As War Ends, Iraqi Exile Looks Back

As troops withdraw from Iraq, it's a bittersweet day for Brandeis University Professor Kanan Makiya. On April 9, 2003, Makiya watched the fall of Baghdad on television from the Oval Office, alongside President George W. Bush. The former Iraqi exile was an outspoken critic of Saddam Hussein's crimes against the Iraqi people and had advised the President on the invasion of Iraq. Makiya tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz he believes the war was worth it for the Iraqi people — but perhaps not for the Americans.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

On April 9, 2003, historian Kanan Makiya watched the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Firdaus Square on a TV set in the Oval Office. At his side, the president of the United States.

KANAN MAKIYA: At that very moment that I saw the statue come down on April 9th in the White House, it was an overwhelming moment. There's no other word for it. I was just filled to the brim. Hardly able to speak, quite honestly.

RAZ: Makiya had left Iraq as a young man. He'd written an influential book on Saddam Hussein's regime. It was called "Republic of Fear," a book that was cited by both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. At the time, Makiya believed that U.S. troops would be greeted by Iraqis with, as he said, sweets and flowers. Makiya is a professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and he says that with hindsight, he has mixed feelings about the wisdom of the war.

MAKIYA: While I supported the overthrow, I never supported the occupation. My writings are laden with arguments why things would not turn out so good. But as a political activist, I sought to speak aloud one part of my mind to take a triumph of hope over experience. You might call it that.

Even that I don't regret. I was wrong in many of the judgments as a consequence. But I knew I thought to myself if there's even a 5 percent, 10 percent chance of a democratic experiment beginning to take root in Iraq, it's worth it.

RAZ: Kanan Makiya, we are talking now as this American military enterprise is over.

MAKIYA: Yes.

RAZ: What's going through your mind? You know, the reality that it's over. We're out.

MAKIYA: Well, several feelings. There is one unmitigated good from an Iraqi point of view, and that is the overthrow of the tyrant. I mean, there's nothing that can take that away. But from an American point of view, I understand. I live in this country. I feel American now as I naturalized two years ago. I understand the pain, the cost.

I do think the Iraqi leadership, which was produced by that war, the Iraqi elite, that that elite behaved terribly, ungraciously, in all sorts of ways. So why did that elite prove such a failure, given the historic opportunity that the war represented? I don't have an easy answer for that. But failure it is, and that is something we have to live with.

RAZ: Of course, this war cost hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of lives lost, American and Iraqi. Was it worthwhile? Was it worth it for the United States?

MAKIYA: For the United States. You asked - if you said was it worth it in general, I would say for Iraqis, it was definitely worth it. For Americans, critics of that war today have a point. American prestige, American lives, why should they be tossed away in some small region of the world in a country that's like a tin pot little country compared to the might and strength of the United States?

But history is still in judgment over this issue. How do we know how Iraq will turn out? The Arab Spring has completely changed the rules by which we may judge these questions today. If we talk about whether the United States should've gotten involved in Libya, for instance, and there he was, Gadhafi, on the bank of Benghazi about to unleash what might have been the Libyan equivalent of the crushing of the uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, was it right for the United States to intervene? Yes. Yes, yes. I'd say a thousand times yes. Do I know what's going to happen in Libya tomorrow? No.

I do, however, understand every time I just hear an American family that's lost a son or lost a daughter, lost somebody, I'm unable to tell that person that loss was justified. And I would never even try. I would just bow my head in shame and sadness at the loss that that family had incurred.

RAZ: That's Kanan Makiya. He's a professor at Brandeis University and founder of the Iraq Memory Foundation, which is preserving a record of Saddam Hussein's crimes against the Iraqi people. He spoke to me from his home in Cambridge. Kanan Makiya, thank you.

MAKIYA: Thank you.

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