Stanford University professor Larry Diamond was against the United States' 2003 invasion of Iraq from the beginning. He had argued that Saddam Hussein's attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction were nowhere near the threat to the United States that anti-Americanism abroad presented.
As he writes in his recently published Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, he favored building an international coalition with the help of the United Nations to bring diplomatic pressure on Hussein's regime.
But in his presentation last week to an audience at the Gershman Y in Center City, Diamond - as he does in each of the dozens of speaking engagements tied to the release of his book - chose not to dwell on the past. Instead, he had a message for the future, one based on his own experiences as an adviser with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
According to the scholar, who besides teaching at Stanford studies democracy at the Hoover Institution, he told those gathered as part of the 12th annual JCC Jewish Book Festival that despite the skyrocketing casualties and near-constant violence in Iraq - conditions he attributes to an ineptitude on the part of the Bush administration in failing to adequately plan for a postwar Iraq - democracy, or something like it, remains in reach.
"We must keep Iraq from becoming what Afghanistan was before Sept. 11; and it's on the way to becoming that," Diamond said from his California office. "But there's quite a reasonable chance that if we stay engaged and don't withdraw prematurely - but according to a more deliberate timetable - and develop a real political strategy, then we might get a situation where the country is to some extent stabilized."
Despite his views on the invasion, Diamond was asked in January 2004 by then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to help reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
It's a job Diamond said he took reluctantly, but hopefully, given his wish to see democracy come to the Arab nation.
In just three months, he became disillusioned and resigned his appointment.
(Diamond said that Rice and he had spoken briefly after his departure, but not since the release of Squandered Victory.)
Chief among Diamond's recommendations for democracy-building in Iraq is the inclusion of the country's minority Sunni community in the formation of governing institutions.
"Much depends on the ability to dialogue with members of the insurgency, to split them off from Al Qaeda, and give them an incentive in the process," he said.
It's a step Diamond contended was late in coming; indeed, in his book, he argues that while U.S. planners have adapted to realities on the ground, real change is "too little, too late."
Nevertheless, he sees the scheduled Dec. 15 parliamentary elections there as something that offers optimism.
And yet, even if the Sunni question is dealt with, Diamond pointed out that the majority Shi'ite population itself poses difficulties for any type of stability gaining hold in Iraq.
"You have Shi'ite militias deeply entrenching themselves in power and forming Islamist mini-states [in the provinces]," explained Diamond. "That's a process that's going to be extremely difficult to reverse in the short term."
A Stress on the Short Term
Unfortunately, acknowledged the author, the short term is what appears to be on the minds of policy-makers in Washington. With the president's poll numbers at an all-time low, even Republicans - who not too long ago were talking about a new era of peace in the Middle East - are pushing for the White House to agree to an as yet undetermined timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
"A recent article in Foreign Affairs comparing trends today to public support for the Vietnam war suggests that we're on a downward trend that's predictable and irreversible," said Diamond. "We need to become more realistic about what's possible."