Others are more charitable. “Kanan paid a huge personal price for the catastrophe that was the American invasion of Iraq, but no one should forget how terrible Saddam’s tyranny was and how important Kanan’s role was in denouncing that tyranny and mobilizing opinion against it,” says Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian politician and Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor. Ignatieff was himself a prominent war supporter, advocating intervention as a New York Times Magazine writer and the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard from 2000 to 2005.
George Packer, whose book portrayed Makiya as well intentioned but a dreamer, sees him today as an honorable man whose mistakes are well chronicled. “Kanan justifiably was criticized for thinking the liberalization and democratization of Iraq would come quickly and easily, but those causes are not going away, and I think his reputation will only grow in stature over time,” says Packer. “In 30 years, Kanan Makiya will be seen as a visionary and champion of democracy, I think, even if the fact of the invasion itself and the terrible aftermath set those causes back.”
At the very least, Makiya is an unusual figure in history: the author of a book still seen as accurate and astute, but whose repercussions have been catastrophic for many of the people it was supposed to help. The nearest modern parallel, perhaps, is George Kennan, the diplomat whose pseudonymous 1947 article about the Soviet Union became the source for the American doctrine of “containment.” Over the following decades Kennan’s work was used to justify military intervention everywhere from Vietnam to Cuba, often with bloody and harmful results. In his memoirs years later, Kennan rued his influence: “I felt like one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witnesses its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster.”
Kennan backed off of his original analysis, saying he had been unduly alarmist about the Soviet Union. Makiya has no such misgivings, at least about “Republic of Fear.” “I do not regret writing it in the slightest,” he says. The mistake he made, he says, was in having faith in the possibilities of Iraqi elites to rise above sectarianism. “I wouldn’t change my positions, because I feel the war was the right thing to do, but I made real errors of judgment in what I thought Iraqi elites were capable of,” he says.
Makiya now says he believes the war contributed to the Arab Spring. “People on the ground in Egypt and Syria don’t want to admit that there was a connection, but something fundamental happened as a result of the war—a culture and an ethos changed.” (Indeed, they will not admit it. When Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive whose Facebook page helped spark the Egyptian uprising, was questioned about the Iraq’s War’s contributions, he said it contributed “not at all.”)
But “Republic of Fear”’s ultimate effects are beside the point for Makiya. What matters is that it accurately described the unique viciousness of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “A book is like a baby—you give birth to it and what someone makes of it is something entirely different,” he says. “Books are not written to be used by others.”
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.