Kanan Makiya, Iraqi War Witness

kananI genuinely, truly, from the absolute bottom of my heart, think 25 million people now have a chance when they didn’t have it before. … Have you considered the million and a half or so Iraqis proven by all sorts of human rights organizations to have died violently by one form or another of aggression by this regime? … There is a calculus of pain here that you have to introduce into the equation…

Kanan Makiya, 6/22/05 on Open Source
Kanan Makiya is a war witness in Iraq like none other. A rebel child of an eminent Iraqi architect, Kanan Makiya exiled himself to MIT in the late 1960s as Saddam Hussein and the Ba’th Party took merciless power in Baghdad. But the Iraq he’d left in the dust obsessed him more and more. In the late 1980s, shielding himself with a pen name, he wrote the book that—before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait—woke the world to the barbaric cruelty of Saddam’s “Republic of Fear.??? After 9.11 in 2001, Kanan Makiya was out front in his own name in favor of the American assault on Iraq. By then he was a human rights campaigner who’d embraced war as a cure for tyranny. And today he lives between Baghdad and Boston with the confounding consequences for Iraqis, for the rest of the Middle East, for Americans who hear we should double our forces, or perhaps head for the first exit. At the bombed-out crossroads of human rights and war, Kanan Makiya is next.

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  • Potter

    I would like to know from Kanan Makiya, as an American, how he feels about how Bush went about getting us into this involvement, this regime change, in Iraq.

  • shpilk

    It’s pretty obvious that Makiya’s interests are primarily concerned with getting rid of Sadaam .. and he is not easily deflected from his view.

    The question is ::::

    Was the action of the Bush Administration the ONLY action available?

  • shpilk

    Chris needs to challenge the black and whiting being present as ‘facts’ by Makiya .. there is a whole universe of actions that could have been taken.

  • Potter

    Kanan, I don’t defend the old order either, as Chris seemed to want to say. I don’t think change was not necessary in our foreign policy. I abhor the way Bush went about this entirely however.

  • shpilk

    All sorts of conclusions are being drawn by Makiya, which are being based on a very distorted world view.

    If we are justified to attack Iraq, then why not Iran, why not N Korea, why not Cuba?

    The US is NOT the world’s policeman, sorry.

  • Lineaweaver

    I continue to be astounded that no one points out that the alternative to military action, namely unified international pressure, had already worked.

    The UN weapons inspections, despite Saddam’s efforts to confound them, had, in fact, been a howling success – the chemical and biological weapons and the nuclear weapons programs that the world knew he had possessed prior to the first Gulf war were nowhere to be found, in even insignificant amounts, post-invasion. Saddam had already been made impotent by persistent UN pressure and was in a prime state to have been toppled from within by the Iraqui opposition, with, of course, clandestine external support. I will always maintain that the war was utterly unnecessary.

  • God bless Kanan Makiya. He is a saint and his conscience serves us well. He sees beyond the rabid Bush hate and exposes the litter of carping pseudo democrats who claim to fight for the little guy. (Yes there was a time, as Christopher Hitchens reminds us when honest progressives stood in solidarity with the oppressed. The 2004 campaign with its allusions to firehouses in Baghdad scuttled such hope that leftists could choose the right side.) It is a pity.

    Mr. Makiya is the type of person, the exiled Iraqi democrat, who has been forgotten about in this debate, foresaken by the pious. Thank you for choosing sides Kanan.

    Upon hearing him, I dream of Kanan answering and looking into the eye of misguided moralists, the archbishop of cantebury comes to mind and other “anti-war” apologists for the Baathists who continue to this day kill.

    But more important for those of us who support this war (call us neo-cons, call us Zionists, call us any eptitaph that please the Dick Durbins of the world) Kanan exposes the pieties (or to irrelevantly borrow from Chris) the impetiies of those who show excessive faith in the United Nations, the corrupt enterprise on Turtle Bay. The massive archival journey Kanan will lead unearthing the links between Saddam and his enablers on the 38th floor of the UN is most welcome. Sanctions were a running joke and Bush called their bluff. What is emerging in the middle east is the product of Bush’s push for democracy.

    Keep up the fight Kanan! And thank you Chris for an excellent interview. Although I think you wrong on this issue and a bit coy in raising Ronald Reagan’s name you served us well keeping Open Source open to a forgotten perspective. You sought to establish a link in spirit with Kanan and you may not know it but I think you succeeded.




  • none

    Dear Chris and everyone else

    Why the kid gloves with Kenan? He’s a wonderful writer but also one of the worst kind of romantics. Does he really believe his Mr. Chalabi, an international embezzler and a laughing stock in the Middle East (he left Jordan in the trunk of a car to avoid arrest) was going to lead Iraq to democracy? Does he really believe that in 1998 “we knew” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? For someone now concerned with historical facts, he should read up on UNSCOM and other reports: Iraq’s nuclear capability, never great, was dismantled in 1995; its chemical weapons capabilit was destroyed about the same time, and its biological weapons effort, crude at best, was also destroyed by the Iraqis, under UN supervision. Although he has always taken the moral high ground, he ignores the deaths of thousands, including civilians, in the course of the 2003 invasion. So some innocent lives are expendable for the greater good. Which lives might those be, one might ask him. In addition, US policy towards Iraq has been corrupt at least since the Iran-Iraq war. In the relatively short discussion time no demand was made of Kenan to reflect on that history, which included a defense of Saddam Hussein before the UN against charges of gassing Kurds in 1988 and 1989. Cheney, Rumsfeld, the elder Bush were all party to this. Strange bedfellows indeed. Makiya uses morality to justify a political position that is otherwise too weak to sustain. What we found out in invading Iraq is that Saddam had no army to speak of, that he was about as powerful as the Wizard of Oz. One could have imagined serving him up to the International Criminal Court, had the pressure from the UN been prolonged. I can understand why Kenan Makiya was upset leaving the studio. Too much reality.

    Jeanne Guillemin

  • Potter

    Kanan Makiya, whose love of his country and whose integrity could not be in doubt, said that the war on Iraq would not have happened without 9/11. His purpose and Bush’s purpose (however you construe that) intersected at this opportunity. Both were impatient and the means were justified.

    We here were whipped into fears about nuclear terrorism. We were baited and switched, dragged along with lies and deception We had no honest discussion about what we might be in for and what the cost might be, not from this administration anyway. Polls were against this. But we were given only the rosy outcome,

    And then all the killling came- of their innocents, we do not even know how many.

    I am sorry that Kanan Makiya left the studio disappointed and upset. I think he understands the price we are paying and the price that is being paid by his people and maybe it hurts to hear about that.

    But I do hope he comes back.

  • Jon

    The discussions on-air and also in the blog this week represent a very high level of thought on the part of the guests, Chris & staff, and those participating in response. I am truly impressed by what Open Source has achieved in such a short time. This is extremely high quality radio, and you should be very proud of what you are accomplishing. I only hope that Chris was wrong indeed when he reassured a nervous caller that no one listens to this show anyway…

  • Chris

    Yo, Jon: What I told the caller was “nobody gets hurt on Open Source,” not what you must have taken as “nobody gets heard…” Sorry about that.

  • Jon

    Chris, what an amazing phonetic double entendre! I can’t stop laughing, now that you’ve sleuthed this obvious mis-hearing. In any event, high praise for your show is the central issue here, and of course I did always know that your guests are getting heard by a number of people–hopefully an ever-growing number. Keep up the great work.

  • RDC

    I can appreciate Professor Makiya’s disappointment with both the on air and Blog participants missing the forest by focusing on only a few of the “trees” that his critics prefer to advance as useful data.

    Based on his comments on the June 22nd Open Source program, however, my guess is that he has more than enough intelligence, self-confidence and good humor to persevere in the face of many years of scorn by those less endowed with these same personal assets.

    The content of any personal response to his views probably depends most on how much the responder values individual freedom and abhors restraint and servitude, not just when servitude affects themselves, but when it affects anyone living in any of the 193 independent countries on this planet.

    Anyone living in freedom and commenting on policy issues anywhere in the world should try to understand the quality of life implications of the famous quote by Alexis de Tocqeville:

    “Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

    Those forced to live in servitude already understand the implications.

  • This is what I would have asked:

    The premise is that we should spread democracy, specifically by invading nondemocratic countries with leaders who are kleptocratic sociopaths. Sadly, the world is littered with kleptocratic regimes that simply loot the national treasury; even worse, many of these regimes are headed by groups of sociopaths who kill and torture for fun.

    OK. But even America can’t invade them all. Given that, why Iraq — instead of the Congo, Burma, Sudan, North Korea, or any number of other horrible totalitarian regimes?

    The answer I’m hearing — is that if we don’t people from those countries will burn our cities.

    Ah. I see. So, one neighbor firebombs my car — but if I don’t give him my wallet and one of my kids he’ll burn down my house. Much clearer now.

    And what do you say to the Congolese and the Burmese and the millions of others? Oh, Sorry, we’ve used up the Americans; you’re on your own. In fact, America has spent so much it now looks like Argentina and can’t help anybody, sorry to say.

  • KenLac

    Something has popped up today that may point towards why the show couldn’t bridge the gap between American and Iraqi perspective:

    CHARLEY REESE: “I cannot think of any instance in which the federal government has been willing to spend $1 billion a week and 1,700 lives just to improve conditions in any one of the 50 states. Yet that is exactly what it is doing in Iraq, presumably for no other reason than to bring the blessings of liberty to a people we have bombed, starved, impoverished and vilified for 14 years.”

    (http://www.antiwar.com/reese/?articleid=6434) — (Yes, I’m aware it’s not a neutral source…)

    Makiya apparently cannot see this war though anything but an Iraqi lens. Callers apparently could not get past the American glass — both have good reasons, but that points to the gap being unbridgable for the time being.

    Mr. Makiya, you must understand: we were not sold this war as a war of liberation. We were sold this war as something that was vital to _our_ security. And the cost was vastly underquoted. I am happy your people have a chance. I am not happy at the cost _we_ have to bear for it.

  • Chris Williams

    I agree with Kenlac, and going a bit further, we weren’t even sold on the idea that Saddam would be removed– the official line was, Saddam will disarm or face serious consequences. But I don’t think Mr. Makiya should be disappointed with the results of the show. I found it very humbling to listen, because I have so seldom been asked to consider this from an Iraqi perspective. Listening to Kanan I feel ashamed, as a progressive, that I haven’t championed the cause of the Iraqis, but I don’t think progressives and liberals hold an automatic claim to the moral high ground as champions of human rights, and we certainly don’t hold a monopoly on it. It has been odd to hear American conservatives talk about freedom and democracy, while accusing American liberals of wanting Saddam to stay in power. But I’ve never taken those words to heart, because I never believed that the speakers were genuinely concerned about Iraqis. That’s why it makes all the difference to me to hear it from Kanan.

    Conservative or liberal, very few Americans have any claim whatsover to the moral high ground here, because this was always about us first, and Iraqis last. It was about protecting us from WMD, it was about Saddam giving weapons to Al Qaeda, it was about stability in the Middle East, it was about the symbolic importance of standing up to tyranny, it was about Saddam, Saddam, Saddam. The Iraqis were most often mentioned as props to illustrate Saddams’ evil– he gassed them, he tortured them. Only after all of that, was it about freedom and security and the hope for a decent life for the people in Iraq. And even then, it first about whether Bush was lying, or whether he could be trusted to do the job, or whether it was traitorous to question or oppose the president. And when Bush changed his tune and played up freedom and democracy, conservatives backed him and I, like many other progressives I’m sure, dismissed him because I didn’t trust him.

    So thank you, Chris Lydon and thank you, Kanan, for letting us hear from a trustworthy messenger on the question of war. The Downing Street memo suddenly seems a lot less important to me this week.

    On Kanan’s question to the caller about what he would have done instead, I would have supported a UN-sanctioned military action to remove Saddam, IF we found weapons that Saddam refused to destroy. One of the posters I carried at anti-war protests said, “No Proof? No War!” And if Bush had allowed the UN to continue inspections, we would have found that Saddam basically had no weapons of mass destruction. I agree that sanctions were a trap– they contained Saddam, but at too high a cost in suffering for Iraqis. I feel that even if Saddam did have WMD, the threat he presented to the world was greatly exaggerated. So at that point– at any point actually– I would have supported lifting the sanctions, and instead pursuing criminal charges against Saddam for crimes against humanity. That’s what I think the world should have done in 1991, instead of imposing sactions. Why wasn’t Saddam ever formally charged with crimes? If he had been, then I think I would have supported UN-backed force to arrest him.

  • Potter

    Dexter Filkins writes about Kanan Makiya in this week’s (October 7, 2007) NYTimes Magazine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Someone said something about a study.

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

    The article is here:

    Regrets Only?