The na´vetÚ of the native critic

[Follow Ups] [Post Followup] [Our Discussion Forum]

Posted by andreas from ( on Tuesday, December 10, 2002 at 5:02AM :

The na´vetÚ of the native critic

Sinan Antoon* warns against the uncritical acceptance of the "native critic"
as the voice of his people

Kanan Makiya first came to my attention while I was sitting in a bomb shelter
in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war. The BBC broadcast news of a book about Saddam
Hussein's Iraq, entitled Republic of Fear, by a man called Samir Al- Khalil
(Makiya's nom de plume). I was delighted that a man living abroad had taken the
time to write about Iraqis' plight under Hussein's authoritarian rule.

Since the Gulf War, Makiya has come to enjoy considerable influence in the US
and Britain as an expert on Iraqi politics and a "dissident intellectual" whose
views, we are told, reflect those of many Iraqis in exile and, potentially, inside
Iraq. Thomas Friedman often recycles his ideas in the New York Times, preceded by
phrases like, "My Iraqi friend says X", or "My Iraqi friend assures me that Y".
Although Makiya stresses that his views are his alone, he also calls himself a
"native critic", making it all the more important that Iraqis hold him accountable
for what he writes in their name.

Most recently, Makiya appeared at a one-day conference entitled "The Day
After: Planning for a Post-Saddam Iraq", organised by the right- wing American
Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. According to AEI's Web site, the
gathering sought to establish an agenda for "replac[ing] Saddam Hussein with a
representative democracy and assur[ing] long-term stability and democratic peace
in the region". Participants included big guns such as Richard Perle, head of the
Defense Policy Board at the Pentagon, and Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at
Princeton and author of What Went Wrong in Islam: Western Impact and Middle
Eastern Responses. Among the most prominent Iraqis to participate in addition to
Makiya was Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the executive committee of the Iraqi
National Congress (INC) and one of the strongest contenders for Iraq's post-
Saddam presidency.

Makiya presented the conference's first paper, entitled "A Model for
Post-Saddam Iraq", which summarises ideas he is developing with "an all-Iraqi
team" as part of a larger project for the State Department's "The Future of Iraq"
initiative. He prefaced his presentation by saying that his ideas are feasible,
but they rest on a number of assumptions, as the following excerpt shows.

"That the unseating of the Saddam Hussein regime does not take place at the
cost of large scale civilian casualties (Iraqi or Israeli)... That the government
of the United States, as the partner of the Iraqi people in liberating Iraq, sees
its role in Iraq as being for the long term, for democracy and reconstruction --
for nation- building... [and that] further to a treaty with a new duly constituted
Iraqi government, [the US government] agrees to keep a military presence inside
Iraq whose purpose is to guarantee the territorial integrity of Iraq for a period
measured in years, not months," Makiya writes.

Makiya's pro-war stance is music to the ears of Perle and the war party, in
no small part due to the fact that it comes from a prominent "native" critic. Not
unlike Ahmed Chalabi, Makiya's presence at such gatherings legitimises the claims
of the neo-conservative hawks that they are waging a war to liberate the oppressed
Iraqi people and to democratise the region. However, it should be obvious by now
that ensuring American hegemony and the steady flow of cheap oil are the real
reasons for this war. In Iraq people listen to Arabic-language foreign radio
programmes. Having sifted through Ba'athist propaganda on a daily basis for
decades, they are certainly able to read between the lines of American rhetoric.
They know very well the real goals of "regime change" and are aghast at the
scenarios for a post-Saddam Iraq.

Recent leaks have hinted at direct military rule by General Tommy Franks,
reminiscent of the days of British colonialism the memory of which is still
disturbingly fresh for many Iraqis. Another scenario is that of a junta comprised
of ex-Saddamist generals whose names and faces are appearing more frequently of
late as the group that can hold it all together. Each and every one of them can
boast impressive credentials in genocide, torture and war crimes. All served
Saddam for years before joining the swelling ranks of the professional opposition.
The third scenario, which does not necessarily preclude the others, posits that
the London- based Sharif Ali, nephew of the deposed Hashemite king in Iraq, would
lead a "constitutional democracy".

But Makiya and the Capitol Hill Iraqi opposition do not represent the
feelings of Iraqis about the prospective war. Most of us feel that such
assumptions are na´ve to say the least. Why would one assume that Saddam can be
deposed without civilian casualties? Let us take the first Gulf War as a precedent
-- the war in which the senior Bush stressed time and again that "we" had no gripe
against the Iraqi people. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed during that

One need only look at the ongoing war in Afghanistan (also being waged for
democracy and nation-building, for which the death of thousands of civilians is a
price well worth paying -- right?) to know that Iraqi civilians will be the first
to pay the price and will be caught between Saddam and the US military machine.
Why would the US administration worry about the lives of Iraqi civilians when its
predecessor contributed to the death of one million of their brethren with
genocidal sanctions? Or does Makiya think that Rumsfeld is more sensitive to their
plight than Madelaine Albright, who said in that infamous 60 Minutes interview
with Lesley Stahl that the death of 5,000 Iraqi children every month was well
worth the political objective.

Makiya's second assumption is even more ludicrous. The history of American
foreign policy is crowded with brutal dictators, sponsorship of anti-democratic
coup d'Útats and military juntas -- especially in the Middle East. Or has the
American birdie whispered in Makiya's ears something we do not know yet about a
sudden change of heart? Wasn't it Rumsfeld himself who was sent in the early 1980s
by President Reagan to Baghdad to meet with the evil Saddam to re-establish
diplomatic ties with the US? It is a bit too early to forget the military
intelligence, support and credit lent by both the Reagan and Bush administrations
to Saddam while he was busy slaughtering Iraqis and Iranians and gassing Kurds,
especially by someone like Makiya who brought the plight of the Kurds to light in
his work. Wasn't the US responsible for keeping Saddam in power by allowing him to
use his helicopters to crush the 1991 uprising which followed the Gulf War and by
distancing itself from the uprising and refusing to support it?

Makiya then turns to the debate about the war to one of his favourite
targets: Arab intellectuals and Arab culture.

"I should say here that it [the debate] has been even more selfish among
non-Iraqi Arabs -- if there can be said to have been any kind of debate at all on
the possibility that this war may actually end up being a force for good in the
Middle East as opposed to the unmitigated disaster that almost all non-Iraqi Arabs
seem to think it will be... the overwhelming majority of [Iraqis] believe that
military action is the price that has to be paid for the removal of the regime of
Saddam Hussein."

Anyone who bothers to read the Arabic dailies will disagree. There have been
dozens of articles trying to rationalise the inevitability of the war and to
prepare the region for its consequences. But Makiya shields his American audience,
as he is wont to do, from the disorienting and truly frightening possibility of
the existence of a genuine debate in Arab quarters. He is, of course, the lone
critical voice in the Arab cultural wilderness.

The most troubling part of Makiya's discourse, however, is his chastising the
Arabs for not pondering the fact that war "may actually end up being a force for
good in the Middle East". It seems that Makiya has become a victim of the
Ashcroftian Orwellianism that is sweeping America. After two catastrophic wars,
the harshest sanctions in history and an ongoing bloodbath in Israel/Palestine,
Makiya wants us to think of another war as a force for good. I am afraid that most
of us are not imaginative enough to see things the way he does. If Iraqis have
resigned themselves to the view that Saddam cannot be deposed without military
action, that does not mean that they are, or should be, looking forward to an
American occupation. And it is certainly not self-evident that the US should be
the one to unseat the Iraqi president.

While it is almost impossible to take the pulse of the general public in
Iraq, it is evident that the vast majority of Iraqis in the diaspora are against a
war. Makiya can see that for himself on any number of Iraqi Web sites or in
chatrooms. There have also been a number of anti- war petitions circulating of
late with signatures of Iraqis hailing from all political and ethnic backgrounds.

Makiya devotes considerable space to federalism as the only viable political
structure for a future Iraq and the guarantee for genuine democracy. No contest
there, but why does he insist that a future Iraq must be "non-Arab". It is hoped
that a future Iraq would respect all ethnicities and minorities and that the
country's identity should be produced and reproduced by the people themselves and
not imposed from abroad by American boots. I am no fan of nationalisms, but who
authorised Makiya to determine the country's future identity and how can he
envision telling 60 per cent of the country's population that their future state
must be non-Arab? Isn't that merely the reverse of the Ba'ath's insistence that
the state be only Arab?

For a finale, Makiya gave Perle and company precisely what they craved.

"Regime change provid[es] a historic opportunity for the United States
government and the Iraqi opposition -- an opportunity that is as large as anything
that has happened in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. By that
you now know I meant a federal, non- Arab and de-militarised Iraq. This vision, or
something approximating it, is achievable. Moreover, an Iraqi leadership able to
work in partnership with the US to bring it about already exists," Makiya writes.

Here is an open invitation for a long stay in Iraq and an opportunity to
redraw the map of the region coming from the "native critic" himself with the
willing leadership, in the person of Ahmed Chalabi, a few seats away.

Most Iraqis dream of the day when Saddam is gone. However, we cannot, even in
the absence of practical and realistic alternatives, call on the US to occupy Iraq
-- the same US which, along with Saddam, is the main culprit in destroying the
country's infrastructure through war and sanctions. Belief in even an iota of the
American discourse on democratising the region is truly na´ve. It is strange that
Makiya should continue parroting the myths of American imperialism at a time when
many Americans are condemning them and exposing their racism and potential to
bring catastrophe to the entire world.

If Makiya's previous judgements are any indication as to the soundness of his
current ones, we should all worry. One need only point, for example, to his
assessment of the Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish
Democratic Party (KDP) after meeting him in 1991. He deemed Barzani an honest and
visionary man who embodied all that a future president of a federal and democratic
Iraq should. He even suggested that Barzani nominate himself for the presidency of
the INC. But Makiya was shocked in 1996 when Barzani called on Saddam, the very
Saddam who slaughtered 100,000 Kurds in the infamous Al-Anfal operations, to send
his troops to Erbil to aid Barzani in his fight against his arch-rival Jalal
Talbani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Makiya, in an article he
published in the New York Review of Books, discovered that Barzani was "no more
than a tribal leader with limited horizons and selfish interests that do not go
beyond his primary group". Any Iraqi -- Kurd or Arab -- could have informed Makiya
of this well-known fact ahead of time.

Makiya now places his trust in the likes of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz
and Perle and seems to have accepted the notion that the US strives to spread
democracy abroad. He can swim in his rosy dreams as long as he pleases. But he
should also realise that his na´ve discourse is very dangerous, especially when it
is exploited by the US administration to further legitimise the long and bloody
nightmare it is about to impose on Iraqis by force after ridding them of Saddam's

Makiya might wake up in a few years and write another article to acknowledge
his mistakes to his loyal American and British readers. But what will he say to
all the Iraqis who do not read English?

* The writer is an Iraqi doctoral candidate in classical Arabic literature at
Harvard University. He is currently in Cairo on a Mellon Fellowship to research
and write his thesis.

-- andreas
-- signature .

Follow Ups:

Post a Followup

E-Mail: ( default )
Optional Link ( default )
Optional Image Link ( default )

This board is powered by the Mr. Fong Device from