The British governed Iraq under a League of Nations mandate, and with some success, between 1920 and 1932. They returned to southern Iraq in 2003 as a junior member of the US-led coalition which invaded and conquered the country. With the second British coming arrived Rory Stewart, a young soldier and diplomat. The book under review is his story of the part he played in governing, successively, two southern provinces in Iraq, Maysan and Dhi Qar, between September 2003 and June 2004. He tells how the attempt to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq led to the frustration of the conquerors, the dissolution of the state, and the country’s collapse into insurgency and sectarian violence. Implicitly his book is a devastating indictment of a total failure to align rhetoric with reality. It raises profound questions about the purposes and limits of military intervention in the internal affairs of a country in today’s world. The reader cannot put the book down without wondering: What on earth did they think they were doing?
The issue raised by Stewart’s book is not about the motives for making war on Iraq, dubious though these were. It is about the validity of the project of “regime change”; or, as Prime Minister Tony Blair prefers to call it, “value change.” In essence the US had two choices: either to try to run Iraq as a colony or to install a successor regime as quickly as possible, and let it get on with governing according to well-tried Iraqi precedents. The first option was never seriously pursued. Colonialism is not part of the American tradition and was deemed, rightly, contrary to the morality and realities of a post-colonial age.
The second option, a policy of conquer and then stand aside, might have worked, and might have stirred up the stagnant waters of Iraqi politics sufficiently for new forces to emerge. But this did not satisfy the moralists, who needed a grander project to justify an act of war which was both unnecessary and illegal. America had to leave its democratic spore in Iraq—“a full liberal democracy: peaceful, rich, stable, and humane,” as Stewart puts it. And because the attempt to create democracy in a rush involved the destruction of all the systems by which Iraq had been governed in the past—including Saddam Hussein’s, but not confined to it—the country was thereby rendered ungovernable, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
This larger history of the effort to “build democracy,” glimpsed through Stewart’s monthly visits to the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, is juxtaposed with his efforts to govern parts of Iraq. The total disconnection between these two sets of activities forms the leitmotif of his book.
In Baghdad, the American viceroy, Paul Bremer, had prepared a seven-point plan for Iraq, “seven steps to heaven,” Stewart calls it, replete with PowerPoint presentations with multi-colored charts, targets, and indicators; a kind of Gosplan for the implementation of democracy. He had imported Bernie Kerik, the ex–New York police commissioner, to bring zero tolerance to Baghdad, together with the American diet of “burgers and ice cream… hickory-smoked streaky bacon, pancakes and maple syrup, peanut butter, and half-and-half.” Stewart comments:
It appeared from all of this that we were being told that within the next seven months we should, among many other things, elect a transitional assembly, privatize state-owned enterprises, install electronic trading on the Baghdad stock exchange, reform the university curriculum, generate six thousand megawatts of electrical power, vet all the judges, and have thirty-two thousand Iraqi soldiers selected and trained in the new civil defense corps and ensure that 90 percent of Iraqis received terrestrial television broadcasts.
The Americans around Bremer knew some history, mainly about the successful creation of democracies in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, and assumed that they had a universal formula for success. Unfortunately, Bremer and his associates knew little Iraqi history, and discounted what they did know. They should have known that Iraq, unlike Germany and Japan, but somewhat like Yugoslavia, was a completely artificial state, created by the British from three provinces of the old Ottoman Empire, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra; it was divided along religious and ethnic lines, and had little internal cohesion. Most of the people were organized not in civil society or classes but in highly personalized relationships based on families, clans, tribes, and conspiracies. Iraqi principles of rule were based on this fact. The minority Sunni Arab elites ruled through a mixture of coercion and patronage. The army assumed a pivotal function as the chief agent of ethnic and religious integration; the non-Sunni elites were co-opted through distributions of land and (later) of oil revenues.
Between 1921 and 1958, the Hashemite monarchy commanded a certain dynastic allegiance from the traditional tribal chiefs, and repression was relatively muted (though uprisings of Kurds and Shias were brutally suppressed). Under Nuri al-Said, Iraq’s “strong man” and greatest statesman between the 1930s and the 1950s, a façade of democracy was allowed. However, this fairly easy-going, albeit corrupt, regime was undermined by the decline of the merchants, rural landowners, and other traditional groups that supported it, and the rise of new forces of military nationalism and urban radicalism which could not be accommodated within the old system. Following the coup of 1958, Iraq came to be governed by a succession of increasingly brutal military dictatorships connected with the Baath Party, culminating in the twenty-five-year despotism of Saddam Hussein. In view of this background, the project of creating a Western-style democracy in double-quick time was a complete fantasy.
The reality facing Rory Stewart was that he was sent into a collapsed rural region in a country of which he knew almost nothing, and in which he had to find his way through a maze of opaque tribal and religious relationships. His relative success in making things work in his brief time in Iraq can be attributed to his own personal charm and sensitivity, combined with firmness and a close attention to social etiquette. Wherever possible, he preferred to work through kinship networks which had partly survived in the south, creating personal relations with the leading local people.
He was very good at this. His “one clear [early] innovation” in Maysan was to decree hospitality for visitors:
No Iraqi official would receive a guest without offering him a drink. The ritual greetings and hospitality were a social necessity that seemed almost an obligation. A cup of coffee delivered in the right way could win more friends than a new high school, and no amount of money could wipe clean an insult.
In Dhi Qar, he used the “tribal route” to secure the release of a kidnapped British businessman, Michael Teely, who was handed back to him as a “present” from the uncle of the kidnapper. But his story is also one of the waning of his belief that he could effect any real change. The narratives of Iraqi history would continue to evolve, he felt, according to their own internal logic.
Stewart’s flat and unemotional prose reveals almost nothing about the author. He has something of the “stiff upper lip” of the British ruling class, which British boarding schools—he went to Eton—are so good at inculcating. There is little explicit argument, and judgments are rare. His own ruminations on the art of rule have to be inferred through the quotations from Machiavelli that head most of the chapters. However, Stewart, an acute observer of human beings as well as of place, has a strong sense of history and is, evidently, an assiduous diarist. He makes more of conversation than description and this is well suited to conveying the labyrinthine, endlessly subtle, and apparently contradictory relationship between words and deeds, between what is said and what is understood, between loyalty and betrayal that formed the substance of his relationships with Iraqi magnates.
Stewart’s previous book, The Places in Between, which describes his journey on foot through the roughest parts of Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban, caused him to be hailed as a writer in the tradition of Wilfred Thesiger and Colin Thubron. But he is rather in the tradition of the best kind of imperial civil servant, with a strong dose of realism, and an enormous curiosity about, and sympathy with, non-Western cultures. These qualities combine to make The Prince of the Marshes one of the most valuable books to have come out of the Iraqi quagmire.
Rory Stewart took up the position of “deputy governorate coordinator” in the Maysan province of Iraq on September 28, 2003, replacing a deposed relative of Saddam Hussein. For five weeks, pending the arrival of Molly Phee, a US State Department official, he exercised full civilian powers as the representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The awkward title of his post1 reflects the uncertainty which dogged the Coalition’s mission from the start. What was he (or the “Coalition”) doing in Iraq? Not quite “governing” it, but coordinating its governance. The euphemism “did nothing,” he writes, to
tell us how much corruption and violence and incompetence we should tolerate before intervening…. In what circumstances were our governments prepared to kill Iraqis and in which circumstances were they prepared to have their own soldiers killed?
Maysan, with a population of 800,000, on both sides of the river Tigris, and opposite the Iranian state of Khorramshahr—which is largely Arab—had been in the front line of the Iraq–Iran war of the 1980s. It was an agricultural province, ruined by war and Saddam Hussein’s brutal suppression of its Shia population after 1991. It had liberated itself before the Coalition arrived. Most of Saddam’s local representatives had fled or disappeared from Amara, the capital. The British had cobbled together a supervisory committee, including an interim “governor” and police chief; but in practice what there was of “law and order” was provided by armed militias who had looted the armories of Saddam’s disbanded garrisons.
Trying to control these militias were a thousand British troops in a province the size of northern Ireland; there was a two-hundred-mile frontier virtually open to supplies for terrorists and to smuggling to and from Iran. In his five months in Maysan, Stewart commuted fifteen miles daily in an armored car between the British army base and the government building in Amara where the CPA had established a political and administrative unit. Its job was to create a system of government based on democracy and to help Iraqi civil servants restore local services wrecked by war and looting. The earliest advice Stewart received was from a British warrant officer on what to do if taken hostage: “It is likely that they will male-rape you. Remember that in seventy-five percent of cases where you are male raped, you will get an erection or ejaculate. Do not worry about that. It does not mean you are gay.”
The English edition, published by Picador, is entitled Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq.↩
The English edition, published by Picador, is entitled Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq.↩