[This review was published in the Summer 2007 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 258-261.]


Book Review 


Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq

Larry Diamond

Henry Holt and Company, 2006 


            Among the many books that are critiquing the United States’ misadventure in Iraq, this book will certainly be among the best.  Larry Diamond was on the spot in Baghdad as a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority during a crucial four months early in the occupation (January to April 2004), having gone at the behest of American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom he had known for several years.  As a co-editor since 1990 of the Journal of Democracy, he was among the better-prepared Americans to be sent to “help build the peace,” even though he had opposed America’s invasion in the first place.  At present, Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at Stanford University.

            Anyone who has read the daily news reports from Iraq is, of course, familiar with the subject.  A book’s advantage is that it brings the detail together all in one place and gives it coherence.  We won’t rehearse those details in this review, but we will highlight the most meaningful aspects of the book when we recount the more important of the missteps Diamond sees as part of the “bungled effort”:

            1.  Going to war so totally unprepared for the war’s aftermath.  Interestingly (for what it tells us about the administration’s intentions a year and a half before the invasion), the U.S. State Department had started a “Future of Iraq Project” in October 2001, just a month after 9/11.  This pre-war planning was brushed aside when President George W. Bush put the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the “lead position” for the post-war.  Rumsfeld, Diamond says, treated this as “a mandate for policy monopoly,” and ordered that the State Department’s planning be ignored.    Diamond speaks of “the blithe arrogance” that substituted for planning.  As a result, “the United States invaded Iraq without an effective plan to secure the peace.”  The post-war started with chaos and looting, giving Iraqis the impression that the United States welcomed the destruction.  Few Iraqis, accordingly, have seen the United States’ forces in the way the Bush administration hoped they would be seen, as “liberators” rather than as conquerors.

            2.  The failure to give the United Nations a significant role.  Diamond says that giving the U.N. a meaningful role, such as “organizing a national conference in July 2003 to choose an interim government,” might have prevented the Iraqi people’s having perceived the United States as an “occupying power.”

            3.  Underestimating the extent and tenacity of the resistance, ignoring warnings.  Among the warnings from several sources was one from the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, whose pre-invasion report, Diamond says, was “breathtaking in its prescience.”

            4.  Going to war with too small a force to assure a successful aftermath.  Small-force warfare was, of course, central to Rumsfeld’s military doctrine, which assumed that a blitzkrieg by a well-trained and technologically superior force could sweep all before it.  One benefit of the Iraq War is that it will have demonstrated how it isn’t enough to defeat the enemy in the field.  (The lesson has been taught before, and especially with Napoleon’s experience in Russia.)  The too-small force opened the door to the chaos and looting, to leaving unprotected Saddam’s immense store of arms, and to the inability to seal the borders to block jihadist infiltration.  This was compounded by the United States’ lack of preparation and less than full competence in other areas.  Despite years of focus on Iraq, there were few Americans with an intimate knowledge of the country, and there weren’t nearly enough interpreters.  Imperial dilettantism was evident when 24-year-olds were brought in to reorganize the Baghdad stock exchange and to negotiate the constitution.  A “revolving door” caused many of the personnel to leave just as they were beginning to know the people and the place.  (Diamond’s own brief stay of four months is an example.)

            5.  Disbanding the Iraqi army.  This was done despite the opposition of “high-ranking U.S. Army officers.” To dump 400,000 men into Iraqi society without discipline and employment heightened the social crisis and provided fodder for the insurgency.  Rebuilding the army has been an extremely difficult undertaking, especially as it has been infiltrated by militias and plagued by corruption.

            6.  Banning the four highest grades of the Baath Party from present and future government service.  One U.S. official has said that this action, together with the disbanding of the army, instantaneously “made 450,000 enemies on the ground in Iraq”—and (Diamond adds) “over a million more, if one counted their dependents.”  

            7.  Having no clear timetable for transferring power to the Iraqis, thus converting the postwar into an American occupation.

            8.  Failing to reach out to the main elements of Iraqi society.  The Ayatollah Sistani is “the most revered moral authority in Iraq,” but the United States snubbed him, “ignoring [his] call for an elected constitutional assembly” and his fatwa condemning the appointed constitution-drafting body.  Muqtada al-Sadr, for his part, needed to be pacified and his militia removed from the equation, either by force or by co-opting him through inclusion. At the same time, Diamond considers it “incredible” that no Sunnis were included on the Constitution Drafting Committee.  (After U. S. pressure was placed on the Assembly, fifteen were added; but they suspended their participation after a short time when one of them was assassinated.)  It was necessary, Diamond says, to assure the Sunni sects (which interestingly are by no means homogeneous) “of their most vital interests.” 

            9.  The United States’ absolute insistence on the August 14, 2005, date for completing the draft constitution.  Diamond considers this “one of America’s most serious blunders, since it meant the virtual exclusion of the Sunnis.

            10.  The lack of a coherent strategy for dealing with the insurgency.

            11.  Mismanagement of the reconstruction effort.           

            At the end of the book, Diamond gives detailed  attention to what should be done to make future nation-building efforts successful.  Unlike the rest of his book, which deals only with Iraq, this broaches the subject of broader world policy.  What he says (and doesn’t say) deserves comment.      

            Even though he recognizes that “the American people will have little appetite, in the coming years, for another nation-building venture on this scale,” he does not conclude from the Iraq misadventure that the United States should rethink its self-assigned Wilsonian mission to champion world democracy.    This means Diamond does not share  Samuel Huntington’s concerns.  We recall that Huntington has argued that the meliorist project is both dangerous, drawing the United States into endless animosities, and morally presumptuous in light of the deep commitments that peoples have to their own cultures and civilizations.  The champions of world democratic transformation don’t seem to be aware that, to peoples immersed in their own cultures, the Americans may well seem profoundly threatening—just as Americans themselves very rightly felt threatened by the expansionist totalitarian ideologies of the past century.

            Neither does Diamond, in continuing to favor the Wilsonian project, seem aware of the conundrum spelled out by Amy Chua in her book World on Fire.  Chua tells how in many countries a tiny wealthy minority, often of outside ethnicity, dominates the economy and society, while the overwhelming mass of people are mired in deep poverty.  Those who would “democratize” and wish at the same time to see the particular country’s economy continue to function would seem to have goals that diametrically oppose each other.   Are outsiders to champion the destitute (perhaps incapable) “masses,” or are they to champion the dynamic one or two percent?  This is a different problem than is faced in Iraq with its angry religious and ethnic divisions, but it poses an equally unsolvable dilemma for anyone presumptuous enough to “play God” with it.

            A concluding comment of a somewhat different sort seems in order.  A missing element in Diamond’s discussion—as in virtually all that is said about how the United States should “fight the war on terror”—has to do with the need not just for “international cooperation” (as in Diamond’s call for an increased United Nations role) but precisely for appealing to the most constructive elements of Islamic society throughout the world.  If the United States is at war with all of Islam, that is catastrophic; but there is reason to believe that the world need not move again into an era of such titanic conflict.  Certainly this is a subject that deserves more attention than it receives.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Dwight D. Murphey