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Bookreview: Prince of Marshes

Prince of Marshes:
And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

book by Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart is a multilingual (among others: Farsi, Arabic) young Scottish diplomat, and adventurer. He quit his job in the foreign service (postings in Jakarta, Iran and elsewhere) in his mid-twenties, to walk across Afghanistan (he wrote a book about that too, Places in Between). When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is formed after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he decides to offer his services to the American/British command in Baghdad. He gets posted as deputy governor of the remote south-eastern province of Maysan, on the border of Iran.

And so the young 30-year-old Etonian (I assumed he was Etonian throughout the book, good to have that confirmed on the ol’ Wikipedia) does his very best to bring his modern take on a kinder, gentler, democratic colonial rule. He achieves some success, building schools, refurbishing hospitals, setting up elections, diffusing violence, causing violence, doling out cash, keeping security, losing security, making jobs and promises, and delivering on some. And navigating his way through the maze of ethnic, religious, political and military players in the Iraqi province: the Iranian-backed factions and their militias, the ex-Baathists, the sundry tribes and sheiks and their militias, the Islamists (moderate and radical) and their militias, the Sadrists and their militias, and even an old Communist named Abu Ivan.

The prose is elegant, the anecdotes snappy, moving, funny and sad; and the arc of the narrative ultimately tragic. Stewart does well to avoid any particular slant on things, presents the facts as he sees them, and leaves the reader to make judgments (mostly, anyway; he leaves little doubt what he thinks of the Italian military).

And yet, in some ways, the smart, young, adventurous Rory Stewart is a good poster-child for the better-meaning ideals behind the invasion. What emerges is a study in modern arrogance: not the aggressive arrogance of the cowboy invaders, but possibly the more dangerous implicit arrogance of those-who-know-best-with-everyone’s-best-interest-at-heart. The arrogance of certainty that comes with the moral status of liberal demorcat. The updated colonialists aren’t much on firing squads, secret police informants, or torture (or at least, they don’t want to be); they much prefer democratic councils, defense of the rights of minorities and women; local poetry magazines; irrigation projects, and job fair. Which is the better colonialist isn’t clear. What’s clear is that in Iraq, neither was all that successful.

Thirty-year-old Rory Stewart, despite his Etonian/Oxford education, his talent for languages, and his tireless work in the service of the high ideals of democracy, openness government, human rights, could not get these Iraqis to do what he wanted them to do: to form a stable, inclusive government to rule their province. The forces pulling them – their history, religion, geography, foreign influence, philosophy – were too great.

Stewart does well to describe the flaws of the occupation and the CPA – frustrations with central decisions by Bremmer and staff in Baghdad, problems with too much money or too little, inexperienced policy-makers, arrogant decision-makers, and all the rest.

But you can’t help get the sense that the CPA, even with a flawlessly-implemented occupation, was bound to have problems, probably insurmountable. The overwhelming sense is that, as much as the Iraqi’s didn’t like Saddam, there were few in the country who wanted to buy what the CPA was selling, even from such charming salesmen as Rory Stewart.

My rating: 4.0 stars