Squandered Victory

When a final accounting of the U.S. war in Iraq is toted up, we may learn why so many things went wrong. How did the best-equipped, most powerful army in the world sweep to victory and then so quickly lose control? How did astute politicians from Donald Rumsfeld to Colin Powell to John Kerry to Hillary Clinton so systematically miscalculate the consequences of going to war against a country so religiously complex and ethnically divided?

With none yet acknowledging their errors, accounts like Squandered Victory provide something of a first audit of the war and its immediate aftermath. Chapter 10, “What Went Wrong,” is as good a catalog as we have of the multiplicity of mistakes made by the United States and the Iraqi exiles who resolutely shaped our policy and misled our policymakers. Drawing on news reports by U.S. journalists and conversations with UN and U.S. officials, Larry Diamond concludes that the war itself, despite a military victory, was the “original sin,” followed by an ill-conceived and badly managed occupation.

The core and original contribution of this book is an account of the author’s brief time (about ten weeks from mid-January to April 2004) in Baghdad advising the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). It is a compelling story of what Diamond saw going wrong on the civilian side of the occupation in the months before L. Paul Bremer, head of the CPA, turned the governance of Iraq over to the hand-picked Governing Council in June 2004. Diamond is a democracy expert, whose tradecraft rests on two-and-a-half decades studying democracies in more than two dozen countries and analyzing the conditions of their success or failure. He is based at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and is co-editor of Journal of Democracy, published by the National Endowment for Democracy.

Diamond opposed war with Iraq but like many Americans was loath to lose the peace or, worse, see the country fall into civil war and become a new home for international terrorism. When his former Stanford colleague, Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor to President George W. Bush, called on him, he agreed to advise the CPA on a range of projects meant to guide a new Iraqi state toward democratic governance. His tasks included working on the Transitional Administrative Law, consulting with a range of Iraqi leaders and groups about the elements of democracy, preparing materials to help the Iraqi people understand a new system of governance, and writing memos to Bremer, who was micromanaging Iraq (one of Diamond’s criticisms) while himself being micromanaged by the Bush administration from Washington (another criticism).

Diamond admits, perhaps too candidly, that like most civilian Americans in Iraq he lacked the requisite skills and requirements to do a good job, including even language and the willingness to stay for at least a year. His knowledge of Iraq’s history and culture seems sparse, though he has the air of a fast learner. These limits and the security restraints notwithstanding, he comes on as the can-do consultant, venturing from the high security Green Zone to meet with tribal and religious leaders. Though he confirms stories about young Republican Party loyalists dropping in with little to offer but bad advice, Diamond also reports that along with many of his U.S. colleagues, he worked ’round-the-clock to jump-start Iraq’s new system of government. His job was to impart to willing Iraqis his best advice on building a democracy from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government. That advice sometimes borders on the higher civics rather than the give-and-take from which democracy might emerge, but perhaps it came across better in translation. No matter. As he reluctantly admits, “We cannot get to Jefferson and Madison without going through Thomas Hobbes. You can’t build a democratic state unless you first have a state.” That means an “effective monopoly over the means of violence.” The Iraqi Governing Council doesn’t have that monopoly, and neither does the U.S. military.

Many critics of the war and reviewers of the book will read Squandered Victory with guilty pleasure: it confirms how incompetently the Bush administration managed the war, the occupation, and the reconstruction, and how devastating that has been to Iraqis. Yet given his own account, Diamond exhibits an oddly placid attitude. Yes, he opposed the war, but the original justification-Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction-he deems misjudged not fabricated. He readily accepts the ex-post-facto justification of bringing democracy to Iraq, and in accepting Rice’s call to service, he seems never to grapple with the ethics of joining in a venture that was stupid, if not criminal. Nor does he question his own performance, which exhibits the same lack of preparedness and knowledge that he argues contributed to the failed occupation and reconstruction. Was the professional itch of a democracy expert simply impossible to control?

Elsewhere Diamond has described Islamic terrorists as “the new Bolsheviks” and the war on terrorism as the “new cold war” (Hoover Digest, 2002, no. 1, www.hooverdigest.org). These provocative but unhelpful analogies reflect the history and mentality of the National Endowment for Democracy, a cold-war project whose original mission was to compete with communism and promote democracy in countries where it had a history. Iraq is not Poland or the Czech Republic or even the Latin American republics that are offshoots of Western Europe. Iraq could, of course, become a democratic state, but probably not under the tutelage of the United States and its democracy experts, whose skills and concerns about “accountability” and “transparency”-big words in Diamond’s vocabulary-are badly needed at home.

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 
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Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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