No Exit Strategy
Reading Phillips and Diamond is like reading an account of the campaign of a seriously inept military commander--Alcibiades, say, or Custer. Given the scale of muddle, pigheadedness, amateurism, bureaucratic infighting, ego and turf wars that both men describe in the run-up to the war (the strongest and most original part of Phillips's book, not least because he was an actor of some significance in that period) and during the first year of the American occupation, when Iraq was ruled by the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), in which Diamond served for some months, it is a wonder that things in Iraq have not turned out even worse than they appear to have done so far. Diamond says as much. "Mistakes," he writes, "were made at virtually every turn."
Of course, some of these mistakes are by now very well known. As Diamond rightly puts it, "The United States invaded Iraq without an effective plan to secure the peace." The looting of Baghdad, which those of us who were there at the time witnessed in all its stupefying comprehensiveness even as we were flabbergasted by the unwillingness of US forces to intervene in any way, was emblematic of the whole sorry postwar mess. Diamond covers this, as he glancingly treats the prewar planning failures that are Phillips's main focus. But he is most instructive in his account of the nuts and bolts of the dysfunctionality of the CPA. "We never had enough civilian employees, or enough armored cars, body armor, helicopters, and other forms of secure transportation to move the staff members safely around," he writes. "We never had enough translators and interpreters....We never had sufficient expertise on the ground--people who knew the country, its culture, and its history, and who could speak its language reasonably well."
Worse still, unable to attract many people with real experience to its ranks, "the CPA relied heavily," as Diamond puts it, "on a revolving door of diplomats and other personnel who would leave just as they had begun to develop local knowledge and ties, and on a cadre of eager neophytes--some arrogant and others reflective, some idealistic and others driven mainly by political ambition."
Here, Diamond is being unnecessarily discreet. He really should have been much more severe with regard to these people he calls "eager neophytes"--in reality, disproportionately young men and women who worked in low-level positions within the Bush Administration, the Washington right-wing think-tank orbit, the Congressional Republican Party or the national Republican Party. A few, notably the CPA's senior adviser, Dan Senor (now a contributor to Fox News), cut their institutional teeth in AIPAC, the powerful American-Israeli Political Action Committee. It was commonplace to talk to young people in the Green Zone--the heavily fortified palace complex where the CPA was headquartered and from which most CPA employees rarely ventured except under heavy military escort--and find them fully up to speed on the Bush Administration's revolutionary project (a favorite word of theirs) for democratizing the Middle East but with only the haziest knowledge of Iraq, let alone of Arab, Persian or Islamic history. A favorite joke among these kids--and they were kids--at the time was, "anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." Thus did neoconservative dreams, hatched within the Beltway, flourish for a time along the Tigris.
Diamond's story, well told and carefully judged, is, to paraphrase Joan Didion, how those dreams came to dust. For him, it was as much as anything a matter of hubris--"the same imperial hubris," in his words, "that had landed the United States in Iraq with a democratizing mission but no real sense of how to accomplish it." For Diamond the CPA's administrator, L. Paul Bremer, exemplified this combination of complacency tipping into arrogance--above all, the failure to realize how Iraqis saw their American occupiers and to reckon with the gap between "how the powerful behave and how the powerless behave," as one of Diamond's CPA colleagues once remarked to him. This attitude extended to the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the barring of mid-grade as well as senior Baathists from public employment, along with naïveté about the Iraqi political situation--starting with an overestimation of exile leader and then-Defense Department favorite Ahmad Chalabi, but more crucially in what Diamond views as a radical underestimation of the importance of Grand Ayatollah Sistani.
It does credit to his sense of fairness that Diamond goes to some lengths to paint a mixed picture of Bremer and of the CPA. Not for him the American military's contempt for the organization, exemplified, as Max Boot reported, in the joke that CPA stood for "Can't Provide Anything." Diamond notes that some of the worst decisions Bremer made were probably imposed on him by senior members of the Bush Administration, and he compliments Bremer's commitment and his work ethic. And yet the portrait Diamond paints of this erstwhile US Ambassador to the Netherlands, Ambassador at Large with special responsibility for counterterrorism and onetime managing director of Kissinger Associates (and, by extension, of the US occupation of Iraq as a whole) is devastating--more devastating, perhaps, than even Diamond realizes. It is well-known that Bremer could never establish decent relations with Sistani, who sedulously refused to meet with him (indeed, Diamond should properly have stressed the role of Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations special representative who before his assassination in Baghdad was mostly responsible for keeping channels open between the American occupiers and Sistani). What is less well-known is what Diamond describes as Bremer's insistence--shades of his ex-boss Kissinger--on controlling every aspect of the CPA. One of his senior aides confided to Diamond that Bremer "stovepiped everything. Nobody knew what anyone else was doing."
Squandered Victory ends on a note of self-questioning rather than certainty, as well it should, given the fact that, as Diamond rightly says, "despite the litany of blunders we have committed, Iraq may yet emerge slowly from political chaos, first into a troubled semidemocracy, and then, gradually, into a democracy." But while, in the last chapter of his book, he lapses back into his Stanford political science persona and offers a series of policy recommendations for how a future American occupation might be better prepared and better carried out, his heart doesn't really seem to be in this (already curiously tentative) blueprint. Even before laying out his recommendations, Diamond quotes a senior Arab diplomat of his acquaintance who told him that "the war itself was the original sin," and it is worth recalling that Diamond himself opposed the war before it started. That said, for Diamond even to attempt to persuade his readers after what his book documents so ably that "if we learn from our mistakes, our next engagement to help rebuild a collapsed state might have a more successful outcome" seems not just conformist but intellectually irresponsible--hope for hope's sake, which is a sentiment, not a rational conclusion. If anything, his contention that the real lesson of Iraq is not "'don't do it' but 'don't do it alone' and 'don't do it with an imperial approach'" has an even more unreal quality.
After reading these lines, one can't help asking in what world Diamond thinks he's living. He clearly has a fine mind and he has written a serious and valuable book, but he also seems to have a conventional mind. Iraq is not a conquered or even, if one were to take the neoconservative view, a "liberated" country; it is a collapsed state. And the lessons of previous "nation-building" efforts could and should have been applied to Iraq. Perhaps. But when Diamond, following the Australian academic Simon Chesterman, seriously contends that it is possible to combine "international trusteeship or imperial functions with a distinctly non-imperial attitude," any reader possessed of the most rudimentary skeptical faculties will start tuning out. Still, this kind of senior-common-room utopianism inadvertently makes clear what is missing from Diamond's otherwise unflinching look at what took place in Iraq under US occupation. And that is the problem of empire. It is empire that is the ghost at the banquet in Diamond's approach, and it is the problem of imperialism that, although he treats it glancingly, he never quite confronts.