The United States officially went to war in Iraq 10 years ago, on March 19, 2003. But in one small sense, the war can be said to have begun in 1989. That was the year a London-based Iraqi architect named Kanan Makiya published a book called “Republic of Fear.”
Written under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil, the book offered a devastating inside analysis of Saddam Hussein’s regime, depicting it as a Middle Eastern version of the totalitarian states that emerged in Europe in the 1920s. Makiya, the son of a prominent Iraqi architect, was living in the West after having worked for his father’s firm and receiving a PhD in architecture from MIT. When Hussein invaded Kuwait the next year and the United States went to war, “Republic of Fear” became a surprise bestseller; its author went on to become a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University. And when George W. Bush’s administration built the case for the second Iraqi war starting in 2001, it turned to Makiya’s book for support once again.
It is difficult to overstate Makiya’s intellectual and moral influence on those who forged our position on Iraq over two decades. He appeared frequently in the media as the unofficial spokesman for the Iraqi exile community, a human symbol of what might be possible in a liberated Iraq. He met with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the run-up to the war and worked with Iraqi exile groups to build a post-Hussein Iraq. He was the protagonist of “The Assassins’ Gate,” journalist George Packer’s book on the planning and execution of the Iraq war. As former New Republic editor Peter Beinart wrote, looking back at why he supported the war: “For myself, perhaps the most honest reply is this: because Kanan Makiya did.”
Today, the landscape is radically different. Iraq as a polity is “a failure,” Makiya admits from London, where he is on sabbatical, working on a book about the failures of the Iraqi elite. Today, Makiya receives no White House invitations; even by 2007, Beinart wrote of Makiya, “I haven’t seen him, or read anything he’s said or written, in several years.” Beinart’s mournful but devastating assessment—that Makiya was too idealistic, too sure of American intentions and Iraqi potential—has come to be the standard view of him among former war supporters.
Makiya himself has backed away from promises of Iraqi harmony. Instead, he spends his time on the nonprofit organization he founded, The Iraq Memory Foundation, which compiles documents, interviews, and artifacts chronicling the horrors of Hussein’s regime. He is grappling with the legacy of his writings and public work, which many people see as profoundly damaging—yet he still stands by his central belief that Iraq was a genuinely horrifying regime that did need to be overthrown. “What has happened in Iraq is primarily the fault of Iraqis, not of Americans,” he says. Of his book, he says: “I do not regret writing it in the slightest.....I don’t think the question is: How were a writer’s ideas used by others? It is: Did they accurately describe things?”
‘The Iraqi leadership proved itself capricious, greedy, selfish—it was a failure on the part of the elites.’
The Iraq that Makiya described in “Republic of Fear” was unlike anything else in the Middle East. Instead of being a traditional autocracy like Saudi Arabia or Jordan, Iraq was a totalitarian state—an Arab equivalent of Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Soviet Union, under the ruthless thumb of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. Secret police, a cult of
personality based on an all-powerful leader, a society based around fear—all were present in Iraq. Makiya described life there as an almost existential horror. “In Iraq, the public has lost all sense of self; it exists only in the form artificially imparted to it by ‘its’ regime,” he wrote.
“Republic of Fear” was released by the University of California Press in the spring of 1989 and was little noticed at first, selling about a thousand copies in its first year. But when Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, it became a bestseller in the United States and Britain, and Makiya suddenly became a public figure. “Republic of Fear” offered a moral argument for the war; when President George H.W. Bush likened Hussein to Hitler, he was reading straight from Makiya’s script. “Makiya’s trenchant account was of the moment,” says Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East expert at Boston University.
In his book, Makiya didn’t call for outside powers to liberate Iraq—indeed, he barely mentioned the Western world at all. But things changed once the United States initiated war. “I was the first person to argue, in 1991—it was a different story in 2003—that the US should topple Hussein,” Makiya says now.
With Hussein still in power through the 1990s, Makiya began to be referred to as an Iraqi version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident who chronicled his government’s atrocities. In 1993 he published another book, “Cruelty and Silence,” which castigated Arab intellectuals for ignoring the evils of Hussein and for blaming the Middle East’s failings on the United States. “I became for the US media a kind of lightning rod for the Iraqi opposition,” he says. “It was a simplification and a reduction, but I was not alone—it was the same thing with Edward Said, where he was assumed to be some kind of spokesman for the Palestinians.”
When a US invasion became a concrete prospect after the 9/11 attacks, Makiya was there to offer encouragement. He formed an alliance with the Iraqi banker Ahmad Chalabi, and the two became the most influential Iraqis living in the United States.
Makiya provided a “useful, supportive voice” to the most hawkish elements of the Bush administration—“people like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Douglas Feith,” recalls Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s
then-chief of staff. “Not necessarily a witting one, but a useful one.” In January 2003, right before the invasion, Makiya met with George W. Bush, Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice at the White House to discuss postwar Iraq. Makiya told Bush that Americans would be greeted as liberators. At a press conference he was even more effusive, saying, “Even if the president has to go into this enterprise alone, which of course is not the case, the judgment of the world, of history will overwhelm his critics the day after.”
Makiya was even more influential in moving liberals and Democrats toward support for an invasion on humanitarian concerns. “Makiya’s genuine commitment to human rights and liberal democracy appealed to liberal hawks like me, and the fact that he supported military action relieved—in retrospect wrongly—some of my concerns about a nationalist backlash against a US invasion,” says Beinart, who as editor of The New Republic endorsed the war.
In the end, of course, nothing like that vision took place. Chalabi’s claims to represent Iraqi opinion turned out to be as illegitimate as his business dealings. An easy military victory was followed by a disastrous occupation, a long sectarian war, and a deadly insurgency against the United States that has killed nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 110,000 Iraqis. Ten years after the war began, Hussein is long gone, but Iraq is in shambles, without a stable government.
Though Makiya thinks the United States bungled the initial management of the occupation—“The first years, what I call the Paul Bremer years, were just one mistake after another”—he insists the primary culpability does not lie not with the United States. “The Iraqi leadership proved itself capricious, greedy, selfish—it was a failure on the part of the elites,” he says. The book he has been working on for more than five years is about the “great historic betrayal of Iraq by this new class of intellectuals created by the war.”
Despite all this, Makiya does not regret pressing the case for war. “I said at the time and still believe that if there’s a 5 percent chance of Iraq becoming a democracy, we have to do it,” he says. “Under Saddam it was zero percent.” From the Iraqi perspective, then, the war was the right thing to do. But from an American perspective? “I always said that, understood for US interests”—he hesitates—“I could understand for someone from the Midwest, why asking their sons to die for something that is not even a democracy isn’t worth it.”
In fact, Makiya rarely, if ever, publicly said the war would be detrimental to the United States. When he told Bush and Cheney that Iraqis would greet Americans with “sweets and flowers,” he was suggesting the cost of the war would be slight and the benefits tremendous. Makiya’s stubbornness—he told The New York Times in 2007 that “people shouldn’t feel the need to apologize”—enrages his detractors. They describe Makiya variously as a tool of the Bush administration and uncaring about the
suffering the Iraq war has caused. “The point is he doesn’t want to admit he’s wrong because he doesn’t want to live in a world in which he wasn’t right,” Samantha Power, until recently a senior White House staffer, told a reporter at The American Prospect in 2007. Virtually everything written and said about Kanan Makiya since the Iraqi insurgency emerged has been about just how Makiya could have gotten it so wrong.
Others are more charitable. “Kanan paid a huge personal price for the catastrophe that was the American invasion of Iraq, but no one should forget how terrible Saddam’s tyranny was and how important Kanan’s role was in denouncing that tyranny and mobilizing opinion against it,” says Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian politician and Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor. Ignatieff was himself a prominent war supporter, advocating intervention as a New York Times Magazine writer and the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard from 2000 to 2005.
George Packer, whose book portrayed Makiya as well intentioned but a dreamer, sees him today as an honorable man whose mistakes are well chronicled. “Kanan justifiably was criticized for thinking the liberalization and democratization of Iraq would come quickly and easily, but those causes are not going away, and I think his reputation will only grow in stature over time,” says Packer. “In 30 years, Kanan Makiya will be seen as a visionary and champion of democracy, I think, even if the fact of the invasion itself and the terrible aftermath set those causes back.”
At the very least, Makiya is an unusual figure in history: the author of a book still seen as accurate and astute, but whose repercussions have been catastrophic for many of the people it was supposed to help. The nearest modern parallel, perhaps, is George Kennan, the diplomat whose pseudonymous 1947 article about the Soviet Union became the source for the American doctrine of “containment.” Over the following decades Kennan’s work was used to justify military intervention everywhere from Vietnam to Cuba, often with bloody and harmful results. In his memoirs years later, Kennan rued his influence: “I felt like one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witnesses its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster.”
Kennan backed off of his original analysis, saying he had been unduly alarmist about the Soviet Union. Makiya has no such misgivings, at least about “Republic of Fear.” “I do not regret writing it in the slightest,” he says. The mistake he made, he says, was in having faith in the possibilities of Iraqi elites to rise above sectarianism. “I wouldn’t change my positions, because I feel the war was the right thing to do, but I made real errors of judgment in what I thought Iraqi elites were capable of,” he says.
Makiya now says he believes the war contributed to the Arab Spring. “People on the ground in Egypt and Syria don’t want to admit that there was a connection, but something fundamental happened as a result of the war—a culture and an ethos changed.” (Indeed, they will not admit it. When Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive whose Facebook page helped spark the Egyptian uprising, was questioned about the Iraq’s War’s contributions, he said it contributed “not at all.”)
But “Republic of Fear”’s ultimate effects are beside the point for Makiya. What matters is that it accurately described the unique viciousness of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “A book is like a baby—you give birth to it and what someone makes of it is something entirely different,” he says. “Books are not written to be used by others.”