Radical humanist, Iraq hawk

Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi progressive living in exile, welcomes U.S. intervention as the best chance for freedom in his country. And he wonders why U.S. leftists aren't with him.

Published December 21, 2002 12:37AM (EST)

Kanan Makiya, the Baghdad-born journalist, Brandeis professor and human-rights activist, has done more than anyone else alive to expose the sadism of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian state. With his 1989 book "Republic of Fear," he emerged as Iraq's Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, laying bare a system built on the torture and mutilation of its subjects. Back then the world was indifferent -- though the book was finished in 1986, it took him three years to find a publisher because editors didn't believe Iraq was really that bad.

Later, in 1992, he collaborated on the Frontline documentary "Saddam's Killing Fields," secretly returning to Iraq to investigate Saddam's genocidal campaign against the Kurds.

Now, as the atrocities he documented are being trumpeted by the United States, Great Britain and others, Makiya has emerged as the voice of the democratic Iraqi opposition, determined to work with American military hard-liners to unseat Saddam and his Baath party while fighting cynical realists in the administration of President Bush who would just replace the recalcitrant dictator with a more pliant one. As the spokesman and theorist for the Iraqi National Congress, he battled to have democrats and independents -- as opposed to just former military men, Islamists and members of political parties -- included in the Iraqi opposition conference held in London this week.

Interestingly, he says the people who've helped his cause have been those most despised by American liberals -- the Cheney-Perle-Wolfowitz clique in the White House. It's the State Department and the CIA -- often viewed as the locus of relative reason and responsibility in government -- who have stood in his way, he says.

A longtime progressive, Makiya is pushing a plan for a post-Saddam Iraq so idealistic and audacious that opposing the war and thus standing against his dreamed-of reconstruction seems like a heartbreaking cop-out.

The West has a poor record of foisting democracies on countries without a civil infrastructure -- in the absence of other institutions, elections can spur the ethnic demagoguery that has ravaged countries from Rwanda to Yugoslavia. So Makiya envisions a federal Iraq that will spend years solidifying protections for minorities before it holds elections, enshrining individual and group rights in the constitution. He imagines a demilitarized nation with vast oil wealth channeled toward education and development. He wants a democratic Iraq to be beacon of liberalism in the region, one that will spread freedom to Iran, Syria and beyond.

He's the radical humanist as hawk.

Not surprisingly, Makiya's willingness to ally himself with the Bush administration has earned him the enmity of former comrades on the left. In a vitriolic attack in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram earlier this month, Edward Said, the famed literature professor and Middle East scholar, called Makiya "the intellectual who serves power unquestioningly; the greater the power, the fewer doubts he has."

"He is a man of vanity who has no compassion," Said wrote, "no demonstrable awareness of human suffering. With no stable principles or values, he is typical of the cynical anti-Arab hawks ... who dot the Bush administration like flies on a cake ... Worst of all, he is a man of pretension and superficiality, flattering himself on his reasonableness even as he condemns his own people to more travail and more dislocation."

But Makiya argues that those too mired in despair to seize the chance for Iraq's liberation are the ones who have forfeited their principles and values. Joining his campaign requires a leap of faith -- that regime change can be about more than American hegemony and Republican power politics -- and many liberals are unwilling to make it. They might be right. But even if they are, their position means settling for a status quo whose horrors Makiya has shown us.

Makiya spoke to Salon from London, where he attended the Iraqi opposition conference.

You've been frustrated by the liberal assumption that the Defense Department is full of callous cowboys while people like Secretary of State Colin Powell represent rationality. Can you explain why?

It's really based on practical experience over the last six months, seeing how the position on Iraq has evolved. In general the Department of State and the CIA are particularly slow in supporting any genuine democratic initiative. They are the ones who have spearheaded the very dominant role played by Islamists from Tehran at the conference that just finished in London. They're behind the support the ex-Baathists have received.

There are deep philosophical differences undermining this. They [the State Department and CIA] have a very low level of faith in democracy as a practicable working idea in a country like Iraq. They have a deep faith in the importance of maintaining the status quo in the Middle East. They tend generally to be the ones still trying to prop up our Saudi Arabian relationship and deny the deep complicity of Saudi Arabia in the emergence of al-Qaida.

Supporting tyrannical authoritarian Arab regimes has been U.S. policy for a very long time. It's failed most dramatically. The other policy wing in the American administration [represented by the Defense Department hawks] looks at American policy over the last 30 years and sees failure. Their policy begins with an impulse to approach the problem at its core. At the moment it sees those roots as best being approached through the issue of Iraq.

How would a democratic Iraq change the dynamics of the entire Middle Eeast?

There's no doubt that a successful democratic experiment in Iraq will have a dramatic effect over a period time. It would support Palestinian reforms, it would support human rights organizations in neighboring Syria and Iran and weaken dictatorship. The United States doesn't have to do a thing about it; it will just happen as a natural course. We already know the student movement in Iran is actively calling for democratic change in Iraq. They instinctively sense that a democratic Iraq will strengthen their position, and I think they're right.

Large parts of the world have democratized. There's been a domino effect in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Why not the Middle East?

But wouldn't democracy in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt bring Islamic theocracies to power?

Certainly in Saudi Arabia at the moment Osama bin Laden might win a free election. Egypt is much more complicated. Militant Islam has been tested and defeated in Algeria and Iran. You can look at al-Qaida as the tail end of militant Islam.

In Iraq, we argue [in a report that came out of the conference] that the key way of thinking about democracy in Iraq is not on the basis of majority rule in the first place. We'd begin with protection of minority rights. The priority of the rule of law is crucial. That should last for a period of three years, a period when a priority is placed on culture and education. Once those institutions are set in place, then comes the national election. We're going to build the state in such a way that it will never be possible to deny Kurds their Kurdishness again. Then we'll have national elections.

Do you favor an American military government during that three-year interim period?

No, I don't. We've been arguing this very strongly both to the administration and elsewhere. We don't want the story of a new beginning in Iraq 10 years down the line to begin with an American occupation. We want the Americans to be there to protect our territorial integrity, but we need to put our house in order. An American occupation is wrong. I spoke to Condoleezza Rice about that, and she seemed to agree.

So who should form the interim government?

America should pay a lot more attention two to three months before the war to working with the opposition to form what is going to become the nucleus of a provisional government inside Iraq. That's what's missing, because a large number of people want to keep their options open, and when you start working with a leadership, you're committed to whatever that leadership is about. I think it should be about democracy.

Make your choice of leadership over the lowest common denominator. I've not found the United States administration willing to do that. The primary driving force is this magic word "inclusiveness." In the name of "inclusiveness" you include Islamists from Tehran, Baathists, and every Tom, Dick and Harry. The goal is being pushed to the extreme at the expense of the emergence of true leadership.

Did the London conference bring you any closer to the goal of creating a democratic leadership?

It's an improvement over what existed before, but it falls short of what could have been. It was a good conference. There was a sense of unity in the opposition. It broke up some of the major groupings created by the CIA and State Department to block the emergence of a democratic leadership.

What groupings were those?

What used to be called the Group of Four -- four parties that were singled out of the Iraqi National Congress, who were bribed out by the CIA and the State Department in March and April.

So new alliances were created at the conference?

We're entering into a new phase. A leadership committee has emerged of some 65 people. Fifteen to 20 percent are from our group. Democrats and independents played a major role at this conference. Our document, "The Transition to Democracy in Iraq," was the major document. It's going to be adopted by some of the groups and its discourse will start to penetrate. We're making plans to distribute thousands of copies inside Iraq itself.

Your vision of an egalitarian, demilitarized Iraq is one that might appeal specifically to liberals, and you've said that liberals have an obligation to make democratic change happen in Iraq. But don't liberals also have an obligation to stand against this war if they fear it will unleash bloody chaos throughout the Middle East? Isn't that a threat?

I think that's wildly exaggerated. Of course if things go wrong there could be a mess, but Iraqis have to have a new beginning, and in order to have a new beginning in this part of the world, Iraq is going to have to go through something. There's a major totalitarian dictatorship that's been there for 30-odd years. Changes, let there be changes. The Middle East is a mess. Keeping that stable is not a desirable objective for any liberal or person interested in human welfare.

But since you say there's a possibility that a war could create a mess, isn't it rash to leap into it? Especially since there's no reason to trust this administration to follow through on its promises?

Things are already a mess. The country's already fragmented. Everything about Iraq today is unstable. If in a year or two the regime crumbles, true chaos will descend. We have a chance to do it right.

We have an obligation to make democratic change happen in Iraq. There's going to be regime change. If these people are involved, the chances of it being done right would be infinitely greater.

The thing I fear most of all would be an 11th-hour coup which the United States opts to support. If there were a strong liberal agenda of support for democratic change in Iraq, the chance of that happening would be infinitely smaller. But where are the liberals? They're denying that democratic change is likely to happen in the first place.

So you believe we should take Bush at his word when he talks about democracy in the Middle East?

Exactly. In politics, that's always the best thing to do. Take the values upon which they stand and press them. Assume those values are as valid for other people as for yourselves and push George Bush to the wall, make him hold up to his promises. We would all be infinitely better off if that's what liberals were doing instead of opposing the war.

It's as though liberals can't see what's clearly about to unfold in front of their eyes. They're blind because of past prejudices about individuals in power in the United States, and they're letting those block their perception of the values upon which they stand.

You're a champion of the human-rights case for regime change in Iraq. The obvious rejoinder to that is that there are many countries in the world with brutal, repressive dictators, and the United States can't go after them all. What makes Iraq different?

First, Max van der Stoel, the U.N.'s special rapporteur for human rights, issued a definitive report saying that Iraq is the worst violator of human rights since World War II. Iraq's government is not ordinarily nasty -- it's extraordinarily nasty and dangerous, especially to its own population.

Second, Saddam has a deep-seated obsession with developing weapons. It's sort of like Hitler in the Final Solution -- there's an irrational streak to the whole thing. Here's a regime on the verge of having a major war launched for its demise, and its still busy concealing these weapons of mass destruction. You can take this argument as far back as you like in the last 10 years. After the Gulf War, Saddam could have truly allowed U.N. inspectors to do their work, then waited five years and climbed back into international respectability and started all over again. He didn't do that, and that tells you a lot.

What would you say to liberals who oppose the war?

Think this question through from the point of view of what people in Iraq have been through, not from the point of view of your agendas at home.

You do not want to be where you're putting yourself today. In your deepest heart of hearts, you don't want to be there. If you are there, it's because you're ignorant of what's going on inside Iraq. But the very people who stand to suffer the most are asking you to do this, and you of all people should be behind it.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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Dick Cheney George W. Bush Iran Iraq Middle East Osama Bin Laden Syria United Nations