The United States officially went to war in Iraq 10 years ago, on March 19, 2003. But in one small sense, the war can be said to have begun in 1989. That was the year a London-based Iraqi architect named Kanan Makiya published a book called “Republic of Fear.”
Written under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil, the book offered a devastating inside analysis of Saddam Hussein’s regime, depicting it as a Middle Eastern version of the totalitarian states that emerged in Europe in the 1920s. Makiya, the son of a prominent Iraqi architect, was living in the West after having worked for his father’s firm and receiving a PhD in architecture from MIT. When Hussein invaded Kuwait the next year and the United States went to war, “Republic of Fear” became a surprise bestseller; its author went on to become a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University. And when George W. Bush’s administration built the case for the second Iraqi war starting in 2001, it turned to Makiya’s book for support once again.
It is difficult to overstate Makiya’s intellectual and moral influence on those who forged our position on Iraq over two decades. He appeared frequently in the media as the unofficial spokesman for the Iraqi exile community, a human symbol of what might be possible in a liberated Iraq. He met with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the run-up to the war and worked with Iraqi exile groups to build a post-Hussein Iraq. He was the protagonist of “The Assassins’ Gate,” journalist George Packer’s book on the planning and execution of the Iraq war. As former New Republic editor Peter Beinart wrote, looking back at why he supported the war: “For myself, perhaps the most honest reply is this: because Kanan Makiya did.”
Today, the landscape is radically different. Iraq as a polity is “a failure,” Makiya admits from London, where he is on sabbatical, working on a book about the failures of the Iraqi elite. Today, Makiya receives no White House invitations; even by 2007, Beinart wrote of Makiya, “I haven’t seen him, or read anything he’s said or written, in several years.” Beinart’s mournful but devastating assessment—that Makiya was too idealistic, too sure of American intentions and Iraqi potential—has come to be the standard view of him among former war supporters.
Makiya himself has backed away from promises of Iraqi harmony. Instead, he spends his time on the nonprofit organization he founded, The Iraq Memory Foundation, which compiles documents, interviews, and artifacts chronicling the horrors of Hussein’s regime. He is grappling with the legacy of his writings and public work, which many people see as profoundly damaging—yet he still stands by his central belief that Iraq was a genuinely horrifying regime that did need to be overthrown. “What has happened in Iraq is primarily the fault of Iraqis, not of Americans,” he says. Of his book, he says: “I do not regret writing it in the slightest.....I don’t think the question is: How were a writer’s ideas used by others? It is: Did they accurately describe things?”
The Iraq that Makiya described in “Republic of Fear” was unlike anything else in the Middle East. Instead of being a traditional autocracy like Saudi Arabia or Jordan, Iraq was a totalitarian state—an Arab equivalent of Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Soviet Union, under the ruthless thumb of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. Secret police, a cult of
personality based on an all-powerful leader, a society based around fear—all were present in Iraq. Makiya described life there as an almost existential horror. “In Iraq, the public has lost all sense of self; it exists only in the form artificially imparted to it by ‘its’ regime,” he wrote.
“Republic of Fear” was released by the University of California Press in the spring of 1989 and was little noticed at first, selling about a thousand copies in its first year. But when Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, it became a bestseller in the United States and Britain, and Makiya suddenly became a public figure. “Republic of Fear” offered a moral argument for the war; when President George H.W. Bush likened Hussein to Hitler, he was reading straight from Makiya’s script. “Makiya’s trenchant account was of the moment,” says Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East expert at Boston University.
In his book, Makiya didn’t call for outside powers to liberate Iraq—indeed, he barely mentioned the Western world at all. But things changed once the United States initiated war. “I was the first person to argue, in 1991—it was a different story in 2003—that the US should topple Hussein,” Makiya says now.Continued...