Saddam’s Scribes

Martin Kramer, “Saddam’s Scribes,” The New Republic, July 19 and 26, 1993. The article is a review of Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World, published by W.W. Norton.

Since the war in the Gulf, it has been learned just how thoroughly Saddam Hussein beguiled public servants, business executives and policy “experts” in the West. Here are the officials who winked at him; there are the corporations that provisioned him with forbidden technologies; and everywhere are the “Iraq-watchers” who put the best face on his damnedest deeds. The techniques of seduction mastered by Iraq compel investigation, because they point to gaping loopholes in the institutions that define Western democracy, loopholes that probably can never be closed but must certainly be tightened if more Saddams are not to waltz right through them.

In the Arab world, too, Saddam had his apologists and appeasers and enjoyed the support of an impressive array of fellow travelers. Especially among the intellectuals: when crisis came, they deployed all their ingenuity to excuse or to justify the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and seeded the clouds of obfuscation surrounding Saddam’s crimes. Their choices before and during the war made no difference to its outcome, and might still be only an internecine Arab concern, were not yesterday’s allies of Saddam posing as today’s defenders of democracy and human rights in Arab lands. Kanan Makiya’s unsparing exposé will make it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for them to get away with it.

Makiya is the Iraqi author of an earlier indictment of Saddam’s rule called The Republic of Fear, which he published under the pen name Samir al-Khalil. There he argued that Iraq under Saddam “should not be dismissed as a run-of-the-mill dictatorship with equally nasty counterparts all over the Third World,” since it had become, in the 1980s, a totalitarian state. After the invasion of Kuwait, Makiya shed his protective pseudonym to argue publicly that the West had an obligation to topple Saddam. The West did otherwise, for reasons that betrayed what Makiya calls an “absence of compassion.”

Makiya’s new book does not dwell on Western “betrayal,” real or imagined. His critical eye remains fixed on the Arabs. For Makiya, the torment of Iraq, and of other Arab lands, is self-inflicted, the result of a descent into cruelty that the Arab intelligentsia has greeted more often with silence than outrage. Makiya’s work purports to be a kind of shock therapy, which seeks to relive with readers the nights of terror and to confront intellectuals with the human cost of their words — all in the fervent hope that Iraqis and other Arabs will take responsibility for the cruelty they have visited upon one another.

The therapy begins, appropriately, with the telling of lived nightmares. Each of the first chapters bears the name of a witness who felt the hot iron of Saddam’s wrath. They include a Shiite, a Sunni, two Kurds, and a Kuwaiti: witnesses who passed through the bowels of Baathist Iraq, even as Arab writers and poets kissed Saddam’s cheeks. There is the interview with the Kurdish boy Taimour, who somehow pulled himself from the pit where Iraqi soldiers shot his mother and sisters; the regime exterminated over 100,000 Kurds in this manner in 1988. There is the testimony of Abdallah, a Kurd who lived through a chemical attack on his village that same year. Fleeing to the river, he found his children dead and his mother sprawled in the water, her mouth “biting into the mudbank.” There is Omar, a Baghdad Sunni, who was swept into a hellish prison for forty days on suspicion of insulting Saddam. There is Abu Haydar, the Shiite army officer who joined the post-war Shiite uprising in the south, only to see it descend into butchery and looting before being crushed.

The testimony of these witnesses is the scaffolding for Makiya’s own detailed inquiries, drawing on a still wider range of interviews, documents, and tapes. The narrative is inspired as no human rights report could be, and is leavened with personal reflection on the moral ambiguities of tyranny and resistance. This is especially true of Makiya’s account of the Shiite intifada, an uprising put down with a ruthlessness “that previously had been reserved for the Kurds.” It is believed that many more Iraqis died in the suppression of the Shiite uprising than in the allied assault on Saddam’s forces. But Makiya does not shrink from documenting the excesses of the “bungled” intifada, which turned into a “killing rampage” borne aloft on “a ferocious, hate-filled, vengeance-seeking, and profoundly intolerant brand of Islam.” His reportage of the atrocities, on both sides, runs the grisly gamut from crucifixions to the dashing of infants’ skulls.

Makiya found “the cumulative effect of the stories unbearable, deadening to all rationality, even a threat to my own sanity.” Yet this brutalization, far from galvanizing an Iraqi opposition, has paralyzed it, as each faction claims to have been more victimized than the others. Makiya is certain Saddam will fall but fears a bloodbath will follow. He would heal the polity by a general amnesty, a federal state and ironclad guarantees of minority rights.

But the Kurds dream of a Kurdish state and the Shiites call for an Islamic state, “either one of which is enough to kill Iraq.” The Kurdish dream might be realized with little more bloodshed, or so Makiya imagines; but Sunnis and Shiites live in an inextricable embrace, and when Shiites talk of an Islamic state, Sunnis hear a demand for righteous vengeance. Makiya ends his reflections on Iraq’s future with an admonition to Shiites that they approach Sunnis in a spirit of reconciliation, abandon the idea of an Islamic state, and promise to set aside retribution after Saddam. But Makiya has no illusions: “The signs are that Iraq’s Shiites are so traumatized by their own tragedy that they are becoming less and less able to think and act like Iraqis.” As costly as Saddam’s rule has been for Iraq, Makiya is possessed of a foreboding that the deluge is yet to come.

In the second part of the book, Makiya dissects the intellectuals. Since 1967 most have known the Arab world to be ailing, and many offered penetrating diagnoses. They affirmed that the Arabs must change and pondered the violence and repression played out in Beirut, Hamah, and Halabja. And yet they failed to liberate themselves from the myth of Arab nationalism and its crippling fixation on the West as the ultimate source of all Arab woes. That myth finally overpowered every other sensibility when Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait — a union unlike any other attempted Arab union, imposed by the strong upon the weak, with all the brutality of a rape.

Scores of leading Arab intellectuals embraced the move openly or tacitly, by somehow persuading themselves that Iraq’s missiles and chemicals stood at the service of all Arabs. If Saddam’s brutality served to unify them, it had to be understood as a “national act.” Later, when America awoke and Saddam suddenly seemed destined for defeat, they made him into an Arab victim, charging that the United States lured the Iraqi leader into Kuwait in order to crush him. (April Glaspie was the agent provocateur.) The imagined plot then called for the United States to destroy any possibility of a so-called “Arab solution,” so it could wage a cathartic war of prejudice against Iraq, Islam and the Arabs. In short, writes Makiya, “responsibility was being transferred by Arab intellectuals away from where it so obviously lay, namely, with the Ba’thi state of Iraq, onto the United States.”

Makiya has assembled a collage — a quote here, a verse of poetry there — and he tends to relegate evidence of equivocation to the footnotes. Still, many of the quotes are stunning. Pride of place on the scale of power worship goes to the Tunisian historian Hichem Djaït, who enjoys an exalted reputation in France and a growing one in America (where he has been a visiting professor at Berkeley and McGill). “A new perspective is opening up,” he announced after the invasion of Kuwait, “that of unification. And Iraq is its pole and motor.” Just as wars forged European nations, so Saddam was “undertaking the beginning of the unification of the Arab world. Sometimes legitimacy is more important than legality.”

His foreign interviewer persisted: What if the war became general? Djaït’s reply was that “war has the merit of clarifying things — with respect to your contradictions and with respect to ours. We have everything to gain from this clarification. We have nothing to lose from this war, even if it ends in defeat.” Now this very same Djaït once said of Baathist ideology that “the Arab nation is not a fact,” and that “intellectuals cannot, without betraying themselves, subscribe to a purely nationalist ideology that is fatally poor and contains the seeds of fascism”; but when Saddam flexed his missiles, Djaït swiftly betrayed himself, and watered those seeds with his words.

Makiya’s view of the poets, the “kings of Arab culture,” is more problematic. The spectrum of plausible interpretation is broad, and the poets are in perpetual motion. In 1984, Nizar Qabbani, the lyric poet of pessimism from Syria, wrote a paean to Saddam, “who let gently drop into my eyes the color of green.” Later, in 1989, he wrote a poem that fed the already widespread Arab bigotry against Gulf Arabs (“Drink the wine of your petroleum to its lees / Only leave culture to us”). Yet Makiya acknowledges that Qabbani took an “honorable stand” in support of the Kuwaitis during the crisis, and penned a poem that heaped obloquy on Saddam after the battle. Makiya argues that Qabbani’s problem is ultimately “one of style, not ideological position,” and no doubt Qabbani is an acquired taste. But Makiya never confronts the paradox of how a poet, whose style reminds him of nothing so much as “early Baathism,” still withstood the siren call from Baghdad at the height of the crisis.

The poets equivocated; not so the Palestinians. Saddam seduced them first by exchanging threats with Israel, and later by promoting the idea of “linkage.” The depth of Makiya’s disappointment with the Palestinian choice is perhaps explained by his own odyssey. After the 1967 war, the Palestinian fedayeen became the hope of the hour, and Makiya writes of starting off in politics as a “young activist supporter” of the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. “As I labored virtually full time to solidarize with the Palestinian movement, I became aware of myself as an Arab for the very first time.” But the wider Palestinian movement did not arise to inspire young idealists or save the Arab world. It arose to carve out a Palestinian state, and its natural allies were power brokers, not the downtrodden, of the Arab world.

Saddam seemed to command more power than any Arab leader in modern history, and when he invaded Kuwait, Palestinians rushed to savor what Makiya calls the “crumb of comfort” that he threw to them. Makiya notes the exceptions, which include the Israeli-Palestinian writer Emile Habibi and Harvard professor Walid Khalidi. But most Palestinian intellectuals saw Saddam as the revered Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish described him in 1986: as the “moon of Baghdad.” Makiya’s mature disappointment with the Palestinians has been as passionate as his youthful “solidarizing,” and one wonders whether the Palestinians really have deserved either. But if Palestinian intellectuals are now enraged by Makiya, they might ponder whether their own style of moral arbitrage did not create him.

During the Gulf war, Edward Said demonstrated that style brilliantly. From the outset, he decided that the crisis was about empire — not Saddam’s, America’s. Were Kurds gassed? “At best,” pronounced Said in the face of an avalanche of evidence, “this is uncertain.” But he dropped the evidentiary bar when it came to American culpability, as demonstrated by his remarkable summation of the Gulf war: “The dreadful Saddam Hussein provided the U.S. and his reactionary Gulf neighbors with a perfect excuse to attack him after his brutally stupid and indefensibly criminal occupation of Kuwait.” The real thrust of this sentence is not that Saddam was dreadful, stupid, or criminal, though it is clear on all these counts; it is that the United States and Saudi Arabia plotted to “attack” Saddam before he invaded Kuwait. But the evidence for this simply does not exist. And the mountain of counterfact about Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and American policy-making that must have gone into the writing of such a sentence is breathtaking.

For Makiya, this kind of logic is grounded in the “morally wrong” premise that the greatest threat to the Arabs is still external. As Makiya demonstrates in a final tour of cruelty around the Arab world, the region has become fully self-sufficient in the manufacture of oppression. Yet Makiya’s indictment of the Arab intellectuals goes further: they create the necessary conditions for tyranny. The source of agony in the Arab world, writes Makiya, “lies principally in its intelligentsia, not in its regimes.” Here he invokes the authority of Noam Chomsky, whose notion of the responsibility of intellectuals entered the Arab world through the criticism of “Orientalism.” Makiya skillfully hurls it right back: if Western culture and Western power are inseparable, so too are Arab culture and Arab power, especially when that power is so abused.

But here Makiya stands on dangerous common ground. As it is, the rulers of Arab and Islamic lands need little encouragement to hold intellectuals responsible, and to hold them to the fire. That is why books are banned, writers are exiled, journalists are assassinated and Rushdie languishes under an irrevocable fatwa of death. In places like Baghdad and Teheran, the “treason of the intellectuals” is judged to be treason, pure and simple. The Arab world desperately needs to ignore the Chomskian analysis, and to write a social contract that absolves intellectuals of this kind of accountability for what they write and say. Such a contract might be based instead on the idea that governments are accountable for what they do.

Astonishingly, the very same nationalist intellectuals who, in Makiya’s words, “played into the hands of the worst kind of despotism” propose to write that contract themselves. The pan-Arab journals now brim with articles, conference proceedings, and study group reports on the methods and means of promoting democracy in the Arab world. The rationale underlying this sudden enthusiasm for political pluralism and free elections is that if the people were only allowed to express themselves, they would endorse the nationalist program: greater Arab unity, repudiation of the United States, withdrawal from the Arab-Israeli peace process. It is a dubious assumption, and it is not surprising that half of the Arab nationalist intellectuals in a recent survey believed that Arab unity could only be achieved by force. Their lips speak democracy, but their eyes remain fixed on the horizon, awaiting the next Saddam, who may turn out to be Saddam himself.

© Martin Kramer