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Seven Questions: Larry Diamond on Iraq

In 2004, Stanford scholar Larry Diamond went to work in Iraq as a senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, believing he had a moral and political obligation to help build a democracy. After just a few months, he left, disillusioned. FP recently sat down with Diamond to discuss the prospects for victory in Iraq, what the war means for the 2008 elections, and why he’s suing the Bush administration.

FOREIGN POLICY: What is your view of Iraq following the December elections?

Larry Diamond: The question looming large in the aftermath of the December elections is not whether Iraq can become a democracy, but whether it can achieve any kind of political stability at all. Iraqis themselves are increasingly characterizing their country as being in the grip of a kind of civil wara quiet and deadly struggle of terrorist bombings, death-squad assassinations and kidnappings, brutal torture of detainees, sectarian executions of whole families, sabotage of critical fuel supplies, and ethnic cleansing of militia-dominated neighborhoods. If Iraq were to stabilize to a degree that would enable the American military to withdraw without plunging the country from this low-intensity civil warwhich is claiming an estimated 1,000 Iraqi lives per monthto an all-out conflagration that might kill 10 or 20 times as many people, its security forces would need to bear the burden of maintaining order. But by even the most optimistic accounts, the Iraqi Army has few, if any, units capable of operating independently of the U.S. [forces].

President Bush says victory will come in Iraq when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraqs democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can provide for the safety of their own citizens, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot new attacks on our nation. But what if the threats to democracy in Iraq come from the political parties we helped empower? What if the Iraqi citizens are threatened by the very security forces we have helped stand up? What if a Shiite Islamic government in Iraqs south quietly allies with Irans militant Islamic government, which is hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons? What if it remains the case for years to come that the only force capable of containing the slide to full-scale civil war is the American militarya force that cannot stay and cannot leave? The Bush administration has no clear answers to any of these questions, only the fervent hope that its quest for victory is not again squandered.

FP: Do you think that the insurgency in Iraq can be defeated?

LD: Let me just say before I talk about the insurgency, that the problem is that [the United States] leverage is significantly reduced. We dont rule [in Iraq] anymoreand with every passing day, as you get stronger armed forces, as you get more polarization, as you get more political maneuvering for power under the permanent constitution, American leverage becomes more limited. I just think its obvious that if were going to defeat the insurgency, we have to politically undermine the insurgency. We have to sever some of the connections that are propelling Sunnilargely Sunnicommunities to give support to the insurgency, to give safe haven to al Qaeda, to plant these roadside bombs, and so on. The fact is, they feel theyre under occupation. They think the United States is there to permanently colonize the country, to control its resources. They think were there to set up permanent military bases. But the glue that unites almost all elements of the insurgency, except perhaps the most zealous and Islamist fighters, is some sense of Iraqi or Arab nationalism. Until we make clear that we are not going to seek permanent military bases in Iraq, that we have some date on the horizon where we expect to be gone militarily from Iraq, I think we will be fighting this insurgency at a very potent level.

FP: What is a reasonable time frame for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq?

LD: I dont know. I think that we need to begin withdrawing troops within the next 12 to 15 months, and it seems to me that we ought to be able to be out more or less completely within three or four yearsfour years as an outer boundary. If we get more cooperation, and if the Iraqi forces congeal more rapidly, we can do it sooner. But then youve got the problem reported in the New York Times of Iraqi units being woefully underequipped, which is a long, sad, pathetic, familiar story in terms of what happened to our own forces. So I just wonder: Are we going to get serious about this or not? Getting serious means embracing the urgency of the situation. And part of that urgency is equipping [Iraqi] forces to stand on their own.

FP: Youve written a lot about the initial miscalculations of the Bush administration with regard to Iraq. Who should be held responsible for those miscalculations?

LD: I think the greatest responsibility lies with the senior civilian Pentagon leadership, beginning with the secretary of defense whothough I think has done some intriguing and creative and innovative things in looking over the horizon about future war-fightinghas been on balance one of the most disastrous secretaries of defense since the position was created after World War II. I think history will skewer Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and the whole senior Pentagon leadership. I think were learning increasingly that Rumsfeld was working in the preparation for the war, and quite possibly in the way the postwar was planned and envisioned with the vice president. I think it was a pipe dream. [They were] just utterly detached from reality. I also blame the president for listening to them, frankly.

FP: Do you see the fomenting of a backlash amongst the Republican intelligentsia over the Bush Doctrine?

LD: I dont know. What is the Republican intelligentsia? I dont think there is a [unified] one. There is a religious conservative movement, some of whom are highly intellectual. There is a neoconservative, but not so religious or Christian conservative [faction], some of whom are still in government. There is a more traditional conservative intelligentsia, and George Will is one of its most impressive intellects. So there are different Republican intelligentsias. The only thing I can say is that I think its pretty obvious that traditional conservatives have been bothered from the beginning by this.

FP: What does the preeminence of foreign policy in U.S. politics mean for 2008? Do you see one individual emerging as a leading candidate, Sens. Chuck Hagel, John McCain, Hillary Clinton?

LD: I think Hagel is way too independent to become the Republican nominee. I think McCain is probably [also], despite his efforts to move to the center. I just dont think thats where the Republican Party is today. I think its a much more conservative party. So my guess is that someone like Sen. George Allen is a much more likely Republican nominee in 2008 than [former New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, [New York Gov. George] Pataki, or any of the more centrist possibilities. In the Democratic Party, its Hillary Clintons [race] to lose. I think the one implication of your question is that it is going to be very hard in 2008 for a governor like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush to win the nomination of his or her party, unless they become extremely knowledgeable and credible on foreign and national security policy.

FP: Why did you join the American Civil Liberties Unions lawsuit against the Bush administrations decision to eavesdrop on American citizens?

LD: For both professional and principled reasons. It will inhibit my ability to gather information for research and advocacy, and to have unimpeded exchanges with scholars around the world. It will be harmful to social science research on the [most critical] parts of the world, and on processes of regime change. It will weaken our ties with people in these countries, ties we need to cultivate and expand, not constrict. It is also not in Americas long-term national interest. We should have learned during the Cold War that we cannot win a war for freedomand the war on terror is [exactly] thatif we gratuitously violate the basic principles we claim to be fighting for. The people affected by this program, as well as their broader publics, are very sensitive to the appearance of U.S. hypocrisy. One reason why the United States is held in such low esteem in these parts of the world today is because we are seen as hypocritical: We are against torture, but we wont unequivocally commit never to practice it. We vow to promote individual freedom as the central purpose of our foreign policy, and then we violate individual freedom with this secret, warrantless surveillance.

Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a founding editor of the Journal of Democracy.

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