In Iraq, Silencing Memory
By Lawrence F. Kaplan
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page B07
The moment lasts only a few seconds, yet from Kanan Makiya's balcony above the sunlit Tigris, Baghdad seems at peace. Then comes the roar of an Apache helicopter gunship passing overhead. A warning to get off the balcony, lest a visitor draw fire from the opposite bank of the river, ends the illusion for good. But it won't end so easily for Makiya, the Iraqi human rights activist whose 1989 book, "Republic of Fear," alerted the West to the scope of Saddam Hussein's depredations. The liberal exile has come home, and nothing can budge him from the vision of a free and peaceful Iraq.
Nothing, that is, except the Americans who have pledged to transform that vision into reality. Just as it has moved from de-Baathification to re-Baathification, from non-sectarianism to accommodation with Iraq's tribes and militias, and from idealism to realism, the United States has been steadily distancing itself from progressive Iraqis who bet their lives on Washington's high-minded rhetoric. None has been jettisoned so abruptly and inexplicably as Makiya, who, no less than John Paul Vann 30 years before him, has come to embody America's declining fortunes in a foreign war.
It wasn't always so. As a member of the State Department's Democratic Principles Working Group and the principal author of a draft Iraqi constitution emphasizing secularism and minority rights, Makiya was the war's great liberal hope. He even earned a spot by President Bush's side in the Oval Office in April 2003, where the two watched on television as Saddam Hussein's statue came crashing down in Firdos Square. Soon after, Makiya, whose Iraq Research and Documentation project at Harvard has been collecting evidence of atrocities in Iraq since 1992, headed to Baghdad to rescue and catalogue what he calls Iraq's "sacred texts" -- the government records that provide a documentary history of mass murder.
Over the past year, Makiya has amassed a building's worth of evidence. A flick of the switch in the basement of his Baghdad-based Memory Foundation illuminates millions of files stacked to the ceiling. Each contains a truth many Iraqis would just as soon forget -- execution orders, accounts of interrogation and torture, assessments about the trustworthiness of secondary school students. Lest the memories fade and Iraqis lose a vital measure by which to evaluate their present and future, and lest yesterday's victims become tomorrow's victimizers, Makiya hopes his archive will perform the same function as similar collections in Germany, Cambodia and South Africa: to remind and, hence, to warn. "Acknowledgment is something we owe the victims," Makiya explains, "otherwise we will see an attempt to erase the past."
Alas, for reasons about which no two members of the Bush team seem able to agree, the very officials who only last year were touting Makiya's work as an essential foundation of Iraqi democracy have reduced his status to that of an unwanted stepchild, leaving him penniless and adrift in this blood-soaked landscape. Last year the administration requested $1 million from Congress to fund the Memory Foundation. Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer, however, never passed the funds on to the foundation. Instead he signed an order establishing his own National Commission for Remembrance, whose mission duplicates that of the Memory Foundation -- and which he funded to the tune of $10 million. Then, on the same day that U.S. forces raided Ahmed Chalabi's house in Baghdad, the CIA descended on Makiya's home -- this despite the fact that the human rights activist has no use for Chalabi's shenanigans or, indeed, for any cause other than the commemoration of Iraq's past.
On the eve of his departure from Baghdad last month, Bremer phoned Makiya to tell him the $1 million would be released. A Memory Foundation staffer filled out the necessary wire transfer forms, only to be told later by the CPA that it had no record of his doing so. Finally, on the day of the handover, the foundation received an e-mail message from the CPA. Now that sovereignty had been transferred, it said, the United States no longer had the authority to release the $1 million. It suggested Makiya take up the issue with the Iraqi government.
What is going on here? CPA officials argue that byzantine grant restrictions and a justifiable reluctance to play favorites made it difficult for them to release the funds, and that Makiya's impatience with bureaucratic procedure made the task no easier. His American friends -- who recently took their case to the White House -- argue that Makiya has become caught in the all-consuming turf wars between the Pentagon and the State Department, where the long memory of America's diplomatic corps has yet to absolve Makiya of his complaints about its commitment to Iraqi democracy.
As for Makiya himself, the soft-spoken academic has no idea what lies behind the rejection of his work. He sees the experience as simply another metaphor for America's retreat from its avowed aim of a liberal Iraq. Which it is.
The writer is a senior editor at the New Republic and a Hudson Institute fellow.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company