Sifting Through Five Years of War
Kanan Makiya takes readers' questions about Iraq.
Writer and Iraq Memory Foundation Director Kanan Makiya was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, March 13, to chat with readers about Slate's series of articles by "liberal hawks" reflecting on why their initial support of the Iraq war was wrong. Read Makiya's piece here.
Kanan Makiya: Hello. This is Kanan. I have just joined.
Peaks Island, Maine: Do you believe that the Sunni militias fostered by the U.S. will, in the long term, enhance stability or undermine it?
Kanan Makiya: I think this is still an open question. We don't know. What we do know is that the Iraqi government is at the moment blocking their entry into the police and army and treats them in an overly suspicious manner. That does not bode well for the future
Antwerp, Belgium: Mr. Makiya, I find your take on the consequences of 30 years of living under a dictatorship very interesting. No doubt any society would need time and careful management to overcome that. I apologize if I come off sounding anti-American, but I can't help but wonder that the total failure (for four years essentially) of the American/U.K. forces to provide basic security in Iraq—border control comes to mind—allowed groups like al-Qaeda to come in and put a crowbar into existing fissures like the Sunni/Shiite divide. I mean, the divisions were there, but there was nobody there to keep these fissures from becoming wider and deeper and deadlier, resulting in an almost civil war.
I just heard some American on BBC World arguing that most of the casualties among civilians (nobody even knows how many) were caused by terrorist and sectarian attacks. Probably, but by allowing the situation to deteriorate, I believe the U.S. administration should shoulder at least part of the blame. To summarize, "shock and awe" was the start of the war, but I continually have been "shocked and awed" by the plain incompetence and the intellectual dishonesty that this U.S. administration has shown in regard of the consequences of this invasion of Iraq.
Kanan Makiya: The failure to control Iraq's borders on day one after regime change was a strategic blunder of incalculable consequences. It all goes back to inadequate troop levels not to knock Saddam out, but to maintain the peace after his overthrow. The problem of the borders incidentally pertains not only to Qaeda but to Iranian intelligence and Revolutionary Guard member for whom access into Iraq is until today a very easy thing
Fairfax, Va.: How much should the media be held accountable for its role in obscuring the truth about Iraq from the American people?
Kanan Makiya: I am not sure I would hold the media responsible for telling lies about Iraq. Perhaps much earlier, before August 1990, it should have done more to inform Americans on the atrocities being perpetrated in Iraq.
dva: I'm struck by Makiya's last paragraph, which talks about the unreadiness of the Iraqis to deal with the world after liberation. (Or "liberation.") I've spent my life studying the former Soviet Union and the past twenty years working there, including substantial time as a USAID contractor. His description of the Iraqi people precisely fits the populations of every post-Soviet state I ever have worked in. (It's no surprise, and it says nothing bad about the people, as everyone but the saints simply adapted to get along. How do you respond to a woman who says she hates Yeltsin because she has to break herself again? She did it to fit in the Soviet Union, and now has to do it again.)
Lots of Americans, in the U.S. government and out of it, have encountered and dealt with this phenomenon of the atomized population since 1991, and it was first noted after World War II. No one with any historical memory or experience should have expected anything other than this unreadiness to cope with the world from the Iraqi population—nor should anyone have been surprised that shaking it off requires generations. Lots of things weren't thought through in the rush to a "short victorious war" in Iraq, but in my humble opinion this is one of the most important omissions.
Kanan Makiya: I agree with much of what you say. But was it really possible to "know" in advance something like how Iraqis would react? Their whole world was in flux; everything and everybody was on the move. Ideas were palpably changing by the day. I experienced that personally for nearly 4 years. Everything looked like it was possible, and yet it wasn't. Leaders said one thing one day, and another the next. Iraqis were learning what it meant to be political. In the beginning they were like infants in swaddling clothes learning how to walk. Remember how they v=braved the bullets in 2005 to vote.
Laurel, Md.: How much of the administrative failure was because of de-Baathificaiton? Were a lot of reasonable, functionable individuals kept out of jobs they should have had just because they had joined the party out of employment convenience?
Kanan Makiya: The effects if De-Ba'thiification were for the most part psychological. They led Sunnis to feel, understandably so, that they were being targeted. One must, after a experience like Iraq's, hold people accountable. But one also must have structures of forgiveness in place. After all everyone had been implicated in the violenece of the regime after 30 years.
Trebuchet:"I underestimated the self-centeredness and sectarianism of the ruling elite and the social impact of 30 years of extreme dictatorship," When you are referring to the ruling elite, are you talking about little George and Dick Cheney? Yes, it is hard to overestimate the self-centeredness and sectarianism of that ruling elite, but thankfully, their regime has ended sooner than planned...
Kanan Makiya was born in Baghdad and now teaches at Brandeis University and directs the Iraq Memory Foundation, based in Baghdad. His books include Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq;The Monument: Art, Vulgarity, and Responsibility in Iraq;Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, and Uprising in the Arab World; andThe Rock: A Tale of 7th-Century Jerusalem.