What Went Wrong in 2003: An Iraqi Story for the Future

What Went Wrong in 2003: An Iraqi Story for the Future
(Kanan Makiya, April 5, 2016)

Transcript available below

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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’ve known Kanan Makiya since 2003 when we met in Baghdad. I chased him down outside of the Republican palace and because 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 and 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’s 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’s including himself in that failure, but I want you to know that I don’t 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…?

Kanan Makiya:

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’m sure he’d be happy to sign after his talk. I’m 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.

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’s 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 eluded 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 weren’t, 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’ll do this in a number of points. I may [be] skating over points but I’m looking forward to the question and answer period to, you know 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 didn’t occupy it and they neither bombed nor occupied Syria. Today just a couple of the states that we’re talking about. In fact if you look at the whole constellation of collapsing states, the one country that’s 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 didn’t 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.

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