In This Review

Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.
Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.
By Larry Diamond
Times Books, 2005, 384 pp
Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco.
Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco.
By David L. Phillips
Westview Press, 2005, 292 pp

In two years, Iraq has gone from being a rogue state to being an ailing, if not failing, one. In January 2003, Saddam Hussein's totalitarian dictatorship ruled over most of the country with an iron fist, a mammoth intelligence system, and a bloated 400,000-strong army. Power and resources were concentrated in the hands of Saddam and his lackeys in Baghdad, supported by the Sunni heartland in the center of the country. With its paranoid nationalist ideology, Iraq was a constant threat to its neighbors.

Since then, at least three fundamental changes have occurred. The first has been the collapse of both the government and its support base. Thanks to the insurgency and the elimination of the Baath Party and Saddam's military, Iraq's center of gravity has shifted away from Baghdad and toward the provinces. Second, Iraq is now experiencing real politics -- a revolutionary development for the region. The newly elected assembly and the cabinet of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari are mediating conflicts between political parties and their constituencies through bargaining and tradeoffs rather than intimidation and violence. Third, the country's politics are no longer driven by nationalism and the interests of a middle class of state functionaries, but rather are guided by cultural identities based on ethnic and sectarian blocs. The election of January 30, 2005, confirmed the displacement of the former Sunni ruling class and the emergence of both a dominant Shiite majority and a strong Kurdish minority, with profound consequences for the country's domestic and foreign policies.

These disruptions are unlikely to be settled easily anytime soon. Given the excruciating compromises Iraq's transition to democracy requires, the political process in Baghdad is proceeding about as well as could be expected. But the insurgency, focused mainly on the capital and its environs, is sapping energy, isolating the country's center from the provinces and Iraq from the outside world, and complicating economic revival. Not surprisingly, the hope and optimism that once buoyed believers in the U.S. occupation have given way to disappointment and finger-pointing. Fervent supporters of change, who went into Iraq with the idea of remaking the country, have come up against some hard realities. The whole project now looks costly and uncertain.

Larry Diamond and David Phillips, two disillusioned participants in the reconstruction effort, have written books analyzing what went wrong. As the books' titles indicate, both assign much -- perhaps too much -- of the blame to U.S. policy. Although postmortems on Iraq are numerous by now, these accounts deserve a reading because of their immediacy and depth -- the products of the authors' direct involvement in the process and their personal struggle with the issues.

THE MANGLING WARDENS OF BABYLON

Diamond, a leading U.S. expert on democracy and its exportation, has written a firsthand account of his brief experience with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad, the U.S.-run body that ruled Iraq from May 2003 through June 2004, as it attempted to bring democracy to the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Although Diamond opposed the war, he believed in achieving the peace and signed on to serve as an adviser to the CPA, spending three months in Baghdad in 2004. He entered the project with considerable skepticism, uncertain whether Iraq was fit for democracy given its deeply divided society, lack of a strong middle class, and hostile postinvasion environment.

Diamond's book is largely a memoir of his short time in Baghdad. His descriptions of working life in the "palace" -- the heart of the U.S. administration -- are more than interesting anecdotes, because his experience captures much of what was wrong with the U.S. occupation. He was seated at a desk with no instructions other than to help draft Iraq's interim constitution, known as the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). Diamond and his colleagues, including two Iraqi exiles educated in the West, were asked to settle issues fundamental to Iraq's future, including determining the authority of the occupying power; balancing Shiite ambition, Kurdish separatism, and Sunni alienation; creating a system of checks and balances; and enshrining respect for human rights in the law. Yet they had little contact with the population whose future they were designing. When Diamond did make forays outside the Green Zone to attend seminars and give lectures, he found that Iraqis were increasingly critical of the lack of consultation on the TAL and that the process was quickly losing legitimacy.

When and how to conduct elections for a new Iraqi government was a predictably thorny issue. Shiites wanted elections quickly because, as the country's majority population, they stood to gain the most power from them. Others, particularly Sunnis and middle-class liberals and secularists, feared being marginalized and wanted more time to level the playing field. The Kurds wanted independence, but their leadership was willing to settle for a high degree of self-rule.

Washington hoped to maintain the basic administrative structure of Saddam's years, with Iraq divided into 18 provinces and governed by a strong central government. The Kurds insisted on recognition of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which had run parts of the Iraqi north for 13 years, and on expansion of their territory to include Kirkuk. They turned out to be successful bargainers. Although the contentious issue of Kirkuk was postponed, a form of federalism defined largely in Kurdish terms -- allowing for a highly autonomous KRG -- was written into the TAL. An article in the TAL gives the three Kurdish provinces, as well as others, the right to reject the constitution that is to be drafted by the new assembly and put to a nationwide referendum. The provision is controversial, but Iraq is expected to operate under the TAL until the new constitution is adopted.

In return, the Kurds agreed to the creation of a strong, central post of prime minister to be held by a Shiite. But some Shiites also began to demand the right to form semiautonomous regions in the south, where they dominate, starting with Basra and its neighboring provinces. Because their request raised the possibility that Iraq might fragment into partly independent subnational units based on ethnic and sectarian identity rather than geography, it ran into considerable opposition in some quarters. Iraq had always been unified, and its unity had been the bedrock of the Baathists' nationalist ideology. Defining Iraq's federal structure was, and still is, at the forefront of constitutional discussions.

Diamond also shows how time constraints shaped the electoral law that a special UN electoral team (which Washington had invited to help run the election) proposed. Diamond favored a mixed system of proportional representation based on districts using provincial boundaries, which would have ensured greater representativeness of local constituencies. But any such districting would have required a lengthy and complicated census, especially in Kurdish areas and Kirkuk, so in the interest of time, the UN adopted a single, nationwide district. Diamond feared that such a system would exclude Sunni areas, threatened by the insurgency and an electoral boycott, and contribute to ethnic and sectarian polarization among the electorate. In retrospect, his concerns were prescient.

Meanwhile, according to Diamond, the CPA was mismanaging the militias in the south. Its lack of control became very clear in April 2004, after the outbreak of twin insurgencies, one led by ex-Baathists, the other by Muqtada al-Sadr. By then, the militias had multiplied: Sadr's Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Kurdish Pesh Merga, to mention a few. The plan was to disband these groups or incorporate them into the newly emerging national army, but in some cases they were merely donning a new uniform. "We are taking Pesh units and slapping an ICDC [Iraqi Civil Defense Corps] label on them," one U.S. Army officer told Diamond. The main challenge came from Sadr. Lacking sufficient military forces, Washington refused to confront him in time to avoid a conflict. Diamond left Iraq just as the country was turning particularly violent.

Diamond is also unsparing in his criticism of Washington's broader Iraq policy. "Mistakes were made at virtually every turn," he charges, ensuring that "a decisive and potentially historic military victory" became a failure. The Iraq project has become "one of the greatest overseas blunders in [U.S.] history." Although the mistakes Diamond points out are familiar by now, they are noteworthy. They include purging the Baath Party, disbanding the army, invading Iraq with too few forces to maintain security, letting the Pentagon set the strategy for postwar Iraq, and failing to plan effectively for peace. Diamond excoriates civilian Pentagon leaders for not listening to outside advice, especially the State Department's "Future of Iraq" project (a main subject of Phillips' book). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld frowned on nation building, and the White House was eager to downplay the sacrifices it might require of the American public. The Bush administration wanted to believe that the insurgency in Iraq would be limited and that Washington could rapidly turn over the country's management to pro-U.S. Iraqi exiles.

Occupation did bring some benefits -- new political parties, a stronger civil society, and a less dogmatic educational system -- but these benefits did not, in Diamond's view, outweigh the negatives. The collapse of public order in the immediate aftermath of the war devastated Iraq's infrastructure and opened the door to terrorists, feeding the insurgency and the chronic disorder that have stunted progress. The U.S. forces were always short of troops; the civilian team was underresourced, with too few people who knew the local language and culture. The Bush administration displayed too much hubris and engaged in too much wishful thinking. For Diamond, the administration's worst sin was not going to war, but going so unprepared.

BEST PRACTICES

By and large, Phillips agrees. Now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the deputy director of the council's Center for Preventive Action, Phillips was a senior adviser to the State Department on the Future of Iraq project from April 2002 to September 2003. His professional interest and the focus of his book are nation building. Having accepted Bush's security rationale for the war in Iraq, he is less critical of the invasion itself than of the administration's handling of the postwar stabilization and democratization program. He wants to derive from Washington's blunders in Iraq more general lessons about the transition from authoritarianism to democracy because, in his view, the U.S. government will use military force to eliminate rogue regimes again.

Phillips takes the reader inside the political disputes in the run-up to the war and its immediate aftermath, detailing the struggles within the Bush administration as well as those within the exiled Iraqi opposition, which Washington was trying to anoint as the new leadership of Iraq. For Phillips, the Bush administration was divided by ideology, not tactics. Whereas the neoconservatives wanted to reshape the Middle East, the more pragmatic officials of the State Department, many of them Arabists steeped in the region, regarded the task as difficult and risky. The neoconservatives eventually won the battle, with the negative consequences that Phillips describes. His disappointment is hardly surprising since the Future of Iraq project was eventually dismissed by the Pentagon. The project may have influenced the drafting of the TAL; Faisal al-Istrabadi and Salem Chalabi, members of a working group Phillips led for the State Department, later played a major role in that effort. But when in February 2003 the Pentagon established the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which took responsibility for stabilizing Iraq in the postwar period, the Future of Iraq project lost much of its relevance.

More interesting than the battles within the Bush administration are those within the Iraqi opposition. Personalities and interests clashed within the movement even before the invasion, foreshadowing the disagreements that followed it. Phillips describes a series of conferences in 2002 in which opposition leaders failed to achieve any consensus over federalism, de-Baathification, or the role of religion in the state. (Phillips documents well Ahmed Chalabi's attempt and failure to dominate the movement.) By November 2002, even Phillips worried that the opposition was "not yet ready for prime time." Having come to the same conclusion, the Bush administration sidelined the opposition. Meanwhile, Phillips reveals, the SCIRI had become a powerful force, with stronger ties to Tehran than to Washington. Overall, Phillips charges, the Bush administration was afflicted by a combination of "naivete, misjudgment and wishful thinking." Dismantling the Baath Party and the army were major mistakes; security problems and rampant looting gutted hopes for progress.

Phillips closes with broad conclusions about the lessons to be learned from the U.S. experience in Iraq. After extensive contact with the Kurds and the Iraqi opposition, Phillips concludes that "religion and ethnicity matter to Iraqis who, as a people, lack a strong sense of national identity." Iraq's governance problems stem from a strong central government that repressed this identity; Phillips is a strong advocate of federalism, especially of the need to build Iraqi democracy from the provinces inward. He also argues that nation building is an appropriate objective of U.S. policy; it is in Washington's interest to intervene abroad to protect U.S. security, whether by removing weapons of mass destruction or preventing genocide. Because failed states are havens for terrorists, Phillips says, conflict resolution is an important investment in U.S. security. In an appendix, he offers guidelines to improve performance next time. Washington should have a clear vision of the purpose of its intervention and of the state it hopes to build. The international community should commit to sharing the burdens of nation building, but the operation should be run under a single command. Neighboring countries should not be allowed to meddle while the United States and its allies work to ensure humanitarian relief, security, economic development, and elections. To help coordinate these and other efforts -- and avoid interagency infighting -- Phillips recommends the creation of a nation-building directorate in the National Security Council.

PRUDENCE IGNORED

Phillips' guidelines are extraordinarily ambitious and ignore the potential for resentment among the population in tutelage. Whose vision of the final state should guide nation building, Washington's or theirs? How likely is burden sharing when a unified command is likely to rest in U.S. hands? And where are the resources to come from?

Phillips, in other words, does not recognize fully enough the inherent difficulties of nation building. He does point out that the Bush administration had not finished with Afghanistan before it took on Iraq, and that if one of its goals was to create a model democracy, Iraq was not the place to start. But the conclusion he draws from the experience is that although nation building in Iraq was bound to be hard, mistakes by the Bush administration made it much harder. Those, he thinks, could be avoided in the future.

Likewise, Diamond concludes that having invaded Iraq and committed to rebuilding it, the Bush administration should have done so differently. Diamond's preferred scenario would have involved many more troops, tighter civilian security after the war to avoid looting, reactivating the Iraqi army and police, protecting the border, allowing the Baath Party to emerge under a new leadership, and transferring authority to the UN. These are laudable objectives, but they would have been even more difficult to accomplish than those of the Bush administration. How would Diamond have accomplished them? Obtaining more troops and more resources would have required support from the American public and a more thorough airing of the costs and risks of nation building, which the Bush administration was anxious to avoid. Diamond admits that all occupying powers face a difficult dilemma: deploy too many troops and risk provoking anti-imperialist opposition; deploy too few and face chaos. But achieving the right balance is a truly delicate operation. In Iraq, Washington did not get it right.

The willingness of Diamond and Phillips to have the United States assume the burden of nation building indicates that even these keen observers have not yet learned the main lesson of the Iraq experience. Rebuilding a foreign nation is an extremely difficult and costly endeavor, likely to generate severe -- and often lethal -- reactions. Formulating a policy for the reconstruction of Iraq was never about choosing a good option over a bad one, but about selecting the least offensive of many unpalatable alternatives. Trying to mend a state as broken -- and as culturally different from the United States -- as Iraq was doomed to be a tricky endeavor for Washington.

Given such daunting difficulties, the best advice to draw from these books may be this: if you cannot garner adequate resources -- and public opinion at home and abroad -- to rebuild a nation, do not start. Rather than ponder the dos and don'ts of nation building, as Diamond and Phillips do, perhaps it would be wiser to weigh the whys and why nots of engaging in it in the first place. If the U.S. experience in Iraq holds any lesson for the future, it may be that Washington should exercise extreme caution before launching another such operation. In the meantime, it should look harder for ways to shore up or bring change to failing states before they warrant intervention at all.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now