With Hussein still in power through the 1990s, Makiya began to be referred to as an Iraqi version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident who chronicled his government’s atrocities. In 1993 he published another book, “Cruelty and Silence,” which castigated Arab intellectuals for ignoring the evils of Hussein and for blaming the Middle East’s failings on the United States. “I became for the US media a kind of lightning rod for the Iraqi opposition,” he says. “It was a simplification and a reduction, but I was not alone—it was the same thing with Edward Said, where he was assumed to be some kind of spokesman for the Palestinians.”
When a US invasion became a concrete prospect after the 9/11 attacks, Makiya was there to offer encouragement. He formed an alliance with the Iraqi banker Ahmad Chalabi, and the two became the most influential Iraqis living in the United States.
Makiya provided a “useful, supportive voice” to the most hawkish elements of the Bush administration—“people like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Douglas Feith,” recalls Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s then-chief of staff. “Not necessarily a witting one, but a useful one.” In January 2003, right before the invasion, Makiya met with George W. Bush, Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice at the White House to discuss postwar Iraq. Makiya told Bush that Americans would be greeted as liberators. At a press conference he was even more effusive, saying, “Even if the president has to go into this enterprise alone, which of course is not the case, the judgment of the world, of history will overwhelm his critics the day after.”
Makiya was even more influential in moving liberals and Democrats toward support for an invasion on humanitarian concerns. “Makiya’s genuine commitment to human rights and liberal democracy appealed to liberal hawks like me, and the fact that he supported military action relieved—in retrospect wrongly—some of my concerns about a nationalist backlash against a US invasion,” says Beinart, who as editor of The New Republic endorsed the war.
In the end, of course, nothing like that vision took place. Chalabi’s claims to represent Iraqi opinion turned out to be as illegitimate as his business dealings. An easy military victory was followed by a disastrous occupation, a long sectarian war, and a deadly insurgency against the United States that has killed nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 110,000 Iraqis. Ten years after the war began, Hussein is long gone, but Iraq is in shambles, without a stable government.
Though Makiya thinks the United States bungled the initial management of the occupation—“The first years, what I call the Paul Bremer years, were just one mistake after another”—he insists the primary culpability does not lie not with the United States. “The Iraqi leadership proved itself capricious, greedy, selfish—it was a failure on the part of the elites,” he says. The book he has been working on for more than five years is about the “great historic betrayal of Iraq by this new class of intellectuals created by the war.”
Despite all this, Makiya does not regret pressing the case for war. “I said at the time and still believe that if there’s a 5 percent chance of Iraq becoming a democracy, we have to do it,” he says. “Under Saddam it was zero percent.” From the Iraqi perspective, then, the war was the right thing to do. But from an American perspective? “I always said that, understood for US interests”—he hesitates—“I could understand for someone from the Midwest, why asking their sons to die for something that is not even a democracy isn’t worth it.”
In fact , Makiya rarely, if ever, publicly said the war would be detrimental to the United States. When he told Bush and Cheney that Iraqis would greet Americans with “sweets and flowers,” he was suggesting the cost of the war would be slight and the benefits tremendous. Makiya’s stubbornness—he told The New York Times in 2007 that “people shouldn’t feel the need to apologize”—enrages his detractors. They describe Makiya variously as a tool of the Bush administration and uncaring about the suffering the Iraq war has caused. “The point is he doesn’t want to admit he’s wrong because he doesn’t want to live in a world in which he wasn’t right,” Samantha Power, until recently a senior White House staffer, told a reporter at The American Prospect in 2007. Virtually everything written and said about Kanan Makiya since the Iraqi insurgency emerged has been about just how Makiya could have gotten it so wrong. Continued...