Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Was support for the invasion reckless and naive?

Published: October 7, 2007

1. Dokan, Iraq They were well into their dinner when the talk turned to the most troubling question of all. The guests, brought here to discuss plans for the American University of Iraq, had been passing around platters of shabbout, an oily and bony fish, in the dining room of a villa owned by Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, when the question came up. The six Iraqis and one Lebanese-American had gathered in this lakeside guesthouse in the mountains of Kurdistan, far from the furies of Baghdad and Basra. No one had actually posed the question; it crept up on its own. Among Iraqi exiles, particularly those who had been instrumental in persuading the Americans to invade, it was still something of a taboo.

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Kanan Makiya

Makiya in 1967, leaving Iraq.

"Leave Saddam in power?" asked Barham Salih, Iraq's deputy prime minister, holding court in the middle. "So that he would be free to continue killing, free to invade his neighbors, so that he would be free to — I am sorry — develop nuclear weapons?" He shook his head. "No."

This was not the idle banter of an American talk show. While still in high school, Salih, today one of Iraq's most dedicated and capable public servants, had been jailed and tortured by Saddam Hussein's henchmen. As many as 180,000 of his fellow Kurds had been murdered in what people here still call "the War of Annihilation."

Then came Fouad Ajami, a Johns Hopkins professor of Middle East history, a Lebanese-American intimately identified with the Iraqi project. The American invasion of Iraq, Ajami said between bites of fish, would yet prove to be a transforming moment in the region. "Persuading the Americans to take down Saddam was Chalabi's finest hour," Ajami said, referring to the Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi. The conversation drifted along on a cloud of agreement until Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi intellectual and professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University near Boston, leaned forward to pose a question.

"How many Iraqis have died since 2003?" Makiya asked his friends.

There was silence at the table. Makiya was asking the others, but he also seemed to be asking himself.

"Five hundred thousand?" Makiya mused. "Two hundred thousand? What are the estimates?"

Someone said something about a study.

"It's getting closer to Saddam," Makiya said. Then he sat back in his chair, and the conversation continued on its way.

That moment in Dokan encapsulated the terrible paradox of the Iraq war and, for Makiya, a crushing turn in a long personal journey. Over the last 25 years, Makiya, a secular Shiite, born of a British mother and educated in the United States, had become the foremost chronicler of Saddam Hussein's crimes and the most persuasive voice for ending his reign. Makiya's book "Republic of Fear," published in 1989, laid bare not merely the murderous ways of Hussein's Baath Party but its terrible soul. "Cruelty and Silence," published after the first Persian Gulf war, posed a devastating critique of the Arab world's intelligentsia, whose anti-Americanism, Makiya argued, had prompted it to conspire in a massive, collective silence over Hussein's dungeons.

In the buildup to the Iraq war, Makiya, more than any single figure, made the case for invading because it was the right thing to do — to destroy an evil regime and rescue a people from their nightmare of terror and suffering. Not for oil, Makiya argued, and not for some superweapons hidden in the sand, but to satisfy an obligation to our fellow human beings.

If it sounded idealistic, Makiya went even further, arguing that an American invasion of Iraq could clear the ground for Western-style democracy. Years of war and murder had left Iraqis so thoroughly degraded, Makiya argued, that, once freed, they would throw off the tired orthodoxies of Arab politics and, in their despair, look to the West. "The removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein presents the U.S. with a historic opportunity," Makiya told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington in October 2002, "that is as large as anything that has happened in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire." Two months before the war started, in a meeting in the Oval Office, Makiya told President Bush that Iraqis would greet invading American soldiers with "sweets and flowers."

Now, of course, those dreams are gone, carried away on a tide of blood. The catastrophe in Iraq has thoroughly undermined the idea of democratic change in the Middle East. It has undercut the notion, sustained by the successful interventions in the Balkans, that American military power can achieve humanitarian ends. And it has made Makiya and the others who justified the invasion look reckless and naïve.

Or has it? Makiya, who is 58, made the toppling of Saddam Hussein his life's work, the focus of an idealistic vision that guided him through a life of exile. In the musty yearbooks of Baghdad College, the Jesuit high school where Makiya studied, the photo shows his eyes afire: dark, focused and looking upward. As a student at M.I.T., he strummed Woody Guthrie folk tunes on an old guitar. Makiya threw himself into the Palestinian cause, signed on as a Marxist and then beat a long path back to a philosophy of democracy and human rights. In the 1990s, he drafted a charter of democratic first principles for a not-yet-liberated Iraq and called the world's attention to the Baath Party's genocidal campaign against the Kurds. And then, in 2003, the hour ringing at last, Makiya threw his support behind the destruction of Hussein's regime, which had raped and ravaged his countrymen for 24 years, in a war that would have gone forward whether he approved of it or not.

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Kanan Makiya

Makiya (top left) at M.I.T. in 1971.

The ideal and the real. The calculation and the loss. The catastrophe of Hussein and the catastrophe of now. In his book-lined study in Cambridge, Mass., and in the projects that still carry him home to Iraq, Kanan Makiya is trying to figure out how so many irreconcilables could possibly fit together: in America, in Iraq, in himself.

"People say to me, 'Kanan, this is ridiculous, democracy in Iraq, a complete pipe dream,' " Makiya said when I visited him one day. "That's realism."

He got up from his chair and walked to a window.

"You know, in a way, the realists are right, they are always right. Even when they are morally wrong."

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