also turned out to be far more resilient and deep rooted in Iraq than we thought. Now, the answer to these misjudgments was not to leave the rot of Ba'athist Iraq in place. After all, the whole world—in the form of numerous United Nations resolutions imposing sanctions on Iraq following Saddam's invasion, annexation and rape of Kuwait—was responsible for that rot. To just leave the situation to fester, as the Arab world and Europe seemed to want to do, was in my opinion more immoral than regime change, however badly this was handled by the United States government and the new class of Iraqi politicians who today rule over Iraq.

Reason: In your writings, you presciently predicted that sectarian conflict might follow Saddam's Hussein's departure. Is Iraq on the verge of civil war?

KM: We are standing on one leg with the other hanging over the precipice, but we have not yet fallen in. I have to believe that we still have a chance. Perhaps it is the optimist in me, the side of me that always wants to let hope triumph over experience.

Reason: Do you feel that a sectarian breakdown of Iraq into very loosely-united units would necessarily be bad? After all, it would weaken the suffocating power of the centralized state so ubiquitous in the Arab world.

KM: If such a breakdown could be negotiated and achieved without more bloodshed and violence, I would be all for it. I am not committed to the present shape of the borders of Iraq. They are not written in stone. The problem is I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And I fear attempting to carve the country up will only plunge the people of Iraq into greater paroxysms of violence. And nothing is worth that in my opinion. I judge everything in relation to one overriding criterion, namely how many fewer Iraqi lives a particular course of action will cost. That is the be-all and end-all of politics as far as I am concerned these days.

Reason: In your book Cruelty and Silence you wrote a bristling critique of how Arab intellectuals had looked the other way on Saddam Hussein's crimes. If you had to update that and look at how Arab intellectuals addressed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, what would you say?

KM: They have not changed that much. True, there is a greater preoccupation with the abuses of one's own regime, and there is a greater distance from the Arab-Israeli question as the focus of all politics in the Middle East. And these are healthy developments. But that is not enough. Still, the tendency to blame all ills on the U.S. and Israel, the unwillingness to look into oneself, is dominant in the culture. Look at some of the barbarisms to which the Arab world has descended—suicide bombings and a celebration of the cult of death; look at the demonstrations that led to the burning down of Danish embassies, one of them in a country like Lebanon of all places. The Arab intellectual reaction to this has been timid and weak. Mind you these comments apply to intellectuals of my generation, the ones who today edit and write for the main publications and media outlets in the Arab world. They do not apply to young men and women ten or maybe twenty years younger than I, who are developing in different and far more interesting ways. My hopes for the future of our Arab world lie in them.

Reason: Your experiences in the past years would make for a very interesting memoir. Why are you not working on one?

KM: In fact I am, but I am suffering from writer's block. I do not want to write journalism. But I must use my own personal experiences as the raw material of what I want to say. I need to be able to be ruthless with myself. I need to say how and where I made mistakes. I need to say where my colleagues in the opposition went wrong. And I am finding this very hard. I cannot find the right form in which to articulate the complex multitude of contradictory events that I witnessed and participated in. But it will come.

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.