Postcards From the Abyss
Hope is, indeed, more compelling than fear. Yet hope is an unstable sentiment, and, as we have seen in Iraq, can easily turn to despair if it doesn't restore the electricity supply. History will not remember Makiya so much for his insight into the darker crevices of Arab nationalism as for his insistence, while sharing a stage with Richard Perle, that invading US troops would be welcomed with "sweets and flowers." Like the Bush Administration, in the words of Shadid, Makiya regarded Iraq as a "tabula rasa on which to build a new and different state." Today he admits his surprise at the unwillingness of "former regime elements" to concede defeat, as well as at how parties with communal and religious agendas have overwhelmed his brand of secular liberalism in the post-Saddam political arena. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on October 5, he called Iraq's new Constitution "a fundamentally destabilizing document" and "a patently unworkable deal. To the extent that it is made to work it will work toward fratricide."
Iraq may yet avoid the worse fates one can imagine, but as Shadid's book demonstrates, it was always an unlikely candidate for instant liberal democratization by the sword. Its wheezing infrastructure has yet to recover from the Iran-Iraq war, let alone the next two, and especially the sanctions in between. Its highly educated middle class was reduced by sanctions to penury or emigration. Sanctions and regime repression incubated social con- servatism, strengthened kinship ties and encouraged religious piety. Not surprisingly, when the regime fell tribal loyalties and political Islam were the most powerful forces vying to replace it. Sanctions are the most notable elision in Packer's account--like some Iraqi exiles and successive US administrations, liberal supporters of the war seem to have believed that the voluminous UN and NGO reports documenting their insidious effects were just so much regime propaganda. One of the first things Packer noticed after landing in Baghdad was how worn Iraqis looked; this observation appears in a chapter about the "psychological demolition" wrought by Saddam. Such demolition is indisputable, but Packer neglects the fact that international isolation and plummeting living standards under sanctions must share responsibility with Saddam's regime for the bleakness of Iraqi life. Here he betrays traces of the "simple, two-dimensional" image of Iraq that Shadid rightly attributes to most American observers of the country. Iraqis appreciate Saddam's culpability in their thirty-five-year nightmare more than anyone else, but like everyone else they are capable of forming a complex mental calculus of blame.
Packer concludes with one last visit to his friend and mentor Kanan Makiya, who tells him: "I think it was Ahmad [Chalabi] who once said of me that I embody the triumph of hope over experience." Since it was Makiya who imbued Packer with his hopeful vision for Iraq, one detects in this line a note of self-criticism. The next time American liberals are tempted to become laptop bombardiers, he seems to be saying, they should listen to someone who has visited the target recently--before the bombing starts.