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.

Chris Barsan­ti is a free­lance writer.
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