Skip Navigation
Slouching Towards LebanonTop left- Professor Juan Cole, top right- Professor Larry Diamond. Photos by Jonathan Friedlander

Slouching Towards Lebanon

Iraq expert Juan Cole and ex-CPA adviser on democratization Larry Diamond view Iraqi civil war as likely, US leverage slight. Experts discuss history of US-led military occupation, Iraqi constitution, election results.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

The seminal mistake of America's post-war engagement in Iraq was to have had an occupation in the first place ... just disastrous. —Hoover Senior Fellow Larry Diamond

There were moments, really too many of them to bear, when international expertise on Iraq, the Middle East, and democratic transitions might have made a difference to the Bush administration's failed experiment in Iraq. That was what Professors Juan Cole and Larry Diamond expressed from different perspectives and in different idioms Jan. 23 before a UCLA audience of about 75.

What had been billed as a debate on prospects for democracy in Iraq turned out to be a sobering discussion of whether opportunities remain for the United States to avert escalation of the low-intensity civil war gripping the country nearly three years after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The event, co-sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies, was the first in a series of colloquia put on by the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. A Feb. 6 colloquium on "Hugo Chavez and the Future of Venezuela" is to be co-sponsored by the Latin American Center.

Cole held that U.S. credibility in Iraq "is shot," that military offensives in Fallujah and Tal Afar have been counterproductive, and that U.S. troops should leave the country as rapidly as possible—nevertheless warning that an excessively hasty withdrawal could be disastrous. Diamond argued that the Bush administration should renounce any designs on permanent military bases in Iraq but maintain troops inside the country for the medium term to stave off the outcome that Cole called the "best case" scenario for Iraq: a descent into a Lebanese-style, medium-intensity, protracted civil war that would kill hundreds of thousands before the reaching of a political settlement.

Diamond conceded that a "betting person" would agree with Cole's prediction. Civil war will certainly ensue, he said, if the Iraqi constitution adopted over Sunni Arab opposition in October 2005 is allowed to stand as written. He said that, in contrast with the interim constitution of 2004, the permanent charter would effectively permit the creation of a loose confederation of autonomous regions, a virtual partition of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines. Diamond called religious and ethnic partition a recipe for disaster, instancing the break-up of Nigeria prior to a 1967–1970 civil war in which one million people were killed.

If They Had Just Asked

Cole and Diamond are both academics who have partly recast themselves as public intellectuals in response to events. To all appearances, their views were familiar to many in the audience. Cole, who had given a talk in the same UCLA conference room the previous week, is best known as the author-moderator of the weblog Informed Comment. He is a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and was recently elected president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of political science at Stanford University, has co-edited the Journal of Democracy since its launch in 1990. At the request of his former Stanford colleague and then–national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Diamond in January 2004 joined the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad as a senior adviser. Following his departure in April 2004, he began publicly to cast a critical eye on the CPA and U.S. strategy in Iraq. His article on "What Went Wrong in Iraq" appeared before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, and his book Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq came out in June 2005.

In spite of Diamond's inclusion in the process as a U.S. adviser, he made very clear on Monday his disappointment with the manner in which, he said, the U.S. Defense Department under Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration generally failed to seek and especially to use expert advice in Iraq.

The virtual irrelevance of scholars in the crafting of foreign policy in Washington was an important theme of Monday's discussion. The audience broke into laughter when Diamond asked Cole whether he had been consulted by the Bush administration on Iraq. Cole's answer was negative.

Setting up his own remarks on the troubling Iraqi political scene, Diamond said,

The seminal mistake of America's post-war engagement in Iraq was to have had an occupation in the first place, to go the MacArthur route—just disastrous. And it was so broadly warned against. I mean, if they had just really consulted the people in the United States and around the world who understood this country and didn't have a particular political or sectarian stake in the future, they could have learned this.

Cole has been outspoken on this subject on his blog. In a Jan. 18 interview with the International Institute, he said, "I'm deeply disappointed that all the advances we have made in academia in understanding the Muslim world have been thrown out the window in Washington." Cole continued with a correction:

"Thrown out the window" is already too optimistic because they simply were not known and were not consulted and were ignored. And so the Washington power elite seems surprised that there are Islamic movements in Iraq. This seems like a caricature to say this, but I can back it up with quotes. They really thought that Iraq was a secular country. They said so repeatedly. I don't expect the president to have read the latest monograph on such-and-such subject, but at some point, somewhere in the system, there have to be people who know the reality. My impression is that things are now set up in Washington so as to exclude the knowledgeable from having an input.

Grand Ayatollah Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It was this lack of expert advice at the highest levels of the U.S. occupation, according to Cole, that allowed L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer 3rd, the top U.S. official in Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004, to underestimate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iranian-born Shiite cleric from Najaf who—though he works through representatives to remain above the political fray—has emerged as Iraq's most important leader since Saddam Hussein's ouster. Undeterred by Sistani's June 2003 fatwa, or religious ruling, that the drafters had to be elected by the Iraqi people, Bremer attempted to form a committee to write an Iraqi constitution. Predictably, Cole said, this proved impossible in the face of the fatwa.

When Bremer in November 2003 proposed that the drafters be selected by provisional councils in regional caucuses, Sistani again objected, saying in a fresh Arabic fatwa that legitimate government derived from the will of the people. Cole observed that Sistani, an exponent of strict Islamic Sharia law, had incorporated European Enlightenment liberalism into his politics and had used the language of Rousseau repeatedly and effectively against the United States. In January 2004, Sistani saw to the organization of massive protests in the southern city of Basra demanding the popular election of leaders. The movement culminated in national elections organized one year later by the United Nations and dominated by a list of candidates that had Sistani's implicit backing.

Cole argued, as he had previously, that the U.S. military intervention benefited Iran and created a zone of influence for Shiite politicians and clerics. Although only 10% of the world's Muslims are Shiites, Cole said, that percentage is far higher in the Persian Gulf region, something that the emerging geopolitical order reflects.

Civic Ties Needed

Diamond said that he did not support going to war in Iraq, but at Monday's discussion he, like Cole, focused his criticism of U.S. policy on the period of occupation. At the time of the initial U.S. military victory, he said, there was an alternative to occupation in the form of a UN offer to convene an Afghan-style loya jirga, or grand council, to govern the country.

A stand-out among the "colossal tactical errors" in Iraq, he said, was President Bush's refusal to accept a six-month extension on the drafting of the permanent constitution, an option permitted under the interim or transitional law. According to Diamond, U.S. negotiators on the document heavily favored an extension. In the end, the document was drafted on schedule and with virtually no Sunni Arab participation due to the Sunni boycott of the January 2005 elections. In an attempt to mollify Sunni leaders, the document included a provision that would allow it to be amended after the seating of a permanent government. Diamond said that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad would "struggle mightily" for changes ensuring a strong central government, but he noted that U.S. leverage was very much on the wane.

"What are we going to do, threaten to leave?" Diamond asked, saying that such an offer would be accepted in short order.

Still, in the words of Albert O. Hirschman, Diamond said he prefers to have a "bias for hope." Reports that the U.S. government is talking with insurgent groups are encouraging, he said, even if attempts to determine the groups' goals and to cut deals with them that might avert civil war are overdue. U.S. tactical shifts in Iraq persistently have been "too little, too late," he said.

Diamond expressed worry about the continuing lack of basic services in Iraq, the strongarm tactics of leading political parties, and attacks on Iraqi women and students. He called for groups in the United States to forge civic ties with Iraqi universities, women's groups, and organizations that value human rights as well as democracy.

Center for Near Eastern Studies