Here and there – Playing way from home


During the Vietnam War, the Americans forgot all the lessons that they had taught the British during the War of Independence about fighting wars on someone else’s land either for or against regime change.  Both America and Britain forgot the lot when they invaded Iraq to effect a change of regime.  The price we are all paying now is horrific.

A number of people have written books about the nature and grossness of the errors of the invaders (the most unrepentant of whom is Mr John Howard).  One of them is Occupational Hazards (2006) by Rory Stewart.  Stewart spent some time in the army before walking across Afghanistan and joining the Foreign Office.  He was one of the Englishman charged with bringing Western democracy to Iraq.  He is now a Tory MP.

As you read this book, you are torn between laughing and crying.  This note is a very anecdotal reflection upon that book.

Shortly after Stewart got to Iraq, a local told him that:

Uneducated people, tribal people, without reading and writing are now in the city…..They do not understand what is government.  Because they do not understand what is religion….Religion is about the respect for the other human being.  Each of us is created by one God.  Each of us is respected.  This is religion.  Even the Jewish religion.  But these men do not respect one another.  Things are very bad now…..We are not stupid.  We know what games your government is playing with oil and with Israel…

How could you overcome those misgivings?  They were, after all, justified.  Stewart soon lost his faith in our human quest for order.  The Iraqis insisted that only a police state could restore security.  But people back home thought Iraq could be both secure and democratic.  They thought they could get good order without secret police, brutality and torture.  They disbanded the army, sacked all senior Baathists and discussed the possibility of psychometric tests for senior officers and ‘gender-awareness workshops’. ‘We had arrived promising democracy not a warlord.’  It defies belief.

There was an ugly tribal murder. (Well, not many murders are pretty.)   One British officer spoke of the rule of law.  The answer was that:

Ninety-five policemen in my force are related [to the deceased] and they are in shock…We all know the best way to do this is through the tribal channel, and if people play fast – putting on police uniforms and taking them off, giving a few people a rough time – well that’s just how it goes.  I don’t know where you think you are living…..

There were always problems with interpreters – conscious and unconscious.  A bad example was ‘Coalition’ being translated as the ‘occupation’, ‘a word of great resonance for Arabs, conjuring the French occupation of Algeria and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.’  How did the Coalition expect the Arabs to forgive them for supporting ‘the Israeli occupation of Palestine’?  An opinion poll showed two thirds of Iraqis thought they were occupied.  How could they not?

This is how a local thanked the Coalition.

The occupying forces have proved that greed, cruelty and ambition are their guiding ideals; that insensitivity and stupidity are the only qualifications for your administrators; cowardice and pusillanimity for your soldiers; stinginess and prejudice for your development workers.  Large and small puppets on the hands of grasping fists of the elders of Zion….

Other than that, everything in the garden was rosy.

There were problems with clerics as well as with the tribes.  One cleric responded to the notion of the rule of law this way:

What matters is God, children, possessions, lives.  These things are more important than the law.  Forget the law.  God is above the law and I represent God.

Given that the rule of law in England was the product of more than a millennium, how could the English answer this invocation of God?  Well, the ‘democracy experts’ in the US were on the case.  They said Iraq was not ready. Bosnia had taught them that elections that were too early led to extreme sectarian parties.  That left the occupiers as king-makers and any model they chose was going to be controversial.  They were like blind men in a darkroom looking for a black cat that wasn’t there.

The power brokers were the sheikhs.  Stewart thought they were more ‘an irrelevant feudal remnant…[but]….little more than small-time rural gangsters, setting up extortion rackets under the pretence of security or skimming from contracts.’  But Stewart, who is now a member of Cabinet in Britain, managed to pay ‘them the respect they thought they deserved.’

Security – maintaining the peace – was the constant issue.  A new governor told Stewart that he intended to ‘take full control of the police, establish a secret intelligence service, ban demonstrations, arrest a journalist who had criticised him, and expel his Sadrist opponents from the council.’  What could be more natural?  One Iraqi policeman gave a response that was pure MFB.  ‘It’s not my fault that things are a mess – it’s your fault that we police are poorly trained and poorly equipped.’

An American ‘democracy expert’ came to Baghdad for ‘capacity-building’.  He put up a drawing that looked like a dog.   One sheikh said: ‘We are an ancient civilisation and they treat us like Congo cannibals.’  The democracy expert said: ‘Welcome to your new democracy.  I have met you before in Cambodia, in Russia, in Nigeria.’  At which point, two sheikhs walked out.  The expert had no runs on the board.

It was only after Abu Ghraib that Stewart saw ‘for the first time that they had always assumed that we were doing these things and had never believed my statements about human rights and the rule of law.’  The game was up.

Stewart wrote a speech.

We stand at the Ziggurat of Ur at the centre of the world’s first civilisation.  Within one hundred meters of us lie cuneiform tablets written in an alphabet invented here 5000 years ago, 85 generations before anyone in Italy, Britain, or America began to write…A little further and we come to the oldest law court in the world and the house where Abraham was born.  Here is the birthplace of civilised man, the foundation of our urban life and of our philosophy.

Shortly before Stewart left, the Sadr militia executed a female student at Basra University Engineering Faculty for wearing jeans at a picnic.  The Governor of Basra justified the militia.  The picnic had been ‘decadent.’  Women had sat with men.

The people who invaded Iraq forgot all their history.  What about the civil war we call the American War of Independence?  The older Pitt, by this time the Earl of Chatham, one of the most experienced war time leaders England has ever had, knew what the home ground advantage meant: ‘My Lords, if I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I would never lay down my arms – never, never, never.’

What about the French Revolution?  When it was first suggested that France go to war to export the revolution, Robespierre, the latter-day terrorist, said that no one ever liked ‘armed missionaries’.  Doesn’t that sum up the main problem for the absurdly named Coalition of the Willing in Iraq?

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