Slate: Why We Were Wrong on Iraq

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Kanan Makiya
Director, Iraq Memory Foundation
Thursday, March 20, 2008; 12:00 PM

Iraq Memory Foundation director Kanan Makiya was online Thursday, March 13 at noon ET to discuss Slate's series of articles from writers and others on why their support for the Iraq War was wrong. Makiya's can be read here.

The transcript follows.

Makiya was born in Baghdad and now teaches at Brandeis University and directs the Iraq Memory Foundation, which is based in Baghdad.

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Kanan Makiya: Hello. This is Kanan. I have just joined.

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Peaks Island, Maine: Do you believe that the Sunni militias fostered by the U.S. will, in the long term, enhance stability or undermine it?

Kanan Makiya: I think this is still an open question. We don't know. What we do know is that the Iraqi government is at the moment blocking their entry into the police and army, and treats them in an overly suspicious manner. That does not bode well for the future

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Antwerp, Belgium: Mr. Makiya, I find your take on the consequences of 30 years of living under a dictatorship very interesting. No doubt any society would need time and careful management to overcome that. I apologize if I come off sounding anti-American, but I can't help but wonder that the total failure (for four years essentially) of the American/U.K. forces to provide basic security in Iraq -- border control comes to mind -- allowed groups like al-Qaeda to come in and put a crowbar into existing fissures like the Sunni/Shiite divide. I mean, the divisions were there, but there was nobody there to keep these fissures from becoming wider and deeper and deadlier, resulting in an almost civil war.

I just heard some American on BBC World arguing that most of the casualties among civilians (nobody even knows how many) were caused by terrorist and sectarian attacks. Probably, but by allowing the situation to deteriorate, I believe the U.S. administration should shoulder at least part of the blame. To summarize, "shock and awe" was the start of the war, but I continually have been "shocked and awed" by the plain incompetence and the intellectual dishonesty that this U.S. administration has shown in regard of the consequences of this invasion of Iraq.

Kanan Makiya: The failure to control Iraq's borders on day one after regime change was a strategic blunder of incalculable consequences. It all goes back to inadequate troop levels -- not to knock Saddam out, but to maintain the peace after his overthrow. The problem of the borders, incidentally, pertains not only to al-Qaeda but to Iranian intelligence and Revolutionary Guard member, for whom access into Iraq is still a very easy thing

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Fairfax, Va.: How much should the media be held accountable for its role in obscuring the truth about Iraq from the American people?

Kanan Makiya: I am not sure I would hold the media responsible for telling lies about Iraq. Perhaps much earlier, before August 1990, it should have done more to inform Americans on the atrocities being perpetrated in Iraq.

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dva: I'm struck by Makiya's last paragraph, which talks about the unreadiness of the Iraqis to deal with the world after liberation. (Or "liberation.") I've spent my life studying the former Soviet Union and the past twenty years working there, including substantial time as a USAID contractor. His description of the Iraqi people precisely fits the populations of every post-Soviet state I ever have worked in. (It's no surprise, and it says nothing bad about the people, as everyone but the saints simply adapted to get along. How do you respond to a woman who says she hates Yeltsin because she has to break herself again? She did it to fit in the Soviet Union, and now has to do it again.)

Lots of Americans, in the U.S. government and out of it, have encountered and dealt with this phenomenon of the atomized population since 1991, and it was first noted after World War II. No one with any historical memory or experience should have expected anything other than this unreadiness to cope with the world from the Iraqi population -- nor should anyone have been surprised that shaking it off requires generations. Lots of things weren't thought through in the rush to a "short victorious war" in Iraq, but in my humble opinion this is one of the most important omissions.

Kanan Makiya: I agree with much of what you say, but was it really possible to "know" in advance something like how Iraqis would react? Their whole world was in flux; everything and everybody was on the move. Ideas were changing palpably by the day. I experienced that personally for nearly four years. Everything looked like it was possible, and yet it wasn't. Leaders said one thing one day, and another the next. Iraqis were learning what it meant to be political. In the beginning they were like infants in swaddling clothes learning how to walk. Remember how they braved the bullets in 2005 to vote.

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Laurel, Md.: How much of the administrative failure was because of de-Baathification? Were a lot of reasonable, functional individuals kept out of jobs they should have had just because they had joined the party out of employment convenience?

Kanan Makiya: The effects if de-Baathification were for the most part psychological. They led Sunnis to feel -- understandably so -- that they were being targeted. One must after a experience like Iraq's hold people accountable, but one also must have structures of forgiveness in place. After all, everyone had been implicated in the violence of the regime after 30 years.

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Trebuchet:"I underestimated the self-centeredness and sectarianism of the ruling elite and the social impact of 30 years of extreme dictatorship," When you are referring to the ruling elite, are you talking about little George and Dick Cheney? Yes, it is hard to overestimate the self-centeredness and sectarianism of that ruling elite, but thankfully, their regime has ended sooner than planned...

Kanan Makiya: No. I was not referring to the Bush administration.

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Helena, Mont.: I knew there were atrocities going on in Iraq long before 1990; the U.S. was complicit with Saddam on some things -- like giving him chemical weapons. But it is not up to the U.S. to right wrongs in other countries -- it is up to the people of those countries. The problem with Iraq is that those against Saddam could not cooperate with each other -- the Shia could not cooperate with the Kurds, nor with disaffected Sunni. I hope and pray that we get out of Iraq as soon as possible and don't stay another five or 10 years.

Kanan Makiya: There are no obligations, but we live in a world that, since World War II, increasingly has felt itself connected with the fate of other peoples in faraway lands. No one would have dreamed of intervening to stop gross abuses in the 19th century. Since then, however, the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have appeared on the scene, indicating that we are expanding our previously very narrow definitions of who we are and who "the other" is.

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Princeton, N.J.: You keep going on about Saddam's atrocities, but there were equally bad acts occurring in Rwanda, Congo, Darfur, etc. What about Saudi Arabia, where torture and beheadings are commonplace and woman are in virtual slavery? Surely even the acts of Saddam do not justify what we have done to the country of Iraq.

Kanan Makiya: The U.S. has not committed atrocities in Iraq that are even remotely comparable to what Saddam did.

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chamsticks: The only good thing to come from this war should be the realization that one nation can't do it by itself. I don't remember when the U.S. became the sheriff of the U.N. or we voted to spend our tax dollars on upholding U.N. resolutions. So many dictatorships, so much misrule. Only an international body of some sort can hope to deal with it; when one nation goes it alone it becomes so obscenely expensive in so many ways that the nation itself will become its own dictatorship, as we seem to be lurching toward. Saddam the torturer being fought by a nation newly won over to the virtues of torture ... I'll know it's well on the way if not already here if the Republicans are re-elected.

Kanan Makiya: In general I agree with you, but surely it is better that one nation tries to do good -- even if it fails -- than that we wait for this international body to come into existence. Unfortunately the U.N. let the people of Iraq down, repeatedly.

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Peaks Island, Maine: Do you believe that the benefits of the war will ultimately outweigh its costs?

Kanan Makiya: I honestly don't know at this point in time. It also all depends on how long "ultimately" is. I think of Iraq as a kind of Pandora's box, the lid of which the U.S. knocked open. The hope was that politicians could artfully manage the furies that were bound to emerge; that proved unfounded. The furies are now out there doing their terrible work; eventually they will be tamed -- the whole of history is evidence of that. But how long is "eventually"?

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Ottawa, Canada : Would you have supported the overthrow of Saddam and his government if he was replaced by another dictator more friendly to the U.S.? Do you think that if this had happened, the situation in Iraq today would be better than it is today?

Kanan Makiya: The U.S. did think of replacing Saddam with some army officers. At the time (2002-2003) I bristled with anger at the idea. I still would not accept it -- and yet I cannot deny that it just might have led to a situation that was better than the one we face at the present. The point, however, is that one never can know such a thing -- one only can work with what one thinks is right, morally speaking, at the time. Consider also the fact that the army in all likelihood was incapable of assuming power in 2003. We did not know this at the time, but the way it just fell apart suggests that its erosion as an institution long preceded the war of 2003

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Richmond, Va.: Couldn't Iraq , preinvasion, have been compared to Yugoslavia when Tito was in power, with a strong man holding three separate factions together? As soon as Tito was gone, Yugoslavia broke down into civil war, the same as Iraq did as soon as Saddam was gone. I remember hearing commentators before the war mention this as a possible scenario, so it was predictable. Thoughts?

Kanan Makiya: Yes it was a possible scenario, but it was not inevitable. Artful politics could have avoided it, as it could have avoided it in Yugoslavia. To change the course of a polity that has been 30 years in the making is never a knowable enterprise. It is all about different possibilities that the behavior of individuals -- Iraqis and Americans -- affect one way or the other.

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New York: Thank you for chatting today. Tom Ricks, in a recent chat, said that he had come to the conclusion that more troops would not have helped at the outset of the Iraq war. He contends that U.S. troops' heavy-handed treatment of Iraqi citizens only drove them to the insurgency. More troops would have compounded the problem. Your thoughts?

Kanan Makiya: I don't agree. The U.S. lost control of security on day one, with the outbreak of looting. Iraqis are a people that had known nothing but a surplus of security; to suddenly take all that away and say, in effect, that they were on your own, was unforgivable. They felt that no one was in control -- and when your whole world is being turned upside down, the feeling that no one is in control is terrifying. Consequently it is conducive of the most irrational forms of behavior.

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Austin, Texas: You focus, understandably, on the consequences of the invasion for the people of Iraq. Certainly that's enormously important. But from a U.S. perspective, it's also necessary to ask whether the U.S. is better off now than it would have been with Saddam in power. Given the cost in U.S. lives, money and international standing, it seems clear to me that the answer is no. What do you think?

Kanan Makiya: Sadly, viewed in the very short run, I think you may be right. But what happens after an overly hasty U.S. withdrawal leads the whole region into turmoil? The U.S. entered Iraq, but the whole region has been affected and is today in a state of upheaval -- not because of the U.S. action in Iraq alone, but because there is a deep malaise in Arab politics that has been in the making since 1967. That malaise already has spread out and affected the West in Sept. 11, and it will no doubt continue to affect Europe, especially in the years to come. For better or worse we live in a deeply interconnected world.

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Princeton, N.J.: I never said we committed atrocities -- I meant we wrecked the country. Look at pictures of Basra before the invasion and compare them with today's. How many Iraqis have died in just five years because of our acts? One in five have been forced out of their homes. Are they better off now than under Saddam?

Kanan Makiya: You -- i.e. the U.S. -- didn't wreck Iraq a fraction as much as we -- i.e. Iraqis -- did. The looting, for instance, destroyed orders of magnitude more infrastructure than the war ever did.

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Dorchester, Mass.: Saddam Hussein was not a good leader. Did the people of Iraq ever get close to removing him themselves? If so, did our interference cause that homegrown rebels to cease to exist?

Kanan Makiya: The nature of Saddam's system of government was such as to render his removal from inside an impossibility. The only opposition inside Iraq was a dead opposition. How such an admittedly bizarre state of affairs came into being is something I have written a great deal about ("Republic of Fear").

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Anonymous: Prior to the US invasion, Iraq was somewhat of a buffer state between Shia Iran and the Sunni Middle East. Iraq had Sunni/Shia intermarriage, dating and shared neighborhoods. This buffer is now broken and Iran seems to be the better for it. Doesn't this raise the chances of a regional war in the Middle East as the Sunni Arabs seek to tamp down Iran's growing strength? Is this what George Bush meant by fighting them over there -- hoping to cause a regional conflict so that both sides would be too busy killing one another to plan attacks on the U.S.?

Kanan Makiya: Islam itself is, you could say, undergoing its own civil war, its own wars of reformation (think of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries) -- and Iraq is at the moment one of the prime battlefields. I don't think that this has anything to do with George Bush.

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New York: What is your opinion of the "surge"?

Kanan Makiya: It is a short-term strategy that is working, but only in the short term.

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Bethesda, Md.: "The U.S. has not committed atrocities in Iraq that are even remotely comparable to what Saddam did." Wow. Way to twist Princeton's point to avoid giving a real response. How about you try to answer the question he or she actually posed?

Kanan Makiya: Iraq was far more dangerous to the region -- the Middle East -- than the reprehensible Saudi regime is or ever will become. It had, after all launched two deeply destructive wars, and was intent on becoming hegemonic in the region.

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Kanan Makiya: Thank you all for participating. I must say goodbye now.

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