Commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq by those responsible for waging it has taken largely unapologetic form. Donald Rumsfeld tweeted about the “long, difficult work of liberating 25 mil Iraqis,” and that those who “played a role in history deserve our respect and appreciation.” He ostensibly includes himself in this group. Paul Wolfowitz suggested that “we still don’t know how all this is all going to end,” hopeful that Iraq might possibly follow the model of South Korea after the Korean War. Wolfowitz bemoaned the fact that Iraqis were not given control over Iraq immediately, and that Iraqi exiles who swooped into Iraq on the wings of US war planes, like Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, “had their agendas” and “weren’t straight with us.” And of course there is Dick Cheney, who claimed that he “would do it over again in a minute.”
In his 6 April 2013 New York Times Op-Ed entitled “The Arab Spring Started in Iraq,” Kanan Makiya—perhaps one of the unnamed Iraqi exiles who “was not straight” with Wolfowitz, and who infamously wrote that the bombs over Baghdad were like “music to my ears”—argued that the invasion of Iraq laid the groundwork for the popular revolutions that have swept the Arab world. But why, in the course of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria, has Iraq never been mentioned by any of the revolutionaries as a model to emulate or as an inspiration for their own cries for freedom? Makiya acknowledges that “few of the brave young men and women behind the Arab Spring have been willing to publicly admit the possibility of a link between their revolutions and the end of Mr. Hussein’s bloody reign 10 years ago.” Indeed, Makiya’s “few” might more appropriately be changed to “none,” because none of the revolutions in the Arab world point to the war in Iraq and its effects as an inspiration. Makiya is certainly aware that the Arab public, including the millions who have participated in the revolutions, almost universally regards the US invasion of Iraq and its catastrophic consequences as the bloody and horrific results of imperial hubris. And yet Makiya maintains that he, uniquely, understands their political history and the causes and motivations of their revolutions better than they do.
Makiya attempts to prove his absurd thesis with a circuitous argument: that we must not start with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq to understand the Arab revolutions of today, but must return to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. That war, we should recall, saw the wholesale destruction of Iraqi infrastructure, a US-Arab state alliance that ejected Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and, notably, a popular rebellion in Iraq that was not supported by the United States—a rebellion which, according to Makiya, foreshadowed the Arab revolutions of today. These events were followed by a devastating embargo during the 1990s that Makiya now admits decimated Iraq’s middle class, resulting in the social and economic disintegration of Iraqi society that he now states he and the Bush administration “grossly underestimated.”
There is something deeply disingenuous about Makiya’s claims and his piecemeal instrumentalization of historical events to suit his pro-war agenda. For one, all Iraqi exiles were aware of the devastating impact the embargo was having on Iraqi civilians. Iraqi exiles with family in Iraq watched from afar with mounting horror as Iraqi institutions—health care, education, and infrastructure—collapsed. Iraq witnessed a large-scale exodus of its middle class during the 1990s, fleeing the horrific conditions of a destroyed, embargoed society. However, Makiya—who claimed the authority to speak for Iraqis in exile to a war-hungry Bush administration—now claims he did not know the extent of the devastation, when every other Iraqi did? Many Iraqis in exile opposed the 2003 war before it was launched. This was not out of any love for Saddam Hussein, but rather because they knew what conditions inside Iraq were like and they understood that the Bush administration’s priorities were at odds with true freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people. But these voices did not align with the Bush administration’s foreign policy agenda, and so they were ignored.
Makiya’s historical slippages are indicative of a personality desperately attempting to redeem both his irredeemably tarnished reputation as well as that of an unpopular war now considered a mistake by a majority of Americans. By the end of his NYT article, Makiya relies on vacuous platitudes about “freedom” and a universal desire for dignity in the face of brutal dictatorship as a way to link the fall of Saddam Hussein with the Arab revolutions that began many years later. The fall of the Iraqi dictator, he tells us, enabled young Arabs like Mohammad Bouazizi—whose suicide in Tunisia sparked the Arab revolutions—to imagine their own revolutions.
It should be clear by now that Makiya, a poor student of history and a poor observer of the Arab revolutions, cares little about the very specific demands of the revolutionaries and their understandings of who their oppressors have been. Millions of Egyptian protestors were aware that the regime of Hosni Mubarak had been aided and abetted by the United States for decades. Chants on the streets of Cairo lambasted Mubarak and his son Gamal as agents of the Americans. Egyptians understood that concepts like “dignity” and “freedom” are not ahistorical platitudes, but exist within specific historical conditions and circumstances. And they knew that the United States, which launched its disastrous war against Iraq, whose bloody consequences the entire Arab world watched on their television sets for years, had collaborated with the Mubarak regime to rob them of their own freedom and dignity for decades. Contrary to what Makiya would like us to believe, protests for dignity and freedom in the Arab world are not devoid of historical content. For Makiya, “freedom” and “dignity” are abstract, ahistorical concepts, to be mobilized in the most cynical of ways to adhere to a narrative that promotes his failed ideology.
Even now, after hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths and a war he advocated to the US neocon foreign policy establishment, Makiya apparently still fails to comprehend a basic fact: “freedom” delivered from the barrel of a gun by a US government that has done everything in its power over the past fifty years to ensure its interests were being served in the Middle East at the expense of the dignity and rights of the Arab peoples (whether Palestinians, Iraqis, Egyptians, or Lebanese)—has no relationship to the power and legitimacy of popular revolutions which have established their own mandates. Iraqis today are not free, but live under a new authoritarianism. For Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Bahrainis, Yemenis, and Syrians, the struggle for dignity and freedom is ongoing and has nothing to do with embracing the consequences of an illegal war and its horrific ongoing effects.
Makiya would have us believe that in the burst of democratic idealism, demands for economic justice, social equality, and freedom of expression that we have seen throughout the Arab world, young revolutionaries were simply unable to articulate or understand the connection between the imperial war he supported and their own struggle for freedom. Furthermore, he would have us believe that he understands their history and motivations better than they do. This is the neocon mind at work: self-serving and ideologically uncompromising, Makiya remains a true believer in his own capacity to understand the history of the Arab revolutions despite having failed so monumentally in 2003 to understand his own country, a failure that has resulted in incomprehensible human costs.
The travesty in all of this is that the self-serving ideological screeds of Makiya and those like him, who were wrong about the Iraq war in 2003 and who now seek to write a revisionist history of its effects, are still given platforms to articulate their lamentably ignorant views. Makiya cannot escape his role in history by fabricating a link between the Iraq war and the popular Arab revolutions that have swept the region in the past two years. He cannot do so for the simple reason that none of the Arab revolutionaries would agree with his preposterous thesis, and it is they who are making their own histories independent of the logic of violence and empire that he embraces.