The Prince of the Marshes

by Rory Stewart

Cover image

Publisher: Harcourt
Copyright: 2006, 2007
Printing: 2007
ISBN: 0-15-603279-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 405

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The job of an administrator on the ground in Iraq was not the job of a diplomat, a development worker, or a soldier: it was the job of a 1920s Chicago ward politician.

Rory Stewart's first book, The Places in Between, was brilliant. It was his account of walking across Afghanistan on foot, often alone, staying with people in villages and seeing a portion of the real country outside of the cities and away from Western forces and Western aid agencies. It was quiet and understated and determinedly factual, and by that tone it became something more important than a travel narrative and powerful entertainment. It was data. It was a single raw observation of a small set of people, anecdotal and highly limited, but personalized and detailed. It was an incomplete picture of Afghanistan, but it was also a part of the picture of Afghanistan that few, if anyone, were telling.

In 2003, after Coalition forces invaded Iraq, Stewart sent in his application to the British Foreign Service. When he received no reply, he flew to Jordan and took a taxi to Baghdad to apply in person (one of the startling details stated matter-of-factly here, and completely believable to a reader of The Places in Between). He became the deputy governor of Maysan province in southern Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority, and later deputy governor of neighboring Dhi Qar province. Told in the same matter-of-fact and vivid style as The Places in Between, The Prince of the Marshes is the record of those nine months, up to the transition of power to an Iraqi government. Like The Places in Between, it's fascinating storytelling, a vivid adventure well worth reading for its entertainment value alone. But also like The Places in Between, in its tight focus and specific observation, it becomes more than an engrossing story. It's data, of a kind that's very difficult to find.

This sort of story, of personal involvement in a recent and highly politicized event, is inherently problematic. Stewart knows that and states it clearly in his foreward. Every view on Iraq at this juncture will be seized on as evidence and support for one's political views of the whole endeavor. I will do that in this review, everyone who has written on Iraq has done this to one extent or another, and Stewart does so in this book. It must, therefore, be taken as only one side of a complex picture. But it has the significant appeal of being written by someone who openly acknowledges it is only one side of a complex picture, whose aim in writing is partly to re-add the complexity that is often removed from discussion of Iraq, and who was directly involved in the day-to-day governance of an Iraqi province, living and working and occasionally under fire there rather than commenting from afar. It's only one data point, but what a data point.

Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces are in southern Iraq in what's generally called the Marsh Arab region, an area inhabited by long-standing tribes with alliances and animosities predating any modern regime. It's no longer much of a marsh. This population is largely Shia Muslim and provided support to the uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, and in response he drained the marshes, leaving an economically poor region suffering from severe damage to its traditional way of life and with significant hostility against Saddam and his regime. One of the local leaders, known as the Prince of the Marshes and providing the title of this book, was an early ally of Coalition forces and one of the people who was part of the negotiations on a national government in Baghdad. Stewart's job was a complicated mix of negotiation with such local leaders, overseeing local development and rebuilding projects, maintaining basic local government, and attempting to build or rebuild local Iraqi political structures to which the Coalition Provisional Authority could transfer power.

One of the delights of this book for the US reader is that Stewart is British (specifically Scottish), born and raised in former colonies, and brings to this sort of environment and project the baggage of the British Empire and colonial rule. He's as firmly opposed to making Iraq a colonial project as the US politicians, but he grew up in former British colonies and shows himself in these pages to be a pragmatist with an understanding of how British colonial rule managed to be effective for a time in some places, where effective is defined as at least maintaining physical security and building local infrastructure, two major challenges during the CPA period in Iraq. And he starts his work as a realistic optimist:

I thought we could still help to create a better society, the kind of society that many Iraqis wanted. I hoped to apply what I had learned in Afghanistan, to spend as much time as possible in rural areas and to work with moderate leaders. I thought there was a real limit to what I, as a foreigner, would be able to achieve, and that Iraqi society would remain, for some time, chaotic, corrupt and confusing. But I didn't think it would be too difficult to outperform Saddam.

What follows is a look deep inside exactly what it means to come as an occupying force and attempt to govern and rebuild a country, with generally the best of intentions. It's eye-opening, sobering, and seriously deflating, and should be required reading for anyone who thinks that nation-building in someone else's country is something within the capabilities of even the combined efforts of the most resourceful countries in the world.

There's so much here that I can only pull out highlights that have stayed in my mind. One of the strongest is the simple difficulty of understanding both who has influence and what they actually believe. Much of Stewart's job, and much of the nation-building job of the CPA, was to identify local power structures, broker agreements and calm tensions to maintain physical security, and find ways of empowering local government that wasn't corrupt or ineffective. To do that, one had to know who was important and had influence, and to be able to negotiate with them. But even that was nearly impossible.

In an established colonial system, colonial rulers lived in the colony. British colonial governments were made up of people who lived there for years on end, who had long-term, established relationships with those they governed, and who learned the local culture at least well enough to have a hope of knowing when people were simply lying to them. They could be (and often were) abusive, condescending, and dictatorial, but they at least had the knowledge required to be effective at accomplishing their goals. The CPA had, by most measures, considerably more noble aims, but they were an army of soldiers and diplomats airlifted into an almost entirely foreign situation, generally not speaking the language, and expected to sort out governance issues in a matter of months. Stewart, who at least spoke some Farsi and had experience with Islamic culture, was about as qualified as anyone one could find and was hopelessly out of his depth. He documents in painful detail the difficulty of simply understanding what was at stake in private conversations or even who he was talking to and how they fit into the complex tribal and political relationships of the region.

This would be hard enough even with a wary respect and cooperation with the CPA, but Iraq has a long and powerful anti-colonial tradition, which Stewart describes and sets in context as well as anyone I've read. He regularly dealt with people who had a direct personal connection with British colonial rule or revolutions against it. And the CPA was further handicapped by the political determination to both quash the Ba'ath party and refuse to deal with Islamic fundamentalists. Stewart describes at some length his efforts to involve the Sadrists in local government (rather than giving them the abundant ammunition of complaining about everything that didn't go well), in direct opposition to the policy set from Bremer's office. The goal of avoiding giving too much power to groups associated with Iran looks absurd as Stewart describes the broader context through specific events: a region that's strongly Shia and a guerrilla resistance to Saddam that trained in and was funded by Iran. If one rules out anyone associated with Iran, the Ba'ath Party, and the Islamic fundamentalist groups, there's hardly anyone left with influence to deal with. And, reinforcing the previous observation, as soon as the local warring groups discovered the CPA's bias, everyone they disliked became a Ba'athist, an Iranian agent, or an Islamic extremist. How does one know who to believe?

The political chaos and the obvious insanity of most of the CPA's stated mission are what I remember the most vividly from this book, but I don't want to leave you with the impression that it's all politics. While Stewart is much less restrained in his political commentary here than he was in The Places in Between (his job was political, so politics are unavoidable), the generalizations I'm writing above emerge from the text and are not forced by it. Stewart mostly provides detail: specific events, following a chronological story, of what he was trying to do, how it worked, and how it failed. I obviously have no way of judging the veracity of the story, and in this sort of intensely personal record it is probably (as Stewart directly acknowledges) at least somewhat self-serving. But it rings true and feels coherent and realistically complex, far more so than most of the generalizations that we got in the news coverage at the time. And Stewart is an exceptionally good story-teller; I think even someone mostly uninterested in the political questions raised by the Iraq War would enjoy this book for its detailed look at the underbelly of a major event.

Stewart saves nearly all of his broader political commentary for the epilogue, but those nine pages are absolutely devastating, particluarly given the weight of all that comes before. I think they should be mandatory reading for anyone considering external intervention in the political governance of a country.

Nowhere in thirty years has there been such a concentration of foreign money, manpower, and determination as in Iraq. Nowhere has their failure been more dramatic. And yet few convincing explanations of the mess have emerged, and no attractive solutions. Some things are now clear: Iraqis are the only people who can rebuild their nation. We cannot. We have done what good we can do. It is now not our tactics but the very fact of our presence that is inflaming the situation. We cannot improve the situation because our institutions are fundamentally unsuited to nation building: we do not have the personnel, the training, or the political culture to do it, nor the sympathy for local politics. We are too unpopular to be able to defeat the insurgency, stop a civil war, or create security. You cannot predict which policy will work, but you must recognize when your policy has failed. In short, I can confidently assert that Iraqis are the only people with the moral authority, understanding, and skills to rebuild their nation. Beyond that I, like almost everyone else, would be guessing.

Rory Stewart has placed himself firmly in the set of authors whose every book will go immediately on my to-read list. He provides rare and valuable insight and stories about parts of the world that I otherwise understand only through news reports, and he does so with a spare and effective style, brisk pacing, and engrossing storytelling. This book is more political than The Places in Between, and far more depressing, but I think equally worth reading.

Most valuable of all, Stewart provides complexity. He opens up a world and describes, not an overarching theory of mind, or a set of generalities that allows one to place it neatly into context, but a messy set of details conveyed through personal experience. He describes the practical chaos that supposedly simple political ideology tries to sweep under the rug. That's priceless.

No one is offering a granular and patient account of the insurgency in all its evolving and surprising multiplicity. We prefer the universal and the theoretical: the historical analogy and the statistics. But politics is local, the catastrophe of Iraq is discovered best through individual interactions. Invasion is quixotic: we invent justifications, as though carving wooden idols, and then are guided by our own inventions. We carve from the same block the explanations of our failures.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-02-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21