The Prince of the Marshes:
And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq
(Harcourt, 416 pages, $25)
Few subjects have yielded so much unedifying literature in recent years as the Iraq war. Not the least trivial defect of books on Iraq is that instead of letting the facts speak for themselves, they enlist them in the service of predetermined conclusions.
The forensic breakdown goes roughly as follows. For the critics, the missteps and failures of the war can be pinned squarely on the incompetence of the Bush administration (think of Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco) and its Manichean vision (Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine). Backers of the war effort, conversely, focus on the larger ideological imperatives behind the war (Ralph Peters’ Beyond Baghdad and Never Quit the Fight come to mind) while giving short shrift to the daily turmoil that has seized the county and, it is not implausible to suppose, fatally compromised the mission.
What unites these rival accounts is the absence of one critical element: the Iraqis themselves. Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes is a welcome exception to that rule. Among the more clear-eyed accounts of the reality on the ground to emerge thus far, Stewart’s book recounts his time as a civilian administrator of two southern Iraqi provinces, Maysan and Dhi Qar, and performs the valuable task of reminding us that, whatever the errors of the coalition and the strategists in the Bush administration, the fate of Iraq has always rested with the Iraqis — and the Iraqis — terribile dictu — have been unequal to the challenge.
Stewart is well placed to tell this story. Though barely thirty, Stewart, the son of British civil servant and a Scottish national, is already something of an old diplomatic hand. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Malaysia, he has a resume padded with experience in post-reconstruction projects in trouble spots like Kosovo and Afghanistan; a more than theoretical familiarity with the Islamic world; and a compellingly arid cynicism to match. Initially appointed the deputy governorate coordinator of the majority Shiite Maysan province in southeastern Iraq, Stewart is frank about the immensity of his task: “I spoke little Arabic, and had never managed a shattered, unstable, and undeveloped province of eight hundred and fifty thousand.” His mission is accordingly modest: To maintain sufficient security so that when a colleague returns in a year’s time, he can serve him “some decent ice-cream.” It proves a tall order.
Those seeking partisan score settling will find Stewart’s book a disappointment. Stewart’s political views are mercifully unspecified, though he scorns the range of “amateur pundits” and “democracy experts” who confidently volunteer solutions for Iraq while remaining invincibly ignorant of the day-to-day difficulties of governance. And while he is critical of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) — with its top-down approach, its disconnect from local Iraqi politics, and its wildly ambitious timetable for holding elections — and especially of CPA head Paul Bremer, whom he portrays as a short-fused bureaucrat with naively unrealistic expectations of a secular Iraqi democracy, Stewart saves some of his sharpest reproach for himself.
BETWEEN THE LINES OF STEWART’S book, though, lurks a more likely culprit. Amid the countless misbegotten administrative decisions, the bungling civilian leaders, and the occasional sins of the coalition forces, there are the Iraqis themselves. And their problems go far beyond the schism between Sunnis and Shiites.
Stewart’s Maysan province is instructive. There are three major factions, all of them in favor of Saddam Hussein’s ouster, Shiite in religious affiliation, ruthless in political practice and animated, seemingly, by a single aim: to destroy one another and secure power. Consensus eludes even the Islamist hardliners who, despite their shared fundamentalist social mores and pro-Iranian sympathies, fissure into “the virtue party” and “the virtuous party.” Forced to choose between the warring sides, Stewart settles reluctantly on the tribe led by the dubious “prince” of the book’s title.
The Founding Fathers they are not. Take the prince. By reputation — not unjustified — he is a looter, a smuggler and generally a violent thug. But, in a region populated by what Stewart calls “men of uncertain provenance” and even more suspect motives, he is the closest thing to an enlightened democrat. It gets no easier for Stewart. Choosing a police chief from the prince’s tribe, Stewart laments that he is “nepotistic, biased, violent, and semi-criminal.” He’s also the best candidate: “I didn’t have any ideas on who else should do the job.”
By the end of Stewart’s jurisdiction, the province has fallen to the mercies of more than 50 feuding political parties, scores of corrupt politicians and upstart clerics, and an Islamist “anarcho-militia” bent on imposing its vision of a theocratic state through a combination of religious injunctions and rocket propelled grenades, as an impotent governing council looks on. Those few Iraqis who still have any confidence in the coalition appeal for a police state on the model of Saddam’s. “This was not,” Stewart observes with typical understatement, “what the CPA intended for Maysan.”
COULD THING HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT? Stewart’s mostly impressionistic narrative supplies no straightforward answer to that question, but the reader may reasonably conclude that he is of two minds. On the one hand, Stewart looks approvingly to the British colonial experience in Iraq. “British officers were Arabists with decades of experience in colonial administration and a long-term commitment to the region,” he writes. “They had strong institutions and they had the freedom to be as Machiavellian as they liked.” These Machiavellian virtues — resolution, authoritarianism tempered with pragmatism, a keen awareness of the dangers of seeming weak in the eyes of the vanquished — clearly impress Stewart, who prefaces nearly every chapter with a quote from the author of The Prince.
At the end of the day, though, these are no match for traditional Iraqi culture. Just about the only Iraqis Stewart encounters with an understanding of civil society, individual freedoms, and gender equality are Western exiles. Meanwhile the only genuinely secular, modern party in southern Iraq seems to be the Communists. As for the majority, it’s divided between the rural tribes leery of the political process, and a coalition of Islamic parties who hope to exploit it for the end of a religious state. “Better plans, better people, more troops might have given us a small advantage in 2003, but direct foreign rule, I guessed, was never going to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy,” Stewart writes.
It should be noted that Stewart has few dealings with Sunnis and Kurds, and he nowhere suggests that his experiences in the British-controlled sphere are endemic to Iraq. Nonetheless, considered alongside the ancient rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites, which everyday threatens to erupt into a civil war, the fact that even Shiite parties with roughly analogous beliefs cannot govern harmoniously raises serious doubts about the country’s long-term prospects for democratic rule. Iraqis clearly welcomed their deliverance from tyranny. Alas, as Stewart’s important book subtly demonstrates, democracy demands much more.