The Dissident

With his scorching expose of Saddam Hussein's brutality, Kanan Makiya established himself as Iraq's leading exile. Now he's talking with powerbrokers in the Bush administration. But can he push democracy to the top of their agenda?

By Laura Secor, 11/3/2002 The Boston Globe

In his 1993 book Cruelty and Silence, Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya includes an unforgettable description of a document. It is a ledger that has been ''carefully covered in pink wrapping paper, and on the wrapping paper are printed large, cartoonish white petunias,'' Makiya writes. ''The clerk who kept this particular notebook... had chosen a purple felt-tip pen, and an elaborate calligraphic style, to identify the contents of the notebook on a small square of white paper taped to the cover: `Register of Eliminated Villages.'''

The villages in question are Kurdish ones, gassed and destroyed by Saddam Hussein in his 1988 ethnic cleansing campaign known as the Anfal. When Makiya visited newly liberated northern Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, he left with a suitcase full of documents like this one, retrieved from former government buildings. They were the first in an archive that now includes some 3 million pages of Iraqi government files. Makiya heads a Harvard-based project that's translating them.

Today the ledger resides in a closet in the Cambridge apartment Makiya uses as an office. No sooner has he placed it in my hands than his cellphone rings, and I am left awkwardly clutching this piece of childish kitsch that also happens to be evidence of the murder of more than 100,000 Kurdish villagers. In the other room, I can hear Makiya on the phone. He will be in Washington tomorrow to meet with deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, he explains to his colleague, but he can't go back there the following week. He has been spending far too much time away from his family.

The neoconservative Wolfowitz would once have seemed strange company for this soft-spoken Brandeis professor, who came to politics as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where in the late 1960s he was a Trotskyite and pro-Palestinian activist. So, for that matter, would Vice President Dick Cheney, with whom Makiya has also met. But times have changed, and so has Makiya. The attack on the Kurds was part of that change; nearly two decades of sustained research and writing on the institutional violence of Ba'athist Iraq was another. Since the Bush administration announced its plans to topple Saddam Hussein, Makiya, one of the dictator's most outspoken Iraqi critics abroad, has found common ground with the Bush administration's most hawkish elements.

Like them, Makiya supports the war. He's even confident that most Iraqis feel similarly. But the agenda he's pressing neither begins nor ends with weapons of mass destruction: He wants the Bush administration to endorse a liberal democratic future for post-Saddam Iraq.

And so Makiya, the son of Iraq's most celebrated architect and an architect himself, finds himself drawing up blueprints for a transition to democracy in the country of his birth. Working with more than 30 other Iraqi dissidents under the auspices of the US State Department's ''Future of Iraq'' project, Makiya is completing a set of working papers. They suggest a transitional government, made up in equal measure of Iraqi exiles and of community leaders currently residing in the country, to shepherd the country toward elections within one to three years. The truly daunting tasks of the transitional period will include addressing the crimes of the Ba'ath, dismantling the military, and reforming the judiciary, all while reintegrating millions of party bureaucrats and military officials into democratic life. But the document's authors also envision implementing an ambitious new federal system, under which Iraq would be divided into territorial units, with equal civic status accorded to all Iraqis regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Here's the hitch: The plan's implementation requires a US military presence measured, Makiya says, ''not in months but in years.'' He believes such a deployment would be necessary in order to defend the territorial integrity of the newly demilitarized state against the possibilities of outside incursion or civil war. Would the United States accept such a role? Should it? The document does not reflect official US policy. But in late November, the Iraqi opposition will convene a large conference in northern Iraq. If that gathering endorses the report, Makiya suggests that Washington will strongly support its recommendations.

For political reasons, Makiya has been unable to return to Iraq since he left to attend MIT in 1967. Nonetheless, his 1986 book Republic of Fear, published under the pseudonym Samir al Khalil, was the first thoroughgoing account of Saddam Hussein's repression. It was received quietly when it was published. But around the time of the Gulf War, it became a bestseller, and the American press dubbed Makiya ''the Iraqi Solzhenitsyn.''

The state apparatus Makiya depicted in Republic of Fear was one laced with spies and sustained through violence. Even the slightest whisper of dissent provoked savage reprisals. Although Makiya wrote ''Republic of Fear'' in New York, he had good reason to fear for the safety of his family and sources. ''I wrote that book in total secrecy, hiding my own name originally,'' he recalls. ''Nobody would talk about anything, and so nearly everything came through people's writings or official statements. I dealt with stories that I heard through family channels, and then I hid people's identities.''

Later, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, ''the barrier of fear broke,'' Makiya recounts. Kurds in the north and Shia in the south rose against Baghdad. But when the Shia appealed to the Allies for help, they were rebuffed, and Saddam crushed the rebellion, taking an estimated 60,000 civilian lives.

It was in March of that year that Makiya revealed his identity. Emboldened by the uprising, he recalls, ''People were positively seeking me out to tell their stories. And so I started to meet them in northern Iraq. I met them in Jordan, I met them all over the place.'' The result was his controversial 1993 book, Cruelty and Silence.

The first half of Cruelty and Silence, called ''Cruelty,'' draws from those interviews to document the ferocity of Iraqi repression during the Anfal, the Gulf War, and the suppression of the 1991 uprisings. The landscape that emerges is one of near total devastation. Particularly heart-breaking to its author was the fact that those who rose against Saddam in 1991, notably in the Shiite south, committed the very sorts of atrocities that had inspired their rebellion.

But most of his critics, Makiya laments, glossed over ''Cruelty'' and went straight for the polemic of the book's second half, ''Silence.'' There Makiya assailed the Arab intelligentsia's opposition to the Gulf War, which he saw as blindly nationalistic and unprincipled. A ''malaise'' had set into Arab politics, he contended. By focusing on Western responsibility for Middle Eastern problems, Arab thinkers practically gave home-grown tyranny a free pass. He wrote:

Millions upon millions of words have been written about the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages in order to bring about the creation of the Israeli state. And rightly so. Yet many of the very intellectuals who wrote those words chose silence when it came to the elimination of thousands of Kurdish villages by an Arab state.

A furious backlash greeted Cruelty and Silence in Arab circles. The late activist Eqbal Ahmad, who reviewed the book for The Nation, and California State professor As'ad AbuKhalil, who reviewed it for Middle East Journal, charged Makiya with misrepresenting the views of the Arab intellectuals he criticized, conflating opposition to the Gulf War with support for Saddam, and minimizing the impact of Western policies on the Middle East. Makiya was grandstanding and promoting himself, AbuKhalil fumed. And his efforts, according to Ahmad, would feed ''anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hatemongers.''

Makiya had hoped the book would spark debate, but he hadn't expected it to be so personal. And so today he says that the book ''did not work.''

''In retrospect, that was a book born in the vortex of really white-hot, world-transforming events,'' Makiya recalls. ''It was a book of its time and place. So I'm not sure I would write it quite the same way again.''

''That's not to say that I back away from anything that's in it,'' he adds. ''But I suspect that the tone - well, it certainly hurt people.''

What Makiya stands by is his belief that although Western powers have done ''terrible things'' in the Middle East, particularly during the colonial era, Arabs need to take responsibility for the current policies of states that have been independent for more than 50 years. He cites a recent United Nations Development Program report - authored by Arabs - that traces the socioeconomic problems of the Middle East to the region's politics, and most specifically, to the failure of democracies to take root there.

It may seem strange, then, that Makiya envisions democracy arriving in Iraq on the wings of an American invasion. But Makiya maintains that the United States has an opportunity in Iraq - and that Iraqis have an opportunity, via the United States - that's unique in the Arab world.

As he puts it, ''Whereas in the rest of the Arab world, the United States is criticized for even thinking of getting involved in Arab affairs, in the Iraqi mind, the problem is that they are not getting involved, and that they leave Saddam in power.''

True, the United Nations sanctions - which Makiya maintains have been manipulated by Saddam to inflict the greatest suffering on ordinary people - have embittered many Iraqis against the United States. So, too, did the first Bush administration's decision to abandon the uprising it had encouraged. Nonetheless, according to Makiya, there is a flowering of Western-oriented democratic sentiment inside Iraq and among its estimated 3 million exiles.

Makiya is not a member of any political organization, but he works closely with the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group of Kurdish and liberal Arab opposition groups based in London and northern Iraq. Like much of the Iraqi opposition, the INC accepts backing from the United States. For that reason, Makiya says, such groups are ''constantly discredited and looked down upon'' in the Arab world.

But Makiya sees a hypocrisy at work here. ''Every Arab opposition party over the last 30 years has had a regional backer like Syria, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia - the PLO itself for years received the bulk of its finances from the Gulf princes,'' he points out. ''That was always perfectly okay.''

According to Makiya, the Iraqi opposition has broken the mold. ''It is saying, we don't want to be like the Islamic republic of Iran, we don't want to be like the Ba'athist Republic of Syria, and we certainly don't want to be like the Saudi autocracy. None of these are models for what we want to be.''

Iraq's opposition is pluralistic and enterprising, but it also unwieldy and often fractious. Some in Washington worry that the INC, as an exile group, lacks popular legitimacy, or that it has lost touch with contemporary Iraqi realities. Although it has gotten a receptive hearing from neoconservatives like Cheney and Wolfowitz, the State Department and CIA have reportedly preferred to work with the Iraqi National Accord, another exile group comprised largely of former Ba'athist military and security officers.

Makiya finds it ironic that the ''more liberal and less hawkish'' elements in American politics are the ones most suspicious of Iraq's democrats. They are also, he says, ''the ones who are saying that the whole idea of democratizing Iraq, even over a long period of time, is laughable. Needless to say, I find that an extremely offensive line of argument. And of course it's a very conservative appeal to the status quo of the Arab world, which is a very unhappy situation.''

To most Iraqis, Makiya says, the US debate over war in Iraq seems a selfish one. The war's proponents talk about weapons of mass destruction; its opponents point to imperial designs. Who has considered the welfare of the Iraqi people? Though they are likely to pay the price, Makiya maintains that by and large, Iraqis support US military action as the best option for improving life in their country over the long term.

There is no scientific way to assess public opinion inside Ba'athist Iraq. But Makiya and other exiles informally survey friends, relatives, and acquaintances who slip through the porous borders to Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Faleh Abu Jabar, an Iraqi exile at the University of London and one of the world's leading authorities on Iraq's tribal and religious politics, opposes US military action. But he told a recent gathering at Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies that when he speaks to relatives inside Iraq, they impatiently ask him, ''Where are the bombers?'' ("They are not in my pocket,'' he points out with a laugh.)

Still, not everyone interprets the mood in Baghdad the same way Makiya does. Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi poet doing graduate work at Harvard, left Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991. ''Look,'' he says, ''people are fed up. They are completely drained after two wars and ten years of sanctions, and I felt the same way when I was in Baghdad in 1991. I just wanted Saddam to go. But that does not mean that Iraqis want US military occupation. We just got rid of the Brits half a century ago.''

Antoon believes the United States is interested only in oil and weapons, and he does not think Iraqi civilians should be sacrificed for such interests. ''It is very easy for Makiya to say yes, go to war, because he has never experienced war,'' Antoon objects. ''It's not a lot of fun to sit in the shelter, in the darkness, not knowing if you're going to live or not. It's very easy to say that when you're living on the banks of the Charles.''

Makiya is not himself entirely at peace with the war plans. ''I don't like the idea of unilateral American action in the world,'' he stresses, describing the precedent as worrisome. He also thinks Saddam is likely to try to unleash chemical or biological weapons on his way down. Still, he predicts that such efforts may fail, and that there will be fewer casualties than critics imagine. A permanent occupation strikes him as far-fetched. ''I don't see a typical, classical imperialist role to the United States. We're not in that period. I don't think the United States is drawn to that.''

In fact, if there is one thing Makiya has learned from his repeated trips to Washington, it's that although the Bush administration may be certain that it wants to get rid of Saddam, what exactly it hopes to see follow remains an open question. One possibility would be a military junta, which Makiya believes would quickly result in civil war. Lately, there's also been talk of an American military governor with Caesar-like powers. ''That's horrific,'' Makiya remarks. ''It really frightens the hell out of me.''

And so Makiya is arranging a marriage of convenience between his democratic agenda and Washington's war. He is gambling, and he knows it. Chances are, the war he's supporting as the engine for Iraqi democracy will result in nothing of the kind. To many, that's a good reason to oppose it altogether. To Makiya, it's a reason to do everything possible to widen what he knows is a tiny window of opportunity.

''I think there's a less than five percent chance that what I'd like to see happen actually happens,'' Makiya tells me. ''But it seems to me an obligation, even if it's a five percent chance, to try to make it happen. You could call it a triumph of hope over experience. But what else is politics if not that?''

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 11/3/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.