Interventionism's Last Hold-Out

Kanan Makiya, a 57-year-old Brandeis University professor, is looking for a file he has misplaced in his study at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on this March afternoon. He wonders aloud where the file, which includes angry emails from anti-war activists, might be, and a question hangs in the air: How is it possible to address such people when you were one of the Iraq War's key proponents and you remain unrepentant? It seems hopeless -- and that is how he looks when he slumps into a chair and abandons his search.

There was a time when Makiya, author of Republic of Fear, a searing account of Saddam Hussein's regime, had plenty of support and was surrounded by friends. Writers such as Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of The New Republic and a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow; Paul Berman, author of Power and the Idealists (with a preface by Richard Holbrooke); and George Packer, author of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, shared many of his views regarding Iraq. Now they see things differently.

In a March 5, 2007 New Republic column, Beinart said his wife had recently asked him, "Why, exactly, did you support this war?" As Beinart explained, it was not the first time he had heard it. "People have been asking it of me and this magazine since we made that disastrous decision more than four years ago," he wrote. "For myself, perhaps the most honest reply is this: because Kanan Makiya did."

"I'll always consider Makiya a hero," Beinart wrote. "But I haven't seen him, or read anything he's said or written, in several years. He's living, and suffering, with the consequences of this war, I suppose. And so are we."

It may be, as Ian Buruma, Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College and author of Murder in Amsterdam, tells me at a café in New York, "a bit cowardly" of Beinart to blame someone else for what he now regards as his mistaken views. But Beinart was not the only one. In The Assassins' Gate, Packer said he agonized over his own decision to support the war yet, he wrote, always "found it easier to imagine a happy outcome when I was within earshot" of Makiya. (Beinart, Berman, and Packer refused my requests for an interview.) It is easy to see why so many people became Makiya-ites: He is a charming man, serving cardamom-flavored Turkish coffee to guests, and, more importantly, has what certain American intellectuals lack: Moral clarity about a despotic regime based on personal experience.

Born in Baghdad in 1949, Makiya came to the United States in 1967. He studied architecture at MIT, read Trotsky and Hannah Arendt, and published Republic of Fear under a pseudonym, Samir al-Khalil, in 1989. It seemed prudent to hide his identity, especially since his relatives were still living in Iraq. Republic of Fear eventually turned Makiya, according to newspaper accounts, into an "Iraqi Solzhenitsyn."

As a political actor, however, he seemed naïve -- especially during his brief affiliation with Ahmad Chalabi. He also met with Paul Wolfowitz and President Bush and in various ways tapped into the mythical power of American exceptionalism in the neoconservative movement in Washington. He managed to do the same thing among New York liberals.

Makiya was not the only reason some liberals supported the Iraq War, of course. Debates over the war were fraught with tension, especially for those individuals who believe there are circumstances in which the U.S. should intervene militarily in order to prevent gross violations of human rights. Some believe a cost-benefit analysis may be done -- whether the proposed intervention is in Bosnia, Rwanda or Iraq.

As Samantha Power, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, explains, one must evaluate the prospects for a military strategy's success in part by examining a set of unknown variables. In the case of Iraq, for example, liberal-interventionists looked at whether or not military action would make Iraq a more humane place for those who are living there and a less dangerous place for the rest of the world -- and whether or not such an effort was worth the price. In other words, they tried to calculate the cost of military action for Iraqi civilians as well as for "the interveners," she explains, or U.S. troops.

"We're all dealing with probabilities," Power tells me. Ultimately, she says, Iraq failed the test.

It is a judgment call made with good intentions. Journalist David Rieff, a self-described "apostate from liberal interventionism" and author of At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention, says the liberal argument in favor of the Iraq War has its roots in the Balkans. "A lot of people thought the lesson of the Nineties was that U.S. military power could in extremis be used to right wrongs," he says.

"The notion that the U.S. had special rights and special duties is a very powerful one in this country, and it is shared by both liberals and conservatives," he tells me. Yet, he says, the idea has led to an updated form of nineteenth-century colonialism. "I realized I was seeing the rebirth of imperialism with human rights as its moral warrant," he explains. Liberals may not have had imperialist goals, but the results of intervention at times turned out to be similar during colonialism.

Back in 2002, however, many liberals believed Americans could help Iraqis. And for those who weren't sure, well, Makiya helped push them over the edge.

At first glance, Makiya looks like one of those individuals -- many of them former '60s activists who once argued passionately over the Iraq War at Upper West Side book-club meetings and in Brooklyn coffee shops. Makiya, too, has longish, thinning hair and wire-rimmed glasses, a Leonard Cohen CD collection, and boomer-style taste -- with 17 Freud books (from The Interpretation of Dreams to Erich Fromm's Greatness and Limitations of Freud's Thought) on a shelf in his study. But despite appearances, Makiya is more like a Central European intellectual who came to the United States in the 1980s and believed in Reagan's anti-Soviet vision.

"There's an instant empathy and an instant recognition when we meet up," Makiya says, describing his affinity for Europeans. They have much in common, and former Solidarity leader Adam Michnik supported Makiya's views on Iraq. "In the state of Saddam, the opposition could find a place only in cemeteries," Michnik explained in A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, edited by Thomas Cushman. The Central European optimism about American power and its potential for improving the human condition had once been hard for lefty intellectuals to swallow.

In the 1990s, as Rieff explained, things changed. Liberal writers and political thinkers were flush with the success of helping out in the Balkans and horrified by the knowledge that American inertia may have led to genocide in Rwanda. By 2002, many liberals were passionate about the same things Makiya cared about -- freedom and democracy -- and shared his exuberance over the role of the United States. Those who were not swept up in the moment -- such as Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent and an Iraq War opponent -- still felt his power.

On November 22, 2002, Walzer and Makiya were speaking at a New York University event entitled "Ambiguities of Intervention: Iraq and After." Walzer raised doubts about the sagacity of the Iraq War. Then Makiya spoke.

"There is absolutely no discussion among Iraqis about whether or not regime change is a good thing," Makiya said, according to "It is simply taken for granted that it is." If there is "even a slim chance" of bringing democracy to Iraq, he said, "You have a moral obligation to pursue it."

"The room exploded in applause," wrote Packer in The New York Times Magazine (on December 8, 2002), and Walzer "smiled wanly" and said little in response.

Walzer remembers things differently. He says he admired the "passion and persuasiveness" Makiya showed that evening and then responded to his argument.

"He said the chance of establishing a democracy in Iraq was one in ten," Walzer tells me. "I said we did not have a right to bring a full-scale war given Kanan Makiya's estimates of the chances of success."

Nevertheless, it was heady stuff -- back then. The fact that Makiya still believes in an argument for regime change is almost admirable, considering that most everyone else has since bailed. "I don't support or excuse everything that has happened since the start of the war," Makiya tells me. "But the justness of the war doesn't change because it doesn't turn out the way we thought it would."

"You have to hold two separate things," he says, reaching his hands out in the air as he tries to explain his position. "There is a distinction between the reasons for the war and the aftermath and what went wrong. An apology requires that you blur those distinctions. The moment you do that, you stop thinking. Can I apologize for removing one of the worst dictators of the twentieth century? I would not think of it."

It is a position many people, liberal interventionists among them, find surprising. "I think it's just a strong need he has to tell himself he was right," Power says. "He's saying, ‘I took a gamble that Iraq could become a kinder, gentler place.' For him, the definition of being human was gambling on that five or ten percent. To not gamble would be to surrender something. It must be hard to do that and then watch your country turn red. It's two colors -- red and grey. There's the concrete, the barbed wire, and the blood. When you have had another vision of what your country could be, it must be crushing.

"The point is he doesn't want to admit he's wrong because he doesn't want to live in a world in which he wasn't right," she says.

Makiya has expressed his views in The Washington Post (the war, he says, is not "inherently unwinnable"), on NPR's Morning Edition ("I had a hope"), and in a New York Times profile ("People shouldn't feel the need to apologize"). It was the Times piece that set off the fierce reaction among anti-war activists and led to the file of emails in his study.

What did they say to you? I ask.

"Terrible things -- like ‘He should be deported back to Iraq,'" he says. "They ask, ‘How could you not apologize after such an unspeakable disaster?'"

Makiya says the process of looking at "errors of judgment," as he puts it, requires rigor and analysis, and he is teaching a course, "War and Reconstruction in Iraq," and working on a book about post-war Iraq. He says the demand for a public apology from him evokes a communist trial. "It's similar to the time when intellectuals were dragged out and made to apologize for their bourgeois thinking," he explains. "To apologize is to say the position one took in good faith is wrong. I refuse to engage in it."

He moves his hand close to his chest and presses his palms together. "Of course I still support the war," he says with a pained expression on his face. "How can I not? I don't know an Iraqi who doesn't."

Makiya has the courage of his convictions. Yet not all Iraqis, liberals, or European intellectuals share his view. In Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower, Zbigniew Brzezinski said the Iraq War's "only saving grace is that it made Iraq the cemetery of neocon dreams." It raises the question of whether or not this also the final resting place for the dream of liberal-interventionism.