Kanan Makiya is among Iraq's most prominent democracy and human rights advocates. Born in Baghdad in 1949, he left Iraq in 1968 to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but, starting in 1981, dedicated himself to advocacy for a free Iraq and the study of tyranny. His 1989 book, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. Other works followed, including The Monument, and the prize-winning Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World.
Following the 1991 Iraqi Kurdish uprising, Makiya visited northern Iraq where he organized the collection of captured Iraqi military and security documents. These documents became the basis for an award-winning 1992 documentary, Saddam's Killing Fields, describing Saddam Hussein's ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds. In 1993, he also organized the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard University in order to catalogue the documents and make them accessible to scholars.
Since Saddam Hussein's April 2003 ouster, Makiya has been a leading advocate for de-Baathification and a commemoration of the victims of Baathist tyranny. In June 2003, he founded the Iraq Memory Foundation. He is also a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University. Sam Spector, a research analyst at the Long-Term Strategy Project, interviewed Makiya in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 26, 2005.
The Nature of Iraqi Baathism
Middle East Quarterly: What is Baathism?
Kanan Makiya: Baathism is one of the many streams of Arab nationalist ideology and practice. It is undoubtedly the most virulent strain. While Michel Aflaq, one of the founders of the Baath party, was interested in fascist ideology, the party started to fuse elements of socialist ideology with Arab nationalism after World War II.
MEQ: If Baathism is a form of Arab nationalism, how do Baathists define who is an Arab?
Makiya: To Baathists, being an Arab is connected with the degree of loyalty that one has, not only to the idea of "Arabness," but also to the party that carries that idea, that party's central committee, and ultimately, to the party leader. In that sense, it is fascist. Baathist ideology in the pure original sense means you could have ancestors going back hundreds of years in an Arab country and your first language might be Arabic, but still you are not an Arab in the Baathist view. The quality of being an Arab is therefore a subjective and not an objective attribute of an individual.
MEQ: How did the Baath Party exert control in Iraq?
Makiya: The Baath Party cultivated a culture of fear when it seized power in Iraq in 1968. Fear became an important and constant feature of Iraqi politics. It is difficult, even two years after the regime's overthrow, to underestimate the impact upon Iraq's population of three decades of fear inculcated on a daily basis by virtually every state institution.
MEQ: Have your views about the nature of Baathist tyranny changed since Iraq's liberation?
Makiya: The basic thesis of Republic of Fear was accurate through the 1980s and the early 1990s when that state was still strong and in control of the country. But the 1991 Gulf war began to change all that. Iraq transformed from a classic totalitarian state to a criminal state. While sanctions and war let Saddam's regime remain, beginning with the creation of the safe haven [in northern Iraq] and the sanctions, class totalitarian Baathist institutions were eroded in ways that we did not appreciate before the liberation.
MEQ: How did the criminalization of Iraqi institutions impact political life?
Makiya: Initially, and in sharp contrast to much of the Arab world, corruption was much less rampant in Iraq under the Baathist regime. The penalties for corruption were simply too great. The party ran an efficient system that was designed to control the people. Once the Baathist elite began to shed ideology, Iraqi officials began to use the powers of the state for personal benefit through criminal activities of one kind or another. State institutions became riddled with corruption and eventually stopped performing even basic services.
MEQ: Were the highest echelons of the Iraqi government involved, or was corruption a low-level affair?
Makiya: All levels of the government were complicit. Profiteering, black market trafficking, and sanctions-busting became the principal activity of the Iraqi elite. United Nations officials turned a blind eye as top Iraqi officials diverted funds from the U.N.-managed Oil-for-Food program into secret bank accounts.
MEQ: Were sanctions effective?
Makiya: The idea behind the sanctions was that they would weaken the regime enough so that the Iraqi people could overthrow it. But it turns out the theory of sanctions didn't work out that way in practice. On the contrary, while sanctions weakened Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors, they strengthened the Iraqi regime in relation to the Iraqi people.
MEQ: So the coalition invasion in March 2003 served, to some degree, as a catalyst for changing an unsustainable situation?
Makiya: The war made it possible for the country to have a chance—I am not saying a guarantee—of moving ahead in a democratic fashion. The sanctions could not be removed before the regime was removed, and only then could the country pick itself up again. With the removal of the old regime and the elections, we have reached the beginning of a new era. Baathist ideology has, I believe, been dealt a deathblow in Iraq.
MEQ: On April 9, 2003, you watched the fall of Baghdad on television with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. Can you describe your feeling?
Makiya: It was a wonderful moment. I think that the liberation of Iraq is a great historic achievement of the United States, and I think that it will go down in history as such. I am very proud to have been in that room on that day.
MEQ: Do you believe that de-Baathification, purging high-ranking Baathists from government in the new Iraq, is necessary?
Makiya: I was one of the people who most strongly advocated de-Baathification, and I remain convinced that this process has yet to take place to the necessary degree in Iraq for truly successful transformation. Germany was the main historical precedent for this sort of broad political and societal transformation that we in the Iraqi opposition all looked back to.
MEQ: Is it fair to penalize Iraqis for joining the Baath party? After all, didn't teachers and public servants have to join the Baath party to keep their jobs?
Makiya: Crucial to the policy of de-Baathification is reaching out to those many hundreds of thousands of people who were fellow travelers of the Baath party—not out of ideological conviction, but out of necessity. They had no alternative, and that was the only way to function in society.
MEQ: How then, do you suggest that de-Baathification could be implemented more effectively and fairly?
Makiya: It is important that there be an open-hearted policy—one that welcomes people to break with the Baath party and enter the fold of society and politics. De-Baathification ought not to be about blacklisting large numbers of people. It is important that de-Baathification not become de-Sunnification. The Sunni community should not believe the policy is in the first place directed against them. Iraqi Shi'ite and Kurdish politicians have to be extremely sensitive to make that distinction. And, remember, this is a matter of perception, as well as practice. Partly for that reason, we have not in Iraq yet succeeded with de-Baathification. Moreover, de-Baathification is not in and of itself a solution to the problems of Iraq. It is only one component of a set of other policies. It really has to be seen in that context.
MEQ: What is the status of the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification today?
Makiya: It was the major player during the period of the Governing Council, but it was weakened considerably, first by [former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul] Bremer, and then by [prime minister Ayad] Allawi's interim government.
MEQ: What message did the partial reversal of de-Baathification send?
Makiya: The formation of the Fallujah Brigade [in April 2004] was an essential moment in the reversal of de-Baathification. It was by common agreement today a terrible idea and a failure. Its point was to recruit and co-opt former Iraqi officers, who were even allowed to dress up in Baathist uniforms. That kind of reversal had more to do with appeasement—with the vain hope that appeasing Baathists could curb the violence. But the exact opposite, of course, is true. Whether they were for or against de-Baathification, Iraqis recognize what a disastrous policy this reversal was. I expect de-Baathification to become a central plank of the new government.
MEQ: Didn't de-Baathification exacerbate the insurgency among Sunnis?
Makiya: I think the insurgency would have happened anyway. It did not so much exacerbate the insurgency as make it harder for many Sunnis to break with the insurgency. Iraqi politicians did not explain adequately that de-Baathification did not mean de-Sunnification. We who advocate this idea need to do a lot more in that department. Ironically, the insurgency has made this harder to do.
MEQ: What is the goal of the insurgency?
Makiya: The insurgents don't want to re-launch the Baath party; they want to return to its politics, its way of thinking about the world. They seek to exacerbate a Sunni-Shi'ite division. Once the conflict is cast in those particular terms, they win. It is, therefore, in the interest of all Iraqis to resist such a transformation. It is important to frame the new Iraqi struggle as being against the Baath party and what it stands for, and not against specific communities. How to do that is the art of politics today in Iraq.
MEQ: What could the coalition have done differently to avert some of the complications and violence that followed the occupation?
Makiya: The central error was the coalition's tendency to focus on the 52 "Deck of Cards" suspects, who were at the absolute top of the Iraqi state pyramid. As a result, tens of thousands of trained thugs, intelligence officers, and senior army personnel did not believe that they would be held accountable for what they had done under Saddam's regime. Those people should have been arrested, questioned and, at the very minimum, closely watched. That didn't happen though, and these same people are now the leaders of the insurgency.
MEQ: Can the United Nations or Europe assist with reconciliation in coming years?
Makiya: From the Iraqi point-of-view, every involvement of the United Nations has been negative. But it is desirable to have the appearance of U.N. involvement. We need to break the isolation that currently exists, with the United States and a handful of other countries shouldering the burden of the Iraq project. The silence of the Europeans, the negative role of the United Nations—the fact that neither did anything for the people of Iraq during their historic elections—is shameful. The United Nations' and European hearts are just not in the Iraq project. That is unlikely to change in the near future. They might feel it necessary to make some effort, but it will always be halfhearted. In that sense I would say that the European countries, and particularly France, Germany, and the U.N. have actually given succor and assistance indirectly and unwittingly to the insurgents in Iraq. That is a shameful blot on their record.
MEQ: Have any of the states neighboring Iraq played a more helpful role?
Makiya: None. None at all. There is no doubt about this whatsoever: We never expected to have friends in the region, and we still don't.
Iraq Memory Foundation
MEQ: What are the origins of the Iraq Memory Foundation?
Makiya: In 1991, in the immediate aftermath of the last war, I went to northern Iraq to look into rumors that the Kurds had captured tons of Iraqi documents. With the tacit knowledge of the then-director of Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies [William A. Graham], I sought to gain support to transport those documents outside of Iraq so that academics and scholars could work with them. The project began the following year at Harvard.
MEQ: How did you get the documents out of Iraq?
Makiya: Both the U.S. government and Human Rights Watch were involved in shipping the documents—about 2.4 million pages—out of Iraq. Outside that original visit, I was not involved in the mechanics of arranging the transfer. The U.S. government scanned the documents, and then we worked on the scanned, digitized versions. We were initially working with about 2.4 million pages. Over the years, we added another 800,000 or so pages that came out of Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation. We got grants from various foundations and from the U.S. State Department to start working on these documents.
MEQ: Did you acquire any new documents after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in April 2003?
Makiya: After the war, I found in the basement of the headquarters of the Baath Party—the Revolutionary Command Council— a huge cache of documents, another 3 million pages. These were of far greater significance coming as they did from the Baath party building in Baghdad rather than from the outlying provinces. With great difficulty, we got permission to relocate those documents to our offices. We have been organizing them and classifying them into various sets. In the second half of 2004, we got hold of additional documents. We now have a total collection of more than 11 million pages, and we face the gargantuan task of trying to scan them.
MEQ: Can you describe what types of things these documents revealed?
Makiya: There are all sorts of categories of documents. For instance, there are party membership files. These give you sociological information about the backgrounds of party members and the ways in which they rose up in the party. There was a wide variety of material in these box files that could be the correspondence of a branch of the Baath party, or correspondence from the office of the president. Nobody has read through all of this. It takes forever. We have, for instance, eight years worth of rumors on the Baath party in the 1990s. This is a treasure trove for future scholarship on the mechanics and inner workings of dictatorship in the Middle East.
MEQ: Was there anything you found that surprised you?
Makiya: We found registers of Iraqi secondary school students with all kinds of personal information, especially political information: when they joined the party, including their degree of loyalty measured by various criteria; whether they participated in such-and-such an event; the loyalty of the members of their family up to cousins of the third degree. So, you end up with virtually a blacklist of the secondary school population. You can imagine the implications of studying Iraq through the prism of these kinds of documents.
MEQ: How do you intend to make these documents accessible to a broader public?
Makiya: We have to digitize them, and index them, and classify them so that we have ways of searching through them. We have developed systems for doing that, and we intend to begin the production of monographs.
MEQ: How is the Iraq Memory Foundation financed?
Makiya: We have received support from the Iraqi government and from the Coalition Provisional Authority and from grants and contracts from the U.S. government. We have also received a grant to take oral histories of witnesses and survivors of atrocities—we have made about twenty films at the moment. We have about thirty more that we are scheduled to make. Our interviews span the whole spectrum of Iraqi society: men, women, children, Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and people of all social stations and walks of life. We are starting a library of victims' testimonials. Many of these will air on Iraqi television in coming months.
MEQ: Will the foundation be based in Iraq?
Makiya: It is already based there. That is when it started, in 2003, the year of liberation. There is a special prime ministerial order that grants us use of the "Crossed Swords" site in Baghdad for our museum. It will become a national archive, a museum of remembrance, the offices of the Iraq Memory Foundation, and the location of these documents. We also envisage a place where Iraqi citizens can come and type in the name of a missing relative, their village, the period, with whatever information they have and enable them to personalize a search through our extensive database.
MEQ: This sounds very similar to the interactive features at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Makiya: The big difference is that we are located in the country where the abuses happened.
MEQ: What are your long-term objectives for the foundation?
Makiya: We are working on uncharted territory. There is no similar remembrance in any Arab Muslim country. There are precedents in European countries, parts of Latin America, parts of Southeast Asia, and, of course, South Africa. Those of us who are committed to this project believe that it will, in the long run, transform the Iraqi sense of identity.
MEQ: Do you really think it is possible to create a new Iraqi identity based on this collective history of living under Baathist rule?
Makiya: Yes, I do. I don't think there can be an Iraqi identity without acknowledging that, dealing with that, and coming to terms with that. It is simply impossible. We will either fragment as a country, or we will come together on the basis of what was done. It may take a lot of time, but the healing is absolutely necessary.