What Went Wrong in 2003: An Iraqi Story for the Future
(Kanan Makiya, April 5, 2016)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Kanan Makiya, born in Baghdad, is the author of the best-selling Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, the book that put Saddam Hussein’s Ba’thist regime in the crosshairs. His new book, The Rope, which was available for signing, is an unflinching novel about Iraqi failure in the wake of the 2003 American invasion.
In 2003, Makiya founded the Iraq Memory Foundation, an NGO based in Baghdad and the U.S. dedicated to documenting and overcoming the legacy of evil from Saddam’s regime. He has collaborated on several films, including “Saddam’s Killing Fields,” which exposed for the first time the campaign of mass murder in northern Iraq known as the Anfal. The Memory Foundation has collected and digitized nearly 10 million pages of Ba’th-era documents.
He is the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. Makiya has also written The Monument (1991), Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (1993), and The Rock: A Seventh-Century Tale of Jerusalem (2010).
Robert R. Reilly:
The chance to introduce our speaker tonight is a great privilege for me. I have known Kanan Makiya since 2003 when we met in Baghdad. I chased him down outside of the Republican palace and I had the further privilege of working with him in his capacity as the founder and head of the Iraq Memory Foundation.
But first let me step back. My first acquaintance with him was, of course, in reading his famous, seminal work, The Republic of Fear, which puts Saddam Hussein in the crosshairs, which was published in the late ‘80s, which exposed the totalitarian nature of Saddam’s regime in such a riveting way. And Kanan went on to write a number of other books; The Monument, Cruelty in Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World, The Rock, a seventh century tale of Jerusalem, centered around the construction of the Dome of the Rock. He has also contributed to some major films and documentaries, most especially notable Saddam’s Killing Fields, shown I think on PBS here and elsewhere, revealing the terrible Anfal campaign and mass slaughter of the Kurds in the north.
Now, Kanan is here tonight because of the recent book which he has published called Rope, referring to the rope with which Saddam Hussein was hanged. I just want to mention something here in reading briefly from the novel itself in the personal note in the background because it will- This personal note is any many ways searing. I contains some things that maybe surprising to people who have accepted the normal narrative of what took place here. So Kanan writes, “Iraqis, not Americans, were the prime drivers of what went wrong after 2003. Not only the ones who had suffered and lived through the regime of the Ba’ath from 1968 to 2003 but also Iraqis who rode in from abroad.” A few pages later he says, “In this book I had to tell the story of how we made our own failure in Iraq and why we own it, not the great big boogie man of the West,” unquote.
‘Our failure’; he is including himself in that failure, but I want you to know that I do not know of anybody else who strove harder to make it a success. And in Baghdad, Kanan and the Iraq Memory Foundation began making witness testimonies across the entire spectrum of Iraqi society of what had happened to individuals under Saddam Hussein, so these Steven Spielberg like testimonies, which were then edited into shorter form for broadcast on Iraqi television, which then grew to a one hour a weekly television program called “Light” or “Overcoming the Legacy of Evil,” which became the second most popular television program on al-Iraqiya station during Ramadan, prime-time viewing in the Arab Muslim world.
That was Kanan’s achievement, and this is just a small sample of those witness testimonies that were put together by Kanan and his able team. [The] Iraq Memory Foundation also assembled the documents from the Mukhabarat, the military intelligence, the police, and all the apparatuses of oppression in Iraq and that motherlode of documents… what ten million…?
Ten million scanned documents.
Robert R. Reilly:
Ten million scanned documents is available at the Iraq Memory Foundation for future historians who really want to look back and see what actually happened and also why it happened. I hasten to add that his novel The Rope is available outside, which I am sure he would be happy to sign after his talk. I am sorry for having run on so long. The subject tonight is: “What Went Wrong in 2003: An Iraqi Story for the Future.” Please join me in welcoming Kanan Makiya.
Well, Bob is far too modest. For it was only possible to make all these videos, all these testimonies, with his help. He is a dear friend as well as a colleague and we worked those difficult years, which in fictional form ended up in this book as he eluded. When Bob and I were talking about tonight’s lecture I came up with this title “What Went Wrong in 2003: An Iraqi Story.” And I ended up as often happens when you put a lecture together, slightly changing it, so [I hope] it is okay. But I think those of you who are engaged in the business of giving with lectures know exactly why, how that happens. Bob has already alluded to some of what would be the main theme of this lecture.
As you all know, very, very many books now exist on the 2003 war: what led up to it, what went wrong, why the U.S. thought there were weapons of mass destruction and there were not, how knowledgeable was the United States about a society and country it ended up occupying, and so on.
My talk is not going to cover that ground. I want to put the 2003 war in a both a broader and perhaps more local, Iraqi and regional context. I will consider what it has meant for the region as a whole. I will try to connect it with the events of the Arab Spring and failure of the Arab Spring afterwards and not issues of what exactly the U.S. did right or wrong and whether that in the end really makes all that much difference when we look at the scale of the catastrophe that is the modern Middle East today.
So, the first question. I will do this in a number of points. I may [be] skating over points, but I am looking forward to the question-and-answer period for you to interrogate me and to ask me to go further into something or to have a discussion over it. But the first question I want to start with, the first observation I say, is why did the Iraqi state collapse in quite the way that it did?
I think we have to pause here for a moment and think about that question.
And then: was the fall of the first Arab dictator in 2003 connected to a whole slew of other Arab dictators starting in 2011 onwards? Is the one seminal event, the great big watershed event of 2003, connected to the other and as we look today from our current vantage point back at the state of the Middle East, can we say we are looking at the early stages of the collapse of an entire system of Arab states set up in the wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious powers of the time? I think France, principally.
So, these are very big questions and I do not think I would have definitive answers to these questions, but perhaps my main theme of today’s talk will be to say there is a connection between 2003 and Iraq and these great big events that do not affect Iraq per se that the United States had virtually nothing to do with. And the United States may have bombed Libya, but it certainly did not occupy it, and they neither bombed nor occupied Syria. Today, [these are] just a couple of the states that we are talking about. In fact, if you look at the whole constellation of collapsing states, the one country that is doing a tiny bit better and not a lot, but a tiny bit better than the others, is the one that was occupied by the United States. And of course, the United States was directly responsible for getting rid of its dictator, namely Iraq.
So, to return to this question about the way that the Iraqi state that Saddam built collapsed. Notice that power in Iraq on the immediate aftermath of the war: it did not just fragment like a sheet of glass fracturing in two or three large chunks, forming into big pieces which can be managed. It shattered into a thousand pieces. And that was not the doing of the 2003 war. It suggests that the very way the state collapsed suggests that there were underlying reasons going on that had nothing per se to do with the war.
In the Iraqi polity, the way it was shaping up in the decades preceding 2003, long before 2003, that caused it to fall apart in that particular way. That is born out in a sense by what we see happening in other Arab states, namely the way that the Syrian state fell apart. Power is always as we know about numbers of people coalescing around something, and that something could be the idea of a single Arab nation, this was the Ba’athist idea, or it could be the idea of Iraq, that originally, artificially constructed entity [after] the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but one that lasted for a very long time now. And what states that we are living in today were not originally artificial in some form or another?
So, it could be the one or the other, but there are a whole lot of other things that suddenly became possible in that post-2003 Iraq. It turns out that there are just very many of those somethings out there, and not merely ideas in the sphere of culture and personal identity, which is normal and desirable in any culture. I mean I may be Iraqi, I may be Arab, I may think of myself as a Baghdadi on some occasions, I may be of a Muslim background, and maybe I am mixed sometimes, I may be American and Iraqi, Iraqi American, so all of these multiple identities enter into who I am and enter probably into any of us. And this is normal, this is desirable. This is, in fact, enriching to the experience of being human.
But in the sphere of politics often the question is more restrictive. Politically speaking, who am I?
Am I an Arab now? To say you are, politically speaking, an Arab means that your sense of political identity it that of Arabness, therefore Iraq is naturally artificial. You see yourself as an Arab, and you wish for a unified Arab state, so does the Ba’athist movement. That is a very different way of thinking of yourself than to say that I just happen to be, culturally speaking, Arab or Iraqi.
But now there are also other forms of identity swirling around post-2003 Iraq. Should I, for instance, now that I have been given an opportunity by the United States, should I for the first time in my very long history be a Shia, politically speaking, an Iraqi Shia, politically speaking? This is a very novel construction, but it is one very much on the agenda, very much still a very active force in Iraqi politics today.
What does it mean to be a Shia, politically speaking, in Iraq today? Iraqi Shia, unlike their Iranian counterparts, have never ever ruled themselves. They have existed for perhaps much longer than their thousand-year history. And yet, they have never ruled themselves. Their cultural conceptions of themselves are very much as victims, they see themselves as history’s eternal victims. By contrast, the Iranian Shiites are Shiites who came to Iran from the top down, it is about four hundred years old, and they have always ruled themselves, be it in the form of the Pahlavi dynasty or in the form of the Islamic Republic.
But Iraqi Shia have not, and so they embarked upon an experiment, quite unprecedented in Iraqi history. But then there also is this novel idea of thinking of herself, politically speaking, as an Iraqi Shia, and of ruling in the name of Shia. The question bugs itself am I or am I not part of Iran? Am I an extension of Shias in Iran or am I something unique and distinct? Therein lies also a set of problems, a set of identities, which we need to explore.
That is, of course, not to speak of being a Kurd. Does your Kurdishness come first or your Iraqiness come first? And even what are the implications, is what I am trying to ask, of these ideas suddenly spreading throughout the political universe of the country of post-2003 Iraq. They are very, very inscrutable.
So my point is that post-2003 Iraq was no longer any one idea dominating the sphere of politics around which people could coalesce. And the only one that might have worked, we, for instance, in the Iraq Memory Foundation tried to make work, which was the idea of Iraq, an idea that was neither ethnic nor religious in conflict, and therefore had the potential of being inclusive of all those communities, Christian, Muslim, Turkoman, Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, Arab, etc. that exist in this patchwork of communities that is modern Iraq.
The only one that might have worked unfortunately was jettisoned for reasons I do explore in this book, (although it is in fictional form, that is a whole other subject) I do explore how they were jettisoned and by whom.
Well, by whom is an easy question to answer. [It was] basically by the political elite empowered by the American war, consciously in part by the American war, and therein also lies a whole set of very interesting questions.
The First Gulf War
To examine then this underlying rot, these reasons for the manner in which the state collapsed in the dramatic way that it did in 2003, I want to take you back, briefly, to that First Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Let us think about that war. I think we take it for granted a little bit too much, and it is essential to understand what happened later. Think about the 1991 war. Remarkably, you see it was a war about a restoration of that very same Arab state system that even then was under threat, and that today is everywhere we look in disarray.
The Arab order had been violated egregiously from within and for the first time in nearly eighty years that it had been constructed post the fall of the Ottoman Empire. By whom? Well, by none other, of course, than Saddam Hussein when he invaded, occupied, annexed and essentially raped the State of Kuwait for nine months, starting on August 2, 1990.
So nothing like this had ever happened, believe it or not, in Arab politics before. To be sure, Gamal Abdel Nasser had intervened in Yemen, and Hafez al Assad had tried to intervene in Lebanon, but those were like tinkering around the edges and playing communities off one another. It is not the wholesale invasion of an army, a sacking, and finally an annexation of one country to another, culling it, undermining the very foundation of that order in the mindsets of the ruling elites that had governed this part of the world for so long. So in that sense it was a completely abnormal action, literally wiping off the face of the map, erasing another country from existence, and a fellow member of the Arab League, and doing it in as brutal as a way as he did.
Now, the interesting thing about that 1991 war is that it enjoyed the support, naturally, of the Arab regimes in whose name it was waged, but it did not enjoy the support of its peoples, with the exception of course of Iraqis and Kuwaitis. Iraqis because they had suffered under Saddam’s tyranny and Kuwaitis because they had been brutally occupied were the exceptions back in 1990 that had in post-2011 become the Arab norm in the shape of the Arab Spring that broke out in 2011.
I remind you of what happened immediately after the 1991 war had been successfully concluded and Saddam Hussein had been pushed out of Kuwait by a coalition of some thirty nations led by President Bush Sr. Millions of Iraqis south and north of the country, Kurds and Shia Arabs by and large, rose up against the tyranny, and they did another first for Arab politics, another unthinkable and new phenomenon. They called upon the very allied forces that had been bombing them for weeks to help rid them of their own dictator.
Now, however tyrannical the regime may be, we all know that its people, its population will tend to rally around it in times of war. Think of the Soviet Union, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The examples are legion in history. In 1991, just to indicate the magnitude of the event, Iraqis broke that rule. They put the issue of their own dictatorship front and center of their actions, and this as I said was a first in Arab politics. It had never happened before. We, Iraqis, call that event an intifada, uprising against dictatorship.
At the end of its crushing, for reasons that are well known because the mandate of the 1991 coalition to push Saddam out of Kuwait did not include getting rid of the dictator by pushing him out of Kuwait, [we learned that many protestors had died]. In the end, that uprising was crushed at the cost of around two hundred thousand lives by the end of 1991, overwhelmingly Shiite from the south of the country, who unlike the Kurds to the north were trapped by geography and hostility of the neighbors, and essentially locked into a very deadly situation.
These numbers, this two hundred thousand Iraqis dead in 1991, are worth keeping in mind in light of the still accumulating numbers of civilian dead of the last few years. In other words, what I am doing is I am thinking outside the box. Of course, there are going to be holes in these arguments, but I want us to think about all of the connections with all of these events for at the end of the day they are connected. I am looking at the events of 1991 as a kind of dress rehearsal for what we see happening in post-2011 [Iraq].
In 1991, the Western and Arab coalition of armies, that had come to liberate Kuwait, stood by and watched as Iraqi insurgents were cut down by their tyrant. The overthrow of Saddam, as I said, was simply not part of the U.N mandate for that war, and so ordinary Iraqis died in droves as the Arab State system (I am focusing on that), led by in those days by its very formidable array of dictators, was restored to its previous status quo. In retrospect, we can say that 1991 uprising and those Iraqi deaths were, as I said, a dress rehearsal for what is going on today.
But on the surface, the 1991 Gulf War succeeded in its stated goals. The people of Iraq, true, were left under sanctions for another 13 years with a vengeful and bitter dictator itching to reach his vengeance on those who had dared to rise up against him. And by the time 2003 comes rolling along, the cost was considerable, but essentially [it amounted to] the decimation of the Iraqi middle class, the very class of those of us who [could have been] counted on for the democratic, or semi-democratic, or at least a move towards a better polity in Iraq. We could rely on that middle class. That middle class was decimated during that critical period between 1991 and 2003.
And the gutting of those state institutions that had worked ever so ruthlessly and so efficiently all through the 1970s and ’80s, the way tyrannies and totalitarian states often do, that state was now turned into a kind of criminal enterprise rather than a totalitarian enterprise during the 1990s.
And a mood of mistrust was inculcated during the 1990s towards the United States, [so] a lot of people were utterly convinced [the U.S. military would not overthrow Saddam’s government] until the United States Army was literally sitting on Iraqi territory [and] occupied Baghdad. [These people] did not believe it was actually going to happen. Memories of 1991 were playing themselves out.
In the run-up to 2003, the Second Gulf War, everyone, including myself, grossly underestimated those costs of the previous 13 years. Under our noses, the Iraqi state had metamorphosed, as I said, into a house of cards, but no one really knew. And a person like myself made it his business to know, and I did not, and it was hard to know, as well, that is probably my main point. It looked intact and powerful on the outside, but in fact it had for all practical purposes been gutted completely.
Mind you that was not an argument against the war, not in my book, anyway, not if the primary purpose of a war is the removal of a cessation of abuse, for that did not change. The abuse increased if anything. It did not decrease. But it suggested that the post-war environment was going to be a whole lot more complicated than any of us had hoped, you know, before 2003.
In fact, if you think of 2003, perhaps maybe some of you would disagree, the military experts here, former military men, and I would love it if we could talk about it, I think even the idea of a war in 2003 is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, there were skirmishes with Saddam’s Fedayeen, a battle or two perhaps with units of the Republic of God, but the whole terrible edifice of what happened, the state, just came tumbling down and the Army had dismantled itself, to be quite honest, long before Paul Bremmer issued his famous order for the dismantling of the army, so the signs, if you like, of this rot were already there and evident.
Now we did not know, as I said, in 2002 and 2003 what we know today. We did not know, as I said, how far the rot had gone, and we did not know how the new political elites empowered by the American war literally, you know, ensconced as new rulers of Iraq. But we all knew, everyone in opposition knew, that the United States had no intention of staying very long in Iraq. It did not matter whether you were looking at it from a defense DOD point of view or Department or State point of view, the United States was in there for a short time to make something work, to make it.
Everybody knew the United States was leaving, so the act of removing the dictator and the empowering of a new elite was crucial to the future. Perhaps a lot more thought, in retrospect we can say, should have been given to that act of empowerment. We know know that. And the rush with which the United States left, especially under Obama, the kind of almost embarrassing rapidity of that rush, has of course done nothing to help events, and it has made it worse.
I as the quote that Robert Reilly turned to, and the entire point of this book, which is above all an Iraqi story about 2003, is about how that elite empowered by the American war failed Iraqis, how it in a sense gave birth to the sectarianism that is today built into the very shape of the new Iraqi state, replacing them. And it is the sectarian behavior that we see from very early on in the behavior of this elite is the forerunner again of the sectarianism that is now rampant throughout the region, that we see in Syria after 2011 and throughout the region.
And as I said, I am in this book so to speak dissecting in fictional form, but very heavily based on that kind of groundwork of facts, the precise ways in which those failures of judgment, and they are failures of judgment, [unfolded]. It was done in fiction in part because at moments of great historical change, great turning points in the lives of nations, individuals’ subjectivity, character even, plays an enormous role in the outcome of events, and that is the territory I explored in this novel and the reason I chose a novel to explore that particular territory as opposed to the historical forces or the kind of connection with other events that I am talking to you about today.
So if the 1991 war as I said was about the restoration of the Arab status quo, the Arab state system, the 2003 war, coming in the wake of the shock of 9/11, unwittingly called its very legitimacy into question. However many mistakes we may think that the American occupation of Iraq may have made, the Bush administration, by the mere fact of the invasion and irrespective of what decisions it might have made on this or that post 2003 affair, had willy-nilly exposed a fundamental truth of modern Arab politics, the same truth that was laid completely bare by the rise of ISIS and the forming of part of such important states as Syria and Iraq.
My point is this. A political and cultural malaise that has been very many decades in the making in this part of the world at least in my opinion since 1967 ([and there have been] all kinds of discussions about the origin of this) is fundamentally the reason that the region is in the state today, and certainly not the 2003 war and the removal by the United States of Saddam Hussein.
To that deep-seated malaise can be attributed such entirely unconnected but equally dangerous phenomena as characters like Saddam Hussein and other Arab dictators, Al-Qaeda, and nowadays ISIS. They all hearken back to this malaise that we need to understand in order to move forward.
Once the first big dictator, in some sense the one who had dominated the scene for the best part of fifteen, twenty years, was toppled, the whole order of which he was a part (and he took a part for this world full of such dictators, he happened to be the most egregious of the lot), the whole order of which he was such an integral part came under a new kind of scrutiny, by its own people I might add. His fall therefore was a kind of tectonic shift that would in time strike at the very heart of the Arab State system. That the United States had done so much under the first President Bush to uphold and to hold up with the backing of the Arab states.
Early crucial signs before the Arab Spring, which are important to look at the trajectory of the transition from the fall of the first to the fall of the other dictators, were, for instance, what happened in Lebanon in 2005. [The] people of Lebanon, marching in the hundreds of thousands, to boot a Syrian army of occupation out of their country. It had not happened for twenty [to] twenty-five years. And then [the people of Lebanon] marched again to protest the assassination, by the Syrian regime, clearly, of their prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
Also, Palestinians tasting their first real elections ever in Gaza and the West Bank [was a crucial sign]. We may not like the outcome, but those were real elections. Similarly, in Egypt, the United States and Bush Jr. had to twist the arms of its former ally in Egypt, namely Hosni Mubarak, to allow Egyptians their first contested election in 2005. And we know from a lot of work by Egyptian political scientists and some of my colleagues at Brandeis University, Abdel Monem Said Aly, for instance, there is a close connection between the first genuine democratic election, with, of course, problems, of course, but a genuine expression by the Egyptian people, and the 2011 toppling of Mubarak himself.
There is also a connection, let us not forget, with the Iranian grassroots, Iranian green movement, protesting the rigging of the 2009 Iranian elections. Therein is another. This is the groundswell of ripple effects of 2003, being felt throughout the region. There is also since 2003 the eruption of a new kind of critical writing amongst young Iraqis. I am talking artists, fiction writers, commentators online, largely online, and sometimes in fiction, and in the arts, that is a flowering of culture that we do not see. Nobody talks about. It is not in the news.
None of these people are prime newsmakers, but it is very important, I think, for the future. And none of this kind of writing, this kind of critical look at one’s own reality for the first time rather than to turning to scapegoats to describe one’s own condition, actually looking at oneself, this kind of writing was very rare at best before 2003. The list goes on and on.
But finally, working away in the subterranean ground, if you like, of the Arab political psyche, one can see certain crucial legitimating ideas of post-1967 Arab politics like Islamism, pan-Arabism, armed struggle, anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, these ideas that stood at the foundations of both the regimes of Iraq and Syria, they were the problem about which they legitimated themselves, these were now running up against the realities of what life under these dictators, now fallen in the case of Saddam and eventually, effectively in Syria, what it had been like.
And before 2003, for instance, one had been able to deny, as the whole Arab world attempted to deny, the genocide that had been inflicted on Iraq’s Kurdish population. The film that Robert Reilly mentioned, Saddam’s Killing Fields, I could not get shown in a cinema. I think it was only shown in Morocco once and that is it. It simply could not be shown, the story of what Saddam had done to the Kurds in 1987, ’88 in Iraq in genocidal form, killing up to nearly 200,000 of them.
But all of that, so to speak, has become transparent, has become a part of the discourse, has become publicly available. You simply could not ignore what he had done in post First Gulf War [Iraq, the] killings of Shi’ites in 1991, but that kind of ignorance, which was possible before 2003 was no longer an excuse following the fall of Iraq Ba’ath as hundreds of mass grave sites began to be dug up and identified south and north of the country.
So can you hold a war like 2003 responsible for exposing the rot and abuse that was already there? Of course not. It was going to happen anyway is what I am trying to suggest. When, how, what, where, these are not questions I can answer. These are speculations into the future, but the very nature of the of the degradation of the system suggests that it was [inevitable], and the Arab Spring underlines that. If anything, [the Arab Spring] proves it.
Leaving us in the wake of the Arab Spring and then the collapse of the Arab Spring, the failure of the Arab Spring, in a territory that is completely new, does not resemble anything I, at least, recognize from the post-Ottoman past of this part of the world and the deeper past, that is the pre-Ottoman past is of even lesser relevance of what is going on today in the Middle East.
Let me single out one very big change in Iraq now, and that is the one I started with, but I am now generalizing the point. The eroding power and reach of the state everywhere you look in this part of the region we call the Middle East, there is a tendency towards erosion, which is a reversal of the power of the state, an erosion of the power of the state, which is a reversal of the centralization that characterized much of the 20th century history of state formation in this part of the world.
And this is happening right across the board, but significantly not including Turkey or Iran, which begs the question what accounts for this Arab ‘divergence’ from the norm, and that is not an easy question to answer. I like to ask questions, even ones that I do not always have an answer to, and perhaps in the discussion we can try to debate about it together.
Now, so as I said, [there is] this tendency towards the erosion of the power of the state, and we are now talking about something that is really quite big. It is something we are all living with, and the refugees piling up in Europe are an indication of that. This is not something small, and it is not going away quickly. It has got to be much deeper than the ouster by an American war in 2003 of a particular dictator or the fall of a whole slew of them in the course of the Arab Spring. It is more plausible to say that the greatly eroding power of the Arab state was there all along, but only became visible after these large events.
We have a tendency, I mean both in the region and outside the region, to reduce the Arab state to its dictators, to see in the all-powerful dictator an all-powerful state when the very opposite is the case. Until today, you see this in Arab populations in Iraq or Syria in the face of the disorder that everywhere rains around them, yearn for a semblance of order, and then perhaps look back with a kind of false nostalgia for a life under the state under Saddam, or under Assad, or before the Arab Spring.
This is perfectly understandable given what they are living through. The argument is even from their point of view their deep desire for [order] in the world that is almost car bomb filled and full of disorder. There is even a rational one, but it is also wrong-headed, and to see the identification of the Arab state is also in its own way a cynical one.
To be sure, a transitioning towards a more plural, inclusive kind of state in countries like Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, or Yemen comes fraught with dangers almost by definition, and we ran into all those dangers as Bob alluded post-2003, and we tried, and as they say we hoped and we bet on hope, and we failed.
And in a certain sense, it is not unusual. It is not hard to imagine failure. For a change of this sort of people like myself and Bob, Mustafa, friends of ours, mutual friends of ours hoped for is bound to be change that occurs at the very outer limits of what is possible, certainly in the case of great societies, but that does not mean that one should not aspire and struggle for it. Political activism of any kind is never exercising rational cost/benefit analysis.
So if I were to try to point to the indicators for the reasons for this erosion of the state and its power base in modern Arab history, what would I have to look at and what do I need to look at that differentiates the Arab state system from its Iranian or Turkish states that I alluded to earlier?
There are, it seems to me, four great, big defining wars for this, and it is always war that does this, that shape the modern Middle East and shape the collapse of the modern Middle East as we see it today. Those wars are the first place I have to start to look at. Let me just list them and say a few words about each, and properly end there.
First and most important is the 1967 war whose outcome in the shape of the occupied territories the region is still struggling to deal with. It is still locked in a world which is defined by that war, not the rest of the world, not the international world, but the region, the Middle East region.
Secondly, and in a sense far more importantly, is the eight year Iran Iraq War, poorly understood and poorly studied perhaps because it was one of those wars that was very difficult to study because of the nature of the regimes afforded. But its burden until today is everywhere to be seen. Simply look at some of the leading Iranian actors inside Iraq. Qassem Soleimani, here is a character utterly shaped and made and come to politics, if you like, formed by that eight year war. Think back to Ahmadinejad. Think of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. These forces, the Quds Force, these are all forces that came out of the Iran Iraq war, the eight year Iran Iraq war.
The current crop of leaders, Iraqi leaders, Maliki and others, were also shaped. Hakim, the family of [Mohammed Baqir al] Hakim, [was shaped by this war]. They formed in exile their Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq in Tehran in 1982, the major [group] on the Iraqi political scene until today, so they, too, are creatures of that war.
Moving on, the third big war that we need to look at, which I have already given a kind of sketch analysis of, the 1990-1991 precedent of the Iraqi occupation, as I said, annexation of Kuwait. There are certain features of that war which bear mentioning briefly. Saudi Arabia paid for it, and the United States, not the Arab states, waged it. Why? As I said, all in order to restore the Arab state system to what it had been before Saddam violated it, the very same order that everywhere is falling apart today.
This is a fundamentally new kind of event and one that once again all the way back to 1991, going back to 1990, underlines the fragility and the helplessness of the Arab state system even that far back, a good almost a quarter of a century before the Arab Spring.
And the fourth war is the one we have been talking about, 2003, another singular event, [which] quite unexpectedly lifted the lid and made visible everything that was going wrong for the reasons I have already mentioned.[I want to offer] a final observation about Iraq’s future. Can it be disentangled from Syria as things stand at the moment? Back in 2002, 2003 when we were arguing for the necessity of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, crucial in the back of my mind at least was the idea that possibly something new could happen here, and that is something you might herald or might help to spear something new in other parts of the Arab world, and so Iraq was a prime driver for change or that at least was our conception of it at the time.
Now this is no longer the case. It is the other way around. Today, the much greater forces of what is happening in Syria are going to shape the future of Iraq. It is very hard to conceive of [an] Iraqi future separate from the reestablishment of a Syrian state and some sort of solution to that extraordinary originally civil war turned into a major proxy war where very many different powers are involved.
This continuance of this civil/proxy war is bound to leave Iraq unstable and its future unforeseeable, and so now you have an intertwining of the fates of countries that were previously separate, and I would not have said that, as I said before the Arab Spring, that we seem to be returning to one of those historical junctures, which have happened in the past in Arab politics when events in one country seem to leapfrog into others with the greatest of ease. The big difference, of course, is that now we have declining states, not powerful ones, and there are no charismatic leaders or integrating ideologies, and so the problem has become more dangerous [and] more complicated than ever before.
Perhaps I will end with an exception to this whole line of argument, which has got to be that of the Kurdish experience in the north of Iraq, now a quarter of a century in the making, and here is perhaps a silver lining to the darkness everywhere around us. The Kurds are managing to hold together these three northern governates of Iraq. Their fighting prowess against ISIS is gaining them credibility in the eyes of the West, which helped them at arm’s length for a very considerable period of time.
But nonetheless, a slightly different version of the same problem affecting the Arab world is beginning to raise its head. It is not that the Kurds do not want to constitute a state or are somehow unqualified and too divided to do so, most certainly not. It is that it has become extremely dangerous for them to do so, and not because of dangers as in the past, emanating from the Iraqi state with which they were in permanent conflict, but because of dangers emanating from all around them, Turkey and Iran and so on. And that is why in spite of everything that is pushing Barzani and the KDP and the Kurdish leadership in the north of Iraq towards proclaiming a state, de facto it is a state, I do not think they will be taking that plunge at this particular moment.
So where to go from here?
It seems to me bringing the state back into the picture is the most urgent task facing policymakers both in and outside the Middle East. There is nothing worse than not having a state in a world that is structured by the existence of states. And ask any refugee banging on the doors of Europe today, and they will know the answer to that question.
My instincts are all I have to work with here, [and they are] that one has to begin in Syria, for the situation is bordering on going out of control. Somehow or other, a major international effort has to go into bringing back the Syrian state, to be sure, not in the image of the old one, not with the same leadership, and it has to be done by regional and international consensual agreement, a kind of concert of nations that simply says and states what it is going to be because it cannot be done by Syria alone.
Now that, of course, is a very tall order. There is no indication that the negotiations going on in Geneva are heading in that direction, but it seems to me that is an absolute precondition for even beginning to stop the slide into total anarchy that is going on.
You said earlier that the pre-2003 Iraq government was like a house of cards ready to crumble. Have you seen characteristics that are more generalizable of other systems that are about to crumble?
Currently or in the Middle East?
Currently anywhere in the world.
Well, I suspect many of the remaining Arab states that have not yet crumbled are pretty fragile. Saudi Arabia comes to mind. We do not know what is going on there. It is not a visible state. You cannot really look very closely, but I would be worried. Jordan has held on remarkably well in the current circumstances. It is in a sense a tribute to King Hussein’s statesmanship from all the way back to him, and his son is to some extent continuing the tradition, but it is in a very precarious situation.
Lebanon is the next one that may very well [fall]. It is just hanging in there, barely in control, just waiting for the Syrian imbroglio to come to some sort of closure, so there just right away are states that are teetering, not necessarily because they are internally a house of cards in the way Iraq was immediately pre-2003 but because they are situated in a neighborhood where the domino effect of state failure will definitely affect them.
I mean Lebanon today and Jordan have incredible numbers of Syrian refugees, I mean mind-boggling numbers. Any normal state would collapse under that weight, but they have somehow integrated them, brought them into various positions. They do the most menial tasks in society and so on, so it is hanging in there. I forget the numbers, but it is over a million refugees in Lebanon.
20 percent of the population [living in] Lebanon are refugees.
And in Jordan, it is something similar, so you can only take that kind of pressure for a while. Something has got to give. This is what makes Syria so important. Really, words cannot describe [their suffering].
There are other long-term factors.
The European Union produced a report looking into the future of this whole part of the world in 2025. You may know it, some subset of some organization called ISS. A combination of economists and sociologists and so on worked and studied long-term trends in this part of the world, and to take a look at that report is to take your eyes away from the immediate political ups and downs of this or that situation to see, for instance, the growth of youth unemployment to levels we cannot even begin to imagine.
The beginning of the collapse of oil revenues is another big factor. Looming in Iraq, you have seen a couple of articles in The New York Times recently that there is a great big dam. We have known for seven [or] eight years that this dam was in desperate need of repair. If this dam actually breaks, as perhaps Robert knows, the Mosul Dam, if it actually breaks, perhaps up to 500,000 people could be killed. It is rotting. It is crumbling. Engineers issued one report after another. Finally, the World Bank has come up with a [finding].
We have a very major disintegrating tendencies happening [like] climate change. We do not think about climate change as a force, but temperatures are already escalating. Summer temperatures in certain parts of the Gulf and southern Iraq are reaching highs that nobody has ever experienced before.
According to this report, by 2025 we could be talking about the norm in certain months of the summer over 52, 54, 55 [degrees]. Nobody can live under those kinds of temperatures. I mean in Iraq the worst you would get is in the low 40s. Now 50s? I do not know what it is like. I mean you could not function. Add all this together and we are talking about there, right there right to the south of Europe very close to the center of Western civilization, this pending, looming catastrophe before our eyes. It is important.
The phrase you use most frequently in your talk, which was fascinating, thank you, was Arab State structure, and to kind of summarize what you said, the Arab State structure was rotting and fragile. The chaos we are seeing today is not a function of American intervention, it is the fact that the state structure disappeared. And the answer is we need state structure back.
What would you say to those people who would say it is deeper than the absence of artificial state structure, it is social, ethnic, tribal, and clan based, and the historic reasons are much deeper than the Ba’athist imposition of the state structure that has now collapsed, that it is much deeper than societal [structures]?
I would still try to make the case that in the first place there are all kinds of deep societal, ideological, ideational, religious reforms, reformation of the religion itself, of Islam, all sorts of factors like that are extremely important and fundamental, but we live in states. We are who we identify. We carry passports [when] we travel because of states.
Take those away and you cannot even begin, you are almost down to the very basics of human existence where those questions, those ideational questions which have to be fought out in the realm of ideas over a period of time by intellectuals, by people who win over large numbers of people to form versions of those ideas. That becomes almost a sideshow. That becomes almost a sideshow by contrast, so we need the state to have those ideational battles that you are referring to, those deeper structures that you are talking about.
But there is an argument. I mean Phil Bobbitt’s argument is that we are past that stage, that the nation state fails to provide that sense of identity and people are turning back to the tribe, to the clan, or to the corporation, or whoever it is.
This is true. It has happened. They have fallen back as they fall back in civil wars, as they fall back whenever the state disappears. But do we have – I am asking you now, do we have an alternative to the nation-state in our world?
Robert R. Reilly:
We do not [have an alternative]. I mean I do not see [an alternative]. It is almost as though I think of the state like a right, I mean, basically, in order to begin to do stuff. But without it, you are eking out an existence on a subsistence level, and you are functioning at almost a subhuman existence. And that, I think, is the reason for beginning with the nation-state, and it has got to be in politics.
Those deeper things are there without a shadow of a doubt. It is just a matter of how you think you go about solving the problem.
Robert R. Reilly:
But if I may just expound on Sebastian’s point, you said nation-state. If there is no nation, how can you have a state?
Well, yes, I mean here in the Iraqi case, I pointed out [that sort of question], but in the Iraqi case, also, I show in this book [how] elites trashed an idea, the only one that might have worked. It did not have to be that way.
You may ask me another version of the question. Was it absolutely inevitable that Iraq would go the way that it did? I, for one, do not think so, but you know, how can you prove [that]? You cannot as you know very well, but I do think that the errors, the mistakes, are choices made by people. People made those choices for reasons that we can also look at, and they had terrible, terrible consequences.
The choices that you make in the first days, in the first weeks, in the first months of a fundamental change in the nature of politics are exceptionally important. They last for years. And if one of those choices is to take your previous centuries-long victimhood, say the Shia of who I come from, instead of doing what happened in South Africa, you realize that you are facing a historical moment when the overwhelming majority of the population is about to be in power, it is going to be empowered, then you can do one of two things. You could penalize those who are somehow or another not as disadvantaged as you, and whom you will start to hold responsible for your condition, or you can choose to be smart enough to improve them and work out something else.
Now, if you have never exercised power, and you have had a culture of victimhood and of thinking of yourself as a victim, and you do not succeed as the Shia elite empowered by the United States did not succeed in overcoming that sense of victimhood, and you use state power to enter into a competition with everybody else over the resources, and over ‘you did this’ and ‘you did this to what’, and so on and so forth, and of course the result is what we see. But it was not inevitable. I really do think that. Now what were the margins, what were their chances, those are interesting discussions. Was it doable? I think it was, but it was one of those moments that, you know.
Iraq seems to be heading toward a de facto partition into three states, you know, Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni, but I am interested in that northern part right around Mosul, which was the homeland of the Assyrian Christians. My question is: can the historic pluralism of Iraq be restored?
Where I served for a time in Kirkuk, there were four ethnicities and Kirkuk was a city proud of its ethnic combinations of Turkmens, and Syrian Christians, small Shia [communities], and Kurds, and Sunni Arabs, but what we see now is only three hundred thousand Iraqi Christians are left, and they are in Kurdistan. And meanwhile, there are about a million Christians sheltering in surrounding nations and in Europe.
Do you think that creation of an autonomous safe zone in the 800 square mile area of the Nineveh Plains could be created that would instigate or inspire a return of the vanished Assyrian Christians, so that Iraqi pluralism could be restored?
Well, see the first premise, namely, Iraq is heading towards the division, may be [the case]. Maybe that is how it would go, but [it is] still not there yet, and between where we are now and a fully partitioned Iraq, an awful lot of dead bodies will probably accumulate. You see, it is very easy to imagine. That is, after all, how they drew up the Middle East in the first place, imagine organically clean parts of this where people do not interfere with each other, but nothing is clean in this part of the world, and everything will be fought for.
Even the Kurdish lines are going to be fought for, and so I do not see the answer in more and more partition only for one reason, not because I am wedded to some magical idea of Iraq, or because of any other sort of idea, but because I would say it is going to cost more bodies, Christian and Muslim bodies, and Kurdish bodies, and Arab bodies to partition the place up. You see, we are back to macro in 101, and that is a dangerous place to go.
My way of looking at it would be to say do not throw the baby out with her bottle. Accept this artificial thing that was there or some modified version of it. Perhaps it can be modified. Tinker with it, yes. Perhaps that is what this conclave of nations needs to do, rethink some of the edges, yes. All of that I would be for, but not too hasty.
There are a million Kurds in Baghdad. What are you going to do with them? You are going to have huge population movements like India and Pakistan. There are non-Kurds in Kurdistan. Why should it be Kurdish when there are Christians and there are Assyrians, and there are all kinds of other people in Kurdistan? True, the majority are Kurds, but there are non-Kurds. There is 15-20 percent intermarriage between Sunni and Shiite families. That is a very high percentage of intermarriage. On my wife’s side, every single member of one of her sons is intermarried with a Sunni, and vice a versa, and the Sunnis families they come from. How do you want to separate them?
And secondly, the Sunni-Shi’ite schism in Iraq is a particularly interesting one to look at. There is a very good study done by Yitzhak Nakash [in] a book called The Shia of Iraq, who showed that the Shia immediately became a majority in Iraq sometime between the late 19th century and the early 20th century when Iraq, which was overwhelmingly a nomadic society under the Ottomans, started to modernize.
Part of modernization was settlement, and during the course of settlement, those tribes which tended to settle would often be the same tribe, parts of which would settle, would convert to Shiaism. And those that did not would stay Sunni, hence they have these very same Sunnis and Shias, not seem like they are completely separate boxes. But actually, they also come from the same tribes, so they have tribal traditions that connect them, and now sectarian traditions that divide them.
It is not easy to cut all that up territorially, is what I am trying to say, and it could be a very bloody exercise. Why not go instead for a solution to the problem of the state that became an exclusionary state in the case of Iraq, and never needed to be that exclusionary. There is a new narrative, a new version of Iraqi history that we have written up in Baghdad today, driven by this ruling elite, that Iraq was always a Sunni-dominant state. So what they say is so we Shia now simply have a new Shia state, or they do not say it is a Shia state, but we are simply restoring, justice is kind of being restored.
I do not believe this statement per se. And here is an important distinction. Was [it] sectarian? Was [it] a Sunni sectarian state? It was a totalitarian state, which means that every single person, being Sunni or Shia, a Kurd or Arab, who opposed this state was subjected to the same kind of ruthless repression as anybody else
It is true that Saddam Hussein as his power had shrunk, especially after 1991, populated his state with the state leaders, the state and his personnel henchmen all around him, with Sunnis from his old tribes and from his own areas, etc., that, yes, but still the state was an Iraqi state. You could not find in the laws governing behavior and even in the official correspondence, which as Bob indicated we have been working with.
By the way, the correspondence that Bob alluded to is not only in Iraq. At Hoover [Insitution], we work closely now. We have our Iraq Memory Foundation, which scanned those 10 million pages, which exists now at Hoover Institution at Stanford University. We have had several books written about those documents, that is written paperwork of the Ba’ath Party that was never intended to see the light of day, that was never intended for public consumption, but which now scholars can go to, and students can write Ph.D.’s and that kind of stuff, and so on and so forth.
Two or three books have come out. And studying this correspondence, one of the interesting things is you do not see overt sectarianism in the correspondence. Joseph Sassoon, a professor at Georgetown, has a book on this, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, which has looked very carefully at the correspondence. I am just saying the idea that the state was always sectarian is not true, but society is sectarian, for sure. I mean America has its own history with racism, but the state is not a racist state.
The Constitution protected against [this], and one American leader after another pushed back from Abraham Lincoln right the way through Lyndon Johnson, through Martin Luther King, and so on. American leaders pushed back the boundaries of racism and did not let it enter the form of the shape of the state. It does not mean it has disappeared entirely.
In Iraq, those leaders did not push back the boundaries of sectarianism, they encouraged them, they inculcated them, they created them, and so we end up with a state that fails. It is not a sectarian state that we see today. It is a very big difference. Societies will have a variety of illness raging through them and that is normal. I mean you would expect that, but it is what happens in politics that I think is so important, whether politicians encourage, work with the worst in human nature, or work with the best in human nature. That is a political choice, where you center. Iraqi politicians post-2003 perhaps because they felt themselves weak without the social standing, without the social base in the country, worked on the worst of human nature, built a social base for themselves that way. That I think is it.
Robert R. Reilly:
We want to leave a couple of minutes for Kanan to sign books in the next room before he has to go, so if you will, join me in thanking him.