August 22, 2005
Larry Diamond Details Our Mistakes in Iraq and the U.S. "Squandered Victory"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Although Larry Diamond opposed invading Iraq, he nonetheless received a call in November of 2003 from his old Stanford colleague, national security advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice. She asked him to go to Iraq to advise Ambassador Paul Bremer about Iraq's fledgling transition to a democracy. Larry Diamond has since written a thorough and fair-handed account of that experience -- trying to build a democracy in Iraq, without enough planning and resources and with far too much American hubris, ignorance, and in many cases, incompetence.
In Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, Diamond traces the political vacuum created after Saddam's regime fell, the colossal mistake by the Bush administration to pursue an extended American occupation, and the difficult negotiations between Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority with Iraq's fractured religious and ethnic groups. Diamond accurately criticizes Bremer's "fateful decisions that collectively put the United States down a treacherous path" – namely dissolving the Iraqi Army and failing to set a "clear timetable for transferring sovereignty back to Iraqis."
Although BuzzFlash differs with Larry Diamond on some of his positions and conclusions, the book is a compelling account of just how badly the Bush administration blew it in Iraq, and the lose-lose situation Bush forced America into.
In one telling passage, Diamond recounts how Donald Rumsfeld kept virtually every career State Department official – people with actual experience in civil administration – from taking a significant role in the pre-war planning or overseeing the post-war reconstruction. When Barbara Bodine, a former Ambassador to Yemen, briefed Rumsfeld before the war began that it was urgent to make sure Iraqi civil servants got paid to keep government services running, Rumsfeld dismissed the idea. "When someone suggested that there would be riots in the streets if the civil servants didn't get paid, Rumsfeld replied that this could be used as leverage to get the Europeans in to pick up the burden, " (p. 31). Riots as leverage!???
As Diamond notes, the American military has never been able to fully control the lawlessness that erupted after the war, and American soldiers are paying the price for the Bush administration's failures.
Larry Diamond shares with BuzzFlash his thoughts on the dire situation in Iraq and what the United States should do about it. Though we may disagree at times with his often nuanced arguments, he offers a unique and valuable perspective. (See Larry Diamond's biographical note, posted at the end of the interview.).
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BuzzFlash: In your estimation, would you say that Iraq is in the beginnings of a civil war?
Larry Diamond: I don't think we can say that yet. I don't think we know precisely what trajectory Iraq is on. But, certainly, it has all the makings for a possible descent into civil war, including rising sectarian violence, distrust among a number of different ethnic and religious communities, a very significant degree of political polarization among those communities, and a great deal of privatized violence on a variety of fronts. And Iraq has a very weak state security apparatus. So, no, I don't think it's in a civil war, or clearly in descent toward that yet, but the danger is very palpable.
BuzzFlash: Why do you believe that we can turn the situation around in Iraq and still create a democratic state? I would call that a rather Herculean task. How can it still be achieved?
Larry Diamond: First of all, let me say that in the next few years, if Iraq were to follow a more positive trajectory of conflict resolution and peaceful development, I don't think that it would become, even in the most positive scenario, a very democratic democracy early on. I think even in the most positive, realistic scenario there will be, for a long time, important elements of authoritarian thinking and instincts. There will be electoral fraud. There will be very significant corruption in the government. There will be a very great struggle on the part of democratic forces in politics and civil society to secure rights, contain the abuse of power, and create a rule of law.
But I think it's still possible that Iraq can start walking down that path, and so that it might emerge, as I say at the end of my book, as a messy semi-democracy, but one that is gradually getting a grip on these problems and moving toward a more real democracy. I think that's the realistic positive scenario.
Unfortunately, I think that even in the most realistic positive scenario, Iraq is going to coexist with a certain amount of extraordinary ethnic and religious polarization that will keep the country in a kind of perilous state for some time to come. Iraq will probably coexist with a greater role for religion in politics than we would feel comfortable with or that liberals and secularists in Iraq would want.
I realize that it's very long odds at this point against securing that outcome. It's much easier to envision the perpetuation of this kind of low-intensity conflict with a very weak state or a descent into full-scale civil war.
But the reason why I say this is possible is because there is a stalemate in the country now in which many of the forces that have either been making the insurgency or supporting the insurgency realize that it's a kind of dead-end game. The insurgency perhaps has tactical value, but it's not going to achieve strategically what they want. And these people are sending a number of signals that they want to come in to the game of electoral politics. They want to compete peacefully for power. I think the challenge now is to identify these groups, sit down with them, talk to them, negotiate, and bring them into the political process. This is the way most internal conflicts end – through negotiation and incorporation.
BuzzFlash: The insurgency is comprised of many factions that have formed an ad hoc alliance. Those elements include former Saddam and Baathist loyalists, nationalist Sunni groups that feel cut off from the political process, as well as foreign fighters and terrorists from outside of Iraq who are conducting some of the suicide bombings.
Larry Diamond: Yes, as well as indigenous religious extremists.
BuzzFlash: Iran and Syria are reportedly aiding the insurgency. The thing that's holding this ad hoc alliance together is their collective desire to see Americans leave Iraq. So that begs the question. Should American soldiers withdraw from Iraq so that the insurgency can essentially fracture and then let the Iraqi state deal with the insurgency?
Larry Diamond: The analytic point you make is precisely one that I've been articulating for some time. There are disparate elements to the insurgency. The one thing that unites them is nationalism and, in a sense, anti-Americanism. I think the answer to the question you pose is not in an immediate and unilateral withdrawal. It is in negotiation with the representatives of a number of these forces who've been trying for more than a year and a half, to talk to the United States.
We should sit down and talk to them, and try to fashion some sort of compromise agreement, working with the Iraqi transitional government and working with other international intermediaries. We need to articulate, really for the first time, that we will not seek permanent military bases in Iraq and that when we leave, we will leave completely. We must also articulate some sort of timeframe by which we envision being gone from Iraq – not a fixed deadline which traps us if things don't go as well as we hoped they will. But some sort of goal or schedule that becomes dependent on the cooperation of the insurgent forces to suspend the violent struggle and try and secure the country.
BuzzFlash: You're saying we should set a timeline or a goal, but not a deadline. Is that a distinction without a difference?
Larry Diamond: No. If we set a deadline, it's then a fixed schedule. If things go badly, we become trapped by it. But I think we can say that we have a timeframe in mind and that we have conditions set that we hope to be able to achieve -- for example, the development of the Iraqi armed forces needs to proceed along the path that we think they're now on, and the people we're talking to who represent insurgent forces cooperate in trying to secure the country. So it becomes a much more interactive process than just a unilateral declaration of a deadline.
BuzzFlash: How do we separate and identify some of the groups that you mentioned -- identifying nationalist Sunni elements from loyalists to the Baathist party or Saddam's loyalists? How would the United States make those distinctions in those groups?
Larry Diamond: I think the most important distinction that can be made is between pragmatists with more limited tactical objectives among the insurgency who've been sending signals that they want to talk to the United States. Some of them are religious; some of them are not. Some of them are Baathists; some of them are not. But they share that kind of tactical orientation.
Diehards however, include the irretrievable religious zealots, particularly the foreign jihadists and the Al Qaeda elements, as well as some former Baathists who were very close to Saddam and who, like Saddam, have blood on their hands for the crimes against humanity that were committed by the regime. With these two sets of actors, I think there is no negotiating. It's a fight to the death.
But the point is they've already separated themselves. Some are fighting relentlessly, and some are engaged in a violent struggle while sending signals that they want to talk. So I think the way we do it is, we widen the divisions within these two sets of actors by starting to talk to the people that are sending signals that they want to talk to us.
BuzzFlash: There's no doubt that a failed Iraqi state, or one that erupts into a civil war or becomes dominated by an extremist, pro-Islamic government, would be horrific, not only for the people of Iraq but for the security of the United States and the rest of the world. But on a personal level, I wouldn't be willing to go to Iraq to stop that from happening. I wouldn't be willing to send friends or family or anyone else to die or get injured for the cause. It's difficult, when you talk about Iraq in strategic terms, because the reality and consequences are that American lives and American soldiers will pay the cost. So how do you square those two very difficult positions?
Larry Diamond: That's a very sharply posed dilemma – a moral dilemma. And everybody has their own threshold here, both personally and I'd say philosophically. I think that you've articulated a position that many Americans share.
On the other hand, I would say that if everybody shared that position, then there'd be no United States military because there'd be nobody willing to be deployed when the government makes a decision that the vital national interest is at stake. The fact of the matter is that we do have a large and significant number of Americans in uniform who still are willing to serve their country to protect and defend it against threats to its vital interest.
I think that the emergence of a regime or a political vacuum in Iraq that allowed that country to be used as a base of operations for Al Qaeda – or other international Islamic terrorist groups similar to the ones that were operating out of Afghanistan – would represent a great threat to the United States and our allies in the region and in Europe. I don't think we can allow that to happen.
So everybody has his or her own threshold. I respect yours. But all I can say is that I was willing to go to Iraq in a position of, I'd say, some danger – considerably less than any soldier would face, but some danger. I felt this was a very important challenge. And I opposed the war. I think the war was a mistake. I think we would not be in the situation we're in today if we hadn't invaded when we did in the way we did.
BuzzFlash: I want to pick up on something you stated earlier. You say that President Bush should tell the Iraqi people that we don't want to build long-term bases, and we don't want to control the oil. But I believe that's exactly why we did go into Iraq in the first place. You're inclined, although you opposed the war, to give the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt and say that we're there to build a democratic Iraq.
Larry Diamond: I would say I have been inclined to do that, yes, but that the inclination is waning in the face of the Bush Administration's intransigence on this point of permanent military bases. The longer we proceed stubbornly, refusing to clarify this issue, while it appears we are in fact building permanent military bases, when it's so obvious that this is a profound obstacle to diminishing the insurgency through political means, the more the suspicion inevitably arises that in fact this was all along a significant motive for going to war.
I can't reject the thesis that you have advanced. And it becomes, I'd say, with every passing month, more of a question in my mind as to whether this wasn't a major motive for going to war in the first place.
But the one note of caution or complexity I would urge upon you is to appreciate that, this grand strategic gamble that we took in invading Iraq, I think had a mix of motives. It is very clear to me that the Administration believed that Saddam must have had weapons of mass destruction. I think they convinced themselves of it.
But I think they believed that, even if Saddam's weapons capacity had been radically degraded, the international sanctions regime could not be maintained indefinitely. That he was eventually going to build up his weapons stockpile, even if he didn't have much now, that he was a threat to the region and ultimately to the United States which was going to have to be dealt with sooner or later. That was their thinking, and I think it was a significant element in their strategic calculus, but it was by no means the only one.
As time goes on, it increasingly appears that the Administration may have had another motive – I'd state it a little bit more subtly than you did – to find a way to project American power in the region over the very long term that would be more sustainable than the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. We have been getting a number of signals for a number of years that this is not sustainable, because of the nationalist reaction there, the growing sympathy for Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, and so on and so forth.
Why we would have thought that Iraqis would be less nationalistic than Saudis, and more welcoming of a long-term American military presence on their soil, I don't know. Maybe we thought that Iraqis would be so grateful to be liberated from Saddam that they would just welcome our presence for the indefinite future. But I do think it's fair to speculate that this must have been at least one significant element of the strategic calculus that led us to war.
BuzzFlash: You wrote that we've lost our credibility with the Iraqi people and that we need to get it back. We've talked a lot about this at BuzzFlash – that the war is largely a logistical as much as it is a perception problem. The Iraqis, for example, know that we didn't find weapons of mass destruction, although we claimed they were there. After the regime fell, we only protected the Oil Ministry, as you pointed out in your book.
Larry Diamond: Right.
BuzzFlash: Saddam Hussein has been removed from power and is awaiting trial. Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that the United States used money to corrupt and influence the January elections in Iraq. The violence is continuing with no signs of letting up. So from the perspective of an Iraqi citizen, how could they think otherwise – that the United States is there for any other reason other than the oil?
Larry Diamond: I would say that, from the perspective of an Iraqi citizen, the problem is in fact worse than you have articulated and you could have gone on to round out the picture. There's also the scandal at Abu Ghraib, and the fact that the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees has been more widespread than simply the outrageous conduct at Abu Ghraib.
And there's the fact that a growing number of Iraqis are becoming infuriated and outraged by the conduct of our soldiers in Iraq, who have killed innocent Iraqi civilians in some cases, or gravely wounded them. I think part of the trap we're in now is a Vietnam-like trap, where we're in a country that's increasingly violence-ridden and hostile, where you don't know friend from foe.
So there are just a variety of bases on which Iraqis have become deeply resentful of the United States and its presence in Iraq. And this accentuates the need to begin to more vigorously pursue a political breakthrough to diminish the insurgency and to accelerate whatever plans we have for American military withdrawal.
It's clear that we're a stabilizing influence in the country now, in terms of stemming the slide toward all-out civil war, but also a destabilizing presence in terms of people becoming angry about our being there, and in terms of our being the magnet for violent resistance. We've got to resolve this contradiction in a way that is more creative and energetic than what the Bush Administration has pursued so far.
BuzzFlash: You detailed in your book, Squandered Victory, the many failures of the Bush Administration and the Coalition Provisional Authority in handling the post-war conflict that led to the dire situation we're in now. What would you say were some of the biggest failures?
Larry Diamond: The single biggest mistake which landed us in much of the difficulty we're in now was the decision to have an American occupation of Iraq in the first place. To think that we could, in the image of Douglas MacArthur in Japan, just govern this country and remake it. This was deeply resented in Iraq, and of course, it accentuated the suspicions about what we were doing there and what our motives were. Iraqis resented the arrogance of the American style of operation -- that we knew best, and we were going to help our little brown brothers along.
I think that, in addition to the decision to have an occupation, there were three decisions taken around the same time that were also very, very damaging. One was to completely dissolve the Iraqi Army and just dismiss several hundred thousand soldiers. It's true, as defenders of this decision say, that the Iraqi Army had largely dispersed itself. But still, they could have been called back to bases. They could have been paid. They could have been vetted with some number of them selected to begin securing the country. We created a security vacuum and lost a lot of time by our decision to just basically disintegrate the entire backbone of security in the country.
Secondly, we took the decision to launch a thoroughly radical campaign of de-Baathification. And it was necessary to purge some number of Baathist Party officials from public service in a variety of ways, particularly the government. But it went too far. It went so far that in some communities, the schools were left virtually without any schoolteachers because all of the teachers had been members of the Baath Party at the district level or above.
And finally, when we started this occupation, it was with no clear indication of when it was going to end. And so Iraqis saw themselves really under indefinite occupation under the political administration of the United States.
Eventually we corrected that with the announcement of the November 15th plan, which provided for a handover of power on June 30, 2004. That did begin to relieve some of the tension, and focus people's energies on the political process that would lead to a transfer of sovereignty. But these were very, very serious early blunders. And of course they were compounded by the fact that we didn't have enough troops in Iraq. We couldn't secure the borders. We couldn't secure the cities. We couldn't secure the facilities.
You've mentioned that the only building we really defended from looting – I think one of two – was the Oil Ministry. What message did that send to Iraqis? And from the beginning, there was a vacuum of political order that raised the eyebrows of potential insurgent forces and led them to believe there was an opportunity there.
BuzzFlash: Mr. Diamond, thank you for your time.
Larry Diamond: Thank you.
Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, considered a conservative think tank. He served in 2003 as a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. A professor of political science and sociology (by courtesy) at Stanford University, he is coordinator of the Democracy Program of the new Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford's Institute for International Studies. Diamond is a specialist on democratic development and regime change, and on U.S. foreign policy affecting democracy abroad.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq is available from amazon.com and other book sellers.