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“I’m Right. You’re Wrong. Shut Up”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that title more or less sums up the response of Peter Maass, a writer for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine in a recent blog post to this column by Iraqi American intellectual Kanan Makiya in the New York Times entitled “The Arab Spring Started in Iraq.” Now, anyone who has ever contributed an op-ed to a newspaper knows that writers do not pick the headlines. Makiya’s argument is more nuanced than the headline would suggest. Makiya writes:

If the 1991 war was about the restoration of the Arab state system, the 2003 war called into question that system’s very legitimacy. That’s why support from Arab monarchies was not forthcoming in 2003, when a new, more equitable order was on the agenda in Iraq… All the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was asking for in December 2010 was dignity and respect. That is how the Arab Spring began, and the toppling of the first Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein, paved the way for young Arabs to imagine it.

Here is Maass’ response:

While events in one country can impact other countries, this is a wish-based myth. It demonstrates a sad consequence of the Iraq war: its discredited backers are committing the same error they did in 2003, making dubious assertions without solid evidence… It is the right of Cheney, Rice, Makiya, Dan Senor, Fred Kagan, Joe Lieberman, and other backers of the war to argue as they wish and make whatever connections they wish, no matter how preposterous. But the rest of us are not obliged to keep a straight face; a skewering by Jon Stewart would be a better response than a respectful interview by, say, Wolf Blitzer. On the tenth anniversary of a war that killed more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and Americans, the authors of the catastrophe should do us the small favor of offering their chastened silence rather than their half-baked theories.

Put aside the fact that Maass seems motivated more by spite than analysis, and hence undercuts his argument by cherry-picking (why not also cite Richard Haass, John Kerry, Colin Powell, Al Gore, and Chuck Hagel, all of whom were for the war before they were against it?). To support his view that the Iraq war set back democracy, Maass cites Paul Pillar, a former CIA employee whose history as a prognosticator and policy adviser is questionable at best. Still, Pillar is half right when he writes, “Rather than being inspired by what happened in Iraq after the invasion, Middle Easterners were repelled by it. If the violence, disorder, and breakdown of public services in Iraq were the birth pangs of a new Middle Eastern order, most people in the region wanted nothing of it.”

The reason why Iran and Syria, for example, supported insurgent groups was precisely because they did not want an example to exist of successful democracy taking hold in a neighbor. Maass questions Makiya’s lack of evidence—and, indeed, Makiya’s column can be faulted for being both rambling and light—but evidence does exist. The conversation did change significantly. In 2008, some colleagues and I compiled several essays by Arab scholars and activists looking at the debate regarding dissent and reform in various Arab countries. While many Arabs condemned the Iraq war as liberation turned to occupation, their condemnation was often less about “democracy” and more about what mistakes were made in Iraq, and how to correct them.

In 2005, I was in the Mosul and Sinjar area when elections occurred in Syria. One quip I heard from visiting Syrians was that Syria had had the first free elections in 50 years, but only Iraqis were allowed to participate (as they lined up at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus to vote). Five years later, I heard similar conversations in Kfar Soussa, a Baathist neighborhood in Damascus where Iraqi election posters still dotted walls and lamp posts. Only on American college campuses and perhaps in some European parlor halls do people still believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the end-all and be-all of problems in the Middle East.  

The real problem in Iraq came not with its liberation, but when the “development mafia” transformed the ouster of a horrendous dictator into endless mission creep that expended billions of dollars for little gain. Certainly George W. Bush deserves blame for allowing this to happen. One of the greatest lessons we should learn from both Iraq and Afghanistan should not be that military force against dictators and terrorists is wrong, but rather that too much multilateralism and flooding countries with assistance that do not have the capacity to develop it is.

That is not to diminish Bouazizi and the masses in Tahrir Square who demanded accountability, nor should saturation by satellite and cell phones be dismissed. Still, Paul Wolfowitz is probably right when he writes it is too soon to tell what the Iraq war’s true legacy is. Maass is welcome to his opinion, and he could contribute well to the debate if he based his argument more on evidence than on ad hominem attack. Seeking to shut opponents up for the sin of disagreement is usually a sign that the proposed censor lacks the capacity to win the argument by other means.


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