Iraq, 10 years after the war

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First aired on The Current (20/03/13)

His 1989 book Republic of Fear exposed the regime of Saddam Hussein and had a major influence on Washington policy-makers for almost two decades -- right up to the decision to invade Iraq. A decade after the invasion, Iraqi academic Kanan Makiya spoke to The Current about the new Iraq he unwittingly helped create. He teaches Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and is the founder of the Iraq Memory Foundation.

Makiya told host Anna Maria Tremonti that the current violence highlights "the continuing breakdown, perhaps even accelerating breakdown, of the government structures of the country. The withdrawal of a number of ministers from the cabinet also underlines the growing isolation of the prime minister, and this has been developing over a number of months, getting worse and worse."

Makiya was in Iraq just over a week earlier, in Kurdistan. But the situation there is different. "The three governments in the north are actually doing very well, economically, socially and in security terms," he said. "Something new is occurring in the north, and it is transforming the nature of the region."


Makiya wanted to correct the impression that he had called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Republic of Fear. "I never dreamed that the United States would be possibly engaged in war with Iraq because those were the days that the United States had excellent relations," he said. His intention in writing the book was "to describe a system, a truly nasty political regime, that had committed abuses that I argued in that book were exceptional even by the standards of the region, which are very, let's say, poor ones, to put it mildly."

Makiya went on to emphasize that the book "is not a recipe for intervention left, right and centre," but rather an analysis. "How books get used is an entirely different story."

Makiya published Republic of Fear under a pseudonym. But he followed it up with a 1993 book, Cruelty and Silence, under his own name. His decision to do so was influenced by the uprising inside Iraq that followed the Gulf War, in which "millions of Iraqis were taking to the streets and calling upon the Allies who had been bombing their help liberate them from the regime." He felt it would be cowardly not to speak out in public.

When asked what wrong in the aftermath of the U.S. intervention, Makiya said that there were a series of mistakes by the Americans in the first year. But after that, he said, "I think the failures are overwhelmingly Iraqi ones. On the backs of American tanks, essentially a new political elite was created in Baghdad, overnight -- one that had not struggled, one that had sort of sat in countries overseas and opposed Saddam Hussein, of course, but not one that had actually earned its leadership right. One of my great errors of judgement was to have misjudged that elite, to have thought they were capable of much better results than they have been."

Makiya pointed out that this elite "proved remarkably corrupt. It treated the country like something to be looted rather than something to be built. That still goes on." Another important factor is the regime's legacy of "tyranny and repression," which caused a "degradation in values" that continues to this day. Iraqis, he said, "are compromised people, they are hurt people, they're broken people, they're abused people."

Makiya draws a connection between what's happening in Iraq and events in other Arab countries. "We are seeing a breakdown of the Arab state system, that complicated system that was set up by the British and French largely after World War I," he explained. "The first Gulf War was about the first violation of that state system, when Saddam Hussein walked into Kuwait, occupied, annexed, raped a country called Kuwait, wiped it off the map. The world intervened to restore the system -- and the Arab states wanted it restored." In the aftermath of the war, many Iraqis clamoured for an end to the system that had created Saddam Hussein. But "the world stood by as those people back in 1991 rose up and were cut down."

In 2003, however, the U.S.-led intervention "represented a major challenge to the legitimacy of that system," Makiya said. "Today, we look around us, [in] Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq, the system is coming apart...the very identity of these states is being called into question.

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