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IRAQ - WHAT WENT WRONG - Review of Four Recent Books

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From the issue dated January 13, 2006
Drinking the Kool-Aid: an Anatomy of the Iraq Debacle

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The Iraq war started as a war of ideas. It erupted from the most exhilarating and divisive clash of ideology since the end of the cold war. Every facet of the case for war became a site of conflict. And now the battle to interpret its legacy is every bit as fraught. After the polemics arguing for or against invasion, and the fly-on-the-wall accounts of the run-up to war, a third generation of books now asks whether the Iraq venture was doomed to fail.

This latest crop suggests that the quest to rebuild Iraq failed precisely because it remained in the realm of ideas, untarnished by messy reality. Inside Baghdad's Green Zone, where U.S. occupation authorities live and work, the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" is used to describe the collective process of self-delusion, internal spin, and groupthink that has led otherwise effective people to lurch from blunder to blunder in Iraq, bringing the country from liberation to the brink of civil war. You've probably heard the reference to the 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, where the psychotic cult figure Jim Jones and 913 of his People's Temple followers drank a Kool-Aid fruit punch laced with cyanide.

These books show just how much ideological Kool-Aid has been consumed by those who have sought to bring democracy to Iraq. They present the reader with an anatomy of isolation, a forensic dissection of a decision-making process quadruply insulated from reality. George Packer portrays the dreamers who hoped to make Iraq a template for a future Middle East — but hadn't actually visited the country for years. David L. Phillips describes how the Pentagon and the vice president's office deliberately cut themselves off from the expertise of other U.S. agencies and the United Nations. Larry Diamond shows that life inside the Green Zone has been hermetically sealed off from the rest of Iraq. And William R. Polk suggests that it was the failure to understand Iraq's history that has driven today's nation builders to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The most readable of the recent crop is George Packer's The Assassin's Gate. Packer covers the same ground as the other authors — the war dreamed up by fevered minds in Washington, the strange world of diaspora politics, the lack of planning in the Department of Defense, the occupation, and the insurgency — but he does it from the perspective of a journalist rather than of a participant. The result is a beautifully written, poignant, and fair-minded narrative of two dreams deferred.

He juxtaposes the dream of foreign-policy hawks in Washington, who wanted to put behind them the caution of the George H.W. Bush era of foreign policy, with that of Iraqi intellectuals, who dreamed of a free and democratic Iraq. His book documents how those two dreams came together to make the war possible, then ultimately undermined each other on the ground in Iraq.

Packer starts with a vision of the war's prophets: Paul D. Wolfowitz, then-deputy secretary of defense; Douglas J. Feith, who was undersecretary of defense for policy; and Richard Perle, onetime chairman of the Defense Policy Board, toiling away at a plan to use Iraq as a beachhead to remake the Middle East, free Israel from its need to negotiate with the Palestinians, and cement American primacy in the world. His second narrative centers on a lonely professor at Brandeis University, Kanan Makiya, whose electrifying Republic of Fear exposed Saddam Hussein's brutality to the world — and forced its author into temporary hiding.

Packer describes how the neocons and Iraqis use the opportunity presented by September 11, 2001, to make their agenda the president's, assuring him that American troops would be greeted with sweets and flowers, finding evidence of Saddam's program to make and use weapons of mass destruction, and creating a framework for understanding the post-9/11 world. For a while, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Vice President Richard B. Cheney are hailed as strategic geniuses, and Makiya flirts with a career in Iraqi politics alongside his old friend Ahmad Chalabi.

But Packer's book ends with their defeat. While cynical Realpolitiker such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hang on to power, Feith is sacked and Wolfowitz exiled to the World Bank. Meanwhile a bruised Makiya abandons his political ambitions and decides to devote the rest of his life to the Iraq Memory Foundation, an attempt to document the hundreds of thousands of crimes against humanity committed by Saddam Hussein. Speaking to Packer at the end of the book, he says: "People fall flat on their face and shine not because of their great ideas, but because of certain traits of character which suddenly acquire great importance in the actual practice of politics in these extremely tumultuous times."

So when did the dream go wrong? David Phillips's Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco presents the new conventional wisdom in Washington. He argues that it went wrong not because the administration lacked a plan, but because the war's architects were blinded by ideology and ignored the planning that was already under way. According to Phillips's insider account from his work as an adviser to the State Department, the battle for Iraq's future was lost not in Baghdad but in the distance between Foggy Bottom and Arlington, Va.

Losing Iraq starts a year before the war. Phillips describes how the State Department poured $5-million into planning for the postwar reconstruction. The Future of Iraq Project, as it was called, drew on the expertise of more than 240 Iraqis, who produced 2,000 pages of recommendations in 13 dense volumes. They came up with advice on health, education, sanitation, economic issues, infrastructure, security, the rule of law, and transitional justice.

Phillips provides a memorable description of the workings of these groups. Whether in secret meetings in the Surrey countryside or public gatherings in London hotels, the exiles showed all the factionalism and fractiousness of the People's Front of Judea in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian. Each exile came to be seen as a proxy for a different branch of the U.S. government: Kanan Makiya was known to have briefed Cheney; Ayad Allawi was the CIA-financed hard man; Adnan Pachachi was the fiercely liberal and secular Sunni and former Iraqi foreign minister, much beloved by the Department of State; and Chalabi was the mercurial leader of the Iraqi National Congress, with a De Gaulle complex and ins with the Pentagon.

In Phillips's book, the futility and ferocity of the Iraqi factionalism are rivaled only by the infighting of the Bush administration. In January 2003, just two months before the bombs fell, the president took the planning of postwar Iraq away from the State Department and established the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in the Pentagon, under the leadership of a retired three-star general, Jay Garner. Garner tried to employ the Foreign Service officer who ran the State Department's Future of Iraq Project, which Phillips worked on — only to run into a veto from Rumsfeld. Even when it became clear that the Department of Defense lacked the language skills and local knowledge to get the job done, it refused to turn to the Department of State; in July 2003, only 34 of the 1,147 Americans employed by the Coalition Provisional Authority were Foreign Service officers. According to one Pentagon official quoted by Phillips, "Arabists were not welcome, because they did not think Iraq could be democratic."

As a result, Garner's office had to start from scratch. It set about devising detailed plans to avoid oil-field fires, a massive humanitarian crisis, widespread revenge attacks against former leaders of Saddam's government, and even possible invasions from Iraq's neighbors. None of those events came to pass. The one scenario that the reconstruction office was not allowed to prepare for was a long-term occupation. Garner had been told to plan to get U.S. troops out by the summer — in the hope that they would be able to hand over the government to Chalabi within a few months. That's why the Pentagon flew Chalabi along with 700 Free Iraqi Forces into Iraq on the day that Baghdad fell — days before Garner himself was allowed to land in the country. The idea was to organize a series of meetings in liberated parts of the country, culminating in a big Baghdad conference at which Chalabi would be anointed as leader of a free Iraq.

In the event, the only one who left Iraq by the summer was Garner himself. While the Pentagon focused on Chalabi's succession, it ignored proposals from the State Department to protect sites against looting. Soon frenzied mobs ransacked hospitals and the National Museum, dismantled the electricity grid, and stripped all public buildings of pipes, wire, computers, and furniture. Within days there was practically no government to hand over. The growing domestic and international opposition to the United States and Chalabi made a rapid transition impossible.

Phillips presents a searing critique of criminal negligence and bureaucratic dysfunctionality. He argues that all of the problems afflicting Iraq today were not only predictable, but actually predicted. Many of them could have been solved if only the prewar plans had been heeded: The army would not have been disbanded, creating 450,000 armed enemies of the occupation; de-Baathification would have been aimed at individuals rather than ascribing guilt by association to all party members above a certain rank; the United Nations would have been given a bigger role in designing the postconflict institutions; the Iraqi Governing Council would have been given real power, and therefore more legitimacy; a census would have been conducted to allow for more-reliable elections.

However, Phillips's book leaves a lot of unanswered questions. He stopped working for the administration in April 2003, and his coverage of Iraq after that time trails off into secondhand anecdotes gleaned from newspaper clippings and interviews with returning officials. He describes how the hapless Garner was sacked after just a few months, to be replaced by the more-dapper L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer III. Bremer's arrival as an American viceroy, in the tradition of MacArthur in Japan, marked the end of the liberation and the beginning of formal occupation. He immediately ruled out elections in Iraq and instead created a complex seven-point plan for transition.

The 10-foot-high, blastproof, reinforced-concrete T-walls that surround Saddam's former Imperial Palace, in the Green Zone, are designed to keep out the insurgents. But their main effect is to shut out reality. Because so few people dare go beyond them, arguments about the country's condition are still waged purely on an intellectual stage. Iraq has become a strange simulacrum onto which commentators can project their prejudices, hopes, and fears.

Larry Diamond gives the most vivid account of life behind the T-walls, combining a gripping first-person narrative with the intellectual detachment of a professor. His book, Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, describes how he abandoned the comfort of the academy for a six-month stint in Iraq advising the Coalition Provisional Authority on democracy building. The call for service came from his former Stanford colleague Condoleezza Rice, who decided to tap his unrivaled expertise on promoting democracy despite his opposition to the war.

Diamond's narrative starts where Phillips's leaves off, with the intoxicating excitement and optimism that followed Saddam's capture, in December 2003. Even after the chaos of Garner's early months, and Bremer's disbanding of the army and de-Baathification programs, Diamond thinks that things can be pulled together. He goes to Baghdad all pumped up with hope and idealism. His book documents the country's descent into disorder and his own gradual loss of innocence about Iraq's democratic potential.

According to Diamond, "the late nights and youthful age profile of the staff created an atmosphere that sometimes resembled a college dormitory." He describes the Imperial Palace as a socialist outpost where meals are served to staff members three times a day; soft drinks and cookies are available in the mess hall; cars can be borrowed from the car pool on demand; phone calls are free and limited only by the capacity of the creaking circuits; and laundry is collected daily. In all of those transactions, cash never changes hands. The only thing lacking in this land of plenty are the translators, armored cars, and protective equipment that would allow the residents to have any contact with the country they are running (known as the red zone).

The most powerful illustration of the gulf between the Iraq in administration leaders' heads and the one on the ground is the quest for the perfect constitution in a country that is on the verge of civil war. Diamond describes how the lead authors — two 41-year-old Iraqi-Americans — toil over drafts while arguing about the role of the judiciary, the Lebanese model of ethnic politics, and what place religion should have.

Meanwhile the provisional authority designs an elaborate campaign to sell the constitution to the Iraqi people. The authority appoints Bell Pottinger, an advertising agency headed by Margaret Thatcher's former PR man, to run the campaign. The plan is to drop a million leaflets and 40,000 posters a week on the Iraqi public with messages focused on self-government, citizens' rights, the rule of law, judicial independence, minority rights, federalism, and civilian control of the military. These would then be backed up by radio and TV spots and an elaborate program of public meetings led by 500 specially trained Iraqis.

The distance between London's ad land and the Iraqi street, however, proved almost unbridgeable. "Well before we could distribute our beautifully produced leaflets explaining the key principles of the TAL [Transitional Administrative Law], and weeks before the radio and television ads were set to roll out," Diamond writes, "a detailed critique of the TAL — crudely produced, but devastatingly effective — began shaping the terms of public debate."

The coalition lost ground, Diamond says, by failing to live up to its ideals: "The United States was [repeatedly] finding itself on ... the less democratic side of an argument with Iraqis. ... Shiite leader Ayatollah Sistani had called for an elected constitution-making body. Bremer said an appointed body would do. Iraqis wanted to conduct direct elections for local governments. Bremer and top governance officials vetoed them. The CPA proposed an opaque, convoluted process for choosing a transitional government, and Sistani, along with many Iraqis, again demanded direct elections."

In the end, Sistani saw direct elections for a new government. But it was too little, too late.

Diamond was desperate to engage with the proverbial ordinary Iraqis but was terrified because of the security situation. "Outside the Green Zone," he writes, "I felt naked and exposed, with no protection; when I came back in March from a break back home, it was with a $1,200 custom-made bulletproof vest that I had ordered over the Internet." In the early months of his work, he left the Green Zone to teach in schools and colleges, and he worked on a program of political education designed to teach Iraqi citizens about the principles of democracy. But after March 9, 2004, everything changed. The murders of the first American civilians, Fern Holland and Paul Zangas, turned the Green Zone from a fortress into a prison.

The severe shortage of armored vehicles meant that even core projects had to be canceled for security reasons. When the "second war" broke out — against the Shiite forces of Moktada al-Sadr and the Sunni population in and around Fallujah — the political transition was thrown into crisis, and virtually all economic-reconstruction work was frozen. Bremer's provisional authority was not prepared for this and could find neither sufficient troops nor other armored personnel. Diamond quotes an official as saying, "We did what suited us, on a timetable that suited us, and predicated on the assumption that the Iraqis would be passive. Not only passive, but gratefully, happily passive."

History should have warned them that that would not be the case.

The Green Zone has neither a past nor a future. Instead it lurches from crisis to crisis in a never-ending present. In this self-referential world, democracy is always just a deadline away. And as each deadline passes — for the hand-over of power, for elections to the national assembly, for the referendum on the constitution — success remains just out of reach. With the average tour for a Green Zone employee lasting less than 90 days, Iraqis can just sit out decisions they do not like, knowing that another American will be in any given post soon.

But there is also an ideological element to Iraq's isolation from time. One of the criticisms often made of the Bush administration is that it is so keen to change the world that it does not want to understand other countries, lest the act of analysis itself lend legitimacy to the status quo. Daniel Ellsberg, the Department of Defense official who leaked the Pentagon Papers on U.S. decision making in Vietnam, once said that no official in the administration at the time of the war's escalation "could have passed a midterm paper in Vietnamese history." The same is no doubt true of Iraq.

And yet the parallels between Iraq's history as a British colony and as an American protectorate, as William Polk illustrates in Understanding Iraq, are dramatic. Just look at this quote: "Week after week and month after month for a long time to come we shall have a continuance of this miserable, wasteful, sporadic warfare, marked from time to time certainly by minor disasters and cuttings off of troops and agents, and very possibly attended by some very grave occurrence. ... It is an extraordinary thing that the ... civil administration should have succeeded in such a short time in alienating the whole country to such an extent that the Arabs have laid aside blood feuds they have nursed for centuries and that the Sunni and Shiah tribes are working together." This was not a letter from Jay Garner to President Bush, but rather from a young Winston Churchill to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1920 — shortly before the British began their own process of writing an Iraqi constitution designed to set Iraq on a course toward "independence."

Polk shows how the British sought to veil their colonial administration by getting a mandate from the League of Nations, in much the same way that the Bush administration has sought legitimacy from the United Nations. With 133,000 troops in the country facing rising civil unrest, the British tried to use politics to calm the security situation. A new "civil commissioner" set up a provisional "Council of State," made up of handpicked Iraqi leaders. That council, much like the Governing Council 84 years later, was a puppet run by Western officials who posed as "advisers." Polk describes how the British government then negotiated a "constitution" with its appointees that provided a facade of democracy for the next 15 years and "debased" the concept of representative government. He also draws parallels between the British move to install the Hashemite King Faisal as head of state and the Pentagon's attempt to secure Ahmad Chalabi's control of Iraq. In the end, the refusal to let go of the reins of power led inexorably to revolution and Saddam Hussein's brutal reign.

Polk is well qualified to draw the historical parallels. He has had an interest in Iraq since the 1950s. He served briefly on the Policy Planning Council of the Kennedy administration, and had a long career studying Iraqi history at the University of Chicago. He visited Tariq Aziz to plead for peace in 2003, days before the bombing started.

Unfortunately his book completely fails to deliver on its promise. It offers a Let's Go-style guide to Iraqi history that is as dazzling in its banality as in its failure to inform. Genghis Khan merits a paragraph or two, the development of Islam is dealt with in two pages, and British Iraq gets a slender 30 pages. Instead of a real engagement with the subject matter, the reader is served up a tedious and never-ending list of the names of Iraqi rulers, as well as some crass attempts at historical determinism. Polk argues that the division of the Mesopotamian plain in 2800 BC into warring city-states governed by "great men" set a pattern for Iraqi governance that has lasted for millennia. He traces the heritage of Saddam's effective use of propaganda to the Assyrians in 900 BC. The relative freedom of Iraqi women is presented as a direct result of decisions taken by the Abbasid caliph a thousand years ago.

Polk's short tract is neither fish nor fowl, neither historical entree to an ancient culture nor effective critique of the Bush administration's policy. In the brief introduction and conclusion, the author's rage at the Bush administration and what he refers to as "the ideologically driven group known as the neoconservatives" is allowed to come out. He presents a cogent, if unoriginal, list of American failings: Abu Ghraib, the enforced privatization of Iraqi assets, the ban on contracts going to countries that did not support the war, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the protracted affair with Chalabi. But when Polk sets out his own agenda, he never goes beyond a bumper-sticker philosophy of democracy building: bottom-up rather than top-down; civil society, not just business and the army. Although many might agree with those vague principles, the reader is left thinking that the book — at its heart — is no more than an extended "do not disturb" sign erected by a grumpy old Arabist who resents the intrusion into his part of the world by foreign-policy generalists.

The ferocity of the insurgency in Iraq shows that the combatants realize they are fighting not just for the future of their country. What is at stake is the future of Western foreign policy, and the role it plays in the Arab world and beyond. The shadow cast by George W. Bush's desert adventure may not be as long as those of Suez or Vietnam, but it will define the future of American foreign policy and intervention for many years to come.

The question these books seek to answer is: What went wrong? Was it waging the right war on a false prospectus without international support? Was it thinking that occupation could be a tool for liberation? Was it failing to learn the lessons of past state-building exercises? All of the above — as the books illustrate.

The biggest danger, however, is that the response to failure in Iraq will be a determination to avoid foreign entanglements for any reason at all. The tragedy, as Diamond explains with crystal clarity, is that Iraq is a terrible test case for the new world order.

On every dimension the odds are stacked against democracy's taking root in Iraq. The country's level of economic development is much lower than those of the countries in Latin America, Central Europe, or East Asia that have embraced democracy. Its population was brutalized by 24 years of murder, plunder, and terror under Saddam — not to mention the bloody and needless wars with Iran and the United States. The middle class was destroyed by a decade of international sanctions. The population is young and uneducated (40 percent illiterate and 40 percent under the age of 15). The society is bitterly divided along ethnic and religious lines. The presence of oil will provide elites with sources of revenue that insulate them from popular pressure. The facts that Central Europe was embraced by the European Union and that East Asia could look to a democratic Japan helped political change to take root. But Iraq's neighborhood is explosive and autocratic.

These books present the circumstantial evidence that explains why the coalition has failed to build democracy so far. Unfortunately history does not encumber itself with details when its ascribes success or failure. I fear that this generation of democracy builders will leave behind successors drunk on a different kind of Kool-Aid. Theirs will be laced not with hubris, but with the even deadlier poison of isolationism.

Mark Leonard is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, in London, and author of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century (Public Affairs, 2005).


The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq,
by George Packer
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)

Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco,
by David L. Phillips
(Westview Press, 2005)

Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq,
by Larry Diamond
(Times Books, 2005)

Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History From Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation, by William R. Polk
(HarperCollins, 2005)