The Naiveté of a Native Critic

— Sinan Antoon

I FIRST HEARD Kanan Makiya sitting in a shelter in Baghdad during the second Gulf War [1991—ed.].

BBC broadcast news of a book about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq titled Republic of Fear by a man called Samir al-Khalil (Makiya’s nom de plume). I was delighted that a man living abroad had taken the time to write about Iraqis’ plight under Saddam’s authoritarian rule.

Since the Gulf war, Makiya has come to enjoy great influence in the United States and Britain as an expert on Iraqi politics and a “dissident intellectual” whose views, we are told, reflect those of many Iraqis in exile and, potentially, inside Iraq.

Thomas Friedman often recycles his ideas in the New York Times, preceded by sentences like “My Iraqi friend says X” or “My Iraqi friend assures me that Y.” Although Makiya stresses that his views are his alone, he also calls himself a “native critic;” hence Iraqis have a right to hold him accountable for what he writes in their name.

Most recently, Makiya appeared at a one-day conference entitled The Day After: Planning for a Post-Saddam Iraq organized by the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. According to AEI’s website, the gathering sought to establish an agenda for “... replac[ing] Saddam Hussein with a representative democracy and assur[ing] long-term stability and democratic peace in the region.”

Participants included big guns such as Richard Perle, head of the Defense Policy Board at the Pentagon, and Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton and author of What Went Wrong in Islam: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Responses. Among the most prominent Iraqis to participate, in addition to Makiya, was Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the executive committee of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and one of the strongest contenders for Iraq’s post-Saddam presidency.

Makiya presented the conference’s first paper, titled A Model for Post-Saddam Iraq, summarizing ideas he is developing with “an all-Iraqi team as part of a larger project for the State Department’s The Future of Iraq initiative.”

He prefaced his presentation by saying that his ideas are feasible, but they rest on a number of assumptions:

“That the unseating of the Saddam Husain regime does not take place at the cost of large scale civilian casualties (Iraqi or Israeli) ... that the Government of the United States, as the partner of the Iraqi people in liberating Iraq, sees its role in Iraq as being for the long term, for democracy and reconstruction – i.e. for nation-building ... [and that] further to a treaty with a new duly constituted Iraqi government, [the U.S government] agrees to keep a military presence inside Iraq whose purpose is to guarantee the territorial integrity of Iraq for a period measured in years, not months ...”

Makiya’s pro-war stance is pure music to the ears of Perle and the war party, especially because it comes from a prominent “native” critic. Not unlike Ahmad Chalabi, Makiya’s presence in such gatherings legitimizes the claims of the neo-conservative hawks that they are waging a war to liberate the oppressed Iraqi people and to democratize the region.

However, it is obvious by now that insuring American hegemony and the steady flow of cheap oil are the real reasons for this war. Iraqis inside listen to Arabic-language foreign radio programs. Having sifted through Ba’thist propaganda on a daily basis for decades, they can also read between the lines of American rhetoric.

They know very well the real goals of “regime change” and are aghast at the potential scenarios for a post-Saddam Iraq. Recent leaks have hinted at direct military rule by General Tommy Franks, reminiscent of the days of British colonialism which are still disturbingly fresh in the memory of many Iraqis.

Another scenario is that of the ex-Saddamist junta of generals whose names and faces are appearing more frequently as of late as the group that can hold it all together. Each and every one of them can boast impressive credentials in genocide, torture and war crimes. All served Saddam for years before joining the swelling ranks of professional opposition.

The third scenario, which does not necessarily preclude the others, posits that the London-based Sharif Ali, nephew of the deposed Hashemite king in Iraq, would restore a “constitutional democracy.”

But Makiya and the Capitol Hill Iraqi opposition do not represent the feelings of Iraqis about the prospective war. Most of us feel that Makiya’s assumptions are naiive, to say the least.

Why would one assume that Saddam can be deposed without civilian casualties? Thousands and thousands of innocent Iraqis were killed during the 1991 war – when the survival of Saddam’s state was not in question. Why would the U.S administration worry more about the lives of Iraqi civilians than its predecessor, which contributed to the death of one million Iraqis by maintaining the genocidal sanctions?

Makiya’s second assumption is even more ludicrous. The history of American foreign policy is crowded with brutal dictators, sponsorship of anti-democratic coups d’etat and military juntas, especially in the Middle East.

Wasn’t it Rumsfeld himself who was sent in the early 1980s by President Reagan to Baghdad to meet with the evil Saddam to reestablish diplomatic ties with the United States? It is a bit too early to forget the military intelligence, credit and support lent by both the Reagan and Bush administrations to Saddam while he was busy slaughtering Iraqis and Iranians and gassing Kurds.

Isn’t the United States responsible for keeping Saddam in power after the war, allowing him to use his helicopter gunships and tanks to crush the 1991 uprisings – and refusing to support the rebels?

Makiya seriously misrepresents the debate about the war among his favorite and most profitable targets, Arab intellectuals:

“[The debate] has been even more selfish among non-Iraqi Arabs, if there can be said to have been any kind of debate at all on the possibility that this war may actually end up being a force for good in the Middle East as opposed to the unmitigated disaster that almost all non-Iraqi Arabs seem to think it will be ... the overwhelming majority of [Iraqis] ... believe that military action is the price that has to be paid for the removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

Anyone who bothers to read the Arabic dailies will disagree. There have been tens of articles trying to rationalize the inevitability of the war and to prepare the region for dealing with its consequences. But Makiya shields his American audience, as he is wont to do, from the disorienting possibility of the existence of a genuine debate in Arab circles.

The most troubling part of Makiya’s discourse is when he chastises the Arabs for not pondering the fact that war “may actually end up being a force for good in the Middle East.” After two catastrophic wars, the harshest sanctions in history and an ongoing bloodbath in Israel/Palestine, most Iraqis and Arabs are not so imaginative as to consider another war “a force for good.”

If Iraqis have resigned themselves to the fact that Saddam cannot be deposed without military action, that does not mean that they are, or should be, looking forward to an American occupation, nor should that be their only choice.

While it is almost impossible to get the pulse of Iraqis inside, it is evident from numerous antiwar petitions, websites and chat rooms that the great majority of Iraqis in the diaspora are against the war. Even a “native critic” sitting in safety on the banks of the Charles should not be so eager to have war waged against his people.

Promoting Occupation

In his finale, Makiya gives the American war party what it craves on a shining silver platter:

“Regime change provid[es] a historic opportunity for the United States government and the Iraqi opposition, an opportunity that is as large as anything that has happened in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. By that you now know I mean a federal, non-Arab and de-militarized Iraq. This vision, or something approximating it, is achievable. Moreover an Iraqi leadership able to work in partnership with the U.S. to bring it about already exists.”<

Here is an open invitation for a long stay in Iraq and an opportunity to redraw the map of the region coming from the “native critic” himself with the willing leadership, in the person of Ahmad Chalabi, a few seats away.

Most Iraqis dream of the day when Saddam is gone. We cannot, however, even in the absence of practical and realistic alternatives, call upon the United States to occupy Iraq – this same power that has been, with Saddam, the main culprit in destroying the country’s infrastructure through war and sanctions.

If Makiya’s previous judgments are any indication as to the soundness of these current ones, we should all worry. One need only point, for example, to his assessment of the Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) after meeting him in 1991.

He deemed Barzani an honest and visionary man who represented what a future president of a federal and democratic Iraq should be like. He even suggested that Barzani nominate himself for the presidency of the INC. But Makiya was shocked in 1996 when Barzani called on Saddam, the very Saddam who slaughtered 100,000 Kurds in the infamous al-Anfal operations, to send his troops to Erbil to aid Barzani in his fight against this arch-rival Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Makiya, in an article published in the New York Review of Books, discovered that Barzani was “no more than a tribal leader with a limited horizon and selfish interests that do not go beyond his primary group.” Any Iraqi – Kurd or Arab – could have effortlessly supplied Makiya with this well-known fact before the event and without taking political analysis as a profession.

Makiya now places his trust in Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle and seems to think that the United States strives to spread democracy abroad.

He can wear rose-colored glasses as long as he pleases. But he should also realize that his naiive speeches are very dangerous; his status as the “native critic” is being exploited to legitimize yet another long and bloody nightmare about to be imposed on Iraqis.

Makiya might wake up in a few years and write another article to acknowledge his mistakes to his loyal American and British readers. But what will he say to all those Iraqis who do not read English?

ATC 102, January–February 2003