Kanan Makiya on evil, corruption and the criminal state

Observing the evil at work in Iraq every day creates for me a framework problem. Because true evil is something we westerners rarely encounter I decided to search for relevant commentary by Kanan Makiya [who regular readers will know as the author of Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq]. I found this interview by PBS FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript on the banality of evil:

We’ve had a number of people respond to the videotape of bin Laden laughing, feeling that they had moved into a different zone of trying to understand evil — the disregard and the humor and the playfulness and the giggling. Did you have a response to looking at that bin Laden tape? If so, what was it?



… The tape that depicts bin Laden joking around and sitting in a social situation with a sheik from Saudi Arabia and other visitors and talking about what happened at the World Trade Center towers building is, I think, a good illustration of the phrase that Hannah Arendt uses, “banality of evil,” because the social setting was utterly banal. This was a typical Gulf Arab congregation in the evening. … What was evil was not the laughter and the various gestures and mannerisms that are part and parcel of that particular setting if you are a Gulf Arab.

What was so jarring was what the conversation was about, which was this act of apocalyptic destruction. So here are these men having a totally ordinary social conversation, perhaps around cups of coffee and teas and pastry. … But what they’re talking about is the death and destruction of 3,500 people, and they’re praising it and so on. That is the jarring element.

It’s exactly like Eichmann sitting behind his desk, turning out his paperwork, which results in hundreds of thousands of people being shipped off to the concentration camps. It’s the coming together, the confluence of these two things that is, I think, so evil. The fact that these people have so internalized the act, so accepted it; not a single qualm is there. Nothing. They’re very happy with it. They’re talking about how many people are going to be converted to Islam because of it. … The kind of demented quality of this speech and the expectations that was present in that tape, that is frightening. Frightening, and truly exceptional. …

There’s much food for thought in the interview. I also found this interview with Middle East Quarterly from Spring 2005 – the main topic being de-Baathification. I thought this segment on the evolution of the criminal state and rampant corruption was useful:

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.