Monday, October 22, 2012

Occupational Hazards

Rory Stewart is a peculiar mixture of earnest boy scout and ruthless political operator. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Malaysia and Indonesia, he speaks fluent Farsi and in 2001 he trecked on foot across India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, relying entirely on the kindness and hospitality of the strangers who invited him to sleep in their homes and dine with their families. Occupational Hazards tells the story of his time as a Deputy Governor in the Coalition Political Office in post-Saddam Iraq.

Stewart writes clearly and concisely in crisp, clipped prose. He says what he means - no more, no less. But what else would one expect from a former diplomat. Even his account of a sustained bombardment under rocket fire is matter of fact, which does make one wonder whether he can truly be as unflappalbe as he seems.

There are several indidences during which Stewart makes it clear he is not above bending a few rules in order to advance an agenda, when he feels the ends justify the means. But because 'the ends' usually involve securing additional funding for schools building programmes in his impoverished province in the south of Iraq, our hero's manipulations seem justified. Not that Stewart is a propagandist; he does not shy away from contrasting his difficult day job with the degrading treatment of prisoners by unthinking junior army men in American military bases and specifically Guantanamo Bay.

What is given most emphasis are his day-to-day dealings with the tribal sheikhs, Sadr Islamists and Iranian-backed political parties in Maysan, located on the Iraq-Iranian border. Stewart goes to great lengths to describe the differences and draw the distinctions between these competing power groups, each group seemingly led by men who greet Stewart with exaggerated politeness in his office, but are equally as content to attack Coalition forces and indulge in gangsterish behaviour toward their fellow Arabs.

The situation sounds impossible (at least to my ears), but the brutal realities of occupation necessitate conversation and sometimes compromise with people it is difficult for a Western observer to understand. Stewart recounts these dealings without condemning or condoning, but as a fact of life for him during his 12 months as a provincial Deputy Governor. Meanwhile, developmental economists and human rights lawyers issue edicts about free markets and female empowerment. The situation Stewart describes in the tribal regions bears scant resemblance to the 'remedies' communicated by his superiors in the civilian and diplomatic corp.

The aims of the Coalition and those of the tribal leaders are ultimately irreconcilable. The Western forces who eat Big Macs and party until three in the morning inside the Green Zone are the epitome of the so-called 'Western decadence' that the Mullahs and Islamist preachers use to propergandise impressionable young Muslims. The few secular voices Stewart encounters and seems to see as the Coalition's best hope for a free and democratic Iraq, governed by the rule of law, are cynical and uninterested, scorning politics as an activity for 'bad men'.

The malign motives attributed to the Coalition - America and Britain in particular - are given short shrift. Instead, Stewart argues that the politicians and (to a lesser extent) even the generals, removed from events on the ground and with too little concern for deep-seated traditions, were in fact too fast to cede power to the Iraqi people. This is a complicated issue and Stewart offers no easy answers - a book like this can only really scratch the surface - but anyone wishing to find out more about what the intervention in Iraq looked like to a Western diplomatic insider is unlikely to find a clearer description than the one that is given in this book.


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