Drinking the Kool-Aid

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Opinion piece (Prospect)
Mark Leonard
01 February 2006

Was the Iraq adventure doomed to fail or did the US administration mess it up? A new crop of books suggests that the nation-builders of Iraq were fighting the right war in theory but not in practice.

The Iraq war started as a war of ideas. It erupted from the most divisive clash of ideology since the end of the cold war. Every facet of the case for war became a site of conflict. And now that the war is over, the battle to interpret its legacy is every bit as fraught. After the polemics arguing for or against invasion, and the "fly on the wall" accounts of the run-up to war, a third generation of books asks a simple question: was Iraq doomed to fail or did George Bush mess it up?

As the casualties mount and the political parties in Baghdad squabble over forming a government after the December elections, the nay-sayers are becoming more vocal. Arabists maintain that an Iraq without a strong-man is not viable; foreign policy realists that spreading democracy cannot work; and isolationists that America should focus on the home front. The latest crop of books presents the counter-argument. By pinning the blame firmly on US incompetence and hubris, it suggests that the quest to rebuild Iraq failed not because of history but because it continued mainly in the realm of ideas, untarnished by reality.

Inside Baghdad's green zone there is a term for the collective process of self-delusion and groupthink that has led otherwise effective people to lurch from blunder to blunder, bringing Iraq from liberation to the brink of civil war. They call it "drinking the Kool-Aid." It is a reference to the 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, where the psychotic cult figure Jim Jones and 913 of his People's Temple followers drank a Kool-Aid fruit punch laced with cyanide.These books show just how much ideological "Kool-Aid" was consumed by those who sought to bring democracy to Iraq. And they show how over the last two and a half years, the nation-builders of Iraq have been quadruply isolated from reality.

George Packer (The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq) portrays the strategists who hoped to make Iraq a template for a future middle east-but hadn't stepped foot in the country for many years. David Phillips (Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco) describes how the Pentagon and office of the vice-president deliberately cut themselves off from the expertise of other US agencies and the UN. Larry Diamond (Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq) shows how life inside the green zone was sealed off from the rest of Iraq. And William Polk (Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation) suggests it was the failure to understand Iraq's history that drove today's nation-builders to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The most readable of the recent crop is George Packer's Assassins' Gate. Packer covers the same material as the other books-the war dreamed up in Washington, the strange world of diaspora politics, the lack of planning in the defence department, the occupation and the insurgency- but he does it from the perspective of a journalist rather than a participant. The result is a beautifully written, poignant and fair-minded narrative of two dreams deferred.

He starts with a vision of the neoconservative prophets of the war in Iraq: Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle toiling away at a plan to use Iraq as a beachhead to remake the middle east, free Israel from one of its most implacable enemies, and cement US primacy in the world. His second narrative centres on a lonely professor at Brandeis, Kanan Makiya, whose electrifying Republic of Fear had exposed Saddam's brutality to the world-and forced its author into temporary hiding.

Packer describes how the neocons and Iraqi exiles used the opportunity presented by 9/11 to make their agenda the president's-finding evidence of Saddam's WMD programme, assuring him that US troops would be welcomed, and creating a framework for understanding the post 9/11 world. For a while Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney are hailed as strategic geniuses, and Makiya flirts with a career in Iraqi politics alongside his old friend Ahmed Chalabi.

But Packer's book ends with their defeat. While realpolitikers such as Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice hang on to power, Feith is sacked and Wolfowitz exiled to the World Bank. Meanwhile a bruised Makiya abandons his political ambitions and decides to devote the rest of his life to the Iraq Memory Foundation, an attempt to document the crimes against humanity committed by Saddam Hussein. Speaking to Packer at the end of the book he says: "People fall flat on their face or shine not because of their great ideas but because of certain traits of character which suddenly acquire great importance in the actual practice of politics in these tumultuous times."

David Phillips argues that the dream didn't go wrong because the administration lacked a plan; it went wrong because the administration was blinded by ideology and ignored the planning that was already under way. According to Phillips's account, the battle for Iraq's future was lost not in Baghdad but in the distance between the state department diplomats in Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon's military planners in Arlington, Virginia.

His book, Losing Iraq, starts a year before the war. He describes the drawing up of the state department's famous report on the postwar reconstruction-the "Future of Iraq Project"-with the help of more than 240 Iraqis who produced 2,000 pages of recommendations in 13 dense volumes. They came up with detailed plans for health, education, sanitation, the economy, infrastructure, security, the rule of law and transitional justice.

Phillips, who worked on the project, provides a memorable description of the workings of these groups. Whether in secret meetings in the Surrey countryside or public gatherings in London hotels, the exiles showed all the fractiousness of Trotskyist sects. Each exile came to be seen as a proxy for a different branch of government: Kanan Makiya (who briefed Dick Cheney), Ayad Allawi (the CIA-funded hard man), Adnan Pachachi (a secular Sunni, and former Iraqi foreign minister) was much beloved of the state department; Ahmed Chalabi (the mercurial leader of the Iraqi National Congress with a De Gaulle complex) was in with the Pentagon.

In Phillips's book, the futility and ferocity of the Iraqi factionalism was rivalled only by the infighting of the Bush administration. In January of 2003, just two months before the bombs flew, the president took the planning of postwar Iraq away from the state department and established the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) in the Pentagon, under the leadership of Jay Garner, a retired three star general. Garner tried to employ the foreign service officer who ran the "Future of Iraq Project"-only to run into a veto from his boss Rumsfeld. Even when it became clear that the defence department lacked the language skills and local knowledge to get the job done, it refused to turn to the state department: in July 2003 only 34 of the 1,147 Americans employed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) were foreign service officers. According to one Pentagon official quoted by Phillips, "Arabists were not welcome because they did not think Iraq could be democratic."

As a result, the ORHA had to start from scratch. It set about devising detailed plans to avoid oilfield fires, a massive humanitarian crisis, widespread revenge attacks against former Saddam officials, and even possible invasions by Iraq's neighbours. None of these events came to pass. The one scenario that the ORHA was not allowed to prepare for was a long-term occupation. Garner had been told to plan to get US troops out by the summer-in the hope that they would be able to hand over the government to Chalabi within a few months. That's why the Pentagon flew Chalabi along with 700 "free Iraqi forces" into Iraq in April 2003. The idea was to organise a series of meetings in liberated zones, culminating in a big Baghdad conference at which Chalabi would be anointed as the leader of Free Iraq.

In the event, the only one who left Iraq by the summer was Jay Garner-when he was unceremoniously fired. While the Pentagon focused on Chalabi's succession, it ignored proposals from the state department to protect sites against looting. Soon mobs ransacked hospitals and the National Museum, dismantled the electricity grid, and stripped all public buildings of pipes, wire, computers and furniture. Within days there was virtually no government to handover. The growing domestic and international opposition to the US and Chalabi made a rapid transition impossible.

Phillips argues that all the problems afflicting Iraq today were not only predictable, but actually predicted. Many of them could have been solved if only the prewar plans had been heeded: the army would not have been disbanded, creating 450,000 armed enemies of the occupation; de-Ba'athification would have targeted individuals rather than ascribing guilt by association to all party members above a certain rank; the UN would have been given a bigger role in designing the post-conflict institutions; the interim Iraqi governing council set up after the occupation would have been given real legitimacy.

Phillips stopped working for the administration in September 2003 and his coverage of Iraq after that time tails off into secondhand anecdotes gleaned from newspaper clippings and interviews with returning officials. He describes how the hapless Garner was sacked to be replaced by Paul "Jerry" Bremer. Bremer's arrival as an "American viceroy" in the tradition of MacArthur in Japan marked the end of the liberation and the beginning of formal occupation. He immediately ruled out elections in Iraq and instead created a complex seven-point plan for transition.

The ten-foot, blast-proof, reinforced concrete "T-Walls" that surround Saddam's former imperial palace are designed to keep the insurgents out. They also shut out reality. Larry Diamond gives the most vivid account of life behind the TWalls- combining a gripping first-person narrative with the intellectual detachment of a professor. His book, Squandered Victory, describes how he abandoned the comfort of the academy for a six-month stint in Iraq advising the CPA on democracy-building. The call to serve came from his former Stanford colleague Condoleezza Rice who decided to tap his expertise on democracy-promotion in spite of his opposition to the war. Diamond's story starts where Phillips's trails off: with the excitement and optimism that followed Saddam's capture on 14th December 2003. Even after the chaos of Jay Garner's early months, and Bremer's disbanding of the army and de-Ba'athification programmes, Diamond thought the situation could be saved. He travels out to Baghdad pumped up with hope and idealism, and his book documents the country's descent into disorder, and his own gradual loss of innocence about its democratic potential.

According to Diamond, "the late nights and youthful age profile of the staff created an atmosphere that sometimes resembled a college dormitory." In this chaotic outpost there is such a shortage of translators, armoured cars and protective equipment that the residents have virtually no contact with the country they are running. Meanwhile, there is the quest for the perfect constitution in a country on the verge of civil war. Diamond describes how the lead drafterstwo 41-year-old Iraqi American lawyers Faisal Istrabadi and Salem Chalabi-toil over drafts while arguing about the role of the judiciary, the Lebanon model of ethnic politics, and the constitutional place of religion.

In parallel with the writing of the constitution, the CPA designed an elaborate campaign to sell it to the Iraqi people. They appointed Bell Pottinger-a public relations agency headed by Margaret Thatcher's former PR man-to run the campaign. The plan was to drop a million leaflets and 40,000 posters a week on the Iraqi public, with messages focused on self-government, citizens' rights, the rule of law, judicial independence, minority rights, federalism and civilian control of the military. These would then be backed up by radio and television spots, and public meetings led by 500 specially trained Iraqis. However the distance between London adland and the Iraqi street was too great: "Well before we could distribute our beautifully produced leaflets explaining the key principles of the transitional administrative law (TAL), and weeks before the radio and television ads were set to roll out, a detailed critique of it-crudely produced, but devastatingly effective-began shaping the terms of public debate." The critique argued that the TAL would lead to the breakup of Iraq, that it gave substantial powers to an unelected government and that it restricted the role of Islam.

Diamond thinks that the coalition lost the argument by failing to live up to its ideals: "The US was repeatedly finding itself on... the less democratic side of an argument with Iraqis... Sistani had called for an elected constitution-making body. Bremer said an appointed body would do. Iraqis wanted to conduct direct elections for local governments. Bremer and top governance officials vetoed them. The CPA proposed an opaque, convoluted process for choosing a transitional government, and Sistani, along with many Iraqis, again demanded direct elections." Bremer, like his political masters in Washington, was convinced that "premature" elections would lead to the victory of anti-American forces.

Diamond was desperate to engage with the proverbial "ordinary Iraqis," but was terrified because of the security situation: "Outside the green zone, I felt naked and exposed, with no protection; when I came back in March from a break back home, it was with a $ 1,200 custom-made bullet-proof vest that I had ordered over the internet." In the early months of his work at the beginning of 2004, he left the green zone to teach about democracy in schools and colleges. But after 9th March 2004 everything changed. The murders of the first American civilians-Fern Holland and Robert Zangas-turned the green zone from a fortress into a prison.

The severe shortage of armoured vehicles meant that even core projects had to be cancelled for security reasons. When the "second war" broke out- against the Shia forces of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sunni population around Falluja in April 2004 -the political transition was thrown into crisis and virtually all economic reconstruction work was frozen. Bremer's CPA was not prepared for this and could find neither the troops nor the armoured personnel to allow them to function. Diamond quotes an official as saying "We did what suited us, on a timetable that suited us, and predicated on the assumption that the Iraqis would be passive. Not only passive, but gratefully, happily passive." But as the average tourlength for a green zone employee was fewer than 90 days, Iraqis could just sit out decisions they did not like-knowing another American would be in post soon.

One of the criticisms often made of the Bush administration is that it is so keen to change the world that it does not want to understand other countries-lest the act of analysis itself should lend the status-quo legitimacy. Daniel Ellsberg, the defence analyst who leaked the Pentagon papers on US decision-making in Vietnam, once said that no official in the US administration at the time of the war's escalation "could have passed a mid-term paper in Vietnamese History." Iraq revealed the same pattern of privileging ideology over local knowledge in the Pentagon, as well as an effort to sideline the true regional experts in the state department.

And yet the parallels between Iraq's history as a British colony and as a US protectorate, as William Polk illustrates in Understanding Iraq, are striking. He shows how the British sought to veil their colonial administration by getting a mandate from the League of Nations, in much the same way that the Bush administration has sought legitimacy from the UN. With 133,000 troops in the country facing rising civil unrest, the British tried to use politics to calm the security situation. A new civil commissioner set up a provisional council of state made up of hand-picked Iraqis. This council, like the governing council 83 years later, was a puppet run by British officials who posed as advisers. Polk describes how the British government then negotiated a constitution with their appointees which provided a facade of democracy for the next 12 years and "debased" the concept of representative government. He also draws parallels between the British move to install the Hashemite King Faisal as head of state and the Pentagon's attempt to secure Ahmed Chalabi's control of Iraq. In the end this refusal to let go of the reins of power led inexorably to revolution, and Saddam's brutal reign.

Unfortunately Polk's book fails to deliver on its promise. It offers a "Let's Go"-style guide to Iraqi history that is sometimes dazzling in its banality. Genghis Khan merits a paragraph or two, the development of Islam is dealt with in two pages. With crass historical determinism Polk argues that the division of the Mesopotamian plain in 2800 BC into mutually hostile warring city-states governed by "great men" set a pattern for Iraqi governance that lasted millennia. He traces the heritage of Saddam's use of propaganda to the Assyrians in 900 BC. The relative freedom of Iraqi women is presented as a direct result of decisions taken by the Abbasid caliphs 1,000 years ago. He presents a cogent, if unoriginal, list of US failings: Abu Ghraib, the enforced privatisation of Iraqi assets, the ban on contracts going to countries that did not support the war, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the protracted affair with Chalabi. But, when Polk sets out his own agenda, he never goes beyond a bumper-sticker philosophy of democracy-building: bottom-up not top-down; civil society, not just business and the army. At heart this is an extended "do not disturb" sign erected by a grumpy old Arabist who resents the intrusion of foreign policy generalists.

The shadow cast by George Bush's desert adventure may not be as long as those of Suez or Vietnam, but it will define the future of US foreign policy and intervention for many years to come. Was America waging the right war on a false prospectus without international support? Was it failing to learn the lessons of Iraqi history in believing that occupation could be a tool for liberation? These books show that the answer to both questions is yes.

However the biggest danger is that the response to failure in Iraq will be a determination to avoid foreign entanglements altogether. The tragedy, as Larry Diamond explains, is that Iraq is a terrible test case for the new world order. On every dimension the odds are stacked against democracy taking root. Its level of economic development is much lower than the countries in Latin America, central Europe or east Asia that have recently embraced democracy. Its population has been brutalised by 24 years of murder and terror under Saddam-not to mention the bloody wars with Iran and the US. The middle class was destroyed by a decade of sanctions. The population is young and uneducated (40 per cent under 15; 40 per cent illiterate). The society is bitterly divided along ethnic and religious lines. The presence of oil will provide elites with sources of revenue that insulate them from popular pressure. And Iraq's neighbourhood is explosive and autocratic. The fact that central Europe was embraced by the EU, and east Asia could look to a democratic Japan helped political change to take root. These books explain why the coalition has failed to build democracy in Iraq so far. Unfortunately history does not encumber itself with details when its ascribes success or failure. I fear that the failed experiment of this generation of American democracy-builders will leave behind successors drunk on a different kind of Kool-Aid. Theirs could be laced not with hubris, but the even deadlier poison of isolationism.

Mark Leonard was director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform (2005-2007)