One of the stranger domestic cultural subplots of the war in Iraq has been the confidence with which so many politicians, commentators and journalists alike have felt comfortable claiming, often on the basis of the most fleeting experience there, how postwar Iraq is going to turn out. With his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad to American forces, and the Range Rover machismo of his “bring ’em on” response to the first serious signs of a homegrown Iraqi insurgent challenge to the US occupation, President Bush remains the world record-holder for this brand of hubris. But any number of people, from Vice President Cheney down to the most hectoring blowhard on Fox News, have been hard at work making a run for his title.

Mostly, it has been a habit of feeling (and of hype), not of thought. Given the fact that Gen. John Abizaid, who heads the US Central Command, and Gen. George Casey, who commands the multinational forces on the ground in Iraq, have both said publicly that over the past six months the insurgency has remained much the same in terms of its lethality and reach, and that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has said it could go on for as many as twelve years, it is hard to believe the Vice President really thinks it is in its “last throes.” But to the right, it is an article of faith that the United States is winning. The problem is that it has been an article of faith since before the war even began. And by the fall of 2003, six months after Baghdad fell, pro-Administration pundits were already insisting that, as Max Boot, John M. Olin fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, put it at that time, “the world press, which lavished such attention on Iraqi looting back in May, seems largely indifferent to the successful work of rebuilding that has gone on since.”

Boot pointed out such supposedly underreported or misrepresented success stories as what was taking place in Iraq’s Shiite south around the shrine city of Najaf, controlled by the Marines, and in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, controlled by the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. By 2004 Americans had their hands full beating back a rebellion by the militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and after Baghdad Mosul is now probably the least secure and most heavily insurgent city in all of Iraq. Apparently undeterred, Boot recently published a column in the Los Angeles Times titled “Why the Rebels Will Lose.”

Some of the hard left, or what passes for it in the United States and Britain, has not been much better. An equally ideologically based divination of the Iraqi future has been in effect. The new Iraqi government, which Susan Watkins, writing in New Left Review, called “Vichy on the Tigris,” could not last (it did). The January elections would be a failure (they weren’t). There would be civil war between Shiites and Sunnis (so far not, in no small measure thanks to the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani).

The fact is, no one really knows how things are going to turn out in Iraq, and the certainty with which those who don’t seem to think they do, from President Bush and Paul Wolfowitz to Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, brings to mind Cicero’s remark that he cannot understand how, when two soothsayers meet in the street, they both don’t burst out laughing.

There is, however, a subset of books and articles on Iraq that are worth taking seriously. More limited in scope, they are mostly concerned with what went wrong either in the planning for the war or with the conduct of the US occupation in its aftermath. That things went not just wrong but badly wrong is, after all, perhaps the one thing on which opponents and supporters of the war (outside a lunatic fringe of right-wing bloggers and their audience, that is) can agree. Like the existence or, rather, the nonexistence of an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s hands, the predictions of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others more or less all the way down the Administration food chain about Americans being welcomed with sweets and flowers, the ease with which order would be established, the speed with which US troops would be withdrawn and the relatively low cost of the entire venture, have all proved to have been mistaken. Indeed, there is something quite startling, perhaps even unique in the annals of US government, about the comprehensiveness of the Bush Administration’s misreading of the postwar situation in Iraq.

The depth of that misreading is exposed both in Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory and David L. Phillips’s Losing Iraq. The subtitle of each book telegraphs its thesis nicely while hinting at each writer’s area of expertise. Diamond, a professor of political science and sociology at Stanford and a leading figure in what has become the academic subdiscipline of “democracy building,” calls his “the American occupation and the bungled effort to bring democracy to Iraq.” Phillips, a longtime campaigner for humanitarian interventions from the Balkans to Afghanistan and a former adviser to the State Department planning group for postwar Iraq, uses the blunt phrase “inside the postwar reconstruction fiasco.” So we know where we are.

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.

But at least Diamond remains troubled by the entire project of America going into Iraq, if not (or at least not sufficiently) by the project of imposing democracy from without. Whatever their other differences, that project is a major point of convergence between the Bush Administration and human rights liberals who are otherwise most critical of it. As William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International (USA), put it recently, “Had any president other than George Bush promised in his inaugural address to tie U.S. policy to the pursuit of ‘freedom’s cause’ and uttered words like ‘America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains or that women welcome humiliation and servitude,’ our [i.e., the human rights movement’s] hands would ache from applause.”

David L. Phillips has far fewer doubts than Diamond. Losing Iraq is perhaps the best recapitulation we have so far had of the position of those who ardently supported US intervention in Iraq and, for that matter, generally support so-called humanitarian interventions throughout the world (though calling them interventions on human rights grounds would probably be more accurate), as Phillips devoted himself to doing during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. And while his book is largely an indictment of the way the Bush Administration decided to deal with Iraq after it had deposed Saddam, Phillips goes to some lengths to point out the continuities between George W. Bush’s foreign policy goals and those of his predecessors–goals that Phillips summarizes by quoting from a speech by President Truman to the effect that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation.”

When he uses Truman’s lines to evoke this American mission, Phillips seems to be thinking of the Kurds, with whom he has developed especially close relations over the past fifteen years, and perhaps of the besieged Sarajevans as well. Unfortunately, it never seems to occur to him that, say, from a Latin American perspective, those words have a very different resonance indeed, and that on that continent, historically, the free peoples resisting subjugation were more often than not resisting the subjugation of the United States. But imperialism does not trouble Phillips. He seems never to have doubted that it was right to overthrow Saddam on human rights grounds. At various points in his book, he speaks of the campaign’s “noble intentions” and echoes–without even the minimal skepticism that the powerful surely should always engender in people with any historical memory at all–then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s description of America’s mission (and how loaded, not to say self-infatuated, that word alone is, and what habits of thought and feeling it reveals) as one in which America “may be the only great power in history that prefers greatness to power and justice to glory.”

Caveat emptor. In Losing Iraq, the problem of imperialism is simply ignored. What Phillips seeks to do, beyond, of course, exposing the mess the Bush Administration made of postwar Iraq, is, as he says, to elucidate the Administration’s “mistakes in Iraq so that it does not repeat them elsewhere.” It is emblematic of Phillips’s view that, whereas former national security official David Rothkopf has criticized the Bush Administration for what he calls its “rationale shopping” in the run-up to the Iraq War, Phillips seems comfortable predicting (and approving of) US interventions to “protect its security interests, remove weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or prevent genocide.” Yes, he would like more multilateralism, more inclusion of and respect for the UN–in short, he is closer to the Bill Clinton than the George W. Bush version of American hegemony–but the idea that intervention itself might pose moral problems is not a possibility Phillips seems prepared to consider. Once more, in this, as in other important aspects of its argument, Phillips’s book illustrates the continuities between the Bush Administration’s approach and that of the human rights movement.

However, the real interest of Phillips’s book, and what makes it essential reading for anyone interested in why the postwar went so badly, is his insider’s view of how the United States planned and how it failed to plan for the Iraq over which it would hold sway after the fall of Saddam. The Administration’s view, publicly at least, is that its postwar planning was effective in some ways and ineffective in others, and that, since this is true of all plans, particularly military plans, it has little to answer for. And it is true that the Pentagon did make plans to cope with the sorts of things US forces had faced after the Gulf War of 1991–above all, an attempt by the Iraqis to set fire to the oilfields and the movement of hundreds of thousands if not millions of refugees. But whatever the planning, or lack of it, no one who saw the disarray of US forces as Baghdad was looted, or later read in the after-action reports by various units that there had been little or no rehearsal for even maintaining order in postwar Iraq, could be in any doubt that American planners had either not anticipated or been unable to come up with answers to the challenges that the American occupiers did confront.

To those of us on the ground at the time, there were only two credible explanations. The first was that the planners had gotten things wrong; the second was that there had been no plan (the Iraqis I knew generally attributed the debacle to a US conspiracy–a view, in my experience at least, from which most could not be moved). The great merit of Losing Iraq is that it documents not just the fascinating debates between Iraqi exiles and US government officials to which Phillips was often the only independent American witness but the fact that, under the aegis of the State Department in the year before the war began, these Iraqi exiles themselves came up with a postwar plan that both anticipated many of the problems the CPA would face–in other words, that panoply of difficulties Diamond exposes so ruefully in his book–and offered solutions for them.

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.

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.