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Questions for Peter W. Galbraith

Questions for Peter W. Galbraith

Allan Penn

Peter W. Galbraith. 

The Breakup

Q: Your new book, "The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End," argues that the Bush administration should stop insisting that Iraq can ever be a unified nation.

Iraq still exists on a map, but it no longer functions as a single country. We're trying to build national institutions right now — like the army and the police — when there is no nation.

As someone who has held various exalted government positions — you were the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia as well as a longtime Near East specialist for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — how exactly are you defining the word "nation"?

A nation is a collection of people who share a common identity. You would expect that Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis would have their religious or ethnic identity. What they do not share is an Iraqi identity.

That point has been made countless times, but you're one of the first writers to suggest that the U.S. government totally abandon its current policy and just slice Iraq into three states.

Absolutely. A confederation of three states.

What would you call them?

How about Kurdistan, Sunnistan and Shiastan?

Catchy. What religion are the Kurds?

They are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

So why do Saddam Hussein and his fellow Sunni Muslims hate them so vehemently?

Because he was a fascist in a classic sense. He believed in a master race, which was the Arabs, and that the Kurds were therefore a lesser people in this greater Arab land.

Who are the most famous Kurds?

Beyond the presidents of Iraq and Kurdistan, the most famous, historically, is Saladin, the Muslim warrior who took Jerusalem from the crusaders.

That's fascinating, considering that Saddam Hussein famously proclaimed himself the Saladin of modern times.

He wrapped himself in the mantle of Saladin, even naming his native province after him. Saladin is worshiped by the Arabs, who fudge on his ethnicity.

Before the first gulf war, you documented Saddam's genocide against the Kurds, at a time when few in the West were paying attention.

I actually stumbled across the start of the genocide in 1987, when I traveled to Kurdistan and saw the systematic destruction of villages along the road. Later, I arranged for 14 tons of documents, including lists of people who were rounded up and massacred, to come to the U.S.

And Harvard, your alma mater, declined to house them. That wasn't very brave.

They were concerned about a possible terrorist attack on Widener Library. The documents went to the National Archives.

Aren't you a little bit old to be publishing your first book?

Even though I am a late bloomer in the book area, it's original.

You mean the book is original?

It's original that you have a 55-year-old first-time author who actually wrote it himself.

Of course, you had a great teacher — your father, John Kenneth Galbraith, the world-class economist who died in April, at the age of 97.

He had a clear mind until basically the day he died. He was very interested in this book. He actually read the first four chapters, and he liked it every much. He had some small editorial comments, which I took.

He certainly got a lot done, some 40 books including the campus classics "American Capitalism" and "The Affluent Society."

He was very disciplined in his writing. My father always said that in the fifth draft he introduced that note of spontaneity for which his writing was well known.

In other words, great books aren't written, they're rewritten.

I believe in that.

Is it true that your father coined the phrase "conventional wisdom"? That, at any rate, is the conventional wisdom.

And, in this case, the conventional wisdom is right.

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