Iraq’s past and future
October 8, 2007 § Leave a comment
How can we get beyond this mess? Who does what about Bush? Do we just drift till the elections in November a year and a few months from now?
The NYT Sunday had a powerful story of an Iraqi author, not just any, but who wrote The Republic of Fear, a first book to brig to our attention much of the regime’s terror in Iraq. I had known many Iranian and Iraqi students in Washington dc where I was living at the time. I knew about the torture. A powerful movie had been made and shown in Toronto and Washington in the 80’s. This was in the late 70’s. There were big marches in Washington against the Shah in the 70’s.
By DEXTER FILKINS
Kanan Makiya spent years in exile advocating the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The war he supported brought about an Iraq he never imagined.
It is powerful to read because it hi-lights the difficulty of knowing what to do, since normals cues (really bad guy) are not enough for action in a complex interdependent world. The further questions – should we leave – should we allow an implosion – should we march on to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan? – are equally murky questions without guiding principles and common sense. Certainly if one has not lived in another country and had close friends from such places, it is very hard to have common sense, because we are remote from what we need to understand. Our – the US – lack of experience with people from other places as friends severely limits us. In this case, living in Iraq and making it a lifetime endeavor are clearly not enough.
The exiles returned as Hussein fell, most of them scrambling for power or money in the new Iraqi state. Makiya returned, too, but tended to stay away from politics. Instead, he set up the Iraq Memory Foundation. Since 2003, Makiya and his small staff have scoured Baath party offices and dungeons, adding to a collection that would reach more than 11 million pages of records. And they began filming interviews with the regime’s victims.
His hope has been that reconciliation through honesty would be possible. Given the religious differences I think exist, I do not see how this would work, but I can see how one could imagine it would. He provides little insights, those little pieces of forensic evidence, that help round out the larger story. Not conclusive, but suggestive.
On Iraq, he says, there certainly were clues before the war began — for instance, that meeting in the Oval Office with President Bush and Condoleezza Rice, two months before the war. Sitting across his wide desk from Makiya, President Bush declared that the United States was launching not one campaign but two, the first to topple Hussein and the second to rebuild Iraq. Makiya recalls: “Bush turned to Rice, who was seated on the other side of the room, and he said to her, Our preparations for rebuilding Iraq are well advanced, right? And Rice looked down. She could not look him in the eye. And she said, Yes, Mr. President. She looked at the floor.”
If this is true, the implication is that Bush, in his weakness, was bamboozled by his staff more than he bamboozled them.
But for all of that, Makiya doesn’t really hold the Americans responsible for the disaster. For that, he blames the Iraqis themselves, and in particular the Shiite leaders who have taken control of the country since 2003. Most of them had been exiles. Many are Makiya’s friends.
The article continues
Makiya’s argument goes like this: Once Hussein fell, the stability of Iraq depended, above all, on the willingness of the newly empowered Shiite majority to assuage the inevitable insecurities of the dispossessed Sunni minority. And on this, Makiya says, Shiite politicians failed utterly. The Shiites should have held their fire in the face of the car bombs and at all costs refrained from anything that hinted at sectarian politics. But the Shiite leaders did precisely the opposite, acting from the start in a blatantly sectarian fashion and then arming the Shiite death squads that turned the one-way insurgency into a two-way civil war. “There was this attitude,” Makiya said of the Shiite leaders, “ ‘This is a war, this is it — the showdown — why don’t we just gird ourselves for it, why not recognize it as a war and fight it to win? Because we can win.’ ”
This seems to me very naive. People were confronted with the lack of a gov’t, wild scale looting, and no jobs. People looked to align themselves with what they thought might work. Makiya seems to be implying that there should have been a whole culture in place that was not. Is he just intellectualized and out of touch?
In Makiya’s view, the one person who could have stopped Hakim and his like-minded cohorts — the one person who could have slowed Iraq’s gallop toward civil war — was Ahmad Chalabi. If Iraq was going to turn out like South Africa, Makiya reasoned, then it would need its Mandela — someone who could rise above revenge and parochial interests and steer the country toward a united future. Makiya said he believed that Chalabi could have been Iraq’s Mandela. If this sounds fanciful, given Chalabi’s current reputation in the United States as a peddler of bogus prewar intelligence, it should not. By the time the war began, Chalabi had pulled together the whole galaxy of Iraqi exiles, some of whose interests were wildly opposed: Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians, some pro-American, others pro-Iran. “That was his finest hour,” Makiya said.
It has been a difficult week and many perceptions turn out to be only half true. If this view of Chalabi as a good guy is 2/3 true I would have to revise my opinion. It goes against so many opinions of those I trust.
The author says,
To me, Makiya’s analysis seemed unrealistic. It seems highly unlikely that the vast Shiite groundswell released by the American invasion could have been halted by any one man, much less by Chalabi. To have witnessed events unfolding on the ground in Iraq during 2003 and 2004 was to be struck by how little control anyone had over anything — whether it was the Shiites’ surging identity or the Sunni insurgency.
Then we shift to another major figure, with details, like MIT, that are new to me, and also parts of the puzzle.
London Ali Allawi, who fled Iraq as a teenager, has known Makiya since their days in the same dormitory at M.I.T. Unlike Makiya, Allawi opposed the American invasion, but once it went forward he returned to give the new Iraq a try. He served as minister of defense and of trade, and narrowly survived an attack by a suicide bomber. In 2006, he called it quits and moved back to his home in Kensington, London. In September, I spoke with him in his sitting room, an elegant space adorned with works by George Keyt, the Sri Lankan modernist painter.
“It was doomed,” Allawi told me. “What was doomed was the attempt to refashion Iraq in a sort of civilizational makeover, using American power in an alliance with a supposedly grateful Iraqi public, led by a Westernized middle class. The assumption turned out to be false. And it was compounded by a series of disastrous decisions.”
A major part of the story will be to understand those of us who were against the war from the beginning, because we thought that Saddam could be contained by the weapons inspectors, and the Germans offered the plan of spending more money on that effort. What more (or less) did we know before the war that led us to be against it? In my case I had also been against the war in Afghanistan, for the same reason: it didn’t look like it would be ethical or work.
Allawi tried as hard as any Iraqi to make a go of the new Iraq, and he is thoroughly disillusioned. He says he is resigned to the likelihood that Iraq will end up a sort of protectorate of the United States for the next several decades, not unlike the Philippines was for much of the 20th century — dependent, violent, crippled. “The history of the Philippines,” he noted, “is not a happy one.”
The way bush is setting up for the next president, this seems very likely and very depressing indeed. There are worse outcomes. All out multinational war including nuclear weapons or an Iran Russia alliance against the United States in a war of empires where they have the oil.
“Islamic history has always come down very firmly on the side of order against chaos,” he went on to say, “because of the fear that if you do not control these forces, the general tendency of human beings in our part of the world is to veer toward anarchy and chaos and the abuse that comes from the collapse of order. Knowing what I know about Iraq, I would probably opt for order rather than for liberation.”
I asked Allawi if Makiya, and the others who made the human rights case for war, were not responsible for the disaster that Iraq has turned out to be. “I think they are relieved of responsibility only because I think their influence was far less than they thought it was,” Allawi said. “Ahmad Chalabi, Kanan Makiya, all of these people became media stars, but their influence on decision making was next to nothing. I can’t believe that a person like Wolfowitz or Cheney or whoever it was in the neocon cabal would allow themselves to be manipulated in this way. They are far too cynical. They have their own agendas. And these agendas were boosted by Iraqis who seemed to be singing from the same song sheet. The Iraqis gave them credibility, gave them substance. But I don’t think they were influenced by them.”
And then follows a very GardenWorld episode.
Dokan, Iraq The Iraqis gathered round the table as the Power Point presentation began. The slides showed the designs for a new university: the American University of Iraq, to be built in Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdish north. A university of such stature would ordinarily be built in the nation’s capital, but of course Baghdad is too violent for that. It is an ambitious project, but hardly grandiose: the trustees have raised about $40 million, a third of what they need. One trustee is Makiya.
His dreams are smaller now. As the presentation unfolded, Makiya looked over the plans and made a face that suggested polite disapproval. As an architect, he was concerned, he said, about some of the smaller points in the design: the pedestrian walkway, the shrubbery, the archway at the entrance. “This is not a building, gentlemen, it’s just a plan,” Makiya said. “God is in the details. We all know what happens when you take an abstract idea and stuff it full of grandiose plans that have not been thought through.”
Later, in a van on the road to Erbil, I asked Makiya what — given the catastrophe, given the impossibility of doing it over — could be done.
“We build,” he said, “and we work, on little projects, one step at a time, one brick at a time, we look at the little things. That is the way we build, that is how we climb our way out of the chasm. Slow, steady continuous work. Like the university. Things that offer hope.”
Powerful. Weak. Adequate?