Larry Diamond didn't have much good news to relate about the U.S. war in Iraq when he spoke on campus Monday, April 24 as part of Samford's Rushton Lecture Series. The war has become "the most complex, the most vexing, the most high-stakes foreign policy challenge" of his lifetime, he said. His analysis isn't easily dismissed as partisan grumbling. As a democracy expert, senior fellow at the famously conservative Hoover Institution and former senior adviser on governance to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (an experience detailed in his recent book Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq,) he brings considerable scholarly and conservative credentials to the ongoing debate on the conduct of the war.
Diamond said he shares the Bush administration's goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East. But he indicated that he and other democracy scholars opposed the war because unilateral U.S. military action has a poor record of success in promoting democracy. "If you look at the record of American engagement in Latin America," he said, "if you look at the record of America's engagement in other parts of the developing world, when we have intervened unilaterally, and at times covertly, without a real partnership with people in these societies struggling for freedom and democracy, we have tended to be unsuccessful, even notoriously unsuccessful, and even profoundly resented no matter what our intentions may have been." He said the U.S. achieves better results, albeit more slowly, when it works in partnership rather than through unilateral force.
Diamond said that although he believes the Bush administration was sincere in its belief in Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, "they had to some extent deluded themselves into believing that because they had not fully and fairly weighed all of the intelligence that was available and had come to the conclusions that they then wanted to justify." As it became clear that Iraq had not posed the imminent threat described by the administration, Diamond said, promoting democracy became the primary goal of the war (and had always been the primary goal of some supporters of the war). So, he said, "the logic of our engagement in Iraq depends now on the degree to which we can leave behind a better, more democratic, more stable regime-one that may represent some kind of model for political change elsewhere in the region."
But Diamond offered long odds against success in the effort to create and secure democracy in Iraq. "Given what's been happening in recent years, we have a number of reasons to be concerned," he said. He described a political system deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. He also noted that Taliban-style Islamist rule has replaced Saddam Hussein's secular totalitarianism in half the country's provinces. "You've got a new and very frightening form of authoritarian rule emerging in the Shiite south," Diamond said. "The courts have been swept aside and these Islamic parties have set up their own de-facto courts, Islamic Sharia courts, in which their clerics rule and mete out penalties, frequently very harsh ones, throwing people into their secret prisons for drinking alcohol, wearing jeans, not wearing the Hijab --the veil that covers the entire head and neck--or dressing immodestly in some other way."
Add to these problems increasingly violent nationalist resistance, ethnic civil war, suicide bombings, assaults by sectarian militias and death squads, ethnic cleansing and criminal violence, and it becomes clear that the U.S. can't remain in Iraq indefinitely, Diamond said. But he warned that an arbitrary, accelerated withdrawal would allow Iraq to descend into "all-out civil war-a civil war that will look like Lebanon at its worst moments, that will take tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives and could burn for years because of the virtual certainty that neighboring states would intervene on behalf of their religious brethren." The resulting regional war, he said, would be "an unbelievable boon for Al Qaeda throughout the region, a tremendous spur for international terrorism and a security nightmare for the United States of America that, frankly, dwarfs what we see now."
So, how can the Bush administration achieve its goals in Iraq? "I cannot tell you with conviction that I think there's still time for anything to work," Diamond said. "I fear it is simply too late. But I know that the stakes for the United States are so great that we cannot resign ourselves to failure, collapse, humiliation and disintegration in Iraq."
Diamond said the best hope lies in stabilization of the nascent Iraqi government through power sharing, compromise and consensus between opposing Iraqi factions. "There is no consensus in Iraq on what the country should look like," he said. "The Sunnis believe it should be a substantially unitary state, the Kurds would like to have independence and the Shia would like to have a semi-independent region of Shiastan-an Islamic state spanning the nine southern provinces which would, coincidentally, control 80 percent of Iraq's oil and gas wealth."
Diamond said the sectarian divisions and competition for oil and gas wealth contribute significantly to the "un-viability" of the current government. The constitution, he said, created a central government so weak that it cannot control the sectarian violence tormenting the country. The constitution also gives regional authorities control over all future oil and gas wells, leaving behind the Sunnis who inhabit the resource-poor middle of the country. "They'll never accept this deal on oil and the radical devolution of power," Diamond said of the Sunnis.
The various factions reached a compromise in time to adopt the constitution last year, but at the heart of the compromise was an agreement to review the resource-control issues once the Iraqi parliament had been formed. Diamond said he is now hearing that, "all of a sudden the Kurds and Shia have lost interest in this constitutional review process beyond some minor technical adjustments that need to be made." So, Diamond concluded, "we are not breaking the impasse simply by getting a new government. There are fundamental ideological and sectarian divisions that still separate the members of this government. There are fundamental differences in vision of the country's political future. There is profound distrust, and unless this can be bridged, mediated and compromised in coming months, the country is headed toward a civil war."
And what can the U.S. do to intervene if Iraq deteriorates into all-out civil war? In answer to that question, Diamond paraphrased U.S. Army Col. H. R. McMasters, one of the most historically astute, successful and respected U.S. military officers in Iraq-"Nothing," he said.