Original Sin

Chris Barsanti

It is convenient to attribute the current anemic state of the anti-war movement to the ephemeral attention span of the iPod generation, but the shift is more likely due to hopelessness. The problem may lie in the suspicion that there are no easy solutions and the only way out may be forward, with more blood to be shed before peace can be glimpsed.

In his book Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, Larry Diamond has a name for this damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don’t viewpoint: original sin. An unnamed distinguished diplomat” gave the concept to Diamond, saying, “‘The war itself was the original sin. … When you commit a sin as cardinal as that, you are bound to get a lot of things wrong.’” Or, for the less theologically minded, “‘When you enter a one-way street in the wrong direction, no matter which way you turn, you will be entering all the other streets in the wrong way.’” 

Although Diamond’s book is essentially another entry in the mini-genre of books about how the United States entered that one-way street, the fact that he actually participated in the creation of the Iraqi government gives a little more heft to his complaints than the usual recitation of Pentagon blunders and miscalculations. A Stanford professor, Hoover Institution senior fellow and coeditor of the Journal of Democracy, Diamond also happens to be an acquaintance of Condoleezza Rice – but not so close that he was expecting her call in November 2003. After a couple months of bureaucratic wrangling, Diamond was finally cleared to leave for Baghdad, where he would stay until April 2004

His description of those four months of duty in the heavily fortified Green Zone makes up the bulk of Squandered Victory, and although it can be a slog at times – his admirably clear prose can’t completely hide the fact that Diamond remains a policy wonk – the minutiae involved in creating a democracy from the ground up is as fascinating as it is exhausting.

When Diamond arrived in Baghdad, he found himself billeted in one of Saddam’s former palaces, a sprawling maze of marbled halls, carved and gilded doors, dusty chandeliers … and generally grotesque excess,” where he and other members of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) would plan the nation’s democratic infrastructure. A dyed-in-the-wool democratic idealist, Diamond was also a war skeptic. He didn’t accept Rice’s offer because he was a neocon ideologue with dreams of fashioning a Western-style government in a foreign land. Rather, he felt that as someone who had studied, observed, and assisted democracy-building efforts in some twenty countries over the previous two decades,” he was honor-bound to help build something out of the wreckage of totalitarian brutality. 

Although Diamond has little patience for blowhards like Paul Wolfowitz or incompetents like Jay Garner, he was initially quite impressed (as were the Iraqis) by Paul Bremer’s dramatic, MacArthur-like demeanor, which Diamond says symbolized the best and worst of the United States.” Unfortunately, the muddy work of fashioning coalitions and compromises among the elaborate patchwork of Iraqi political and religious forces proved far more complicated than the constitution that MacArthur famously drew up for postwar Japan in six days. Through the torturous negotiations, Diamond is disturbed by the myopia of the CPA and the White House. At one point he is appalled” to see Iraqis raised under a dictatorship take the more democratic side of a constitutional argument than the Americans.

By the time Diamond finally quit Iraq, the security situation had started building to the numbing pitch of nihilist violence characterizing the conflict today. It is ironic – and tragic – that an administration so bold as to launch a war to topple Saddam Hussein blanched at the prospect of confronting a much smaller bully like Muqtada al-Sadr,” Diamond writes. It seems a Catch-22: There can be no democracy without security, yet the lack of security comes directly from anger at there being no democracy. 

And so, by the end of Squandered Victory, Diamond is reduced to forlornly cataloging mistakes made and listing the reasons why today’s Iraq has all the ingredients in place for a Lebanon-style civil war. All one can do is hope that the next batch of nation-builders will read the grim conclusions of Diamond, and think again before leaping off the cliff.

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Chris Barsanti is a freelance writer.
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