The Iraqi-American writer and Brandeis professor Kanan Makiya is nowadays considered by many in the United States to be the Iraqi dissident par excellence. Known in the 1990s as the author of two books on Iraq, Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence, Makiya’s image as the voice of Iraqis was enhanced after the Administration initiated its “regime change” discourse and started preparations for an invasion of Iraq. As the subject of numerous interviews and stories in such major media as the Boston Globe, the New York Times, PBS and NPR, Makiya is usually quoted to justify an invasion and occupation of Iraq. He has also been working with the State Department to devise plans for a post-Saddam Iraq and is advising Vice President Cheney. During the second week of January he was one of three Iraqi-Americans who met with George W. Bush in the Oval Office to discuss the future of Iraq in the post-Saddam era.
While most Iraqis in the diaspora agree with Makiya on the necessity of ending Saddam’s tyranny, one need only pay a visit to the independent, encyclopedic Iraq information site nahrain.com to see that Makiya and his views are not popular. A recent article ridiculed him as “the American paper tiger.”
Meanwhile, more than 500 exiled Iraqis of various ethnic and political backgrounds have signed the “No to war on Iraq…No to dictatorship” petition. While condemning Saddam’s reign of terror, the petition stands against a “war that would cause more death and suffering” for “innocent Iraqis.” It also calls for an “immediate lifting of the economic sanctions” and demands “the implementation of UN Resolution 688 of April 1991, which stipulates ending oppression and ensuring basic human rights in Iraq. Such measures together with free elections under UN supervision could usher a genuine democracy…including a federal status for Kurdistan and an end to political, religious, and ethnic or gender discrimination.”
The list of signatories includes academics, poets, novelists, scholars and artists, led by Saadi Yousif, the greatest living Iraqi poet and a longtime dissident, who lives in London. Hundreds of Iraqi intellectuals scattered across the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, fleeing Saddam’s campaign to crush internal opposition. Most are unknown to Americans because they write for an Arabic-speaking audience or never had access to mainstream American outlets. (Makiya rarely writes for an Arab audience; when he did prepare a recent article for London-based daily al-Hayat, he submitted the piece in English and it was translated by the paper for its pan-Arabic readership.)
Makiya never fails to assure his US audience that Iraqis will welcome American troops and will have no qualms about their presence for years to come (see his presentation at the American Enterprise Institute this past October). However, Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, the influential leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major Shiite opposition group, told al-Hayat that “any foreign occupation…would naturally face violent resistance,” that “a foreign military power imposing any ruler on Iraq even if he is an Iraqi” will be rejected and that “we reject the idea of an invasion and occupation.” Aziz Al-Taee, president of the Iraqi-American Council, told Fox’s Greta Van Susteren on January 11 that “the Iraqi people have lost hope and confidence in both the United States…and the Iraqi government” and “they refuse to be ruled by an occupying army or any puppet government imposed by these occupying forces.” Isam al-Khafaji, a veteran Iraqi dissident, scholar and professor at Amsterdam University who was one of a group of thirty-two Iraqis asked by the State Department to discuss and devise plans for a post-Saddam Iraq, says that “while Iraqi democrats were wondering why the US did not support the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam’s regime and stood by while thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered, Makiya shifted the attention away by calling on the US to march to Baghdad and occupy it.” Al-Khafaji adds that the supposedly democratic Makiya “proposed that free elections should be postponed for several years after Saddam’s fall. Why? Because Iraqis are traumatized by decades of Baathism and they cannot make a rational choice”!
Perhaps it is time to retire the “dissident” label and call things as they are. While Makiya is opposed to Saddam’s regime, he has become a Bush regime intellectual of sorts–or even an empire intellectual. It will be a long time before Makiya’s dissident image crumbles in the United States. But for most diaspora Iraqis who are aware of his discourse, far from representing them, Makiya is seen as an apologist for the new Rome.