Here's the assessment:
Over a decade after presiding over the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the country may not have been ready for a democracy.
In an interview with British newspaper the Times, the former Secretary of State reflected on America's role in shaping the Middle East, and suggested expecting Iraq to seamlessly transition to a democracy was "unrealistic."
The actual source is firewalled so I can't get a direct quote. But the "seamless" part seems key. It isn't that democracy is beyond Iraq's reach, but that the Iraqis needed more help than they've gotten over the past 5 years.
Who expected a seamless transition when Saddam crippled Iraqi society? I long expected us to stay in Iraq a long time to provide a safety net to make sure disagreements remained a political battle with the guns and explosives set aside as a means of settling disputes.
I said this before the war:
Democracy in Iraq—or anywhere else for that matter—is a long-term project. We can start with imposing rule of law, with training-wheel democracy under our guidance.
I expressed this objective in 2005:
Even as the Iraqi army transitions to a conventional force able to fight off invaders and we draw down our conventional forces, we will need to stay in Iraq to nurture rule of law and democracy.
And in 2008:
Unfortunately, rule of law is tougher to engineer than a free election. This is our mission for the next decade in Iraq. We can't just walk away after winning on the battlefield and expect Iraq to advance toward rule of law and what we see as democracy. Iraq might do so. But I wouldn't count on it. We will need to help build Iraq's judiciary, legislature, and executive departments, as well as Iraqi civic society. These are not military objectives and will require our non-military and non-governmental bodies to pitch in.
Will we struggle for this next mission in our haste to get out of Iraq? I hope so.
And in 2009:
Corruption means that the Iraqi government's ability to finally crush the reduced armed threats is crippled. And the government may not have the capacity to prevent a conflict over the Arab-Kurd divide. And of course, the people will lose any incentive to be anything but corrupt themselves in their private dealings if the government structure just becomes a way for the connected to steal from the unconnected.
We need a surge of FBI, police, and judiciary advisors in Iraq to help the Iraqis catch and prosecute the corrupt politicians and government employees before [they] erode Iraq from within.
And in 2010:
As I've written since even before the Syrian- and Iranian-stoked violence that required the surge, we need to stay in Iraq to cement rule of law and provide a visible guarantee to all Iraqi groups that they don't need to worry about another group going outside the law to seize power.
And again in 2011:
Well, I effed up. I trusted him. I thought President Obama would do what it took to cement Iraq as possibly his greatest foreign policy triumph (as Vice President Biden said). But after getting bin Laden and Khaddafi, I guess Iraq isn't so important. We'll leave too few troops in Iraq to defend Iraq, bolster Iraqi rule of law, or even defend themselves[.]
And in 2012, only a month after we left Iraq, I noted reports that Iraqi democracy was eroding already:
This is why so many people--including me--wanted our troops to stay in Iraq. It is too soon for the Iraqis to run a democracy without a safety net. Too many Iraqis fear the old rules can come back and could be too nervous about that prospect to play by the new rules of democracy and rule of law. Our troops provided an assurance to all Iraqi factions that nobody would be allowed to break the rules (how far you could bend them was the main tactic) to win.
The bottom line is that democracy in Iraq was always a tough problem that required our help and our long-term presence to solve.
We gave Iraq a democratic republic, if we would help them keep it.
So I have no idea what Rumsfeld is even talking about with his confession that a "seamless" transition was too much to ask for.
UPDATE: Eric at Learning Curve sent me Rumsfeld's transcript detail:
“I guess I’m kind of in the minority. I’m not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment of their history, nor has it been appropriate for us at every moment of our history. We have evolved, we’re still evolving, and we’ll be different in 50 years. A hundred years ago, women didn’t vote. A hundred fifty years ago, we had slaves and so forth. So, the idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq, it seemed to me, is unrealistic to a certain extent, and the President and the administration would have been better off not allowing the mission to creep that direction. I was concerned about it when I first heard the beginnings of those words. I’m for democracy, whatever that means, but it means different things at different times and different places. And I have a healthy respect for what we’re not capable of doing, and that’s nation-building, and I think that a different country with different neighbors and a different culture… culture is so important… ought to be different, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s probably a good thing for the world if people are different and have different approaches. You say what might you have done differently? I personally think that Allawi would have been a whale of a lot different than Maliki. Well, why? Because he was a Shia, but he was Ba’athist. He was tough. They tried to kill him; Saddam tried to kill him. I think he had a clearer understanding that for that country to hold together, you have got to be respectful of the Kurds and the Shia and the Sunnis, all, and not think that you can run off with the football. So, always, you would do things differently, and I was unhappy when I saw things migrating over to that direction.”
That's more line with what I was getting at. Democracy has to be developed and we can't expect too much at first. Voting is not the same as democracy. It is necessary for democracy but without rule of law, too, it is just the tyranny of the majority. Or the majority of the moment regardless of sentiment later on, sometimes.