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
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...