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No Exit Strategy | The Nation

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No Exit Strategy

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To his credit, Phillips is under no illusion that what became known as the State Department's Future of Iraq Project, to which he was a senior adviser and, because of his deep and longstanding ties to the Iraqi opposition, a key facilitator, would have been a "silver bullet for Iraq's problems." But it was, he insists, rightly in my view, not just "a broad, voluntary effort to meld the talents, experience, and expertise of Iraqis in the service of a new Iraq" but one that dealt seriously with almost every aspect of Iraqi society--from public finance and agriculture to human rights, justice and security. Obviously, one huge if inescapable drawback of the project was that all the Iraqi participants except the Kurds were in exile and that exiles, be they Cuban, Croatian, Iraqi or Tibetan, almost never have a view of their homeland that reflects the changes since their departure. Although obviously aware of the problem, Phillips does not emphasize sufficiently the distortion this must have produced in the Project's work. There is something almost starry-eyed about his account of Iraqis "coming together," as he puts it, "to plan their country's recovery." Given the infighting among the participants he describes in such illuminating detail, the reality must often have been very different.

About the Author

David Rieff
David Rieff, a New York–based journalist, is the author of eight books. He is working on a book about the global...

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A further problem is that Phillips, as much if not more than Diamond, uncritically uses catchphrases like "rebuilding institutions," "transition to democracy" and "democratic principles," as if they stood in no need of examination or critique as concepts--one more illustration of what might be called the mechanistic fallacy of the democracy-building "business." When, for example, he reports that "the task force recognized that human rights and the rule of law are the cornerstones of peace, progress, and development," one starts to feel that one is at a party meeting, even if the party in question is not necessarily clear. For a sentence like that is not a thought, it's an incantation--like so much of the rhetoric of the human rights movement today, whether expressed by Paul Wolfowitz or Amnesty International's Irene Khan.

But for all the objections that can be raised to the Future of Iraq Project, as Phillips says, it anticipated many of the problems the CPA would face in postwar Iraq and so often failed to cope with either effectively or intelligently. In contrast, the Defense Department had no coherent plan. As Phillips remarks with justifiable bitterness, instead of a plan or a program the Bush Administration "focused on a person"--Ahmad Chalabi, who, they believed, could transform Iraq into a liberal democracy and support US goals in the Middle East. Having joined forces with Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iranians, to whom he allegedly provided extremely sensitive intelligence on American plans in Iraq, Chalabi has few friends in Washington these days, and it is now hard to remember what a swath the Iraqi exile cut through the corridors of power--above all Vice President Cheney's office and the office of the Defense Secretary--before the war began. Phillips's book is in many ways an account of how Chalabi and the Defense Department wrested the initiative from the State Department and the overwhelming majority of Iraqi exiles without ever coming up with the kind of planning the Future of Iraq Project had done. There is, at least in his telling, the silky adroitness of a Renaissance prince in Chalabi's successful campaign to be the Americans' primary interlocutor when the war began.

The key moment, in Phillips's view, was when President Bush signed National Security Directive 24 giving the Pentagon overall control over even the nonmilitary aspects of postwar Iraq. It established the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), which was in fact the CPA's predecessor, and placed it under the supervision of Douglas Feith, a leading neoconservative in the Defense Department and one of the leading advocates within the Administration for the ouster of Saddam. The institutional turf war, well if bitterly chronicled in Losing Iraq, was over. The Defense Department had prevailed over the State Department, even on those humanitarian issues that, through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), State had traditionally controlled. As Phillips puts it, "ORHA was formed to do the job started by the Future of Iraq Project. However, it did not avail itself of previous planning, nor did it make use of those in the State Department knowledgeable about Iraq."

For Phillips, once that decision was made the stage was set for the cascade of errors committed by Bremer and the CPA. Instead of liberation and a fairly quick handover of power to an Iraqi government, which is what Phillips says the Iraqi members of the Future of Iraq Project had assumed would happen after the Baathist regime was defeated, Iraq got an occupation. For Phillips, it was only when the CPA was dissolved and sovereignty returned to Iraqis that what he rather too romantically calls Iraqis' "dreams of democracy" was even salvageable again. That is where the central narrative of his book ends: with the hope that it is not too late.

The contributions both Diamond and Phillips make to understanding what has taken place in Iraq are considerable. But there is a sense in which one of their most important contributions is inadvertent. For both their books illustrate and exemplify the extraordinary consensus about the duty to intervene that has arisen over the course of the post-cold war world. We have not yet begun to pay the price for this--not because we do it ineptly but rather because it rarely seems possible except on the far fringes of the political right and left, what with the "historic compromise" between the Bush Administration and the human rights movement over humanitarian intervention, if not over torture, rendition, the Patriot Act and myriad other issues, to have a serious conversation about whether the United States has any business trying to create democracies by force of arms. Instead, the consensus not just of these two writers and activists but of the great and the good from the Kennedy School of Government, to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the thirty-eighth floor of the UN, to 10 Downing Street seems to be that we--whether the "we" in question proves to be the United States, the UN or that mythical entity, the international community--must learn to do this sort of thing better, more effectively, perhaps more humanely. It is not only L. Paul Bremer who suffers from hubris.

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