Sunday, August 29, 2004

Assessing the Iraq Occupation

The new issue of Foreign Affairs contains a fascinating essay by Larry Diamond, a Hoover Institution specialist and co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, on what he believes were the failings of the April 2003-June 2004 US led occupation of Iraq. Diamond is a noted expert in democracy promotion, and served as a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) advisor from January-April 2004, so his views are well worth reading:

What Went Wrong in Iraq

In his piece, Diamond rightly stresses the paramount importance of the post-Saddam violence in creating an atmosphere of insecurity and uncertainty. He also emphasizes, less convincingly in my view, the lack of "international legitimacy" for the occupation, as represented by the UN. Diamond also makes some of the standard criticisms of postwar US policy, for example that disbanding the Iraqi army was a mistake, as was "Debaathification", and that we didn't use enough troops.

I'm not sure I buy into many of the standard criticisms. Michael Rubin, another former CPA advisor turned critic, has defended "Debaathification" and the disbandment of the army as necessary to show the Iraqi Shia that things would truly be different in the new Iraq. On the issue of troop strength, I doubt that we have many more troops available, in particular the specialized military police and civil affairs units that Diamond believes should have been employed more heavily. However, from reading the views of Diamond, Rubin and other CPA critics, a common thread does jump out at me. This comes from Diamond's observation about the dichotomy between control and legitimacy.

Before the Iraq campaign, two basic models for the postwar period were discussed. One was the "MacArthur model", a lengthy American occupation designed to substantially transform Iraqi politics and society, ala Japan after WWII. The second option might be termed the "Afghan model", a much less ambitious program involving a relatively quick transfer of power to an indigenous Iraqi government, as occurred in Afghanistan. The first option promised a great deal of American control at the expense of legitimacy with the Iraqi people. The second offered much greater legitimacy in return for sacrificing a substantial amount of American control of the postwar rebuilding process.

The main failing of US policy in postwar Iraq, in my view, is that it did not consistently follow either of these two approaches. Instead, it "fell between two stools" and formed an uneasy compromise between the two models that brought most of the problems of each approach with few of the benefits. We exerted just enough control to come across as overbearing and limit the development of indigenous Iraqi institutions such as local councils, but failed to exert enough control to fully restore order and deal with threatening elements such as Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers. I don't believe, as many have argued, that there was no plan for the postwar period. Rather, the planning was predicated on a military campaign much longer and more difficult than what actually occurred. When Saddam's regime collapsed sooner than expected, the administration was forced to improvise, not always successfully.

While we have definitely made mistakes in Iraq, it would be ridiculous to write off our efforts as a failure, let alone abandon the Iraqis to their fate. As Diamond writes, there is indeed some cause for optimism:

Like many CPA officials, I found many Iraqis to have a deep ambition to live in a decent, democratic, and free society and found them prepared to do the hard work that building a democracy will require. Above all else, Iraqis want security: they want to be free from the terror that disfigured their lives under Saddam and that has continued, in a different form, since the war. But most favor achieving this security through democratic means, not under some "benevolent" strongman.

Because of the failures and shortcomings of the occupation-as well as the intrinsic difficulties that any occupation following Saddam's tyranny was bound to confront-it is going to take a number of years to rebuild the Iraqi state and to construct any kind of viable democratic and constitutional order in Iraq. The post-handover transition is going to be long, and initially very bloody. It is not clear that the country is going to be able to conduct reasonably credible elections by next January. And even if those elections are held in a minimally acceptable fashion, it is hard to imagine that the over-ambitious transition timetable for the remainder of 2005 will be kept. Nevertheless, the end of occupation and the transfer of authority to an interim government on June 28 offered at least a chance for a new beginning. And there is no alternative to this transitional program that does not involve one awful scenario or another: civil war, massive renewed repression, the establishment of a safe haven for terrorist organizations-or quite possibly all three.

The transition in Iraq is going to need a huge amount of international assistance-political, economic, and military-for years to come. Hopefully, the U.S. performance will improve now that Iraqis are in charge of their own future. It is going to be costly and it will continue to be frustrating. Yet a large number of courageous Iraqi democrats, many with comfortable alternatives abroad, are betting their lives and their fortunes on the belief that a new and more democratic political order can be developed and sustained in Iraq. The United States owes it to them-and to itself-to continue to help them.


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