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Larry Diamond -- Our Squandered Victory in Iraq

By Bill Steigerwald


August 23, 2005

Larry Diamond is an expert on democracy, a Stanford University professor and a senior fellow at the mostly conservative Hoover Institution. Though he says he is a "moderate centrist Democrat" and was against our going to war in Iraq, in the fall of 2003 Diamond accepted Condoleezza Rice's request that he go to Baghdad and serve as an adviser to the interim American government.  
jpg Bill Steigerwald

What Diamond says he saw during his three month stint -- a series of blunders, miscalculations and ideological blindness by American authorities -- is contained in his new book, "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq."

I talked to Diamond, who has not heard from Secretary of State Rice since his book came out, on Tuesday by telephone from his home on the Stanford campus.

Q: Is Iraq's constitution meaningful and will it work?
A: Well, it's meaningful because if the Iraqis do agree on a permanent constitution and if it's adopted by the country in a national referendum, it'll probably be the most democratic constitution the Iraqis have ever crafted for themselves. It will certainly be the constitution that has been reached by the most democratically representative process. That doesn't make a democracy in itself, but it's an important step forward along the road.

Q: Why did you agree to go to Iraq?
A: Because whatever you felt about the war, and whether we should have gone to war or not, the situation after Baghdad fell was very different than it was before we went to war. Indeed, the situation when Condoleezza Rice called me in November of 2003 remained what it was throughout the postwar period -- one where I felt the American national interest was now very much at stake. If we did not succeed in stabilizing Iraq, I felt it would become what it was not before the war -- that is, a haven for international terrorists, a really imminent problem for regional security and stability and a threat to the security of the United States. In addition to which, it was clear that many Iraqis, in the wake of the toppling of Saddam, were coming forward and struggling to build a democratic system of government and I thought those people deserved our help.

Q: What were our biggest mistakes, once we toppled Saddam?
A: Our single biggest mistake, which I talk about at length in the book, was the decision to establish an occupation (government) in the first place ... rather than moving fairly rapidly to an Iraqi interim government that would have been broad-based and selected through some process of consultation and dialogue, like the Afghan Loya Jirga (the tribal council that established a new post-Taliban government in Afghanistan).

Q: We are stuck with Iraq and now we have to fix it. What do we have to do?
A: I think the key is to see if we can find through some political means a way to narrow the base of involvement and support for the insurgency, because the overwhelming problem in Iraq today is that you just can't do anything. You can't travel the roads safely. You can't repair the electricity grid. You can't get the oil flowing too much beyond its prewar level because of the widespread dispersed and vicious violence. Now much of the insurgency is classic, die-hard, dead-end ideologues, either al-Qaida, the former Baathist leadership or other zealots who are never going to be drawn in. But there are elements of the insurgency who are fighting for more tactical goals, to ensure that the Sunnis are going to have a full place in the political process and to get a firm commitment that the United States is going to leave militarily at some point. Some of these more tactically motivated elements of the insurgency have been sending signals through international intermediaries for two years now that they want to talk directly to the United States. I think we should negotiate with them. I think we've made a mistake not to have done so far.

Q: What else should we do?
A: One is to declare, very unequivocally, that we would not seek permanent military bases in Iraq. One thing that has united all the disparate elements of the insurgency -- religious and nonreligious, Baathist and non-Baathist, foreign and domestic -- is the belief that the United States is seeking a permanent military foothold in Iraq and this needs to be resisted for Iraqi-nationalist or Arab-nationalist reasons.

Then secondly, through a process of dialogue, we should seek to establish not a rigid deadline or fixed timetable but some sort of envisioned time frame for an American drawdown and withdrawal that would, of course, be dependent on events on the ground.

Q: You've said the war in Iraq is "one of the greatest overseas blunders in U.S. history." How so?
A: Well, because, first of all, I think we shouldn't have invaded the country. But in particular, if you look at the postwar situation: Here we had this great military victory ... and then we squandered it by our arrogance, ignorance and lack of preparation for the postwar. Even if you think the war was not a blunder, the postwar certainly has been, in terms of the way we managed it and failed to resource it. We just have never had nearly enough troops in Iraq. I think it's too late now to build them up.

In fact, another respect in which the war has been becoming a really historic overseas blunder for the United States is that it has significantly, and in deeply worrisome terms, decreased our overall military readiness. And it's going to take us years to build it back up because of the obsession and neglect that has resulted from our fixation on Iraq.

Q: Is there any great lesson to be learned from our experience in Iraq about the dangers and unanticipated complications and even the folly of foreign intervention like this?
A: Well, yes. I think we need to proceed with a good deal more humility and reflection when we act internationally. We don't have all the answers. We don't have absolute power to remake the world as we would wish it to be. ... Generally, if democratic change is going to happen -- and I do believe we should be promoting it and fostering it -- it's going to be a result of more incremental social and historical forces, which we may assist but we can't create out of whole cloth.


Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review.
©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.
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E-mail Bill at


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