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Book Review: The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart

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Governments and businesses tend to fear insider accounts. That's because being on the inside means access to even the most damaging information. Yet what can be even more revealing is an insider account by someone who isn't really an insider.

That may not have been what Rory Stewart set out to accomplish with The Prince of the Marshes, the U.S. edition of his book about his time with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. Yet it can plainly be viewed as such. Stewart's book not only reveals the problems created and faced by the CPA, it speaks volumes about the prospects of building a democracy in Iraq and the chances of its survival.

Following a stint in the infantry and study at Oxford, Stewart, a Scot, joined the British Foreign Office. He served in the British Embassy in Indonesia and then in Montenegro following the Kosovo conflict. Stewart, though, is probably best known in the U.S. for his book The Places In Between, which details his walk across Afghanistan in January 2002, not long after the Taliban had been overthrown. Given those experiences, Stewart volunteered to assist in Iraq. He served as a deputy governor in the provinces of Maysan and Dhi Qar in southern Iraq from September 2003 until the transfer of sovereignty from the CPA to the Iraqis at the end of June 2004.

Stewart wasn't someone who sat inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. Although he takes us inside that area occasionally, most of his time was spent on the ground in the provinces, working daily with the Iraqis and dealing with both the mundane (roads, buildings, meetings) and not so mundane (hostage-taking, a siege of the CPA compound in Dhi Qar and elections). Stewart, who speaks some Farsi, is highly respectful of and toward the Iraqis and their culture. At the same time, he sees much of the problem in any democratization efforts stemming from the nation's history.

Iraq was a nation held together by its central government. When Saddam was overthrown and the Baathists thrown out, there was a void the Iraqis had neither the resources nor the background to fill. While various tribal, ethnic and religious forces sought to assert authority, they brought with them a history of rivalries. Yet Stewart and the rest of the CPA quickly learned that even those rivalries and various alliances and coalitions would shift as circumstances changed – or even for no good reason as far as outsiders could tell. One example is the Prince of Marshes of the title, a leader of a tribe of Marsh Arabs, which predominate in one of the provinces. Although having a long history of being anti-Saddam, his allegiances and views toward Stewart and the CPA shifted with whomever seemed to offer the best chance of keeping him and his family in power and control. Not surprisingly, he and Stewart often disagreed. Thus, Stewart observes that when the Prince heard Stewart was being transferred to Dhi Qar, "he threw a party to celebrate my departure. He did not invite me."

The Prince is simply one instance of Stewart and others facing an almost no-win situation. There was a tension between the irreconcilable positions of taking a hands-off approach to allow the Iraqis to create and grow democratic institutions and the need for CPA intervention, confrontation and control to make sure any efforts at democracy might have a chance to succeed. It was virtually impossible to find a middle ground that would please everyone and still accomplish the CPA's goals.

[W]e needed to do more and we needed to do less – and we knew it. Iraq needed decent security, education, and health; the rule of law; a good economy; less corruption; the protection of human rights; robust civil society structures; and a democratic government. We came from societies where many of those things existed. But none of these platitudes, nor the "lessons learned" from post-war Germany and Japan, the Balkans and Afghanistan, and the history of the Middle East, told us much about how to achieve those things in modern Iraq. Still less did they tell us how much corruption and violence and incompetence we should tolerate before intervening. When to appease and when kill? In what circumstances were our governments prepared to kill Iraqis and in what circumstances were they prepared to have their own soldiers killed?

The difficulties posed by the conflict between political realism and political goals are reflected in Stewart largely using quotes from Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince and Discourses to introduce each chapter. Set aside the basic Shia-Sunni divide. How do you try govern or provide government for a province with 54 political parties, at least 20 tribes and a dozen leading religious figures, not to mention militias? Add to that a mutual distrust and suspicion existing not only between the CPA and the Iraqis but among the various Iraqi factions and you merely scratch the surface of the problem.

Still, Stewart believed it necessary for the provincial governments to restore security and order, not the CPA, whether locally or from Baghdad. That approach seems relatively straightforward. "We needed . . . to find councilors who were popular, legitimate, well-informed, honest, democratic, human-rights respecting, effective, friendly toward the Coalition, and powerful." There was a small glitch. No one had all those qualities. Iraqi liberals interested in human rights lacked power. Tribal strongmen, such as the Prince, tended toward intolerance, violent solutions and trying to maintain control of their share of the black market. Popular groups, like the Sadrists and parties and militias with Iranian ties, were conservative, not overly concerned about minorities and opposed the CPA. Likewise, the CPA had little interest in the latter groups participating in, let alone running, local or provincial government.

Even when attempts were made to build local and regional governments fairly representing the various elements of society, they seemed doomed to failure. For example, in one joint meeting to discuss education and schools, the area mayors sat silently. Once the CPA presentation was over, "they stood, one by one, to demand weapons licenses and control of the local police." Because most of their income came from the black market, the mayors "preferred guns to schools."

In addition, graft and corruption not only appear to have been rampant, but the order of the day. And the CPA's approach did not help. In a footnote early in the book, Stewart mentions one of the yet to be fully told stories of Iraq.

In May [2004], I was encouraged to spend ten million dollars in a month with almost no restrictions. Auditing systems were primitive and the money arrived, vacuum packed in million dollar bricks. We received so much money that it was impossible to spend it responsibly. I ran out of projects in Nasiriyah which could be completed in the time frame and had to return one and a half million dollars.

One wonders in how many other locations money was not only spent in the same fashion but there was little, if any, compunction to see to it that unspent funds were returned. And even though dollars flowed like water with few controls, the CPA still was criticized by various Iraqi factions. If one faction kidnapped the leader of another faction, it was the CPA's fault for not providing sufficient security. If the CPA's projects provided 500 or 3,000 jobs, it was the CPA's fault there weren't more jobs. If the electricity or water failed because of sabotage, that was the CPA's fault. In fact, it often appeared that the only common denominator among all the factions was the desire to get rid of the American, British, Italian and others making up the CPA and security forces.

No, the events Stewart recounts do not bode well for the future of Iraq, at least as currently envisioned by the United States and other coalition members. But before Stewart's views are rejected as those of someone who didn't understand or support the mission, consider the following. Stewart completed his service in Iraq as deputy governor of Dhi Qar province. On September 21, that province became only the second in Iraq in which security is now under the control of Iraqi forces.

Still, Stewart himself might be among the first to recognize the possibility that such control may be a facade doomed to collapse. He notes in an afterword that the January 2005 elections trumpeted by the coalition produced exactly the kind of state in Maysan the coalition did not want to see – reactionary and intolerant toward women and religious minorities. It did, however, appear to have removed tribal gangsterism. Why? "The only two forces that remained outside the law were the Iranian-linked Badr militias and the Sadrists. But then they were now the elected government."

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
  • SFC SKI

    wow, Deja Vu, I am sure someone else wrote a review of this book yesterday. No matter, it still sounds like a great book, I look forward to getting a copy.

  • http://www.ladydragonfyre.com/index_files/LWS Lady Dragonfyre

    Yes, I did. You should definately grab a copy; it really opened my eyes.

  • Fernando

    I think this is a great review. I read the book a few months ago and this review still managed to illuminate and put into context for me the experiences that Stewart narrates in his book.

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