The naïveté of the native critic
Sinan Antoon* warns against the uncritical acceptance of the "native critic" as the voice of his people
Kanan Makiya first came to my attention while I was sitting in a bomb shelter in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war. The BBC broadcast news of a book about Saddam Hussein's Iraq, entitled 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 Hussein's authoritarian rule.
Since the Gulf War, Makiya has come to enjoy considerable influence in the US 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 phrases 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", making it all the more important that Iraqis 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", organised by the right- wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. According to AEI's Web site, 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, entitled "A Model for Post-Saddam Iraq", which summarises 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, as the following excerpt shows.
"That the unseating of the Saddam Hussein 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 -- for nation- building... [and that] further to a treaty with a new duly constituted Iraqi government, [the US 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 writes.
Makiya's pro-war stance is music to the ears of Perle and the war party, in no small part due to the fact that it comes from a prominent "native" critic. Not unlike Ahmed Chalabi, Makiya's presence at such gatherings legitimises the claims of the neo-conservative hawks that they are waging a war to liberate the oppressed Iraqi people and to democratise the region. However, it should be obvious by now that ensuring American hegemony and the steady flow of cheap oil are the real reasons for this war. In Iraq people listen to Arabic-language foreign radio programmes. Having sifted through Ba'athist propaganda on a daily basis for decades, they are certainly able to read between the lines of American rhetoric. They know very well the real goals of "regime change" and are aghast at the 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 the memory of which is still disturbingly fresh for many Iraqis. Another scenario is that of a junta comprised of ex-Saddamist generals whose names and faces are appearing more frequently 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 the 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 lead 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 such assumptions are naïve to say the least. Why would one assume that Saddam can be deposed without civilian casualties? Let us take the first Gulf War as a precedent -- the war in which the senior Bush stressed time and again that "we" had no gripe against the Iraqi people. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed during that war.
One need only look at the ongoing war in Afghanistan (also being waged for democracy and nation-building, for which the death of thousands of civilians is a price well worth paying -- right?) to know that Iraqi civilians will be the first to pay the price and will be caught between Saddam and the US military machine. Why would the US administration worry about the lives of Iraqi civilians when its predecessor contributed to the death of one million of their brethren with genocidal sanctions? Or does Makiya think that Rumsfeld is more sensitive to their plight than Madelaine Albright, who said in that infamous 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl that the death of 5,000 Iraqi children every month was well worth the political objective.
Makiya's second assumption is even more ludicrous. The history of American foreign policy is crowded with brutal dictators, sponsorship of anti-democratic coup d'états and military juntas -- especially in the Middle East. Or has the American birdie whispered in Makiya's ears something we do not know yet about a sudden change of heart? Wasn't it Rumsfeld himself who was sent in the early 1980s by President Reagan to Baghdad to meet with the evil Saddam to re-establish diplomatic ties with the US? It is a bit too early to forget the military intelligence, support and credit lent by both the Reagan and Bush administrations to Saddam while he was busy slaughtering Iraqis and Iranians and gassing Kurds, especially by someone like Makiya who brought the plight of the Kurds to light in his work. Wasn't the US responsible for keeping Saddam in power by allowing him to use his helicopters to crush the 1991 uprising which followed the Gulf War and by distancing itself from the uprising and refusing to support it?
Makiya then turns to the debate about the war to one of his favourite targets: Arab intellectuals and Arab culture.
"I should say here that it [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 dozens of articles trying to rationalise the inevitability of the war and to prepare the region for its consequences. But Makiya shields his American audience, as he is wont to do, from the disorienting and truly frightening possibility of the existence of a genuine debate in Arab quarters. He is, of course, the lone critical voice in the Arab cultural wilderness.
The most troubling part of Makiya's discourse, however, is his chastising the Arabs for not pondering the fact that war "may actually end up being a force for good in the Middle East". It seems that Makiya has become a victim of the Ashcroftian Orwellianism that is sweeping America. After two catastrophic wars, the harshest sanctions in history and an ongoing bloodbath in Israel/Palestine, Makiya wants us to think of another war as a force for good. I am afraid that most of us are not imaginative enough to see things the way he does. If Iraqis have resigned themselves to the view that Saddam cannot be deposed without military action, that does not mean that they are, or should be, looking forward to an American occupation. And it is certainly not self-evident that the US should be the one to unseat the Iraqi president.
While it is almost impossible to take the pulse of the general public in Iraq, it is evident that the vast majority of Iraqis in the diaspora are against a war. Makiya can see that for himself on any number of Iraqi Web sites or in chatrooms. There have also been a number of anti- war petitions circulating of late with signatures of Iraqis hailing from all political and ethnic backgrounds.
Makiya devotes considerable space to federalism as the only viable political structure for a future Iraq and the guarantee for genuine democracy. No contest there, but why does he insist that a future Iraq must be "non-Arab". It is hoped that a future Iraq would respect all ethnicities and minorities and that the country's identity should be produced and reproduced by the people themselves and not imposed from abroad by American boots. I am no fan of nationalisms, but who authorised Makiya to determine the country's future identity and how can he envision telling 60 per cent of the country's population that their future state must be non-Arab? Isn't that merely the reverse of the Ba'ath's insistence that the state be only Arab?
For a finale, Makiya gave Perle and company precisely what they craved.
"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 meant a federal, non- Arab and de-militarised Iraq. This vision, or something approximating it, is achievable. Moreover, an Iraqi leadership able to work in partnership with the US to bring it about already exists," Makiya writes.
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 Ahmed Chalabi, a few seats away.
Most Iraqis dream of the day when Saddam is gone. However, we cannot, even in the absence of practical and realistic alternatives, call on the US to occupy Iraq -- the same US which, along with Saddam, is the main culprit in destroying the country's infrastructure through war and sanctions. Belief in even an iota of the American discourse on democratising the region is truly naïve. It is strange that Makiya should continue parroting the myths of American imperialism at a time when many Americans are condemning them and exposing their racism and potential to bring catastrophe to the entire world.
If Makiya's previous judgements are any indication as to the soundness of his 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 embodied all that a future president of a federal and democratic Iraq should. 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 his arch-rival Jalal Talbani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Makiya, in an article he published in the New York Review of Books, discovered that Barzani was "no more than a tribal leader with limited horizons and selfish interests that do not go beyond his primary group". Any Iraqi -- Kurd or Arab -- could have informed Makiya of this well-known fact ahead of time.
Makiya now places his trust in the likes of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle and seems to have accepted the notion that the US strives to spread democracy abroad. He can swim in his rosy dreams as long as he pleases. But he should also realise that his naïve discourse is very dangerous, especially when it is exploited by the US administration to further legitimise the long and bloody nightmare it is about to impose on Iraqis by force after ridding them of Saddam's nightmare.
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 the Iraqis who do not read English?
* The writer is an Iraqi doctoral candidate in classical Arabic literature at Harvard University. He is currently in Cairo on a Mellon Fellowship to research and write his thesis.