He Got It Wrong, Alas: Kanan Makiya

My friend Kanan Makiya was the most influential Iraqi advocate in America of the war to “liberate” his country five years ago. Today he is the most articulate casualty of his own fantasy.

Kanan Makiya: Cautionary Idealism

Kanan is famous now mainly for telling President Bush, face to face two months before the US invasion, that the American troops “will be greeted with sweets and flowers in the first months…” He had the rhetorical magic in those days to get away with arguing that invading Iraq was the moral choice even if it had only a “five percent” chance of success. Astonishingly, writers like George Packer of The New Yorker and David Brooks of The New York Times made Kanan Makiya’s dream of US power sound like a plausible bet. Kanan wrote in the New Republic in the spring of 2003 that the bomb-bursts in Baghdad rang like “church bells” in his ecstatic ears.

Kanan Makiya’s scripts and interviews, which informed much mainstream war-mongering, read now like the full catalog of illusion, self-delusion and folly.

I’m proud to say we are friends — I want to say brothers, really. Proud of myself, because in many close encounters with Kanan over more than 16 years, I have learned that the best friendships need not have anything to do with agreement on politics.

It’s been said, rightly I think, that Kanan Makiya was the only real idealist in the war camp. He is an immensely thoughtful man and, as you will hear, a completely authentic presence. I am proud also that it was on our old television show, “The Ten O’Clock News” on WGBH in Boston, that Kanan Makiya unveiled himself in 1991 as the real author of “The Republic of Fear,” his originally pseudonymous expose of the Saddam Hussein regime.

So the strange sum of it is this: my friend Kanan Makiya is a scholar, an intellectual, an idealist who stands for me as a warning about the dangerous misfit of idealism and military power. He’s an example, I’m afraid, of what the French call the “trahison des clercs,” the treason of the intellectuals. He is a caution to us intellectuals and wannabes against the poison of very bad ideas — like the notion of transformation by conquest and humiliation.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Kanan Makiya (30 minutes, 14 MB MP3)

Footnote from the radio believer: don’t the sadness and pain in Kanan’s voice — more powerful than pictures or text — make the case for what the ear alone can absorb?

Related Content

  • Potter

    Yeah well agreement on politics is a head thing… Makiya is all from the heart. That’s what makes him easy to forgive and an exception. I have not listened but I wonder if he does say he got it wrong or you, Chris, say that. He saw something that needed to be done and could only be done from the outside with force. I doubt that he thought there would be no cost and that the cost hoever high had to be paid. But I have not listened to this yet… only the recent one with Ashbrook which stole my heart in which he has a special place. I could not blame him.

  • Potter


    I doubt that he thought there would be no cost. I can’t imagine that he did not know the cost could be high but felt it had to be paid.

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • ghostofdali

    Regarding the responsibility of intellectuals, more than 40 years ago Noam Chomsky had it right, commenting on Dwight Macdonald who had it right 20 years prior.


    I’m really impressed by Chris’s presentation and candor in this interview. It’s a fine example of how to embrace difficult dialogues with respect, and I wish more journalists had the finesse to have these kinds of discussions.

    Kanan’s motives, which at first seemed impossibly disingenuous to me, show that the invasion and “rebuilding” of Iraq called on a number of disparate sources for support. Beside the ones which can be discounted as outright lies, such as the WMD’s and the safe-haven for terrorists, there was at least one reason for invading that had a lot of appeal: Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime could be toppled easily and a new, more democratic government could be established.

    If that had been presented as the sole reasoning for going to war, I think more than a few flags would have been thrown on the field long ago. I find it hard to believe that Kanan really didn’t understand the corrosive effects of sanctions, and the fact that he didn’t realize that there were no social movements or Iraqi Mandelas or Nehrus waiting in the wings to head up a new government shows that he must have been really out of touch with the situation in Iraqi society.

  • Jesse Finfrock

    ghostofdali says:

    “[Kanan] must have been really out of touch with the situation in Iraqi society.”

    I think he was also out of touch with the realities of our society.

    I’m left wondering why Kanan doesn’t seem to fully understand that we were never interested in creating a stable, democratic Iraqi state. I’m sorry, but our agenda was/is clearly to extend long term US power and influence over the oil-rich region in order to ensure our energy supply into the future. That we’ve failed in our rhetorical goal of “liberating Iraq” should be no surprise, i.e. demonstrated our friendship with the un-liberated Saudi state, etc. Catastrophically, it looks increasingly like Bush has failed in his true aim to extend US influence in the region. Due to the disaster that is Iraq, the region is more turbulent and anti-American now than before the invasion. The US will be facing a severe backlash in public sentiment in the region for years to come.

    Idealism is not a good enough reason to go to War. Kanan’s idealism, even if it is pure, pails in comparison to reality. I’m still not sure that Kanan realizes that we just used his idealism – we don’t actually share it. Kanan must hang his head in shame – for his unrealistic idealism has helped wrought the suffering of millions of people, and possibly worse yet to come.

    Thank you for this interview, Chris.

  • Potter

    I take ghostofdali’s point about Makiya possibly being out of touch with Iraqi society. I wonder if he had access enough to know the degree of it. It would be a good question. We read about the hollowing out caussed by the sanctions prior to invasions but it might be that the extent of it was hard to discern.

    Jesse Finfrock: Idealism is not a good enough reason to go to War.

    Makiya can be blamed for not considering what is best for the US ( especially since he is an Iraqi- American). I don’t consider wanting to lift a long and brutal tyranny idealism. Perhaps the idealism follows with what to replace it with, but not the wish to liberate.

    Makiya was true to himself, his passion, deep empathy with his people. For that he need not hang his head in any shame. We should sooner hang out heads in shame for allowing our regime…. twice and with no accounting. Do you think that without Makiya, or if he had urged against that Bush and Cheney would have done a 180 degree turn>

  • Potter

    The last sentence above needed it’s question mark- sorry.

    “the most articulate casualty of his own fantasy”

    This interview brings out philosophical questions perhaps that a person has to answer for himself especially the one about whether to act or not in such a situation if you have some authority (here academic and moral) . Given Makiya’s personal history, empathy, passion, writings, I don’t understand how could he not have been for this opportunity without betraying himself. Another opportunity might not have come for many many years, the next generation/s of tyrant/s were waiting.

    And yet with all the knowledge Makiya had of the history and the situation, being on the outside, he still did not know or could not know, what the cost or outcome of using terrifying force would bring relative to continuing sanctions or doing some “something” “another way”. It was a huge risk and Makiya said so and said it was still worth it. Did he have a right to say so? I personally don’t think he or anyone then or today could or can look further down the road with regard to Iraq to know what this all means. Which is where it ended in this interview ( at times an inquisition).

    Makiya wanted simply, only, above all, to be rid of the long brutal reign of terror, and to give Iraqi’s ( he says) a chance, an opportunity.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

    But to be young was very heaven!”

    Domestic carnage, now filled the whole year

    With feast-days, old men from the chimney-nook,

    The maiden from the busom of her love,

    The mother from the cradle of her babe,

    The warrior from the field – all perished, all –

    Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,

    Head after head, and never heads enough

    For those that bade them fall.

    …’Twas in truth an hour

    Of universal ferment; mildest men

    Were agitated; and commotions, strife

    Of passion and opinion fill’d the walls

    Of peaceful houses with unquiet sounds.

    The soil of common life was at that time

    Too hot to tread upon; oft said I then,

    And not then only, ‘what a mockery this

    Of history; the past and that to come!

    Now do I feel how I have been deceived,

    Reading of Nations and their works, in faith,

    Faith given to vanity and emptiness;

    Oh! laughter for the Page that would reflect

    To future times the face of what now is!’

    All perished, all , Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks, Head after head, and never heads enough For those who bade them fall

    — William Wordsworth

  • Potter

    I do remember the candy and flowers in the center and the south reported the first days. People were out greeting the convoys. I remember the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra playing. I remember thinking that if they could be gathering to play, the spirit was there to make it. That I was thinking despite fearing this shock and awe invasion. I thought I might have to admit that despite the awful price, it was the right thing to do.

    The charge is that Makiya “should have known” at the outset all that we know now, what some say ( including those interviewed in the series here) they feared and intuited all along: how terrifying and destructive the force would be, that cracks would indeed open in Iraqi society and all kinds of forces that held in check by tyranny would burst forth.

    The charge is he should have known the death and destruction it would bring, above all the numbers. He says he did not want that or wish it. What he never says is that he knew it was a possibility. He might not have wanted to allow himself to go there. Too painful. And painful now, no question.

    My question is : Should those who judge the ones who”got it wrong” in academia, in the media, also take into account that forces for war in our administration were unstoppable, that we were lied to, demagogued fearmongered relentlessly after 9/11? That all the screaming against from academia and peace gatherings would not have made ( did not make) one iota of a difference?

  • ghostofdali

    I do think Kanan should be ashamed, it seems to me as though his story is a case study of how a (presumably) well-meaning, intelligent person could be driven to the madness of supporting war. He was used, his passion for improving his destroyed homeland was channelled into further destruction.

    After listening to this interview I indulged in a little hypothetical scenario…this is all just fantasy so don’t take it seriously. Say the US suffers another terrorist attack in the coming year, the president declares a state of emergency, suspends elections, cracks down on dissidents. The rest of the world sees it as the last straw, harsh sanctions are imposed and the multinational corporations all move their operations offshore. The government cracks down even more, people start disappearing, economy crumbles, society stratifies into abject poverty and corrupt tyrants. People like us are driven into exile in other countries, if we escape imprisonment or death. And after more than a generation passes, some more powerful country decides to invade in order to exploit the Uranium resources…would I support that invasion because it would topple the totalitarian regime that drove me from my home, even if it meant being reformed and effectively colonized to suit the needs of the new invading nation? Would the possibility of setting up a new, more just and democratic government here justify the action of war, instigated by a foreign power?

    Tough question, but my answer is no.

    Those “church bells” Kanan heard ringing have been sung about in many old time songs:

    “Did you ever hear those church bells toll?

    Means another poor boy is dead and gone.”

  • Potter

    Hello Ghostofdali- We disagree. When the people, in the first instance, are not strong enough, do not take care about who they allow to govern them, and they allow this to go on and on, do not rise up, are over time suppressed and unable to coalesce to fight a tyranny off, and that tyranny gets worse and more entrenched, it’s “Houston we have a problem”. They are trapped, like in quicksand, and, in the eyes of some at least, need some help from the outside. It’s not like this kind of thing does not happen often and is not happening elsewhere as well. Sometimes a regime does crumble of itself, sometimes it takes incredibly long and in the meantime the world is watching as horrible things go on.

    We see more now. More and more, the world can see and hear what goes on inside borders like never before. And so the impulse to do something.

    This situation just does not happen overnight. It happens gradually. Perhaps too, the people are unwary (uneducated) or at first satisfied enough because they have running water and electricity and access to food. That is, satisfied before it is then limited or taken away to punish and force obedience. People learn to live in a state of terror, with their heads down, to survive.

    Could it happen here? I have been shocked at how easily some of us give our rights away, shocked at how legislators and judges fall into line, how easily we buy a creeping undeclared state of emergency. “After more than a generation” people will forget the way it was in the old days and the textbooks that tell of our origins and the rights we had at one time, will be rewritten.

    Would I support an invasion that would topple an entrenched tyranny? First questions: Would I have ceased believing or would I know of freedom and democracy? Would I want to live under a brutal tyranny- even if I did not have an idea about anything else? Would life be worth living not knowing if masked men were going to come in the middle of the night to take me or my family away for something I might or might not have done or said or on a whim to serve as an example? if I was oppressed for my religion which I deepley believed in?

    The needs of an invading nation that would liberate me might not matter to me. Ideally, if I knew of such things I would prefer a force of some kind ( a United Nations type force) which would insure no single country would benefit. (As it happened, Saddam played the split the international community well.) Or if I were or very religious I would pray for a godly force of some sort to come.


    Kanan Makiya said of his use of the “church bells” allusion, that it was a “poor formulation” ( I think that is a correct quote). I took that to mean he wished he had not said it or expressed his feeling in that way. I took it to mean he was elated, had high hopes at that moment, it was joy to see the tyranny broken. Of course he should not have expressed that. Obviously in that moment he was not thinking of the price in lives. I can’t believe he was overjoyed about the deaths and destruction.

    There were two possible emotions at the time, and they were opposite. It’s unfair to interpret or intimate what he said at the time as elation over the death and destruction. Also he is not a Christian and it may have more depth of meaning for those who are ( I am not Christian either). Church bells ring on all sorts of occasions, joyful and sorrowful right? I take what Makiya said about that in this interview as one of his many regrets not only for it’s misinterpretation. I get that he is not without regret about many things, above all the high cost in lives.

  • Potter

    Regarding the question or charge of treason in the sense of “trahison des clercs”, or treason of the intellectuals, I say it is wrong to suggest Makiya betrayed his vocation as an intellectual. First, he is more than an intellectual, and he is obviously also an artist. Artists are not dispassionate, they are the ones who dream and imagine. Makiya is definitely not dispassionate. His intellect seems to me to be well attached to and balanced with his emotions, admirably and beautifully so. Intellect can work in the service of the heart.

    This heart and mind, it seems, was more Iraqi, more with Iraqi’s than with the US, and what was right for us Americans or even Bush’s own goals/needs. Makiya’s dreams ( fantasy?) of breaking the tyranny coincided with the historical moment. You can say rightly I think “he got it wrong”, as an American; he was not thinking of what was best for us Americans. I suppose we can argue that if it was not right for Americans it could not be right for Iraqi’s. I have not been to that depth.

    What comes through in every Makiya interview I have heard lately are the dualities, the battles with himself. He is open and honest about his struggle – or maybe these inquisitions, these interviews he engages in, are helping him to sort out. The dialogue, inner and outer seem to leave him exhausted (“I am tired” big sighs). But oddly he seems to be winning the battle with himself in the process and each time I am hearing more inner strength and a still very strong basic conviction. He never says he regrets that we went into Iraq. And he is asking you to separate that from what happened after. Blame Iraqi’s he says. (We should be blamed too if we are blaming.)

    So what do we want from him?

    Makiya is a better critic of himself than we are. What’s more his criticisms show learning and have insight.

    “Got it wrong” it seems (especially as per these interviews) refers to whether this all was in the best interest of the US. For Makiya “it” might mean something entirely different. He got his ‘it’ right. He did not betray himself. Makiya singled out the word “it” at the very beginning of this interview.

    Regarding Iraq, we really can’t know whether the “it” was wrong yet. We know the price was and is high and it may be that a high price would have to have been paid no matter what. Sanctions exacted a price already. It may be that the idealists and dreamers were the ones who thought “it” could happen easily, peacefully, no blood “somehow” “another way”. We don’t know. We will never know if what is happening within that society would have happened no matter how or when the tyranny was ended. We don’t know how many more would have died possibly at a slower rate, in the course of events, or through other forced imperfect means. How else could the long tightly held tyranny have been broken? Chris’s suggestions were weak and flawed: “sanctions or some other way”. But at least we agree the brutal tyranny had to go.

    The “should have known” charge has notes of unattractive lording,I have to say, by those who “got it right”. I know I struggled to come to my conclusion against. I did not come to feel what I did so easily by March of 2003. By October of 2002 I “knew” but after Colin Powell, I confess I wavered. I did, in the end, feel the demagoguery everywhere. I did not have the certainty that those who “got it right” instantly had and held strong ostensibly throughout that short period. I hated the argument that we can’t do anything about tyrannies and brutality everywhere which implied we should do nothing anywhere. The means and the moment were my issues. Those who “got it right” could have been wrong as easily or even be called immoral today, hauled before the microphones to justify, had things turned out differently.

    We should be ingesting all the lessons now, I think. That is the most valuable part of this interview for me. Suffice it to say, Makiya did what he had to do at the only moment for it he might ever have had.

    For me, those who have evolved don’t need to be put on the defense or judged.

  • Chris, I discovered only today that you’re back on air. Great. Cheers, Hans Suter

  • bsavvy

    As someone who, living in Jerusalem at the time, was not as opposed to the invasion as I should have been, I confess a certain shame. The nemesis of violence itself is what we failed to understand–no excuse for this after Vietnam.

  • ghostofdali


    Nicely put, I appreciate your response. But you are right, we do disagree. However, I don’t think some of my points came across clearly enough.

    First, I don’t think Kanan was elated about the death and destruction that came from the invasion. You’re perfectly right to say that it would be unfair to categorize it that way. What I was getting at was the point that he was able to suspend that thought, to put aside or ignore (consciously or unconsciously) the hell that is war. The hastiness and zeal that resulted in his “church bells” comment shows that he was so fixated on toppling Saddam that he didn’t even think about the fact that those bombs were dropping on people, many of whom were civilians. This is the point I was trying to make about intellectuals who should know better.

    Second, you’re also on point with the observation that our discussions are one sided in respect to whether the invasion was bad for the US vs bad for Iraq. But I don’t think the invasion and subsequent occupation have been all that good for Iraqis either. For the villages whose entire male population has been rounded up and imprisoned, arguably tortured, and sometimes killed, I have a hard time viewing that as an improvement. When young boys who only want to protect their neighborhoods from insurgents and an invading military are duped into joining militias, only to be sent out on suicide missions or used as cannon fodder, I don’t think that’s an improvement.

    The overall point I was trying to make is that war is hell. It’s the responsibility of intellectuals to know this basic premise, and to silence the war drums with rational and factual knowledge. Kanan was in a unique position, and though he’s right that his being for the invasion was not the cause, and his potential opposition would not have stopped the war, he fed into the propaganda by ignoring the facts. Fact is, people die in war. Lots of innocent people. Also, the hell of war is located over there in Iraq, it is not here in the US, so I can’t possibly see how it could be worse for us than it is for them.

  • Potter

    Ghostofdali- It’s a pleasure to read your thoughtful responses.

    As to your first and last paragraphs above. I agree of course. War is hell. I have to say the closest I have come is watching Ken Burns entire series on WW2. That really affected me. Unless you are fighting or caught up in a war, you can’t know how awful.

    But the fact also is we have always had war when things were blocked for change any other way. Isn’t it the intellectual, the idealist also who imagines ( a la John Lennon) that there would be no war? And we don’t want to stop imagining that. This reality brought us democracy, constitutions, elections, a response to tyranny, a big advancement but no guarantee to end war (as we know). Written into our documents are the rights to revolt. The shock for many of us was that his was for us a “war of choice: not necessity. And we did not, by any means, collectively agree to go into it and to bear the consequences or the responsibilities. We were taken into it.

    Iraq- What do you do then when you are in an entrenched tyranny, a brutal dictatorship with a stranglehold on the people? Saddam’s models were Stalin and Hitler. Now a confidante ( forget his name) is telling of how Saddam purged his population of any possible assassins: he would invent faux plots and his henchmen would recruit for this. Those who volunteered were then murdered.

    My fantasy was that some special forces could penetrate, parachute down into his tight circle and assassinate Saddam and his people. (We are in our own law, prohibited from that…..)

    The church bells comment has lived on beyond the moment. One could ask why. The horrified reaction to it showed no empathy with what Makiya was feeling at all, in fact an opposite feeling maybe extreme guilt, and of course horrification. How do we know whether in the next moment or the moments the “war is hell” thoughts not were very much there for Makiya? For such a feeling person, I doubt they were not there. Why don’t we quote what he has also said about the very high price since? Why do some pick on the church bells comment of that moment? I think it is because there is guilt that this was done in our name as Americans. There is no escape from that. Perhaps that shame/guilt needs someone to offload onto. Blaming Bush/Cheney and their neocons and the congress is too small a circle and is useless and boring after so long. The searchlight has to pan wider. Some of those who “got it right” need to exempt themselves, need to actively disassociate themselves in this way, calling others to account.

    We should all feel bad, whether we got it right or wrong. This can never be a good feeling. Talk to those who fought and survived WW2, the “good war”.

    I admit that I recriminate , but differently- those who promoted and supported Bush/Cheney 2000, 2004 are in my headlights……. Gore never would have lead us into this.

    Obviously I think Makiya is an exception… quite an exception. And he should not be picked on.

    My point was how could we ask him not to want to be rid of Saddam? And beyond the question becomes how? Simply to say war is hell is not an answer.

    And did Makiya go along with the plan to bomb or did he urge it? What was his input prior? Did he know what was planned? What would unfold? Just what was his advice and when?

    So far the invasion has not been so good for Iraqi’s, I agree. We cannot dismiss the cost. The price is enormous. I have to scratch my head and step away because Makiya still will not say we should not have done this for Iraq. He knows of more than I do and he seems certain. No- he can’t think of each precious life lost when he says that… not at the same time. This is the battle I hear. I don’t think he dismisses the horrible price.

  • Potter


    I said “But the fact also is we have always had war when things were blocked for change any other way.”

    I should have said “But the fact also is we have always had war especially when things were blocked for change any other way.

    (We have always had war also for conquest etc…. )

  • Kanan Makiya talks about a just war and the suffering of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, and he candidly points out all the areas where he can be criticized, but as someone who helped sell the war as moral, I would have thought he would take greater responsibility for the death and suffering it has wrought. Chris sure gave him many chances to do so.

    Instead he seems to abstract the results of the war and artificially separate them from his “loftier” goal. I wouldn’t say he is unrepentant, but I’m left with the feeling that some rooms in his intellectual house of cards remain off limits.

  • nother

    This was not an interview with Kanan Makiya, this was a heart to heart with a friend – thank you for letting us be in on it.

    Many people I respect, including my mother, supported this war and the phrase that continually rings in my head is, “the banality of evil” – which I believe lies in the schism between professed convictions and the accountability for those convictions. I call it the oops factor, yea I supported this travesty…oops!

    But to take it a step further, I was flabbergasted that Mr. Makiya had the gall to say, “I don’t think the Bush administration went to war because of what Kanan Makiya said.” That line of reasoning – and it’s shirking of responsibility – is right up there with some of the great lines like, “I was only following orders.” Does everyone who pushed for this fiasco get to use Mr. Makiya’s reasoning? I mean, Paul Wolfowitz can probably say the same thing, we didn’t go to war strictly because of him, and he’s probably right, but does that make him less culpable?

    Mr. Makiya like so many others, blames the execution. He spends energy parsing out the mistakes by the administration and by the Iraqis. Here is my analogy in response: lets say the football coach of the local community college, decided to go for broke and put his whole season on the line against the number one, division 1 team in the country, Ohio State. The game happens and our little team gets blown out 68 to 0, and the dour coach holds a press conference after the game. Listening to Kanan Makiya is like listening to that coach blame his team’s loss on poor pass protection, bad field position, and too many penalties. NO, NO, NO, the reason you lost is because you hubristically played in the first place!

    Yes, Mr. Makiya (a compassionate man, I’m sure) sounds tormented in this conversation, but the torment does not ring of remorse; It comes across to me as a man whose massive intellect can’t dig himself out of an ideological hole. He scrambles and claws for escape, and we hear his cries…but his cries remind me of the very handsome guy who’s devastated that he can’t get the girl he wants…he can’t come to terms with the reality…and the reality is that the suffering under the Hussein reign, pales in comparison to the opportunity costs and ripple effect that continue to swell from our misbegotten war of choice.

  • Potter

    Nother- I don’t think that Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil” ( to quote you from above) “lies in the schism between professed convictions and the accountability for those convictions”.

    Makiya himself gives a proper definition in this interview from 2002:

    Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero

    I am kind of flabbergasted by talk of Makiya being in that category. Do you suppose that Chris would have ended by saying he felt “humble” in the conversation if he truly felt that way? I think this is a a too harsh judgement of Makiya. I am kind of flabbergasted by these judgements. And I was not for this war- as I said.

    Do you think that Bush and Cheney went to war because of what Makiya said or did not say? Would Bush, Cheney and the real neocons all NOT have advocated war if Makiya warned against it? Would they have dismissed Makiya’s advice against because it did not fit in? From all that we know- yes. BTW – do we know what Makiya advised and when?

    I don’t get what Makiya’s “ideological hole” was. He does not profess an ideology that I can detect.

    A heart to heart with a friend would not have been so public an inquisition in places. It would be alot more understanding. I hoped by the end that was what I was hearing. But alas, maybe not.

    Best to you Nother- pardon my agitiation on this matter.

  • Potter

    Makiya does not sound like an Eichmann to me:

    From an October 11th 2006 Radio Free Europe Interview a little over a year ago which is consistent with what he said in this OS interview with CL.

    RFE/RL: You were supportive of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Do you still feel that you were right, looking back now after three and a half years?

    Makiya: I, like many others, made many mistakes of evaluation, of judgment. But I don’t know how to look anybody in the face today and say that because things have gone wrong since the liberation, that it was therefore wrong to get rid of an extraordinary tyranny like [the one] we suffered under in Iraq. An exceptional tyranny, even by the terrible standards of the Middle East. It seems to me these are two separate questions, morally speaking. Not politically; I’m not speaking realpolitik.

    I’m sure today, not a day passes that many members of the American administration do not rue the day that they ever supported this activity of getting rid of the tyrant and replacing [him with] a new order. They certainly regret it, because it has not been in American interests, by and large.

    But I, as an Iraqi, from the point of view of someone for whom that dictatorship and its abuses over 30 years have been the be-all and end-all of my life — I have seen what they have done — I cannot ever say that it was wrong to support the overthrow of that dictatorship. And I challenge any human being to say to me that that was wrong.

    You can say many, many other things are wrong. Policies that were followed afterwards were wrong. Approaches to government were wrong. Choices of individuals were wrong, yes. All of those are real, legitimate concerns. The lack of planning was serious. Iraqi failure to deal with their own divisions. The tendency of Iraqi politicians to foster sectarian divisions rather than to overcome them. Yes, all of these are errors — or, worse than errors, they’re terrible things that have happened since that have led this experiment, this project, to go in the direction that it is going now, which is very sad.

    But it’s also a bit as if, if I may make an analogy, the war lifted the lid off of Pandora’s box. Remember the Greek [myth] of Pandora’s box: full of furies, and the lid which kept it forced down. Sooner or later, these furies were going to come out. Iraq was a dysfunctional state before the fall of Saddam Hussein. If we learned anything, it is that the institutions that Saddam built were rotting because of sanctions. An alternative to sanctions had to be found.

    It is very sad for me that Europe, which is a bastion of so many of the highest ideals to which I aspire, sat back and was happy to let the Iraqi people live under that inhuman regime of sanctions, which were killing people in vast numbers. And [Europe] allowed this situation of abuse and tyranny of the regime to continue, and did not think it morally necessary — forget practically, maybe it’s not practical — to get rid of that kind of institutionalized abuse on that kind of scale.

    Now, the United States chose to act, for whatever reason. From my point of view as an Iraqi, that decision was a thousand times better, morally speaking, than the inaction of the Europeans. The complicity of so many people in the United Nations, for instance, with the former regime. We now know so much about that because of documents that were discovered inside Iraq after the fall of the regime. …

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Really an interesting thread going here, thanks to sidewalker, nother, and potter for the last few comments and info. I am quite uncertain about this whole situation; probably due to my admittedly shallow worldly wisdoms on such deep matters. This looks to be one aspect of a core problem for humanity at large, in my estimation.

    I’ve not dug around much in trying to find out the following, but I suppose I’d like hear from Mr. Makiya an answer to the following: Did you ever consider the potential that the remedy you were seeking could cause the sorts of problems now seen in Iraq? Did you ever consider that the remedy has potential to unleash forces which may match or exceed the depraved activities of the Hussein regime? Given the potential for the excesses in violence occurring now and over the last four years and showing no end in the near future, how would you want others to measure your role in this matter? Would it be fair to use the same measure as you measured the Hussein regime and those that acted on those policies and help to craft those policies? Or, is it a matter of motive that counts in judging this matter and not the outcomes of loss of irretrievable treasure, such as, human life, human dignity, human potential. What of the lost generation of children? The refugees? How would Mr. Makiya measure an active participant who assisted in some fractional measure in such outcomes? Is motive the difference for outcomes of pain, suffering, and loss of life? I am willing to listen.

    More generally, how do we create a sensible approach to risk management? Much of foreign policy requires risk management. It is critical our leadership not be adversed to taking risks. Doing nothing is as likely to create the scenarios of nasty effects as military action. Though, non-military risks are the preferred option for me because of the impersonal carnage done to innocent people who have little stake in the matter at hand, and military risks and tactics tend to narrow the available number and type of options and create unintended problems that were: not there, there but latent, there but at cultural fringes with no traction for wider acceptance within the population at-large.

    My hobby horse, how do we hold people accountable, yet acknowledge that mistakes will be made in policy matters, hence create a quasi-safe-zone for people to acknowledge their errors in judgment? Can people learn from these mistakes and gain wisdom that would be helpful strategically and tactically going forward? Personally, I view human capital with an eye towards salvage-ability regardless of historical missteps, unless it is quite apparent that the lessons have not been learned and there is a high probability that they will never be learned and thus repeated. Or the errors have been too high in human suffering, so no do-overs allowed.

    Which leads to my last question: Are some mistakes so monumental, so craven, so extreme in causes of human and environmental suffering that there cannot be any reconciliation or rehabilitation? The only logical recourse is the classic methodology of an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth for balancing of the moral/ethical books?

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • OliverCranglesParrot

    I would like to add a corollary to the following: Did you ever consider that the remedy has potential to unleash forces which may match or exceed the depraved activities of the Hussein regime? If some back-of-the-envelope WAG has been made by Mr. Makiya about the potential for this outcome, I am curious as to what he thinks regarding how he and others who have some degree of culpability should be held accountable, if and when this point is reached? Moreover, what would he want to say at that point? I would not rule out a posthumous contingency here, as they can provide some guidance and meaning in one’s absence. For this point may in fact be reached, but not within Mr. Makiya lifespan. Given the integrity from what I heard here with Chris, I do believe it is reasonable to ask him these questions and that he has perhaps given some substantial consideration to this contingency.

    Our ability to deal with the current foreign policy situation, and its implications within the home front, may be one positive outcome in the current situation. It would be a missed opportunity to not come to terms with how we choose to decide to treat each other in the wake of such critical matters, even as they continue to develop. This can provide some guidance and expectations for the future people who will undoubtedly have to tangle with serious, grave, critical matters. History may judge this episode with some severity, or perhaps as a series of wise choices, but it would be foolish not to try to salvage something out of it, or improve upon it to help the future make better choices. The world is not only larger than our individual space, but it is larger than our own epoch.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    In other words it is, according to Kanan Makiya, “Paul Bremmer’s fault” – that the right kind of leadership in Iraq was not available, in spite of the fact that Bremmer had thousands of people to chose from. My bad – I didn’t realize the gene pool was so weak there. When something doesn’t go the way you think it should, blame a Jew. That’s the spirit. And then Makiya follows that with “An Iraqi failure, our failure”. Which is it? Was it Bremmer or the people in Iraq? I guess this is what David Horowitz meant by asking in Unholy Alliance “How could progressives who claim to abhor religious fundamentalism, to support democracy and women’s rights, and to oppose imperialism find the terrorist, misogynist, and expansionist state of Saddam Hussein less culpable than the democracy they live in”?, P.41. The far left always scrutinizes the past tense as if it were the present tense, so they can look at and say “see, see, look how we failed – I told you we would fail – I even predicted it”. What pathetic self loathing treasonous cowards. People who complain incessantly about life never truly live it. The future belongs to those intrepid souls who are willing to pave the road to success, who are willing to make sacrifices along the way, and leave the world in better condition than they found it. That means fighting those people and ideologies that crush the human spirit and potential. If America were not a force for good in the world, we would be controlling everything and everyone by now. And those who truly understand what we are capable of know that that is a true statement.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    OliverCranglesParrot said “History may judge this episode with some severity, or perhaps as a series of wise choices, but it would be foolish not to try to salvage something out of it, or improve upon it to help the future make better choices. The world is not only larger than our individual space, but it is larger than our own epoch”.

    Very well said, and very sophisticated. I would like to use this quote as a jumping off point to illustrate the idea that if something doesn’t work out in the long run, that does not “therefore” mean that it was “a mistake” in the first place. Association does not prove cause and effect.

    As we analyze Iraq and our relationship to it, we witness a sort of prism, a “looking glass” if you will, through which the nature of time itself changes. Like Einstein said “Time is relative”. And if we can agree on this, we can understand how different people perceive events ‘differently’.

  • nother

    Here was my weak stab at writing a poem about all these people who were for this war – and now I’m not so sure what they’re for. I wrote this on the Banality of Evil thread:


    Don’t waste time looking back right? We are where we are and we have to deal with it.

    Gross mistakes have been made but lets move on, our very survival depends on it.

    It’s interesting that that stratagy works out so well for you.

    It is a dilemma I deal with for sure – rehash the past, confront the demons, risk ruining the present, disrupting the future.

    You trump me with you compassion.

    Do you feel my forced silence?

    As the rug bubbles up and the threads stretch thin, I ask questions quickly, quietly, not at all.

    In my hung over haze I wonder what I’m after, consequences, repercussions, accountability, guilt, apologies, self congratulations, lessons learned, redemption…

    I want you to want to tell me the answer.

    You have moved on to another question

    Don’t let me let you do this

  • Potter

    (FYI-I have not read beyond 11/15 yet)

    OCP- You put a lot on the plate for Mr. Makiya in your posts of November 15th. If I may attempt to answer from what I have heard listening to him:

    To the question of whether Makiya considered that a remedy might have unleashed worse forces than keeping the Hussein regime I have heard him taking measure recently and he worried that the numbers might perhaps be creeping towards those levels. ( Do we even have the numbers to compare?). Lives are a very important measure for him and of course this weigh on every feeling person. It seems that he thought that keeping the regime in place, one that would outlive Saddam- in his mid 60’s when we undertook this- was the higher risk in terms of potential lost lives. To be sure our presence is responsible for many deaths. I don’t know how you can separate out those deaths from the sectarian violence that is the result of many years of oppression and a change in the ruling class. I don’t think such “calculations” are the sole driving force. Quality of life matters. Those who lived in the Warsaw ghetto or the concentration camps- to use an extreme example, would have gladly given their lives to die seeing US warplanes above dropping bombs. But it’s also true we have no right to assume that or make those decisions that others should give their lives for that. It’s a moral dilemma whether ( or how) to act on behalf of those who cannot act for themselves.

    I would like to hear Samantha Power’s thinking on this.

    Also, I assume, there are some things you just can’t know from the outside of a tightly held tyrannical regime until you are already there. The unleashed forces, had they been better managed, might have been contained. Maybe they would have burst forth later because those cracks were so deep. The religious ones go back centuries.

    I don’t think that Makiya is trying to sidestep responsibility. Nor do I feel he is wrong or unjustified in asking us to split this into two parts:

    a)removing the regime ( including the means and the moment) and b) how to manage beyond that, to contain any forces that had been building and rebuild Iraq as one country.

    To the part a) for many it was a “no-brainer”. For me it was always, as I said, a matter of means and moment. I thought that Afghanistan was quite enough for us to deal with- horrified as I was at what was happening to innocent Afghani’s: the dead, the displaced. I thought Iraq should have been on the collective world’s screen ( the UN is so inadequate, ALAS). That it was pushed to the top of our “to-do” list by the Bush administration at that particular moment, connecting it to 9/11, and misrepresented, oversold as an imminent threat to us by BushCheneyRumsfeldRice &neocons and their grand scheme, and supported in the Congress ( some thinking we were playing bad cop to Europe’s good cop as Saddam was playing both ends), to me that was THE monumental craven act. Those in charge starting at the top, have not been held accountable!!! Those who have not held those accountable are themselves accountable!!! All else is footnotes for me. All this “got it right” “got it wrong” is footnotes and, in a way, diversion.

    But this is a nice philosophical discussion.

    To the question given the potential for ongoing excesses in violence that “show no end”- that’s Makiya’s part “b”. The answer from Makiya I believe would be (is) Iraqi’s are in a civil war now. They have to decide whether to be a country, and if so how to organize themselves as such. It took the US awhile so 4 years does not seem long by that standard. Could those forces have been contained or averted even with the wisest foreign intervention? I personally do not think so given the cruelty of Saddam’s regime and previous history, including colonial. It’s too much to ask so many to forgive and forget years of injustice and repression of such a large part of the population. (It is also true that Saddam’s regime was not all bad for those who cooperated with the regime.)

    The best shot would have been a perfect and immediate reconstruction with oil revenues flowing in. I question Bush’s initial motives. I think he was craven in his use of Makiya’s humanitarian concerns to promote his own agenda/s. So in a way the insurgency has prevented a lot: ie our corporations from coming in wholesale and taking over even more.

    Should Makiya have known that those internal forces had been building.? Did he? Yes and probably, I would say. He also said and says that he still thought that Saddam had to be removed. To wait it out was worse.

    So regarding the lost lives, orphaned children, the refugees, old and young, and add newly created militant jihadists, that are the result- how do we, in our anger, divide up the responsibility for that? How far back and how wide do we go in assessing responsibility? Do we lay it all on Makiya? Do we focus on Makiya because he’s easier to get to an interview than Dick Cheney? The Kagans? Kristol? Perle? Firth? Wolfowitz? Bernard Lewis? Daniel Pipes?

    Do we do this because we are angry, do not want to accept responsibility ourselves? As Americans, this was in our name. Many of us we never acceded to this action in the first place and want us out right now. We are now angry at both Republicans and Democrats because there is no movement, ”no end in sight”.

    Another question that should be asked: Would those who would reverse time and have had us do nothing at all ( voiced as “some something”, or “continued sanctions”- flawed as they are ) be prepared to accept responsibility for those ongoing consequences?

    In 10-15 years what will things looks like now that “we” ( collectively) have taken this path? Will we be talking about “blame”? or will the US be taking credit also for setting things in motion, some of which may turn out good? Whatever- we will be paying for the negatives of this for many years to come and this administration will never escape the judgment that it took us to war (WAR!) precipitously, prepared to deal only the best case scenarios (!!!) informed by cherry- picked intelligence(!!!). They will never escape having mislead us, abused the trust of all those necessary to undertake such an adventure, including of the Congress, the media, an the American people. And we let them.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Thanks potter and gvb for your responses and comment.

    My intent here was not merely based upon hope, but the intent is one of hope and optimism. That Mr. Makiya might ruminate on these matters in a form that may help future people who will live through similar circumstances. It seems completely inappropriate to single out one human being for a very complex set of circumstances. I don’t think it’s appropriate, nor necessary, nor sufficient, for him to publicly brood upon this matter in such a way as to implicate or indict himself to assuage his guilt or provide a means to assuage our culpability through a cathartic means. This is neither productive in solving the current crisis, nor helpful in addressing the problem of the future, for I think it reasonable and plausible that there will be times and places out on the horizon for which people will have to grapple in exile with a tyranny that grows forth within the physical geography of their homeland, their place of birth.

    Mr. Makiya’s coming to terms with his experience and his role in this matter, the good and the bad, the warts and the angelic wings and halos, and those of others who have played a role in this matter, could provide wise counsel for future human beings, to assist them in finding their way through treacherous territory. As an example of this, I highly recommend If the War Goes On … reflections on war and politics by Hermann Hesse. I also highly recommend viewing the movie Bonhoeffer Both of these works give expression to understanding how people grappled with the situation of living through their country of origin falling into totalitarian rule with its attendant behavior as a collective perpetrator of mass murder and carnage, some the most horrific collective, criminal activity experienced by any human beings. This is not merely my judgment, this has thus far been history’s judgment, and history’s advice and counsel on these matters is very clear and unequivocal: we should never engage upon such activities again. I also recommend a viewing of Francisco de Goya’s works known as his Black Paintings and The Disasters of War and the book Goya by Robert Hughes, for it addresses one human being’s reaction to the mass carnage of insurgency and counter-insurgency and the complications of personal feelings and insights within the same context. I believe Mr. Mailer stated (approximately): If one cannot change the world, then one should at least try to understand it. These works have given me solace and understanding, and provide the potential for creating a space for grace, within my own context and epoch. Alas, we all drink from these waters at the place in the river that make sense for ourselves; my only wish is for all to find such a place to drink and to find the seat of their very personal conscience

    If the thread would be so generous, and indulge me, I will leave off with an excerpt from Herman Hesse’s Forward to the 1946 Edition of If the War Goes On:

    When I call my articles “political,” it is always in quotes, for there is nothing political about them but the atmosphere in which they came into being. In all other respects they are the opposite of political, because in each one of these essays I strive to guide the reader not into the world theater with its political problems but into his innermost being, before the judgment seat of his very personal conscience. In this I am at odds with the political thinkers of all trends, and I shall always, incorrigibly, recognize in man, in the individual man and his soul, the existence of realms to which political impulses and forms do not extend. I am an individualist and I regard the Christian veneration for every human soul as what is best and most holy in Christianity. It may be that in this I partake of a world that is already half extinct, that we are witnessing the emergence of a collective man without individual soul, who will do away with the entire religious and individualistic tradition of mankind. To desire or fear such an eventuality is not my concern. I have always been impelled to serve the gods whom I felt to be living and helpful, and I have tried to do so even when I was certain to be answered with hostility or laughter. The path I was obliged to take between the demands of the world and those of my own soul was not pleasant or easy, I hope I shall not have to travel it again, for it ends in grief and bitter disappointments. But I can say without regret that since my first awakening I have not, like most of my colleagues and critics, been capable of learning a new lesson and rallying to a different flag every few years.

    Since m first awakening thirty years ago my moral reaction to every great political event has always arisen instinctively and without effort on my part. My judgments have never wavered. Since I am an utterly unpolitical man, I myself have been astonished at the reliability of my reactions, and I have often pondered about the sources of this moral instinct, about the teachers and guides who, despite my lack of systematic concern with politics, so molded me that I have always been sure of my judgment and offered a more than average resistance to mass psychoses and psychological infections of every kind.

  • Potter

    Thank you OCP for your thoughtfulness and the inspiration to check on Goya by Robert Hughes ( Goya’s enormous works we saw at the Prado in Madrid incidentally and there was a show at the MFA here as well a few years back. ) As well Bonhoffer ( Chris Lydon did a whole show on him prior to ROS- perhaps he will share it again). And for the Hesse quote.

    What agitates and prompts me here is in fact that I think it’s inappropriate and unfair to single out Makiya because he is here and becuase he is particularly open and vulnerable. I don’t feel he should be ashamed of himself either. I realize, after reading and listening, that there is this need for some others to say that to him- “you got it wrong!”

    I think it’s misplaced anger about what path this country has taken.

    I have less of a problem with Makiya openly brooding or meditating on his role and criticizing other’s roles, and assessing how he sees things past present future. His ruminations, insights could only be about just what you suggest- mistakes made, lessons learned. But goodness knows if those in a similar situation in the future would ever consult his (future) book on it or take heed. As was suggested everyone comes to their present moment with their own angle of vision.

    I would have to add to your recommendationa, because it’s so present with me, and because I feel it SO powerful, Ken Burn’s entire series “The War”.

    What is amazing to me is that the lessons learned through these attempts at transmission about war and what war brings and are not necessarily the lessons that you would expect- that we should never engage in these activities again. For some it’s that we should be ever more vigilent, ever more prepared, ever stronger etc. They take us with them.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Thank you Potter for the response. You’re making very good points here. I will check out the Ken Burn’s series which sounds very interesting. I’ve enjoyed other work that he’s done. Tangentially, it has been a dream of mine for some time to get over to the Prado. I’ve come close, but still a dream at the moment.

  • Great questions OCP. I’d like to here Kanan Makiya’s response to even a few.

    The main point of Kanan Makiya’s thesis, as it stands at present, is that the biggest mistakes were made by Iraq’s new leaders. I’d like to know more about this. I wonder if, once the Iraqi military was sent home under the policy of Presto! democracy and Saddam’s oppression was replaced by a mix of too little neighbourhood security in some areas and too much bombing, torture and unrestrained occupation in others, it was ever going to be possible for the often changing leadership to work. Can they even leave the Green Zone? Also, just how much freedom have they had to form their own constitution and run their own affairs? For example, would the Iraqi administration actually be able to oppose the privatization of the country’s oil resources?

    This is not to dismiss responsibility, but to insist the blame lies mainly with the Iraqi leadership seems another diversion from personal responsibility or an effort to keep favour with the masters.

    After listening to the other shows in this series, where IR scholars lay out their reasons for not going to war, I just can’t see why you let Makiya off so easily, Potter. By contrast, his reasoning (or was it emotionally driven intellectualism) seems naive at best and indulgent or retaliatory at worst.

    Will humans ever stop dressing up acts of violence in cloaks of morality and justice?

  • Bobby

    I’ve listened to the interview a few times now, and I’m reminded of a particular scene in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Those who have read it may recall when Bishop Myriel – the bishop responsible for ‘saving’ Jean Valjean – visits with a man who had been a “Member of the Convention”, the group responsible for killing King Louise XVI, Reign of Terror, etc. with the hope of establishing a Republic. I’ve thought about that scene for a couple reasons: (1) In the book, the Bishop questions the man’s culpability – just as Chris does with Makiya –regarding the removal of an oppressive government along with the fallout that ensued. (2) Whether that fallout justifies the desired outcome. I copied part of that scene below and divided it into two parts: The first part is the man’s reply to the Bishop regarding his culpability. The second part is his reply regarding whether or not it was worth it.

    Whether he was or was not culpable:

    “Bishop,” said he, with a slowness which probably arose more from his dignity of soul than from the failing of his strength, “I have passed my life in meditation, study, and contemplation. I was sixty years of age when my country called me and commanded me to concern myself with its affairs. I obeyed. Abuses existed, I combated them; tyrannies existed, I destroyed them; rights and principles existed, I proclaimed and confessed them. Our territory was invaded, I defended it;… I have succored the oppressed, I have comforted the suffering. I tore the cloth from the altar, it is true; but it was to bind up the wounds of my country. I have always upheld the march forward of the human race, forward towards the light, and I have sometimes resisted progress without pity… I have done my duty according to my powers, and all the good that I was able. After which, I was hunted down, pursued, persecuted, blackened, jeered at, scorned, cursed, proscribed. For many years past, I with my white hair have been conscious that many people think they have the right to despise me; to the poor ignorant masses I present the visage of one damned. And I accept this isolation of hatred, without hating any one myself. Now I am eighty-six years old; I am on the point of death. What is it that you have come to ask of me?”

    Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (Isabel F. Hapgood translation)

    Did the end justify the means

    “I did not think that I had the right to kill a man; but I felt it my duty to exterminate evil. I voted the end of the tyrant, that is to say, the end of prostitution for woman, the end of slavery for man, the end of night for the child. In voting for the Republic, I voted for that. I voted for fraternity, concord, the dawn. I have aided in the overthrow of prejudices and errors. The crumbling away of prejudices and errors causes light. We have caused the fall of the old world, and the old world, that vase of miseries, has become, through its upsetting upon the human race, an urn of joy.”

    “Mixed joy,” said the Bishop.

    “You may say troubled joy, and to-day, after that fatal return of the past, which is called 1814, joy which has disappeared! Alas! The work was incomplete, I admit: we demolished the ancient regime in deeds; we were not able to suppress it entirely in ideas. To destroy abuses is not sufficient; customs must be modified. The mill is there no longer; the wind is still there.”

    Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (Isabel F. Hapgood translation)

    Anyway, I thought there was some interesting parallels between Chris’s interview with Makiya, and the Bishop’s ‘interview’ with the former “Member of the Convention”. I also want to say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. I’ve found it informative.

    To OCP,

    Thanks for the links to those pictures/paintings of Goya. I lived in Madrid for 6 years, so had the pleasure of standing in front of some of his works, in particular his “The Third of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid”. A painting that speaks to some of the events we’ve been discussing. Anyway, I hope your wish comes true, and that you, too, can visit the Prado and see them for yourself. I’ll be expecting a full report 🙂

  • Potter

    Bobby- thank you for that.

    Sidewalker: After listening to the other shows in this series, where IR scholars lay out their reasons for not going to war, I just can’t see why you let Makiya off so easily, Potter. By contrast, his reasoning (or was it emotionally driven intellectualism) seems naive at best and indulgent or retaliatory at worst.

    Will humans ever stop dressing up acts of violence in cloaks of morality and justice?

    Particularly to the last sentence- read Bobby’s above. I am sorry that I have not communicated well enough. I think sometimes an act of violence is an act of morality and justice in this real world that we all live in. This is not to say that you are right that this is what I am doing here. Without going over what I wrote months ago I will say simply that Makiya took the only position that he felt was right for him to take and because I feel that he is a very moral person, I respect that position as a moral position. Every other person interviewed in this “got it right” “got it wrong” series ( and notice the imbalance) had an entirely different circumstance and allegiance.

    I may be writing this too late for you to ever read Sidewalker but I would be interested in your response or a discussion along those lines.

    (Good to hear from you!)