We Didn’t Have Politicians Up to the Task: A Conversation with Kanan Makiya

As the Iraqi Army and coalition forces, supported by US airstrikes, enter the third week of a campaign to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State, and the bizarre epic contest to elect the next US ...

As the Iraqi Army and coalition forces, supported by US airstrikes, enter the third week of a campaign to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State, and the bizarre epic contest to elect the next US commander in chief approaches its climax, the historical perspective of the Iraqi-American academic Kanan Makiya, who famously lobbied for the 2003 invasion of Iraq but later came to regret the intellectual legitimacy he bestowed on those put in power, appears newly relevant. The following is a condensed and edited version of a conversation between Makiya and the writer Lawrence Weschler that took place under the auspices of the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU on April 4, 2016. Makiya is the author of many books, including the classic Republic of Fear (1989), Cruelty and Silence (1993), and, most recently, the novel The Rope, which details the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. Weschler’s profile of Makiya first appeared in the January 6, 1992, issue of the New Yorker, in the wake of the first US-led invasion of Iraq and the American retreat from the Shia Intifada they themselves had called forth, and is collected in his 1996 book Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas. Audio of the entire conversation can be accessed here.


Lawrence Weschler (LW): Back toward the end of my 1992 profile of you in the New Yorker, I asked you whether you thought things were now hopeless, after the horror of both the Intifada and the way it was put down. You replied, “It was the very violence [of the Intifada] that gives me hope—because Iraqis were offered a chance to see the horrors they are capable of, the horrors to which the Baath [Saddam’s party] has reduced them. They’re never going to embrace the ideal of toleration because of some sudden revelation concerning the ‘better’ way offered by the West. Rather, if they ever do so it will be in the same way that the West chose it during the Enlightenment: because the alternative—in the West, the wars of religion—had simply become too horrible to bear, to conceive. That’s the hope I still have for Iraq—that, faced with such an alternative, it can rediscover its destiny as a richly various and pluralistic society, a meeting ground of all sorts of creeds and groupings. That’s the hope that sustains me.”

After that, the years passed, you followed up your Republic of Fear with books damning the Iraqi cultural intelligentsia for its collusion with Saddam (The Monument) and then condemning the silence of the Arab intelligentsia more generally in the face of the violence all around them (Cruelty and Silence)—all these books highly influenced by your later devotion to Hannah Arendt. You were quite active in the Iraqi opposition in exile, you did considerable work documenting the Kurdish genocide in particular, and then after 9/11, you become a vivid public proponent for a second invasion, one that would put an end to Saddam’s regime once and for all. You openly consulted with members of the George W. Bush administration, especially Paul Wolfowitz, and I think it’s fair to say that your passionate arguments provided intellectual cover for the likes of Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, David Remnick, and the other sorts of prior liberals who came out in favor of that second invasion.

Just on the eve of the war, in March 2003, you were on the Bill Moyers show—he was clearly against the war, as were many, many of your friends, including me—but he asked you what you hoped would happen, and you gave an answer more or less like the thing I just read. And then what happened?

 

Kanan Makiya (KM): Well, he pushed me, and he pushed hard. He said, “I want you to give me a percentage. How likely is it that a democratic transition in Iraq is even possible? What is it? 50 percent? 70 percent? Two percent?”

 

LW: This is right on the eve of the war.

 

KM: Yes, right on the eve of the war. So I’d never been pushed in quite that way, to put an actual number on it. Of course, it’s quite meaningless, but it’s a thought experiment, you could say. So I answered him this way, and I stand by that answer to this day, despite all the very many mistakes I now recognize were involved in some of my earlier positions. I said, “Bill, let’s suppose there is a 10 percent chance of a successful, happy outcome to this war, the emergence, that is, of a democratic Iraq. Only a 10 percent chance. I would still be for the overthrow of the dictator.”

 

LW: Indeed. And do you remember how I happened to be outside the studio, in the green room, that evening at the Moyers show. And when you came out, I said something, which in retrospect I’m a bit embarrassed by, but I said, “Kanan, 10 percent, okay, you have to be for it. But you can’t expect the mother of some boy out of Kansas to sacrifice her son for that 10 percent.” Why I’m embarrassed in retrospect is that, of course, the larger point ought to have been, “Can you expect all of the horrors that are likely now to befall Iraq to be gambled on that 10 percent chance?”

 

KM: Yes, and I think you were right to ask that question, and I think you should. It was a good question. Sometimes there are questions to which there are no good answers. But let’s turn it around. Suppose I’d said, “I reverse my position. Since it is such a low percentage, what’s the point?” The point is that if people like me did not act on that 10 percent, did not hope to make a sliver of a difference on that 10 percent, it would be totally inevitable that the place would remain a total disaster. And that is a cynical position to take in politics: in a certain sense, you are saying that Iraqis are incapable, ever, of completely transforming this horrific dictatorship.

 

LW: I should mention also, by the way, that you were saying that if, in the heart of the Middle East, that transformation could happen in Iraq, it could be expected to spread, domino-style, throughout the whole region.

 

KM: I certainly hoped that. And now, of course, the situation is reversed. Because everything that went wrong in Iraq turns out to have gone wrong in other places.

 

LW: Indeed, so I guess the thing to ask you today, in the immortal words of Sarah Palin, in the wake of all that has instead happened, is, How’s that hope-y, change-y thing going for you today?

 

KM: Very badly, very badly. But the same thing we were just talking about regarding myself you could say about Syrian activists in the spring of 2011, you could say about the Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis. They all were working under circumstances that overwhelmingly negated their success. But is that not a reason to support them in their desire to change the horrific regimes under which they live?

 

LW: Of course.

 

KM: I mean, all great changes in history happen on the outer limits of what is possible. If it had been an 80 percent chance, it wouldn’t have been an issue in Iraq, right? People ask me, “How could you imagine a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq?” To be honest, the fundamental drive was the dictatorship and the experience of abuse. To me, it was enough to support the war if it would simply have ended the horrific 30-year legacy of abuse that the regime represented. And of course, that is probably how all the activists in Syria and Egypt and Tunisia and Bahrain thought as well. I failed, people like me failed in Iraq, and they failed all over. But that is not an argument for not trying. Otherwise, failure is foreordained.

 

LW: All right, I don’t want to re-litigate 2003. But do you want to talk a little bit about your sense of what went wrong? Let me start with what went wrong on the American side, and to what degree you think that was the worst of it. Or how would you apportion things? There has been a pregnant silence from your street in Cambridge for the last seven or eight years; we’ve all been wondering what you’ve been thinking. You’ve been wrestling, and finally, there comes this novel The Rope.

 

KM: That is true. But you’ll notice there’s not a single American character in this book. Of course the United States looms in the background. Iraq is under occupation for much of the book. You see the occasional references to helicopters, to decisions taken by the occupiers. But no American characters or actions. The prime agents of action in this book are all Iraqis. So really, this is an Iraqi story of 2003. We have had a whole lot of books, as you rightly mention, about things that went wrong on the American side of things. But the reason I wrote the book this way is that, when we look at this historically, the greater failure will be seen to have been an Iraqi one, not an American one. This is not in any way to justify the very many failures of the Americans, or the obviously clumsy, misguided, unintelligent way in which the occupation was handled.

 

LW: I should say, by the way, that shortly after the Moyers program, you were on a plane to the Middle East, and you were there with American troops coming into Baghdad …

 

KM: No, not with troops. I entered through Kuwait by myself, with some friends, arriving in Baghdad, technically, a week or so after the fall of the regime. The American commander of the field would not allow anybody to enter Baghdad. And so we were sent to this abandoned airbase, built, I think, by the French during the Iraq–Iran war, completely blasted out. And it was there that I found out, for the first time, about the murder of a man I knew and respected greatly, on the very day of the fall, the good man whose murder by fellow Shiites
would come to form the catalyst for all that happened in the novel I would eventually write.

 

LW: Let’s hold off on that, and first let’s just stipulate that you did eventually make it into Baghdad where you stayed on an eyewitness to a lot of the stuff for the next three or four years.

 

KM: Yes.

 

LW: Could you have entered politics in Iraq? I mean, a lot of the exiles did.

 

KM: Yeah, it was opened up to me, but I didn’t want to. In part, because I know myself and I’m never going to make a good politician. So instead I set up an NGO and dealt with something that had been my pet project for years: memory. Of course, that project had an indirectly political purpose. I mean, I looked at Iraq and wondered upon what basis a new sense of Iraqi identity was going to be constructed. You can’t talk about the glories of the Arab—of the Muslim world—of the Abyssinian empire, of the wonderful things that happened in the ancient mists of time, because that’s exactly what Arab nationalism did, that’s what Saddam Hussein did, and all those ways no longer had any currency or credence at all. So, upon what do you build a basis of identity instead? We all know that this was a country that was artificially constructed, but 80 years had passed since then, and 80 years is a long time. Still, in the meantime, its sense of Iraqi-ness had been undermined from within. For my father’s generation, this was a country that took for granted the idea of Iraq, believed in it, worked for it, struggled for it. My generation, that is, in the 1960s, by contrast believed in great big isms: socialism, Arab nationalism and revolution, communism, whatever it may be—and such ideas undermined the idea of Iraq.

In the early ’60s, Iraq had resembled many other third-world countries. There was nothing significantly different from other parts of Asia, or Africa, and so on. It was a very cosmopolitan place. True, politics may have been rough, and there were changes with military dictators coming and going. But they tended to operate at the upper echelons of power and didn’t affect society as such. The great big difference is that after Hussein’s Baath took over, they completely undid—they penetrated society in creating informer networks, involving larger and larger segments of the population in the criminal activities of the state. So they changed the very fabric of society. The Iraq I grew up in did not resemble the Iraq of Saddam, which is partly the reason I first wrote Republic of Fear. To explain that process, to try to come to terms with it.

<i>Residents of the Al Monsour district of Baghdad walk to the polls during the first free Iraqi election on Jan. 30, 2005</i>. Photograph by US Department of Defense / Wikimedia

Residents of the Al Monsour district of Baghdad walk to the polls during the first free Iraqi election on Jan. 30, 2005. Photograph by US Department of Defense / Wikimedia

LW: So, moving forward, though, you arrive in Baghdad in 2003, hoping that Iraq is going to look into the abyss of where they could go, and will choose not to do so. And then you watch them hurl themselves into precisely that abyss.

 

KM: Yes. And now here’s one mistake that I made, an underlying mistake. I said to myself, “If the whole success of this thing depends upon a new sense of Iraqi identity, upon what do you base it?” So, I thought, “Suffering. Pain.” That is, everyone in one form or another has suffered. It ought not become a competition over suffering, not whether the Kurds have suffered more than the Shiites, or the Shiites more than the Sunnis, or whatever. The fact that the very nature of this society had been to make everyone pay a price, suffer—that’s a common denominator upon which we can build a new identity. That is a lovely, utopian kind of idea. It turns out, though, that it doesn’t quite work that way. Our NGO aired, on the second-most-popular program on Iraqi TV, videotaped interviews with victims talking about what had happened to them. And, therefore, a Jewish Iraqi, a Christian Iraqi, a Sunni Iraqi would see a Shiite Iraqi talking and a Sunni Iraqi talking and so forth. These programs appeared daily on TV, in the hope, we thought, that they might help to foster a sense of everyone’s common Iraqiness. And here, the South African experience, under Mandela, et cetera, was at the back of our mind.

But we didn’t have politicians up to the task. We didn’t have politicians who understood this. So an NGO, even if it’s made up of people who are quite well-known because of their books or something, did not carry any weight.

 

LW: Many of those politicians were the exiles returning.

 

KM: Yes, friends of mine, I’m afraid.

 

LW: The simplistic view, and the one that most of us have, is that Saddam was Sunni. He had been part of the minority Sunnis, but the Sunnis controlled the army. That Saddam had subjugated the Shiites for years and years and years, including—especially—after the Shia revolution in neighboring Iran. And that in 2003, the Americans just wiped out Sunni power, gave it to the Shiites, and that led to a Shia-versus-Sunni meltdown. Having said that, what’s quite striking about your book is that, for your narrator anyway, that’s not what it’s about. We’ve already talked about the savagery of Saddam’s put-down of the Shia intifada right after the first Bush’s war. But literally, a month after you were on Bill Moyers, something happened that proved to be the second of the major developments, in your view …

 

KM: Yes, the murder of the returning Sayyid Majid-al-Khoei, the son of one of the Grand Shiite Ayatollahs, on what turned out to be the orders of the son of another of the Grand Ayatollahs, the notorious Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, in one of the holiest places in all of Shiite Islam. It’s sort of like Cardinals competing for the papacy, murdering one another in St. Peter’s, in the holiest site of the holiest city—in the Iraqi instance it’s Najaf, namely the burial place of Imam Ali, the Fourth Caliph of Islam and the patron saint of all Shiism. And on the very day that the tyrant falls. The one, coming back from exile, where he worked with the opposition, and the other never having left Iraq, and to this day the head of militias of hundreds of thousands.

 

<i>Iraqi women chant campaign slogans, 2010</i>. Photograph by Al Jazeera English / Wikimedia

Iraqi women chant campaign slogans, 2010. Photograph by Al Jazeera English / Wikimedia

LW: That becomes one of the anchors of your novel, The Rope—this murder and its cover-up by the politicians. In terms of the novel, give us a two- or three-paragraph description of who the main protagonist is and what his relationship to all this is.

 

KM: Well, the novel is told from the point of view of a young Shiite who idealistically joins the army of Muqtada al-Sadr in the hopes, partly, of determining what happened to his own father during Saddam’s put-down of the Shia uprising after the first Bush war, 10 years earlier. And that young man happens to come upon the body of the slain son of the other Ayatollah, leading to his coarsening across the next three years as he delves into the cover-up of that murder.

 

LW: So that’s three years later. And basically, three years later, in 2006, Saddam has been found in the rat hole or whatever it was called, and then he’s held by the Americans, who presently turn him over for a trial to all these politicos in all their rot that you’ve been describing, and they proceed rather quickly to execute him in a rather botched fashion.

 

KM: Right, so the novel starts, literally, with the events of the hanging itself.

 

LW: And this young man is witness to that.

 

KM: This young man is a witness to that, as a guard, and his whole world comes apart, clearly. And that’s the explanation for his writing the text we are reading.

 

LW: The rope in question, by the way, is the rope that was used to hang him, which became a relic and started being sold.

 

KM: A relic. It was cut up in pieces and sold for money.

 

LW: Your book includes a long and very valuable personal note at the end, in which you give the actual historical backdrop to all of this. But why was this written as novel in the first place? Why didn’t you just write a straight history or memoir to begin with?

 

KM: Because I believe that individuals, characters, failings of character, become important in moments of great historical change. Every decision taken in the first weeks, or the first months, or even the first one or two years, of something as big as the 2003 war, means far more than similar decisions taken afterwards. So people, and men, and they were largely men, their failings, and their ways of thinking, the ideas that go through their heads, become very important. And I wanted to explore that territory of ideas, of character, in politics. Camus had this wonderful observation in his writings on the Second World War, when he was in the French Resistance to the Nazis—he says, you know, intelligence is very commonplace in politics, you find it everywhere, but character is very rare. And in fact that’s an insight that’s a very important part of this middle part of the novel. I am trying to show that.

 

LW: In that personal afterword, you do, at considerable length, bring us up to date. And I understand that in Iraq today, where the book is being published in Arabic, there’s a whole book of that afterword.

 

KM: Exactly. I turned it into another book only available in Arabic, which is hitting the streets in Baghdad even as we talk now.

 

LW: You just mentioned Camus. The other person who often comes to mind when I’m reading you is Dostoevsky. And that brings us to how the book climaxes. We started with the botched lynching of Hussein, then we go back to 2003, then we come forward. And it turns out that your character is a guard assigned to sit with Hussein in the hours before his death. Which allows you to compose, basically, a Grand Inquisitor scene.

 

KM: Yes.

 

LW: That passage, that whole chapter, is chilling, and a remarkable piece of writing. I mean, if nothing else, people should get your book for that chapter alone, and for the personal note afterwards, though the whole book is terrific.

But Saddam’s monologue opens onto a whole set of questions that, frankly, have been gnawing at me in my role as a foreign reporter, for years now: the dark way of putting it, and the way that Saddam is basically arguing here, is whether these sorts of societies—I am thinking of Yugoslavia, of Rwanda, of Egypt, of Syria, certainly, I’m thinking of Iraq—do they require
dictators to keep them from tearing themselves apart? Or, conversely, is the very way that such dictators rule, precisely by playing people and ethnicities off against each other, forcing endless betrayals and so on, the cause of the seemingly inevitable horrors that follow their removal?

 

KM: In the post-2003 Iraq that I’m writing about here, the one leitmotif that’s constant throughout the book is betrayal—everybody’s betraying everyone else in this story. That legacy is of course exactly what you’re talking about. But I can never, myself, somehow assume that that’s always going to be the outcome. I mean, that which makes us human always makes us capable of new beginnings.

 

LW: There’s Hannah Arendt speaking through you.

 

KM: But I do believe that. This country is a perfect example of it, it’s what makes this country great; it truly opened a new beginning, and constructed a wholly new way of doing politics. And if it’s possible in one place, it’s possible in another.

 

LW: Although, by the way, your Saddam had a great answer for you there.

 

KM: I tried to make him as intelligent as I knew how. The real Saddam was nowhere near as intelligent as I make him out to be. But that was deliberate, because you can begin to think about yourself if you have an intelligent interlocutor.

 

LW: In retrospect, when I think back on Tito’s rule in Yugoslavia, for example, when many of us were calling out for human rights in Yugoslavia under Tito’s reign, the people whose human rights we were calling out for turned out to be the very people—the Croat nationalists, the Serb nationalists, you know, all these people—who ended up tearing the country to smithereens after Tito’s passing. I mean, yes, they shouldn’t have been thrown in jail by Tito, but, on the other hand …

 

KM: Here’s another wrinkle to the same issue. The Iraqi Shia see themselves as eternal victims. This is not true of Iranian Shiites, for example, who had essentially ruled themselves for hundreds of years. To Iraqi Shiism, which is where Shiism was born with the murder of the Fourth Caliph back in 680, their senses of themselves have always been steeped in victimhood.

 

LW: Though that too is uncannily similar to Serb self-perception, where the battle of Kosovo in 1389 is the first of the great betrayals, and the victimhood that will …

 

KM: So herein lies a really big question. It’s a slightly different way of formulating what you were saying before: if your sense of yourself is as a victim, and you are suddenly offered, as in this instance, by the United States, complete power—when the American government self-consciously went about constructing a government council made up of 13 Shiites on a 25-member governing council, they knew what they were doing, in part atoning for the hundreds of thousands killed in 1991—can you stop thinking of yourselves as victims? The cover-up in my book is all about that. And in the end, they couldn’t think of themselves as Iraqis. They didn’t realize the greater prize, the whole country, is far more important than the prize of just competing with Sunnis or Kurds over who gets the most out of the pie that they now inherit. They kept on thinking of themselves in that small-minded way. Therein lies a large portion of the book. I deal with these ideas: how men internalize their victimhood, how they are unable to rise to the occasion of governance.

<i>Iraqis in the city of Husaybah wait in lines to vote, 2005</i>. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Iraqis in the city of Husaybah wait in lines to vote, 2005. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

LW: In the past you’ve also talked about how you weren’t able to realize, in exile, how the sanction regime imposed on the country after 1991 had utterly wiped out the middle class whose participation was going to be necessary if that 10 percent chance we mentioned at the beginning was ever going to happen.

 

KM: I didn’t realize the extent of it. Remember, when I first formulated the argument for Iraq’s capability of becoming a democratic country, that was in 1991, when a secular middle class was still intact. That Iraq was very different from the Iraq that we returned to in 2003, because the middle class had in the meantime been basically wiped out by the sanctions. It turns out that sanctions, whatever their value may be in the short run—what they did do is they made the regime incapable of projecting its power outside of its boundaries; they forced it to dismantle its atomic weapons program (even though Saddam couldn’t admit this, since that was the very basis of his power)—in the long run, if they don’t unseat a regime, such sanctions change the relationship of power within the country to the disadvantage of those very people who could change things. Because suddenly the black market corruption, et cetera, becomes the leitmotif, and a totalitarian state turns into a criminal state, literally a criminal state, with its own institutions eaten away from within. The extent of that, I didn’t see; most commentators didn’t see it. Though that still wouldn’t have changed my position for a second. Just because people are even more abused than you had thought they were, that is not an argument against removing the source of that abuse, and so I just want to make that side point: sanctions work in different ways in the long term than they do in the short term, and I think we learned that.

 

LW: What now, though, for Iraq? And what now for the wider failed Arab Spring?

 

KM: The Iraq story is no longer just an Iraq story. The fall of the first dictator is, I think, connected to the fall of a whole slew of them in 2011. But the point is, as these dictators fell, Arab Springs were defeated and aberrations like ISIS rose, following on from aberrations like al-Qaeda.

 

LW: Gramsci’s classic refrain: “The old is dying and yet the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

 

KM: Right. And what’s happening now is the fate of Iraq, which I thought, as you correctly quoted, might be a harbinger for futures that could affect other parts of the Arab world, if it was a positive outcome—now, conversely, Iraq’s fate is bound up with a country as devastated as Syria. Whatever devastation happened in Iraq pales in comparison with what’s happening now in Syria. Pales. We’ve never seen anything remotely like it. And you can’t have a stabilization or a dramatic improvement of the situation in Iraq until the Syrian state comes back into the picture in some form, but that’s still a long way from happening …

 

LW: One last question for you: what did you think of Obama not entering into Syria? I think you’re a good person to ask that. You of all people would understand his hesitations.

 

KM: I understand his hesitations, but I think he never should have announced the red line regarding chemical weapons and then not followed through with it. It did his reputation a great deal of damage. I was always a person who thought a safe haven—a temporary safe haven area which, remember, worked for the Kurds in Iraq—was needed in Syria. It’s not happening. A lot more diplomatic pressure by the United States, by Obama himself, would have been needed to make that happen. He should have been far more proactive. I mean, the single biggest failure of the Obama administration is, I think, the Middle East. The Middle East has been on the back burner far too long. And it’s a dangerous place to leave on the back burner. icon

Featured image: US Army artillery fires in support of Iraqi security forces working to retake Mosul in October 2016. Photograph by US Army / Wikimedia