An Eyewitness to the Iraq Botch


When I went to Baghdad in early January as a senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, I believed that a democracy of sorts could gradually be constructed in Iraq, despite the formidable obstacles. Although I had opposed the war, I accepted the invitation because I believed that the United States could not allow postwar Iraq to sink into chaos and that the Iraqi people deserved an opportunity to live in freedom. This did not seem to me to be an unrealistic goal.

But I returned three months later sorely disappointed. Because of a long catalog of strategic and tactical blunders, the United States has failed to come anywhere near meeting the postwar expectations of Iraqis. It now seems clear that the occupation will leave a mixed, and on balance negative, record when the Americans hand over power June 30. Though we leave behind a framework for political transition, it is hobbled by two huge deficits: security and legitimacy.

Previous international efforts to build democracy after violent conflict counsel one clear, overriding lesson: “It’s security, stupid.” If a decimated country doesn’t restore enough security to rebuild its infrastructure, revive commercial life, employ workers and enable civic organizations to mobilize, political parties to campaign and voters to register and vote, it can’t craft a decent political order -- certainly not a democratic one.


The aftermath of tyranny and war is never going to be perfectly tranquil. But to build a democratic state, a country must first build a state, and the transcendent imperative for that is to establish a monopoly over the means of violence. In Iraq, this meant moving quickly to prevent a resurgence of violence on the part of the defeated Baathists, radical Islamists, external jihadists and others threatened by the new political order. But despite warnings from the Rand Corp. and others, the Pentagon plunged blithely ahead with only half the necessary force (less than 150,000 troops). Our inability to control the savage looting that swept Baghdad in April 2003 signaled the hollowness of the U.S. posture and emboldened the die-hard Baathists to regroup for the insurgency that has devastated postwar reconstruction.

By the time I arrived, the signs of insecurity were pervasive. Iraqi translators and drivers at the palace where the CPA has its headquarters told me of the threats to their lives and the murders of their co-workers, while our soldiers confessed frankly that they could do nothing to protect those Iraqis outside the Green Zone. Repeatedly I had to cancel trips to meet Iraqis outside of the compound because we could not obtain the armored cars or helicopters that would enable me to travel with some measure of safety.

Today, in place of security, Iraq has a welter of heavily armed militias serving not the new Iraq but political parties, incipient regional warlords and religious leaders.

To the security deficit was added a yawning legitimacy deficit. The CPA delayed local elections and imposed one unwieldy transition plan after another while leaning too heavily on Iraqi exiles, especially the widely distrusted Ahmad Chalabi. Crippled by a severe shortage of American officials fluent in Arabic (as well as the steady loss of Iraqi translators to intimidation and assassination), and distanced from Iraqi society by formidable walls of security, the CPA never adequately grasped Iraqi preferences, hopes and frustrations.

While I was there, the CPA repeatedly misjudged and underestimated the most important Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and finalized in early March an interim constitution that most Iraqis (including Sistani) felt gave too sweeping a veto to minorities and too little participation to the people. When I traveled the country speaking about this new document, I was stunned by the anger and frustration of Iraqis who felt excluded from the process. But by then, the CPA was interested only in “selling” the document (for which we hired an expensive advertising agency). Too often, our engagement with ordinary Iraqis was a one-way conversation from above.

Today, as the U.S. continues to battle the radical Shiite insurgency led by cleric Muqtada Sadr while trying to sell Iraqis on its post-occupation plans, the challenges are as tough as ever. The new interim government includes a number of politically shrewd Iraqis, some with roots in Iraq’s crucially important tribes, who may yet prove capable of mobilizing support for the political transition. But the new government will not be viable and the elections for a transitional parliament will drown in bloodshed and fraud unless the new Iraqi state can defeat the former regime loyalists, the terrorists, the organized criminals and the militias. To do that, a recommitment from the United States -- and a smarter American strategy -- will be needed.


Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.