In the late Sixties, the Iraqi-born Kanan Makiya was a Trotskyist, a card-carrying member of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S., and later, in Britain, an activist in the International Marxist Group, the British section of the Trots’ Fourth International. Then, as Edward Said put it,
“He switched sides and during the early 1980s he and his father, who own a firm called Makiya Associates, were employed by President Saddam Hussein to build a large number of buildings and projects, including a military parade ground for the observation of Saddam’s birthday in Tikrit [Saddam’s hometown], so he benefited from his connection with the Iraqis. And it was during this time that he used his second pseudonym, Samir al-Khalil, to write Republic of Fear [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989].”
The book was taken up by the War Party as one of its seminal texts, cited by the regime-changers as evidence of the moral and practical necessity of ridding the world of Ba’athism. From a “full-time political activist” in the service of the Fourth International, Makiya, like so many others, made a surprisingly smooth transition to activism in the service of the 101st Airborne.
Makiya characterizes his about-face in ideological rather than gross material terms, tracing his disillusionment with the radical leftist analysis of Middle Eastern politics to the 1975 Lebanese civil war, where he detected as much brutality on the part of the politically correct “left” forces which were “really nationalist and radical nationalist” as on the “reactionary” Christian side. The Iranian “revolution,” which installed the clergy in power, was supported by the Trots until the mullahs went after the Socialist Workers Party (HKS), the short-lived Iranian component of the mock-operatic Fourth International. Makiya’s wife, an Iranian and fellow Trotskyist, returned to her homeland to carry out the party line and came back thoroughly disillusioned. It was time for a reassessment.
By the 1990s, Makiya was already well on his way to becoming a leading neoconservative star, with his controversial book, Cruelty and Silence, causing a stir by accusing secular Arab intellectuals of essentially collaborating with their own killer regimes. Professor Said made short work of this facile analysis:
“What is particularly scurrilous about the book and about Makiya is that all the intellectuals he attacks are in fact the most vocal in opposition to the current regimes in the Middle East. What Makiya does is literally mistranslate their Arabic, misrepresent their views, distort their opinions. Why? Principally because all of them opposed the Gulf war at the same time that they all opposed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And out of this concoction Makiya has tried to make a larger case, which is completely without basis, that Arab intellectuals are silent. With a few exceptions, all the intellectuals he attacks have been imprisoned and/or exiled for speaking out; in the case of Abdelrahman Munif [Cities of Salt (New York: Vintage Books, 1989)], the man was stripped of his nationality by the Saudis because of his works. Munif is therefore far braver than Makiya, who sits pretty, wherever he is.”
Such misrepresentations must have endeared him to the neocons, for whom the “noble lie” is not only necessary but the only honorable course for an aspiring philosopher-king. Makiya took up another favorite neocon theme: that there was something radically wrong with Middle Eastern political culture that prevented the region from progressing both politically and economically, and that this desperately required Western intervention. The Arab disability, averred Makiya and a growing chorus of would-be regime-changers, was rooted in an intellectual class that blamed the region’s problems on Israel, America, and the West in general.
Why, he wondered, can’t the Arabs pull themselves up “by their bootstraps”? And if they can’t, why not yank them up at gunpoint?
Makiya was everywhere in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, cited as an “expert” and symbol of a future democratic Iraq. He pops up in George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate, an account of the intellectual support group that energized the policymakers and made the case for war to the elites. Soon Makiya was palling around with the big boys, as Jeet Heer reported in the National Post:
“In seeking advice about Iraqi society, members of the Bush administration (notably Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, and Dick Cheney, the vice president) frequently consulted Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-American intellectual whose book The Republic of Fear is considered to be the definitive analysis of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule.”
Like most, if not all, of the League of Leninist Liberators who brought us the Iraq disaster, who agitated for it and insisted on it as morally and militarily imperative, Makiya is now recanting albeit not with any sort of apology for having foisted this catastrophe on us. Instead, he blames the Iraqi people, most of all, followed by the Americans, who didn’t install the right Iraqis presumably including himself in power. “Everything they could do wrong, they did wrong,” he complains to a New York Times interviewer. “The first and the biggest American error was the idea of going for an occupation.”
Should we have invaded, installed Makiya as Supreme Leader, and left? It is disingenuous, at best, for war advocates to claim that they didn’t realize we’d be setting up an occupation: after all, what else did they expect? He blames American policy for unleashing sectarian passions: the wrong people were put in charge. Yet the death-squad regime now in power in Baghdad was installed by a democratic vote of the Iraqi people. The democracy he wanted or said he wanted is a reality: a monument to the old saw that you’d best be careful what you want, because you just might get it.
There is no indication, as far as I can tell, that Makiya is taking any personal responsibility for the human and inhuman consequences of the war he helped unleash. He’s writing a book explaining it all, but, as the Times reports, isn’t making much progress:
“Kanan Makiya’s latest creative block seems as imposing as the concrete blast walls that have sprung up across Baghdad in four years of war. He is having trouble putting words to paper, grappling with a new book that he says is likely to be his final political work on Iraq. ‘The thing that’s difficult is the form of the book,’ Makiya said as he sat down in his living room one winter evening. ‘I never had this problem before the fall of the regime. Things were simpler. The dictator was there, and you knew where you stood.'”
The revolution is always being betrayed, it seems: but that’s not really a problem for Makiya and his ilk. When the horrific consequences of one ideology become all too bloodily apparent, a certain kind of intellectual has no trouble abandoning ship after undergoing the requisite crisis-of-conscience and getting on board another until it, too, sinks under the weight of its own crimes and contradictions. Theoretically, these people are capable of perpetual reinvention, and yet the longer the process continues the harder it gets. Makiya’s had two revolutions pulled out from under his feet, and it’s no wonder he’s a little wobbly. Perhaps his writer’s block can be attributed to a sense of guilt, or at least a private realization that no one should pay attention to anything he says.
We can only hope that Makiya’s malady is contagious and the rest of the neocons will come down with writer’s block before too long. Like the dinosaurs, in one fell swoop an entire species, Homo neoconservatismus, will become extinct and suddenly the world will be a much more peaceful place.
Oh well, I can dream, can’t I?
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You might want to check out my latest column for Taki’s Top Drawer, “Giuliani’s Closet.” I have to say I really enjoy writing for Taki’s fabulous new site, in part because I get to adopt a much lighter tone. While you’re over there, check out the other contributors, particularly the inimitable Taki himself, whose acid wit and Dionysian sense of fun is a potent combination particularly when he aims his barbs at the War Party, which is often.