Thursday, January 15, 2004

Some blog entries are quick. This one wasn't; I've been chewing it over for nearly a week now. But that said, it's as topical now as it was when I started, so what the heck.

I had the opportunity to hear a talk by Kanan Makiya at MIT last week. Makiya, as you may know, is the former Iraqi dissident who wrote Republic of Fear, a moving account of Saddam's atrocities, and is involved with current events there both as an advisor to the constitutional committee of the IGC, and as the organizer of the Iraq Memory Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of Saddam Hussein's atrocities.

It was a talk that featured, to me, a lot of weird contrasts. In fact, it started off with one -- Makiya described the mistrust of interim constitutions in many Iraqi circles, due to the use of interim constitutions by several military regimes, and ultimately, the Baath party under Saddam Hussein. For those reasons, he stressed the importance of proceeding directly to a stable, final constitution.

He then explained that due in part to exigent external pressures which he didn't describe in detail (presumably from Washington), there was going to be an interim constitution. To some, this might suggest an unwarranted haste -- one of several mistakes in the occupation which Makiya acknowledged.

For instance, he also cited the failure of the CPA to find Iraqi allies and collaborate effectively with them (including the Arabic-speaking archivists he has recruited for his own foundation, who are not being allowed to assist the US in the perusal of the archives for their own purposes), and how the use of American forces to maintain security was a situation fraught with peril, which he said that many in advance had advised them to avoid.

And yet, rather than blame, he had high praise for the officials in the American administration, and more precisely the neoconservative faction within it. (The alliance seems to spill over into personal connections; for what it's worth, he is in the stable of experts maintained by Benador Associates, which also includes Richard Perle, Laurie Mylroie, and the particularly bloody-minded Michael Ledeen).

When I pointed out in Q&A that all this had made some of us doubt the depth and sincerity of the administration's commitment to democracy in Iraq, his response was in part to cite the old cliché that it's better to be inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in. And while it's not clear what this means to people who will never be inside Dubya's tent, or Dick Cheney's, no matter what we do, he suggested that it would be good for those on the American left to demand that the administration hold true to its small-d democratic rhetoric -- even though the administration has shown no inclination to accomodate big-D Democratic demands of any kind whatever.

And in fact, there's something to his logic, at least as it applies to him. In politics, you can't always choose who you work with, and demanding that your allies agree with you in every particular leads you into the sins of Saint Ralph (viz. the comments here). In fact, it's not entirely out of the question that Makiya has private doubts about the quality of the administration which he is reluctant to air in any public or semipublic forum, for obvious reasons -- but nevertheless feels that by staying part of the process, he may be able to keep them away from errors they would otherwise slide into. (Though he certainly wouldn't, and didn't, hint at any such reservations to the likes of me).

But there is also a danger. The logic that "it would be worse without me" can justify collaboration with people a lot worse than Bill Clinton, or George Bush. Indeed, without equating those guys with the likes of Saddam, we can still suggest that at least a few of the people who collaborated with and enabled the Baath regime were following the same sort of reasoning. Conversely, a protest against the CPA's hamhandedness, its failure to find and engage with Iraqi allies on the ground, and so forth, would have a lot more impact from Kanan Makiya, than from the likes of me.

So, I imagine, for someone in Makiya's position, there must be indignities and reverses which must be endured to get anything done. You have to decide how much good you are actually doing by staying in volved in the process -- and how much toleration of hasty interim constitutions, corruption, pandering to theocrats, armed raids against civilians based on unsubstantiated rumors from informants (much as under the old regime), and so forth is worth that good.

But on the other hand, from the American history even in this region in the past, it seems to me, there would have to be indignities and reverses which are too deep to be ignored. One might think, for instance, of the United States's unquestioned betrayal of the Shiite rebellion after Gulf War I, or Kissinger's earlier stab in the back of the Kurds -- both preceded by solemn promises and invocations of high ideals from American politicians who, when pushed, did not live up to them. So the awful part is that when you're dealing with these people directly, you can't always know what they are up to, and how firmly they are committed to it. There are no sharp lines between firm commitment and looking for the quick fix, or between looking for the quick fix and betraying democratic ideals entirely.

And so, at any point, you just have to guess how close you are to the line -- and whether you're doing more good by sticking with your current collaborators, flawed though they be, or by publicly holding them personally to account for their flaws, knowing (from their record) that the doors to the closed chambers will be forever sealed to you after that.

But the road Makiya is traveling is unmarked. No sign, no border post, marks that line.

For now, Makiya doesn't seem to think he's anywhere close to the line. But for that, he has nothing to go on but his own judgment. I don't envy him one bit.

Note: some light copy-editing to this post done late... e.g., switched link from Juan Cole's discussion of the IGC's establishment of Sharia law to Riverbend's...


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home