Remember Kanan Makiya? He’s the Iraqi who shocked a gathering of liberal intellectuals in New York City in November by advocating a U.S. war against Saddam Hussein. George Packer ended his December 8 New York Times Magazine article, "The Liberal Quandary Over Iraq," with Makiya’s statement, and, like Makiya, he meant it to be a stunner:
''I'm afraid I'm going to strike a discordant note.'' [Makiya] pointed out that Iraqis, who will pay the highest price in the event of an invasion, ''overwhelmingly want this war.'' He outlined a vision of postwar Iraq as a secular democracy with equal rights for all of its citizens. This vision would be new to the Arab world. ''It can be encouraged, or it can be crushed just like that. But think about what you're doing if you crush it.'' Makiya's voice rose as he came to an end. ''I rest my moral case on the following: if there's a sliver of a chance of it happening, a 5 to 10 percent chance, you have a moral obligation, I say, to do it.''
We were all supposed to read this and hate ourselves for being chardonnay-swilling, Brie-gnawing Upper West Side yupster naif scum. Me, I read it and thought, This makes no damn sense.
First, it poses a false dichotomy -- if we don’t invade, Makiya says, we crush all hopes for democracy, apparently for all time. Why is that true? During the Cold War we didn’t invade the Soviet Union, or its satellites in the Eastern bloc, and the democratic impulse in those nations clearly was not “crushed.” Have Michael Bay movies colonized Makiya’s mind? Is there no way to encourage democracy in Iraq other than immediate, essentially unilateral war?
Second, the future of Iraq in a postwar world is not a matter of “chance” -- it’s a matter of government policy that will be driven by men named Bush, Rove, Rumsfeld, and Cheney, with possible input from Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Does it have to be stated again that George W. Bush sneered outright at nation-building in his first debate with Al Gore in 2000, or that his administration is doing a piss-poor job of it in Afghanistan right now?
And does Makiya think none of the possible risks of this war outweigh the sliver of a chance for democracy? Scorched earth? Jihadists with the bomb in Pakistan? A chemical/nuclear exchange between Iraq and Israel? More terrorism for years worldwide, particularly in the United States -- which is Makiya’s home, and has been for decades?
Oh yeah -- did I mention that little detail about Makiya’s bio, a detail Packer left out of his article? Makiya’s not a refugee from Saddam’s jails -- like, say, Hussain al-Shahristani, who was tortured in Iraqi prisons but expressed deep skepticism about the coming war last month in England. According to an article by Michael Massing in the 1/6/03 issue of The Nation, Makiya “came to this country in the late 1960s to attend MIT and never left.” (Packer referred to him as just “an Iraqi dissident.”)
Yes, Makiya has spent years researching and writing about the horrors of life in Iraq -- but his experience of Iraq is that of a journalist, not a victim of Saddam.
Liberal white guilt is not called for.
Massing’s article begins where Packer’s leaves off, with Makiya’s quote. Massing reviews the humanitarian arguments for war, then patiently reality-checks each one. It’s a good summary of the antiwar argument. I’m sorry it’s not on the Web.