Squandered Victory in Iraq: A talk with democracy expert Larry Diamond

Larry Diamond is a Stanford political scientist and an expert on democracy. Soon after the invasion, Condoleezza Rice asked him to go to Iraq to work on democratization. His new book, Squandered Victory, is an account of his disillusionment with that project.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2006-04-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: As an editor of the Journal of Democracy, you've been studying democracy for ages. You must encounter a lot of peace activists who don't assign a high priority to democracy. What do you say to them?

LARRY DIAMOND: Let's take the question first from the peace standpoint and then from the leftist concern about social justice and narrowing inequalities. From the peace standpoint, we know that no two liberal democracies have ever fought a war against one another. I'm not going to say that democracies are intrinsically more peaceful. Democracies can launch wars, even without international sanction (we have recent evidence of that) but they generally don't launch wars of aggression and conquest in the contemporary world. Of course, democracies fought wars of conquest and colonial domination for a long time, but increasingly we see democracies becoming more internationally responsible. Also, most of the regimes that abuse the human rights of their citizens are unambiguously authoritarian regimes.

Now on the social justice front, well, you certainly cannot argue that democracies always perform well on this. Certainly massive inequalities, class distinctions, and historical patterns of repression persist in electoral democracies. However, democracy gives people from below a chance to use their collective power as lower classes, as poor people, as indigenous people, to try to alter the structural situation. Look at what's been happening in India over the past thirty years with the democratization of the scheduled castes. Look at what has been happening in Brazil with the mobilization of poor people there -- the election of a socialist party that spoke to their needs over a long period of time, whatever its performance has been in office. Look at the recent mobilization of indigenous people in the Andes and the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, a long-time advocate for indigenous people. Democracy provides a political tool for people to redress their grievances.

SPENCER: Indeed so. And I want to hear your opinions about Iraq. In your book Squandered Victory you expressed frustration about the failure of many things that you tried to do there to democratize the country. Tell me what you think the problems were and how you may have changed your mind since writing the book.

DIAMOND: First of all, we shouldn't have invaded Iraq, in my opinion. The war was a mistake. In particular, we should not have acted unilaterally, without international authorization. There wasn't really a coalition. Yes, some governments lent some troops, but virtually no governments had the support of their people for joining the United States and engaging in Iraq. In some cases the public ultimately forced their governments to leave Iraq.

Moreover, the mission has been under-resourced from the beginning in almost every respect. We never had enough troops there. We didn't have enough experienced administrative talent. We didn't plan well enough for the postwar era. One reason we didn't have enough resources from the beginning was because we didn't have the international support that we blithely assumed we would get. Another is that we under-estimated the scale of the challenge, which is due to the utter incompetence and ideologically driven nature of the war on the part of the Bush administration. So, when you undertake something this bold, audacious, and dangerous without enough planning, troops, resources, or political analysis to anticipate the violent reaction you're going to face from nationalistic people who are not going to take well to what they see as foreign occupation, what you get is what we got. Look at the scale of the insurgency, the devastating impact on the rebuilding of the country! The most egregious mistake was the decision to have an American occupation in the first place, not anticipating the reaction of Iraqis who didn't want to be occupied by a Western power again, for the second time in a century, and who deeply distrusted American motives.

Then, we made a decision to dissolve the Iraqi army. Even after it had been disbanded, it could have been recalled, to some extent. That was one mistake. We also went too far in de-Ba'athification, purging from public life such a wide swath of the Iraqi elite. Even Ambassador Bremer has acknowledged that that went too far. We made a lot of mistakes in the arrogant way that we tried to remake this country in the free market, liberal image.

At the time that I entered, I think we were right in trying to promote democracy and foster a transition to a representative, accountable, constitutional form of government. But I learned when I got there that the structural contradictions were so overwhelming in terms of the scale of the insurgency, the distrust of the United States, and the inflamed sectarian divisions that we were struggling against huge odds. Then additional mistakes exacerbated the situation.

I had not favored going to war beforehand, and I didn't change that view there. The experience did, however, give me a more palpable sense of the difficulties and of the peculiar nature of post-conflict situations. If you don't have order, you don't have anything at all. You can't rebuild democracy. You can't rebuild the electricity grid. You can't revive the economy. You can't refashion public trust in the new political order. So I became more aware of the basic necessity for order and some minimization of violence if one is to reconstruct a country that has been decimated by conflict. Now what has changed in the last year? Not much, actually.

SPENCER: The elections have not changed your opinions?

DIAMOND: Right, because the recent elections simply reproduced what the previous elections did -- with a couple of twists. The problem after the January 2005 elections is that the elections had become an identity referendum, in which most of the Shia voted for an alliance of Shia religious parties. Almost every single Kurd voted for a Kurdish party. In January they were all in one union. In December 2005 the Kurdish Islamic Union had broken away and run on its own. It won a few seats. But the Kurds voted as Kurds. The Sunnis this time voted. That actually is a hopeful development. There is some potential for the Sunnis to come into the political contest, not just formally but psychically as well, in terms of their willingness to commit to the new political order. That potential was advanced by having two main coalitions of Sunni parties and forces run in the elections and win slightly more than twenty percent of the seats in the new parliament. So the Kurds have about 20 percent, the Sunnis have about 20 percent of the seats. And (by coincidence) the Kurds are about 20 percent of the population, the Sunnis are about 20 percent of the population.

So on the one hand I see a continuing trend of politics almost entirely on ethnic and sectarian lines. The one coalition that transcends this broad ethno-sectarian cleavage was Ayad Allawi's Iraqi's National List, and it got exactly eight percent of the votes, about 25 seats -- fewer than it had won in January. So he was the "great white hope" of the Americans and he was crushed. With his electoral defeat, the hope for Iraq to turn in a more trans-ethnic, national direction has been lost for some time to come.

Now the question is, can we get this badly fragmented polity, which has clearly reaffirmed its identity divisions, to live with one another? And here I'd say, one thing that has changed is that we have a new ambassador on the ground there in Zalmay Khalilzad, who was previously ambassador to Afghanistan. He's been far more pragmatic, savvy, and entrepreneurial in the best sense of the term: taking the initiative to try to build something, to foster trust and compromise across these big political and ethnic divides. He worked hard to bring the Sunnis into the elections, into the constitution-drafting process. I give him a lot of credit for that. He reached out to try to talk to elements of the insurgency. All of these are good signs, but he's swimming against a powerful tide at this point.

SPENCER: There was an article by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times about what one has to expect in all the Muslim countries. He says that the only way from a dictatorship to Jefferson is through Khomenei -- through the religious leaders, for they are the next locus of power once you take the top dictators out. Of course, the whole history of dictatorship in those countries is awful. I had always attributed that mainly to the rentier economy -- the oil industry.

DIAMOND: You can't say that because there's no oil in Palestine and there are plenty of other Arab states in which, if the dictatorship were to fall -- for example, in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood -- the Islamists would almost certainly come to power. This owes instead to the fact that there's been a political vacuum in the country, in civil society and politics. These regimes have not allowed any kind of civil, open, pluralistic opposition. People who are pluralistic, who believe in more or less liberal values, who believe in transparency, who operate in the light of day, who try to tolerate other points of view -- they are easily crushed. They are not conspiratorial Leninists. So an authoritarian regime can easily identify, hide, coopt, compromise, or crush the more liberal secular conventional type of opposition -- the type of opposition that could, if it were able to organize freely, provide a viable democratic opposition to the regime. So once such pluralistic or moderate Islamic forces are contained or crushed, then the only groups left are the Islamists. And the Islamists are able to survive in much more difficult circumstances because they can operate underground. They can operate in the mosque, in conspiratorial networks. The regime can't wipe out religion. It knows it would have a revolution if it simply arrested all of the radical Muslim clerics and sympathizers in the country, so the practice of Islam can give a certain type of political opposition some space for their organization. This has enabled them to be the primary opposition to the regime in many of these Arab countries.

SPENCER: How long is it going to take to develop a pluralistic social structure in Iraq, let alone some of the other countries?

DIAMOND: That's a hard question. Social scientists are not good at prediction. We're pretty good at explaining after the fact. My guess is that in Iraq, under the best circumstances, it's going to take another ten to twenty years to secure the country and develop it economically to the point where a pluralistic, vigorous, open, and reasonably democratic system can emerge. I don't say that's necessarily going to happen. But it could happen if we could get a stabilization of the country, a winding down of the insurgent and criminal violence, a rebuilding of the Iraqi state, and subjecting it to the constraints of popular will and rule of law. One thing that worries me about Iraq also worries me about Nigeria, Angola, Venezuela, and Kazakhstan: the rentier state. When oil is the main source of national income in the country, particularly the source of government revenue, there are overpowering distortions of social life that make it difficult for democracy to take root. One of these is that the state does not depend on the tax revenue of its citizens, so it feels no need to be responsible to them. So in this regard, any source of rents from the outside will do. For example, it can be foreign aid. Oil gives you more autonomy and control, but anything that puts lots of money in the hands of an unaccountable government elite enables them to accumulate rents for themselves and disturbs the political incentives that are necessary for democracy to take root.

Secondly, in such a situation, independently of where the money came from, the state becomes the main source of wealth in the society, so the premium on political power is enormous. Nobody can look with equanimity on the opposition coming to power because it means they are going to control the wealth of the country too. Unless you find a new way for the oil revenue of such a country to enter the public finances without manipulation by elected politicians, so there is guaranteed distribution to various communities and at the local level, an automatic sharing of the oil wealth among communities, you're not going to solve that problem.

One thing motivating the Sunni-based insurgency is the belief that the Shia and the Kurds are going to control the oil wealth. Eighty percent of it lies in the Shia-dominated far South. The other twenty percent essentially lies around Kirkuk, on the southern border of the Kurdistan region but which pretty clearly is going to be incorporated into Kurdistan by referendum in 2007. So the Sunnis see that the Shia want a region of their own that will control a lot of the oil and gas wealth, and de jure control potentially over all future oil and gas wealth in that territory. The Kurds would have the rest and the Sunnis would be stuck with desert. This is totally unacceptable to them. It's one of the factors motivating their violent resistance.

The third thing that happens when you get oil dominating the economy is just massive corruption. Possibly 40 to 50 percent of all the financial resources of the new Iraqi government are leaking out in corruption. How are they going to rebuild the country in those circumstances, when they need every dollar?

SPENCER: I was wholly opposed to the invasion of Iraq and, as a peace activist, I would have liked to see support given to such Iraqis as Ismail Zayer, who wanted to organize a nonviolent struggle inside the country as an alternative way of getting rid of the dictatorship. They were not given the opportunity to do that. I felt that the National Endowment for Democracy could have supported such a nonviolent resistance, just as they supported similar actions in Serbia and Ukraine. Can you comment on the possibility of funding such nonviolent campaigns through NED and NGO organizations?

DIAMOND: I think that the record of the National Endowment for Democracy has been outstanding in supporting democratic change in authoritarian countries around the world. All the way back to the Philippines in 1986, to Latin America in the 1980s, Chile when Pinochet was finally forced out with a no vote. I think they played a huge role in helping give support to Solidarity in Poland and then, more recently, in the "color" revolutions: Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia. The problem is that authoritarian regimes learn what these democracy-promoting organizations do.

SPENCER: As Putin is learning now.

DIAMOND: That's right. And from the failure of other authoritarian regimes. So Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Putin in Russia, Lukashenko in Belarus, and other authoritarian regimes that never even got that far -- the Chinese regime, for example -- acted preemptively and even ruthlessly to keep assistance to civil society organizations in these countries from fostering democratic change and therefore their ouster. One of the things we learned is that the semi-authoritarian circumstances of Ukraine, of Serbia and Georgia, of having some degree of political competition, some space for civil society and the media, allowed for international democratic assistance and domestic political strategizing. That led to democratic transitions in some of these countries. So the lesson that Putin et al learn is: Don't have semi-democracy. Go all the way back to increasingly comprehensive authoritarian rule. Don't allow space for independent civil society. Certainly don't allow them to receive money in foreign dollars.

Not only the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, the German party foundations, the British Westminster Foundation, private foundations like the Ford Foundation, the Soros Foundation -- they're all threatening.

So we're going to have to develop new ways of doing this. It doesn't mean force. I'm opposed to using force to develop democracy, but I think we have to consider: how can we use technology? How can we use the Internet? How can we use international radio broadcasting, which is one of the most important tools?

SPENCER: I certainly agree with you there. Norway is doing that, you know, in Burma and elsewhere.

DIAMOND: Yes it is. I admire Norway for doing that. One of the problems is that we have engaged in partial "unilateral disarmament" in this regard by closing down the US Information Agency and merging it with the State Department, which gave it less autonomy and creativity, by having a succession of disastrously blundering and ineffective assistant secretaries of state for public affairs in recent years. They have been unable to revive our effort, nor have they understood the challenge that we're up against in the Arab and Muslim worlds. By exerting more control over international radio broadcasts, they've given it less credibility. What we need now is what the Norwegians have done. We need to find people in the exile communities in each of these countries who are not particularly politically driven by partisan or narrow factional agendas, who are committed to democratic ideas and values, and create a credible international broadcasting effort like National Public Radio in the United States. It is politically independent, professional -- you get different points of view -- and our charge to them should be just two things: Inform people back in your country about what's happening in the world and in their country. Number two: Expose them to democratic values and practices. Expose them to debate -- including debate about what the United States is doing. If you want to criticize the United States, do it. Just do it in a professional, responsible, and balanced way. Otherwise, we're not going to interfere. We're going to give you a lot of money. We want you to reach your people, educate them, inspire them, and develop credibility with them. We need this kind of radio and TV station to reach out to the Arab world, rather than stations that promote the United States, thinking: "Oh, if we just play enough rock music they are going to love us!"

It's so sad what's happened to our international broadcasting efforts. Yes, there's the Voice of America, but that's not enough. That's the voice of America. We need other independent broadcasting tools. We need to engage these societies with exchanges, bringing more and more people over here. We need to vastly increase visas to bring people from the Muslim world and other parts of the world to be educated. They don't inevitably go back with democratic values. They may or they may not, but that has often happened. They get a broader worldview, and that's in the American interest. It's an illusion to think that in a country as viciously totalitarian as Saddam's Ba'athist regime was, if we just have peaceful nonviolent resistance we're going to bring down the dictatorship. I don't think it was going to happen. And anyone who said we shouldn't have invaded Iraq has to come to grips with the overwhelming likelihood that Saddam would still be in power for many more years to come, sitting on top of vast new oil wealth if the sanctions broke down. We have to be honest in acknowledging that and thinking about what happens over the longer run.

SPENCER: One of the points that Mark Palmer makes in his book, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, is that the US government (and in Canada we have some of the same situation) is afraid to confront dictatorships. They believe, for example, in "constructive engagement" with China. For example, in San Francisco a few weeks ago, the Falun Gong was not allowed to march in the Chinese New Year Parade. He says that those groups are exactly what we should be trying to support.

DIAMOND: Yes. I think that we should support all groups that are seeking democratic change in a country through peaceful means. That doesn't mean we have to take sides in favoring one group to come to power, but we should support those general principles. I think we should have more assistance for such groups, more willingness to defend them, more effort to raise the issue of their human rights when they are detained. But when you get a regime that's as powerful as China is, the situation becomes, in some ways, parallel to the one we faced with the Soviet Union in the 1970s and '80s. The eighties are a particularly good parallel because there you had a secretary of state under Reagan, and Reagan himself, who did want to open up the Soviet Union and defended the human rights of refuseniks and dissidents. The philosophy they pursued there is that we have to move on parallel tracks. We stand up for our principles. We present them to the Soviet regime and Chinese regime. We urge them to be more respectful of human rights. We keep putting these issues on the table. We do what we can to stand in solidarity with these people. But you can't just say, "The Chinese regime is evil; we're not going to deal with it." They are a major player in the global economy now, holding more and more American debt. It's a regime that's vital to the management of global security, without which we cannot get a solution of the North Korean nuclear proliferation crisis or of the Iranian nuclear proliferation crisis. We do need the cooperation, implicit or explicit, of the Chinese regime on a number of key challenges in terms of global security. We have to do business with these governments. We have to be willing to talk to them, negotiate with them, and enlist their support in the management of pressing issues of global security. So I think we've got to find a way to balance our concern for democracy and human rights with the practical need to engage these regimes.

SPENCER: Your book sounds as if you were almost surprised when you got to Iraq and found that there were no opportunities to do the kinds of things that you wanted. The people to whom I've talked didn't believe for a minute that the present US administration wanted to democratize Iraq. From that point of view you have to have been naïve even to go.

DIAMOND: I don't agree with that, and I say that as someone who's no political supporter of the Bush administration. They did want to see Iraq emerge as a democracy; I have absolutely no doubt of that -- as a pro-American democracy. They had this notion that all good things could go together -- that we could get popular election of leaders, with certain constraints on their power. We could get, from the exercise of popular will, a government that would be allied to the United States, granting permanent military bases to the United States, maybe even recognizing the state of Israel. They thought that with this new democratic government, euphorically liberated from the clutches of Saddam's dictatorship, the Middle East itself would begin to go in a democratic direction. They thought that once the Middle East abandoned all these oppressive, corrupt dictatorships, people would be so relieved that they'd be grateful to the United States. They would choose moderate governments and this would create a climate in which we could make progress in the Middle East peace process, because people wouldn't be walking around with a huge chip on their shoulders from the frustration at having such rotten governments. I am convinced that they believed all of this. It's very hard to square these circles.

SPENCER: But you must have believed that there was something to that because you were willing to join that project.

DIAMOND: I'll tell you what I believed. I believed when I went out there that it was possible to build some degree of democracy in Iraq -- that it wasn't necessarily going to be a liberal democracy anytime soon, but that we could get some degree of pluralism, constitutionalism, and electoral accountability. Yes, I believed that. I also believed that if we failed to build some kind of viable political order in Iraq that was legitimate and reasonably inclusive -- even if only semi-democratic -- Iraq was going to become a black hole of instability and terrorism that would have profoundly bad consequences for the entire region and Europe and the United States. I think I was right.

It's possible to argue, yes, that I was a bit naïve in thinking that even some degree of democracy was possible in that country, but I don't think so. I think that part of the problem was that the scope for democratic development kept being diminished by the mistakes we were making.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2006

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2006, page 8. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage