Inside the Green Zone

Larry Diamond’s conservative critics would have done well to pay attention to his book instead of indulging the urge to delegitimize any critics of Bush policies. Indeed, it’s this tendency to ignore expert advice and the lessons of history that got the administration into so much trouble in Iraq in the first place.

Diamond’s actual tenure in Iraq as an advisor to CPA’s vice regal director, Paul Bremer, lasted from January to April of 2004. But it involved him directly in the painful and ultimately unsatisfactory effort to write a temporary constitution for Iraq, and ended just as a two-pronged insurgency flared up in the Sunni Triangle and in Shi’a areas of Baghdad and South Central Iraq. And it positioned Diamond to make an informed assessment of the serious mistakes made in Washington and in Baghdad before and during his service to the CPA.

As the book’s title, Squandered Victory, indicates, Diamond’s list of mistakes is extensive and devastating. And to a remarkable extent, most of them are traceable to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top civilian staff, and to the extraordinary power President Bush gave them for planning both the invasion and the post-war governance of Iraq.

Among Rumsfeld’s many mistakes, says Diamond, two stand out. First, his insistence on going into Iraq with roughly one-third of the forces that virtually every military and civilian expert deemed necessary to secure the country after Saddam’s regime collapsed. Second was his willful rejection of such post-war planning as was available, especially from the State Department, on grounds that the only transition plan necessary was to turn the country over to favored Iraqi exiles under the leadership of the deeply unpopular (and later discredited) Ahmed Chalabi.

Ironically, once this pipe dream dissolved in the chaos of post-war Iraq, Bush administration officials from Rumsfeld to Bremer erred in the opposite direction, setting up a full-fledged U.S. occupation of Iraq and moving too slowly towards a turnover of sovereignty to a legitimate Iraqi government. And they consistently misunderstood or ignored such key domestic Iraqi political realities as the consequences of disbanding the Iraqi Army and forbidding even minor Ba’ath Party members from employment in government, and the critical role of the Shi’a Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, probably the most important figure in the country.

Diamond’s book provides a relatively brief and clear explanation of the internal characteristics of Iraq that made any transition, however wise and well-managed, exceptionally difficult, especially the inherent conflicts of interest among the long-oppressed majority Shiites, the newly dispossessed and fearful Sunni, and the Kurds, who had enjoyed semi-autonomy before the invasion.

And it’s in dealing with that three-cornered conundrum that Diamond saw the best and worst of the occupation regime. He offers much praise for U.S. troops, and for some (typically mid-level) American civilian representatives, certain key U.N. officials, and a wide array of Iraqis who struggled to instill a commitment to electoral democracy tempered by minority rights and balanced institutions in all three major communities, despite enormous personal risks.

But at the same time, he is exasperated by the refusal of many Americans to pay attention to Iraqi history and culture, especially the array of young conservative activists who formed much of Bremer’s top staff in the CPA’s early days. Indeed, most of them didn’t seem to understand the inherent lack of credibility of an occupation run by the United States, which stood by while Saddam slaughtered many thousands of Kurds and Shiites after the first Gulf War, and by the United Kingdom, Iraq’s former colonial ruler.

In the book’s most striking anecdote, an Iraqi says to one of Bremer’s whiz kids: “You must have thoroughly studied the history of the British occupation of Iraq.” “Yes, I did,” the American proudly responds. “I thought so,” said the Iraqi, “because you seem determined to repeat every one of their mistakes.”

While Diamond’s assessment of the overall record of the occupation, or at least of its planning and leadership in Washington, is one of “criminal negligence,” he still believes Iraq can make a successful transition to democracy so long as the country can be secured against armed insurgents, and, most importantly, so long as Iraqis become the owners of their own country and destiny. He calls for two very specific changes in U.S. strategy in Iraq: first, a clear renunciation of any U.S. designs for a permanent military presence in the country; and second, a much stronger commitment to a non-military democracy-building effort under international auspices. Both steps could help produce the decisive transition, delayed for so long, from a U.S. military and political occupation to a fully sovereign Iraqi regime supported temporarily by Coalition troops.

Diamond is also skeptical of some of the events viewed by the Bush administration as completely positive, such as the famous January 2005 “purple finger” elections. While lauding the courage and determination of Iraqis who participated in those elections, he points out that an American decision to insist on a national proportional representation election, instead of encouraging cross-ethnic and cross-confessional tickets to emerge in localities around the nation, made the results yet another step towards a balkanization of Iraq on strictly communal lines. Indeed, says Diamond, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated United Iraq Alliance, which carried nearly half the vote in the last elections, includes a significant group of actors with deep personal and ideological ties to Tehran. There remains a significant risk, as one of Diamond’s CPA colleagues told him, that the United States will wind up “in the absurd position of maintaining 135,000 troops in-country in order to preserve a pro-Iranian government working against our strategic interests.”

Squandered Victory went to press just after the Iraqi elections, so it does not comment on such positive later developments as the agreement of some Sunni officials to participate in the drafting of a permanent constitution, or such negative developments as the continued ferocity of the insurgency, and the continued heavy presence of partisan armed militias in various parts of Iraq.

In subsequent public appearances, Diamond has suggested the administration remains unwilling to take the steps necessary to convince Iraqis that we do not have imperial designs for their country.

This book will be deeply disturbing reading for those who (unlike Diamond) supported the decision to invade Iraq and assumed that the Bush administration had made even minimal preparations for winning the peace as well as the war. But Diamond also amply documents the barbarism and soul-crushing ruthlessness of the regime that invasion ended, and offers hope that with wiser American leadership, a stronger commitment from the international community, and the good will and courage of so many Iraqis, the story could still have a good ending. That’s unlikely to happen, however, unless the Bush administration comes to grips with its many mistakes and signals a truly new departure in U.S. policy.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.