Misinformation About Iraq

The flurry of reports, leaks, and misinformation about the looming US war against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq continues unabated. It is impossible to know, however, how much of this is a brilliantly managed campaign of psychological war against Iraq, how much the public floundering of a government uncertain about its next step. In any event, I find it as possible to believe that there will be a war as that there will not. Certainly the sheer belligerency of the verbal assaults on the average citizen are unprecedented in their ferocity, with the result that very little is totally certain about what is actually taking place. No one can independently confirm the various troop and navy movements reported on a daily basis, and given the lurching opacity of his thinking, George W Bush’s real intentions are difficult to read. But that the whole world is concerned — indeed, deeply anxious — about the catastrophic chaos that will ensue after another Afghanistan-like air campaign against the people of Iraq, of that there is little doubt.

And yet, one aspect of the deluge of opinion, and a fact that is most disturbing quite on its own and without reference to its actual intention, is the spate of articles concerning post-Saddam Iraq. One that I’d like to discuss in particular is obviously part of a continuing effort by an Iraqi expatriate, Kanan Makiya, to promote himself as the father of what he calls a “non-Arab” and decentralised post-Ba’ath country. Now it is quite clear to anyone with the slightest concern about the travails of this rich and once-flourishing country that the years of Ba’athist rule have been disastrous, despite the regime’s early programme of development and building. So there can be little quarrel with trying to imagine what Iraq might look like if Saddam is toppled either by American intervention or by internal coup. Makiya’s contribution to this effort has been a steady one, both on the airwaves and in quality journals where he is given a platform to air his views, about which I shall speak in a moment. What has been made less clear, however, is who he is and from what background he emerges. I think it is important to know these things, if only to judge the value of his contribution and to understand more precisely the special quality of his thoughts and ideas.

Usually identified as having a research connection with Harvard and as a professor at Brandeis University (both in Boston), Makiya when I knew him first in the early 1970s was closely affiliated with the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. As I recall, he was then an architecture student at MIT, but he hardly said anything during the occasions I saw him. Then he disappeared from view, or rather from my view. He surfaced in 1990 as Samir Khalil, the author of a vaunted book called The Republic of Fear that described Saddam Hussein’s rule with considerable dread and drama. One of the media-rousing works of the first Gulf War, The Republic of Fear seemed to have been written — according to a fawning interview with Makiya that appeared in the New Yorker magazine — while Makiya took time off from working as an associate of his father’s architectural firm in Iraq itself. He admitted in the interview that, in a sense, Saddam had financed the writing of his book indirectly, although no one accused Makiya of collaborating with a regime he obviously detested.

In his next book, Cruelty and Silence, Makiya attacked Arab intellectuals whom he accused of opportunism and immorality because they either praised various Arab regimes or remained silent about the various governments’ abuses against their own people. Of course Makiya said nothing about his own history of silence and complicity as a beneficiary of the Iraqi regime’s munificence, even though, of course, he was entitled to work for whomever he pleased. But he said the vilest things about people like Mahmoud Darwish and myself for being nationalists, allegedly supporting extremism and, in Darwish’s case, for having written an ode to Saddam. Most of what Makiya wrote in the book was, in my opinion, revolting, based as it was on cowardly innuendo and false interpretation, but the book, of course, enjoyed a popular moment or two since it confirmed the view in the West that Arabs were villainous and shabby conformists. It seemed not to matter that Makiya himself had worked for Saddam or that he had never written anything about the Arab regimes until his Republic of Fear, until, that is, he was out of Iraq and done with his employment there. He was hailed here and there in America for being a brave man of conscience and for having defied the self-censoring practice of Arab intellectuals, but this praise was usually heaped on Makiya by people who had no knowledge of the fact that Makiya himself never wrote in an Arab country or that whatever meagre writing he produced had been written behind a pseudonym and a prosperous, risk-free life in the West.

Except for his two books and an article urging the US administration to occupy Baghdad during the first Gulf War, Makiya wasn’t much heard from after that. Then last year he produced an unreadable novel proving somehow that the Dome of the Rock was really built by a Jew; it was sent to me by the publisher, so I happened to have skimmed it before it appeared officially, but was nevertheless aghast at how badly written it was, and how, unable to resist showing off how many books its author had read, it was peppered with footnotes, surely an unusual thing for what purported to be a work of fiction. It died a merciful death, however, and Makiya lapsed back into silence.

Until the government-inspired campaign against Iraq broke out a few months ago Makiya had said little about the war against terror, the events of 9/11, and the war in Afghanistan. It is true that he did a kind of commentary for a popular American biweekly of Mohamed Atta’s supposed Islamic terrorist handbook, but even by his standards it was a negligible performance. I vividly recall, however, that late last summer I happened by chance to hear a radio interview with him in which he was identified for the first time as heading a US State Department group planning for a post-war, post-Saddam Iraq. His name had not appeared among those mentioned as being part of the US-funded Iraqi opposition groups, nor had he contributed anything that could be read by a member of the general public about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or any other Middle Eastern issues, although I had heard that he had visited Israel a number of times.

The most complete version of his plans for Iraq after an American invasion that derive from his current employment as a resident employee of the US Department of State, appears in the November 2002 issue of Prospect, a good liberal British monthly to which I subscribe. Makiya begins his “proposal” by enumerating the extraordinary assumptions behind his arguments, two of which almost by definition are unimaginable. The first is that “the unseating” of Saddam should not occur after a bombing campaign. Makiya must have been living on Mars to imagine that, in the event of a war, a massive bombing attack would not occur even though every single plan circulated for regime change in Iraq has stated explicitly that Iraq would be bombed mercilessly. The second assumption is equally imaginative, since Makiya seems to believe against all evidence that the US is committed to democracy and nation- building in Iraq. Why he thinks that Iraq is like Germany and Japan after World War II (both of which were rebuilt because of the Cold War) is beyond me; besides, he doesn’t once mention the fact that the US is determined to bring down the Iraqi regime because of the country’s oil reserves and because Iraq is an enemy of Israel. So, he starts out by making preposterous assumptions that simply fly in the face of all the evidence.

Undeterred by such unimportant considerations, he presses on. Iraqis are committed to federalism, he says, rather than to a centralised government. The proof that he offers is pretty negligible. Like all his other attempts to convince his reader that he makes telling points, his logic is so weak because it is based equally on fictional supposition and his own, highly dubious personal affirmations. He is committed to federalism, and so he says are the Kurds. Where federalism as a system is supposed to come from (other than from his desk in the State Department), he doesn’t bother to say. Clearly, he plans to have it imposed from the outside, although he makes the largely unsubstantiated claim that “everyone” is agreed that federalism in Iraq should be the outcome. This “means devolving power away from Baghdad to the provinces”, presumably by a stroke of General Tommy Franks’ pen. One would have thought that post-Tito Yugoslavia never existed and that that tragic country’s federalism was a total success. But Makiya is so committed to his views as a kinglike theoretician of government that he simply ignores consequences, history, people, communities, and reality altogether so that he can make his ludicrously improbable case. This, of course, is exactly what the US government likes, that is, to have miscellaneous Arab intellectuals responsible to no constituency who urge the US military on to war while pretending to be bringing “democracy” to the place in full contradiction of America’s real aims and its actual historical practices. Makiya seems not to have heard about ruinous US interventions in Indochina, Afghanistan, Central America, Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, and the Philippines, or that the US is currently involved militarily with about 80 countries.

The grand climax of Makiya’s justification for the invasion of Iraq by the United States is his proposal that the new Iraq should be non-Arab. (Along the way, he speaks contemptuously of Arab opinion which, he says, will never amount to anything. This obviously clears the board for his airy speculations about both the future and the past.) How this magical de-Arabising solution is to come about, Makiya doesn’t say, any more than he shows us how Iraq is to be relieved of its Islamic identity and its military capabilities. He refers to a mysterious alchemical quality he calls “territoriality” and proceeds to build another sandcastle on that as the basis for a future state of Iraq. In the end, however, he volunteers that all this is going to be guaranteed “from the outside”, by the United States. Where this has ever taken place before is not an issue that troubles Makiya, any more than he seems concerned about US unilateralism and needless destructiveness.

One scarcely knows whether to laugh or cry at Makiya’s posturings. Clearly this is a man with no recorded experience of government, or even of citizenship. Between countries and cultures and with no visible commitment to anyone (except to his upwardly mobile career), he has now found a haven deep inside the US government which he uses to fuel his amazingly speculative flights of fancy. For someone who has lectured his peers about intellectual responsibility and independent judgement, he provides examples of neither one nor the other. Exactly the opposite. Perched on a pulpit that has freed him from any accountability he seems now to be serving a master who has paid him well for his services — as Saddam employed him in the past — and his versatile conscience. I find it incredible that Makiya allows himself such sanctimony and vanity, but then why shouldn’t he? He has never engaged in a public debate with any of his fellow Iraqis, never written for an Arab audience, never put himself forward for an office or for any political role requiring personal courage and commitment. He has either written pseudonymously or attacked people who have had no chance to respond to his defamations.

It is sad that Makiya implicitly suggests that his is the voice and the example of the future Iraq. And to think that thousands of lives have already been lost to his patron’s cruel sanctions or that many more lives and livelihoods are about to be destroyed by electronic warfare wreaked on his country by George Bush’s government. But this man is untroubled by any of this. Devoid of either compassion or real understanding, he prattles on for Anglo- American audiences who seem satisfied that here at last is an Arab who exhibits the proper respect for their power and civilisation, regardless of what role Britain played in the imperialist partition of the Arab world or what mischief the US dealt the Arabs through its support for Israel and the collective Arab dictatorships.

In and of himself, Makiya is a passing phenomenon. He is, however, a symptom of several things at once. He represents 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, no demonstrable awareness of human suffering. With no stable principles or values, he is typical of the cynical anti-Arab hawks (like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld) who dot the Bush administration like flies on a cake. British imperialism, Israel’s brutal occupation policies, or American arrogance do not detain him for a moment. 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. Woe to Iraq!

EDWARD SAID writes a weekly column for the Cairo-based al-Ahram.


Edward Wadie Said was a Palestinian American academic, literary critic and political activist. A professor of literature at Columbia University, he was among the founders of postcolonial studies.