Skip Navigation
Larry Diamond on What Went Wrong in Iraq and Prospects for Democracy and Stability

Larry Diamond on What Went Wrong in Iraq and Prospects for Democracy and Stability

Former senior advisor to L. Paul Bremer looks at the players in Iraq's new political lineup, strategies for defusing the insurgency, and some of the serious mistakes the U.S. has made and continues to make.

[From January to April 2004 Larry Diamond served as Senior Advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and is a well-known specialist on democratic development and U.S. foreign police affecting democracy abroad. The following talk was given at the UCLA Law School February 3, to an overflow crowd of 110. The meeting was cosponsored by the Law School, the UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreidn Affairs, and the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. We have edited the text very lightly and added the subheadings.]

*  *  *

Iraq has just been through what I consider to be a momentous moment. We have 135,000 to 150,000 American troops there and a huge stake in the outcome now. Let me say a few things by way of a brief introduction or orientation. One is that I did not support going to war in Iraq. I am tortured by the whole decision about going to war or not. And the reason I am tortured is because, for a variety of reasons that I would prefer not to discuss just because it is to some extent now beside the point in terms of the issues for the moment today, I think that we lost a lot in terms of our international standing in the world and the building of a true system of collective security and multilateral responses to these types of dangers by going to war, let's face it, largely unilaterally. And that, I think, is a mistake and I will come back to it when I reflect on the past.

On the other hand we need to be intellectually honest here, analytically honest. The truth is, and as someone who opposed going to war I am the first one to concede it as a political scientist, it is what makes me tortured about the whole decision, at the time and now: If we had not gone to war I am quite confident Saddam Hussein would still be in power. And one of the most evil, oppressive dictatorships in the world would still be oppressing its own people. So all of this needs to be weighed.

The second thing I want to say by way of introduction is that I argued in an Op Ed in the New York Times a little more than three weeks ago, which some of you may have seen, that the election should have been postponed. That may seem an odd position to try and resurrect and argue for now in the wake of what appears to have been a phenomenally moving and successful election.

I suppose the third thing I should say is that I have a book coming out in June with the title Squandered Victory, so this may suggest that I have a big stake in seeing failure in Iraq. I want to say that I would like nothing better than to be proven wrong in all of my skepticism. I would even be willing to retire as a political scientist if I needed to do that in order to see democracy emerge in Iraq. I think it is something we should all want now and be committed to, no matter what position we had in terms of the war.

And I would also argue that I think I was still right in the second two positions, about postponing the elections and the title of my book, and I will try to explain why.

The Election Was a Profoundly Moving and Historic Experience

First of all, let me say that this election on Sunday, from everything I have read and heard, was a profoundly moving and historic experience; for Iraq, for the Middle East, and potentially for the world. We saw Iraqis come out, tentatively in the early morning and then become emboldened by their numbers and by the courage of one another, in enormous numbers, defying the odds, defying the risk, defying the threats, in most parts of the country -- I will come back and revisit that qualification in a minute -- and vote. With great pride and, I would say, with a level of conviction and determination and fearlessness that recalls some of the great moments of the democratic revolutions of the last thirty years, including what has happened in South Africa, what happened in Central and Eastern Europe, what happened with People Power in Manila in the Philippines in February of 1986, and what just happened with the orange revolution in Ukraine. It's at least on those levels.

I'd like to read you some quotes from a long article on the election in the Washington Post, just to kind of set the tone for what I think happened and why it was so historic. One woman, an Arab Iraqi woman who voted for the Communist Party, said -- these are all Iraqis talking to, I think, Iraqi stringers for the Washington Post as they were leaving various polling stations: "We came early because we couldn't wait. This is a historical event that we could vote freely for the first time in decades" And indeed it was the first time since the mid-1950s, so for most Iraqis who were voting it was the first time in their lives that they could cast a ballot in which there were multiple political parties on the ballot, there was real choice, and it wasn't predetermined in advance that one candidate was going to get 99.9 or, in the last election, truly a miracle, 100 percent of all the votes cast.

Shakhwan Hama Aula "was undaunted by security concerns" and said "I don't care much for the threats, and I feel that the building of democracy requires sacrifice." That's a sentence worth remembering.

A fifty-year-old physician said, "This is the new dawn of the new Iraq with all its people and sects. When we decided to come, we weren't hesitant because this is a chance and if the people hesitate, they will lose it and might not [come] again."

Arkan Mahmoud Jawad came to vote with his mother and younger brother. "This is the salvation for the Iraqis and it is a big challenge. I hate the terrorists and I was waiting for the day to fight them. Now, I am fighting them by my vote and this is the least thing I can do."

And finally -- there are about twenty-five of these; I have picked five -- Saad Dulaimi, 38, a school teacher and a Sunni, who obviously defied even greater odds if he was a Sunni voting: "You cannot imagine how proud I was there when I saw that big Iraqi flag over the ballot box. My eyes were full with tears when I was looking at the flag, while I was putting the ballot in the box, when one of my teardrops went inside with that ballot through the opening of that box."

Now let me say, you can't orchestrate this. I don't think many journalists I know have the imagination to invent this stuff. This was a drama and a historical experience in the global democratic revolution of a very very high order. I think it has been a greater success than most people anticipated. It went better than I thought it would and I will tell you three reasons why I think that happened.

Iraqis Do Want Democracy

The overall turnout is more or less what I predicted. It looks like something over 60 percent of Iraqis voted. It could be maybe 65 percent. The turnout was extremely high, as I think one could easily have anticipated, in the Shiite south of the country and in the Kurdish north, which is the overwhelming majority of the country; uneven in many mixed sections of the country; and quite low, perhaps lower than 30 percent of eligible voters, in some predominantly Sunni areas like Ramadi and Fallujah, to the extent it still exists.

One reason why is because many people have constantly underestimated the Iraqi people, and people in general. I think people in general, when they are faced with the opportunity, would like to choose their leaders and like to have real choice and like to be able to vote without fear and coercion. This has been the story over and over again in post-conflict situations -- South Africa; El Salvador; Cambodia, difficult though that election was and undemocratic though the outcome was in many respects.

Even with all the decades of dictatorship, and the public opinion surveys in Iraq repeatedly have shown this, while there are big differences about what kind of democracy Iraqis want, about the role of religion, the structure of government, how Islamist it should be, but the overwhelming majority of Iraqis do want democracy, in the sense of being able to choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections and in the sense of some kind of rule of law and restraint on the authority of the state. People can learn this and grasp this at least in terms of the desire for it and the willingness to begin to practice it in the way they did on Sunday more quickly than they are often given credit for.

The UN's Key Role in Organizing the Election

Secondly, I give the United Nations enormous credit. I think they made a mistake in choosing the electoral system, and I will come to that, but in terms of organizing and helping to set up the Iraqi independent electoral commission, and in terms of assisting with the logistics of this election -- just things as simple as distributing the cardboard voting booths and the plastic ballot boxes and the ink and so on -- this was a phenomenal logistical achievement. There were problems. There were tens of thousands of people in Mosul, there were clusters of people in the south, who didn't vote because they ran out of ballots. The first time you have an election in a country like this, you don't know how many voters are really going to be coming out at this station or that. But I give the UN Electoral Assistance unit and its director Carina Perelli and one of its associate leaders, who was there in Iraq for several months as a nonvoting member of the Iraqi independent electoral commission, Carlos Valenzuela, enormous credit for what they did. I think it shows the role the United Nations can play in these kinds of situations.

A Security Success

And third, it was a security success, relatively speaking of course. When forty to fifty people die it is not a perfect success, it's a tragedy for those people, for their families, and for the country. But relative to what could have happened, when it could easily have been hundreds upon hundreds of people killed -- and if those eight to nine suicide bombers had been able to drive automobiles or trucks packed with a thousand pounds of explosives into these polling stations rather than simply strap a vest of bomblets around their clothing, certainly the death toll would have been many times higher. So the decision to ban automobile traffic around the time of the election, the curfew that was imposed, the security blanket, the increase in the number of troops, which I might add I was calling for more than a year ago, all of this had an impact in helping to stabilize the country.

Most of the Parties Were Unable to Campaign

Now let me talk about some of the problems, because I do believe that it is possible for Iraq to become, gradually, and over an extended period of time, with a lot of messiness along the way, a democracy, a political system in which people can choose and replace their leaders in more or less free and fair elections, hopefully with some significant degree of rule of law and accountability as well. But it's not going to happen overnight. I don't think it's going to happen simply as a result of this election or the next election. It's going to be a process. And for that process to move forward a great many challenges need to be confronted.

Let me say, just to qualify a little bit about this election and its extraordinary success, that it was a very superficial election and in some ways a very unfair election. There were more than one hundred parties in lists. Most of them had no money, no access to the media, and no ability, obviously, in the state the country was in, to campaign. So I think we can expect that most of the votes when they are cast are going to go to three predominant lists that had money, that had organization, and had access to the media. And those are the United Iraqi Alliance, which is sometimes called the Sistani list, although the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has claimed that he does not formally endorse that list or any list, but they've been using his picture, his imprimatur, and he clearly had an important role in drawing this list together. It's a predominantly, though not exclusively, Shiite list. It is dominated by two Islamist Shiite parties with strong ties to Iran, heavy funding from Iran, and in one case, twenty years of experience in Iran in exile, with its militia being trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. And that party is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The other Shiite Islamist party prominent in the list is Dawa or sometimes known by its full name, Al-Da'wa al-Islamiyya, which is the Islamic Call party.

The United Iraqi Alliance is a coalition of these two parties and a number of independent actors. Some of them, a few of them, who were maneuvered onto the list by the firebrand young militant cleric who really, I think, is not much more than a common thug masquerading with a kind of religious set of arguments named Muqtada al-Sadr, who if you follow Iraq know has launched two extremely destructive insurgencies and is much reviled by much of the population in the Shiite south.

I want you to know that the candidate that Muqtada al-Sadr insisted upon most strongly to be placed highly on the list, his number-one choice, was a man named Ahmed Chalabi. And if you understand why this happened you understand some interesting realities about Iraq today and about why the Pentagon was so misguided in its initial orientations toward Iraq in thinking that, first of all, we could simply install Ahmed Chalabi as the postelection or postwar leader of Iraq, and second of all that that would be any kind of good thing if we did so. But maybe we will come back to Mr. Chalabi, a fascinating character I must say, in historical terms, a little later.

Backers of the United Iraqi Alliance

The United Iraqi Alliance has enormous funding because it has gotten plenty of it from Iran. It has strong organization because there are thousands Iranian intelligence agents all over the Shiite south helping it to organize. It also has the support of the religious clerical establishment in Najaf, implicitly at least, which itself has financial resources. So I predict that it could easily get, as a coalition, 30 to 35 percent of the vote. And it announced, if you read the Los Angeles Times front page yesterday, mysteriously I guess, with their religious authority they already know the results, that they have won the election and will form the next government.

It is imaginable that they will win an absolute majority of the vote, and there was a time when I thought that they might. If the Shiites are 60 percent of the Iraqi population -- and nobody really knows these population numbers -- and if the Sunnis are about 15 to 20 percent of the population, and if the Kurds are about 15 to 20 percent of the population, and if, as now appears to be the case, the Sunni Arabs as a group voted in far fewer numbers than the other two groups, so that maybe they constituted on election day not 15 to 20 percent but 5 to 7 percent of the electorate, then obviously (the Assyrian Christians and other Iraqi minorities would account for probably 3 to 4 percent and I think they also voted relatively heavily to the extent they were not intimidated and blocked from doing so), then it would stand to logic that Shiites were not 60 percent of the electorate but 65 percent or 68 percent, close to 70 percent. And if the United Iraqi Alliance wins 70 percent of the Shiite vote and Shiites were 70 percent of the voting public, then they could win an absolute majority, more or less.

I don't think they will, but it is conceivable. If they do, I will worry, frankly, about the future of democracy in Iraq. Because democracy in Iraq requires pluralism now, it requires inclusiveness, it requires bargaining, and most of all it requires perpetuation of the implicit federal bargain that was struck in the interim constitution. I'll come back to that in a minute.

The Other Strong Lists

Let me say that the second prominent actor that will get a large slice of the votes in the parliament is a Kurdish list that brings together the two Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PDK, each of which has been ruling a section of autonomous Kurdistan for the last twelve years. They came together into a single list and will probably win the overwhelming majority of the Kurdish vote and could wind up with 15 to 20 percent or more of the seats in parliament.

The third prominent list, which had at the end massive amounts of money to spend on media, not to mention the media that it could use by virtue of being temporarily the state, was the party led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. I didn't think, some time ago, that Allawi was going to do very well in this election. And let me tell you, neither did he. Because Allawi tried very hard to get this election postponed, for fear that he was not going to do very well, that there was a juggernaut coming down the track from the United Iraqi Alliance and therefore that he needed more time. Secular forces in general needed more time to organize and mobilize.

The reasons these elections went forward on January 30, for better or for worse, and historically we may look back and say it was clearly for the better, is because of one man more than any other, and that was President George W. Bush. If he had not been so insistent in the face of inquiries from many Arab leaders and many Iraqi political leaders, the Iraqi government would probably have resolved to postpone the election for several months.

Why the Elections Should Have Been Postponed

Now let me tell you why I think they should have been postponed. There is a problem in Iraq today that I think is the most important obstacle to stabilization and democratization. It is the problem of a low-intensity civil war in the country, being waged primarily by members of one of the identity groups in the country, which is the Sunni Arabs. They are not the only people involved in the insurgency. There are Shiites involved, there are others, Arab nationalists, and there are plenty of foreigners. Iraq has become, after the war, what it was not before the war, a haven for Al Qaeda and other international terrorists, a magnet for the sort of international jihadist movement that was pouring into Afghanistan before September 11. And they are spread all over, they are organizing many of the car bombings, and so on.

Much of the Sunni Arab population feels marginalized, aggrieved, about to be victimized and shut out. They called for a boycott of the elections, which was complied with voluntarily by many Sunni Arab Iraqis, and enforced with intimidation and fear as well, because they felt that with the electoral system that was chosen, which was the electoral system of proportional representation using a single nationwide list, no electoral districts of any kind, they were going to lose out in these elections. If each of the 18 provinces in Iraq had no minimum floor of representation in parliament, it's all simply a matter of how many votes you get and then the proportions of the total vote being translated into a portion of seats in the national assembly, they felt, starting very late, with their communities disorganized, with more terrorism, more violence, one of their cities leveled, that they were going to wind up getting under-represented.

They also had, you can dispute it and find it invalid, but nevertheless they had what they felt to be a principled objection, which was they felt that the country shouldn't have to be voting, particularly in its cities, under military occupation. In particular they called, not for the withdrawal of military troops before the election, from the United States and elsewhere, but the withdrawal of those troops from the cities and certain other very specific demands that I can discuss.

Parts of the Insurgency Must Be Drawn Into the Political System

It has sometimes been said that the Sunnis have no organization, there is nobody to negotiate with, all they do is bomb. And I think that this is not true, and that one does not need to have anything but moral disgust and rejection for the violent methods that have been used by some of these insurgents or resistance leaders in order to nevertheless feel that if there is going to be stability and democracy the insurgency needs to be considerably wound down. And the way you wind down an insurgency that has, and I think this one does in a section of the country, significant popular support and cooperation and sympathy, is to get to some of the political roots of it and to draw a significant piece of it into the political system and separate that piece from the people, the spoilers, the diehards who can never be brought into the political process.

Within the community of resistance-minded people in Iraq there is a certain number of Al Qaeda and other foreign jihadists who have nowhere to go, literally, except to fight America to the death or leave the country. And a certain number of Baathists who would be tried before the Special Tribunal for crimes against humanity, and I think convicted, if they were to come in. So these people have nowhere to go. But many of the religious leaders who have been drawn together into the Association of Muslim Scholars -- it is a rabidly anti-American, anti-Zionist, and in some ways very antidemocratic group, but they signaled a willingness to come into the process. A number of Baathists who were not the highest level people, who want to participate in the new political system as a reformed or at least reconstituted Baath Party, and a number of other tribal leaders in the Sunni community and whatnot, have been signaling for more than a year that they want to talk to the United States and negotiate terms of suspension of the resistance and entry into the political process.

I think, and you can go to the New York Times on the January 9 Op Ed page if you want the longer version of my story, that if the election could have been postponed, and I could see by January 9th it was probably too late, and negotiations could have been conducted with these various actors and they be brought into the process, not only would it have been a more fully participatory election, but we could get to a place where we could split these elements off from the more diehard elements, wind down the violent insurgency, get people to commit to becoming stakeholders in the newly emerging political process, and have the potential for a more viable democratic political system.

The analogy to those Baathists who were willing to consider coming into the political system in Iraq that I think is worth considering is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which wound up reconstituting itself as a new Communist Party of Russia under the leadership of Gennady Zyuganov. No democrat for sure, but he participated in elections in Russia, lost repeatedly, his vote went down over time, and Russia has ceased to become a democracy, but the fact that the Communist Party was allowed to contest elections in my opinion was not the reason why. In fact it was a stabilizing factor.

U.S. Stubbornness and Mistakes

So I think an opportunity was lost over a year because of the stubbornness of the United States, its decisions in terms of dissolving the Iraqi army early on, instituting such a sweeping policy of de-Baathification, which jettisoned from public employment not only many high-ranking government officials but many skilled bureaucrats, technicians, engineers, and tens of thousands of schoolteachers, to the point that some schools in northern central Iraq were simply emptied of teachers for a period of time before the policy was finally rolled back by the administrator of the occupation, L. Paul Bremer.

All of this -- I am not going to have time to really rehearse all the mistakes we made, the second half of what would have been a full lecture if I could have organized it that way -- but in any case these were two pivotal mistakes that helped to stimulate the Sunni insurgency and alienate a section of the country that if we had proceeded in a different way need not have become alienated to this extent and could have been drawn into the political process more quickly and effectively early on.

There Should Have Been a Transfer of Power to Iraqis in 2003

The biggest mistake that the United States made in Iraq was to have an occupation at all. When the war ended and Saddam fell in April 2003 and Baghdad passed to the hands of the victorious troops there were many people who wanted, and indeed one of them was the initial American official in charge, General Jay Garner, a fairly rapid transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government.

What many of the people in the Pentagon had in mind was, that sounded good. In fact the Pentagon at the time wanted to get out quickly, to hand over to its chosen Iraqis, most of whom hadn't been in the country in the last thirty years, led by Ahmed Chalabi. That, I think, would have been a disaster. But there was another plan for a relatively rapid transition to an Iraqi interim government that was more viable, more plausible, more just, and would have spared us a lot of agony in Iraq and spared Iraqis a lot of agony in Iraq. And that was the one that was favored by the United Nations and its special envoy, who tragically died in a car bombing in 2003, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and by many of the Iraqis who had been involved in the Future of Iraq project. And that was to organize a national conference in July or June or early on after the occupation, bring all the different forces in Iraq together, and have them more or less democratically choose an Iraqi interim government that might have governed for a year and a half to two years, written a constitution, and then gone to elections.

I think that was feasible. If it had been sufficiently inclusive, and I think it could have been, we would not have seen the scale of insurgency that we saw today. If the United Nations had led that process, and it would have been willing to, we would not have the degree of resentment of the United States that exists on the ground today in Iraq, even by many of the types of people who I quoted at the beginning of my talk, who are conflicted. On the one hand, grateful to have had the opportunity to vote and understanding that it would not have come without the American invasion; on the other hand resentful of the heavy American imperial hand that ruled Iraq for almost a year and a half. On the one hand, understanding that American troops are needed now to keep the country from falling into civil war, on the other hand really desperately wanting to get rid of foreign troops on Iraqi soil.

Some Similarities with Nigeria

Let me conclude. I think that even with all the mistakes that we've made, which I have only begun to detail here, it's now up to Iraqis more than to the United States and Britain and our international allies in Iraq. There has emerged among the Iraqi political elite a certain ability which we have seen. I was telling my colleague and I might say also mentor in my early studies, Professor Richard Sklar, as we were walking over here, some of the similarities I have observed between Iraq and Nigeria.

They are both oil states. The question of federalism versus unitary government looms large, and federalism, how structured? How to distribute the oil revenue? The contest among three major identity groups. I mean, it begins to get interestingly familiar in some ways. And when I landed in Iraq it wasn't very long before I realized that actually I had learned something in Nigeria I thought could be useful in Iraq. But be that as it may, one of the similarities is that Iraqi political elites, like Nigerian political elites, have developed an ability to argue, maneuver, conspire, backstab, steal, and all the rest. Bring the country to the brink of the abyss, and then somehow pull back, negotiate, and move on. There is an ability here, a certain underlying pragmatism and negotiating ability that may resurface.

U.S. Maneuvering to Gain Permanent Military Bases Fuels the Insurgency

I don't think the U.S. is going to be the major force in this much longer. It is going to increasingly depend on those negotiating arts among Iraqis. But there is something that could help now on the part of the United States which tragically is not going to happen. And I will close on this note. One of the things that is necessary to wind down the insurgency and create a much more hopeful, enabling environment for the development of democracy and even political stability in Iraq is for Iraqis, and particularly those Iraqis who are involved with or sympathizing with the insurgency, to become convinced that we really are going to leave. That the American military occupation of Iraq is going to end and that they are going to get their country back.

Now I don't say that we should say by June 30 of 2006 or 2007 all American troops will be gone, that's it, end of story, we make this promise. President Bush is certainly right when he says if you give an arbitrary date like that, terrorists can key to it and you can be trapped by it. But there are two things we could do, that I believe we should do, that would make an enormous difference. And they are two things among many that insurgent forces who have prepared to come into the political game want to see happen.

Number one, we could declare, and I urged the administration to declare when I left Iraq in April of 2004, that we have no permanent military designs on Iraq and we will not seek permanent military bases in Iraq. This one statement would do an enormous amount to undermine the suspicion that we have permanent imperial intentions in Iraq. We aren't going to do that. And the reason we're not going to do that is because we are building permanent military basis in Iraq.

U.S. Efforts to Manipulate the Interim Constitution

And I can tell you that one of the things I most strongly objected to in the making of the interim constitution, for which I was an advisor, was the repeated insistence on the part of the United States that Iraq write into its interim constitution a provision that would enable a treaty, for example, a treaty granting permanent military bases, to be approved by the lowest possible threshold imaginable. Initially our position was, signed by the prime minister should be good enough. Then when the Iraqis, one of whom was a lawyer trained in the United States who has taught law in the United States and understands our constitutional system well, said, "Well, you have two-thirds vote of the Senate to ratify your treaties. That sounds like a reasonable threshold," there got to be an interesting pushing and shoving match between the Iraqis and the United States. They said two-thirds, we said simple majority. It went back and forth down to the final night of the writing of the Iraqi interim constitution. And guess which vote was enshrined into the Iraqi constitution? Simple majority.

If we were to say that we will not seek permanent military bases in Iraq, and if we were to establish at least some target date for permanent military withdrawal, based on conditions in the country, the winding down of the insurgency, it could change the climate in the country. That and the inception of negotiations between the new government that is going to be announced soon and the insurgents. The insurgents know they can't win militarily. But they think they can obstruct militarily. And they may be able to. So I hope we will adapt and learn in this way, and most of all that the new Iraqi government will, and I think that if some of these adjustments happen there really is a possibility gradually over time, imperfect though it will be, contested and corrupt though it will be, of some kind of democratic political system emerging in Iraq.

From the Question Period

[The questions have been abbreviated.]

Q: Having seen what has happened in Iraq are you in favor of future invasions by the United States against other evil dictators where the United Nations is opposed to the invasion?

Diamond: No. Of course not. I wasn't in favor of this one, and if I had it to do over again, even knowing that democracy could emerge in the country, I wouldn't do it over again. Because I feel that we pay a heavy price, and the price we pay, which is intangible so it is hard to weigh against the tangibility of knowing Saddam is gone and maybe having a democracy there, but the price we pay is the erosion of our soft power, of our standing in the world, of our image in the world, our ability to invoke alliances to press peacefully for democracy in other parts of the world. And as I said, of our ability to help induce the entrenchment or development or creation of some stronger system of collective security in the world. So I think it would be a mistake.

I also think in most of these other places that we can induce democratic change by other means. I would say Iran is a classic example, where an invasion would backfire. It would generate a nationalist reaction from a young population that is pretty much disgusted with its regime, whereas more classic approaches of assistance to civil society, free flows of information, diplomatic maneuvers, and so on I think have much more potential.

Q: In societies that are severely divided along ethnic or religious lines Horowitz has commented that elections come to resemble censuses, that they record peoples' more or less fixed identities rather than recording their possibly changing points of view. Was the election really a census or was it an election only among Shiites, who had a genuine choice? And secondly, you invoke the notion of the Iraqi people. Does an Iraqi people really exist or do perhaps we have two peoples in Iraq, the Kurdish people and the Iraqi people, and what follows from that for the rule of democracy and self-determination?

Diamond: First, I think we are going to see in the results that the election had substantial properties of an ethnic census. And I say that first of all in two respects, one of which even precedes the results. The respect in which it precedes the results is, most people knew hardly anything about the parties, there was virtually no campaign, nobody knew who the candidates were because almost all the names beyond the party leaders were in a safe in the independent electoral commission's headquarters, for fear that if the candidates were known the lower level candidates, who couldn't afford the extent of personal security details that the party leaders had, could have been assassinated, and indeed some were. So when there was such a shallow election with so little information about alternatives, that automatically propels it to a kind of identity census.

Then in terms of the result I think we will find that the majority of Iraqi voters voted for a kind of identity symbol. They voted for either the United Iraqi Alliance, because they saw that as a symbol of Shiite identity, religious solidarity, political triumph, and so on, but with a heavy religious cast, or they voted for the Kurdish list strictly on identity terms. And those two lists together, although I don't think they will coalesce, but they will definitely get a majority of all the votes.

Second of all, Horowitz said that, but he then went on to propose types of electoral systems that could induce moderation and cross-cutting cleavages. This election was not one of them. The electoral system would have been better off having proportional representation in multimember districts, where people could have known who the candidates were. I would have favored this if it would have been possible, but maybe it wouldn't have been possible You wouldn't have had national-level identities. You would have invoked more local-level identities, tribal leaders at the local level would have become more important, and you would have had more pluralism as a result and more cross-cutting cleavages.

In answer to your last question, is there an Iraqi people, well, one could ask it in two senses. First of all, how do you generalize in any respect about this diverse population, some of whom are secular, some of whom are religious, some of whom have a strong identity as Shiite, Sunni, Arab, Kurd, Christian, Assyrian, whatever, and some of whom insist that they are only Iraqi and don't like this business of being asked to specify an identity beyond that? So I can see that it is difficult to talk about the Iraqi people in that sense.

In terms of the sense in which you raised it, it would be hard to dispute the assessment that the Kurdish people of Iraq do not feel part of Iraq. That they would like to have an independent state. That the only thing that keeps them in Iraq is the belief that it isn't possible or would be too costly in terms of war and conflict to achieve. But you have a whole generation of Kurds who grew up in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, not speaking Arabic, not identifying with Iraq, and I think that Peter Galbraith is right. I don't think he is right in the solution that he proposes, but I think he is right in his assessment based on a lot of time spent in the region, that the Kurdish people would prefer to be independent.

The people of Taiwan would prefer to declare independence as well. And if they did that tomorrow it would be an act of national suicide. So sometimes people have to live in the real world and settle for a lot of what they would like and maybe be patient about trying to get the rest of it.

Q: How different is this from the beginning of democracy in America? The American founding fathers were also religious. Why is there a problem with the Shiites winning the election in Iraq?

Diamond: One reason why I am somewhat hopeful about this sort of problem is that I don't think the Shiites are nearly as politically coherent, solid, and marching in lockstep to a common agenda as the United Iraqi Alliance would like to think. Quite a significant proportion of Shiites do not want a strongly religious state or Islamist state. Also they distrust the two principal parties in the United Iraqi Alliance because they see them as too pro-Iranian. I think the vast majority of even Iraqi Shiites do not want to live under Iranian influence, much less control. What actually may happen is that many of these Shiites may have voted for Allawi and his list simply because he was, in their minds, the other principal alternative. And if that happens you will see pluralism, bargaining, power sharing, and probably a new government -- any government will be a coalition -- in which you may have Allawi again as prime minister for better or for worse, and I could go on at length on both sides of that coin. But with Kurds in a prominent role, a lot of other secular and democratic forces brought in, and quite a lot of power sharing.
Even if the United Iraqi Alliance comes to power they will seek to construct a broad coalition. Where the United Iraqi Alliance outright victory would become a problem is in two respects. Number one, they really have a vision of a much more religious state than the rest of the country wants. And this will be a deeply contested issue in Iraq. Secondly, and nobody is paying attention to this, everybody has forgotten it, but when the interim constitution was signed, or almost signed, at the beginning of March, the principal Shiite delegates at the last minute didn't show up at the signing, boycotted it, and the signing was canceled. They rushed down to Najaf to consult with Ayatollah Sistani who had called them down there to instruct them to vote against and refuse to sign the interim constitution, because of some provisions of that constitution that he objected to on religious and philosophical grounds. I won't go into details unless you want them, but they were all provisions that had to do with the minority rights and vetoes of the Kurds. Particularly minority vetoes over majority decisions at the center.

His attitude, which he made very clear at the time, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, was that the transitional administrative law, the interim constitution, is null and void, does not exist, until and unless it is approved by an elected Iraqi body. And he succeeded, the ayatollah, in dissuading the United Nations and the United States from even mentioning the interim constitution in Resolution 1546 of the UN Security Council. Now, the Shiite delegates, when they went back and finally signed the interim constitution, said we are signing it under protest, we don't like these specific provisions; we are going to change them, but we'll wait and do it later so the country doesn't erupt now.

Well, I've got news for you. First of all, there is no way they can do it if they don't have a majority of the parliament. But if they get 51 percent of the seats in parliament and use that to declare the interim constitution null and void, change some of its provisions, and then say, this is the interim constitution, the Kurds will walk out and there will be a crisis of really calamitous proportions.

I don't think that will happen. Because it is so obvious what would happen if they did that. But if they get an absolute majority of the parliament it's going to be a very difficult, less pluralistic, less tolerant, more conflictual political game.

Q: You've said a lot about what went wrong in Iraq starting from the beginning with the troops standing by and not stopping the looting, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the contracting by big American contractors rather than by local people. My question is why did our civilian and military leadership seem to keep getting so many things so wrong?

Diamond: First of all, some things went right. We did get some democracy assistance to a number of Iraqi groups. We set up this transitional framework. We eventually got it right thanks to the United Nations and the intervention of the second special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. In answering your question, my own view is that I largely blame this on the Pentagon leadership, but also the president, the vice president, some of the ideologues in the administration. I think they were detached from Iraqi realities. They didn't understand the country. They were largely listening to a very narrow segment even of Iraqi exile opinion.

They had an image of the country. They believed that when we landed in Baghdad we were going to be greeted with roses and sweets. Those were the words that President Bush was given in the Oval office by one of these Iraqi exiles. And I think when that didn't happen, we were unprepared for the postwar chaos. We didn't have enough troops. Partly this was because we thought it was going to be a cakewalk and we were going to be greeted as liberators, and partly because if Secretary Rumsfeld had accepted the request of the United States Army, that instead of invading with 150,000 troops we have an invasion force of close to 400,000 troops, where were we going to get all those troops?

We would have had to either truly have a massive international coalition, which we obviously didn't, and I'm not even sure then where we could have gotten all of those troops, or we would have had to have, in advance of the war, a total callup of the reserves and the National Guard. I think the Bush administration was not ready to assume the political risk and cost of that, knowing that there might not have been a war if they had to fully mobilize the United States.

So the attitude was, in the famous phrase of Thomas Friedman in his column in December of 2002, "we're at war, let's party"; which I think expresses much of what has gone wrong and what is so morally offensive to me, as someone who was in Baghdad and didn't have a bullet-proof vest because they didn't provide any to their civilian officials, who had to constantly beg and borrow to get an armored car to move around the country because the mission was so under-resourced.

The attitude was, we don't need to mobilize. We don't need to call up all the troops. We don't need to have the kind of numbers of troops the army was looking for. This will be a cakewalk. We can have a war. We can have a tax cut. We can deploy around the world. We're the colossus that bestrides the world. We can do whatever we want.

I think that what has happened in Iraq, with all the promise, with all the hope, with all the possibilities still of a positive outcome, should be a deeply sobering experience in terms of that logic. But I don't think it has sunk in yet to the people who made the mistakes. Because I think they are operating on ideology and faith and not rationality and evidence. And certainly not knowledge of Iraq and its history.

Q: The Clinton administration talked about building up police forces, but apparently in the U.S.'s past applications it increased domestic police forces only to the extent that in the post-occupation period they were used by the government to crack down on political and civil rights. To what extent do you see that as a possibility in Iraq?

Diamond: Using domestic policing to stabilize the situation?

Q: Yes, and how they would be used in the post-occupation period.

Diamond: This raises the whole question of how the Iraqi armed forces of all kinds are going to be used in the post-occupation period. Obviously they need to be retrained in ways that lead them to become more respectful of human rights, rule of law, and so on and so forth. The problem is that when you invade and conquer a country like this, and basically induce the disintegration completely of a state, you have an enormous vacuum. You have to figure out how to fill the vacuum of order and solve the Hobbesian problem before you can do anything else.

The solutions are never going to be perfect. They are going to have to probably be combinations. We need to stand up new Iraqi police forces in that type of situation, indigenous police forces, as rapidly as possible. And it's going to have to be a compromise between the level of vetting and training and human rights orientation one would want, and the urgency of filling the vacuum.

One thing I know we don't have that we need, in fact I have a whole other talk on lessons for the future, is we need to be able to deploy, we the international community, but that means in part we the United States, a police force that is not like the New York City police force but more like that the Italian Carabinieri or the Gendarmerie; a force that is able to engage in riot control, stabilize the situation, and begin to secure political order as an initial step. That doesn't fully answer your question.

Q: Don't you think that designing an Iraqi government based on a national conference would have been a disaster, because it would have guaranteed the return of Saddam's infrastructure, very much like what happened in 1920 when the British designated the Ottoman administrators to take over Iraq and the entire Iraqi dilemma is based on that disaster?

Diamond: I think it could have been a disaster, and probably you and I both can imagine a number of respects in which it might have been a disaster. I can't say I know. It would be foolish of me to do so. But I don't think that would have been the scenario by which it would have become a disaster.

Q: [Same speaker] Maybe I should have asked the second question. I think one major problem we have today is based on our government's misunderstanding Saddam's underground resistance strategy.

Diamond: I think that if a UN mission working with the U.S. and others had gone in there, consulted around the country as they have, they could have helped bring together a representative national conference that would not in the least have been dominated by Saddam and by the Baathist Party. It might have had some Sunni tribal and other elements that would have still been sympathetic to Saddam, but I don't think they would have been in anything like a dominant position.

The irony is, if we had done that, the government that would have emerged out of that national conference would have had many of the people -- maybe not all -- who were in the Iraqi Governing Council and then some who were not. A lot of the faces would have been familiar, but they would have had more legitimacy and then there wouldn't have been an occupation, and they would have been in control. A lot of this anticolonial sentiment that welled up and a lot of the mistakes that were made by the American occupation might have been avoided.

Burkle Center for International Relations