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 …
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