October 24, 2007

Queen of the Quagmire

Charlie asked her students to read this New York Review of Books article in class today. In it, Rory Stewart,* reviews several biographies of Gertrude Bell, the (in)famous British Arabist forever associated with the founding of modern Iraq. Stewart's survey of her life (and the books about it) is not surprisingly masterful. He has a certain, small, amount of sympathy for Bell, saying her

strength lay not in her political success--she did not succeed in forming a sustainable, stable, unified, Iraqi state--but in the clarity and imagination with which she explored its failure.

But he is completely unsparing in his criticism of her policy recommendations for Iraq. Stewart argues she should not have acquiesced to either the establishment of a British Mandate (TE Lawrence wanted to send all the troops home) or the inclusion of Kurdish Mosul. But the heart of the article is the understanding of her failings alongside our own. Stewart concludes:

Bell is thus both the model of a policymaker and an example of the inescapable frailty and ineptitude on the part of Western powers in the face of all that is chaotic and uncertain in the fashion for "nation-building." Despite the prejudices of her culture and the contortions of her bureaucratic environment, she was highly intelligent, articulate, and courageous. Her colleagues were talented, creative, well informed, and determined to succeed. They had an imperial confidence. They were not unduly constrained by the press or by their own bureaucracies. They were dealing with a simpler Iraq: a smaller, more rural population at a time when Arab national-ism and political Islam were yet to develop their modern strength and appeal.

But their task was still impossible. Iraqis refused to permit foreign political officers to play at founding their new nation. T.E. Lawrence was right to demand the withdrawal of every British soldier and no stronger link between Britain and Iraq than existed between Britain and Canada. For the same reason, more language training and contact with the tribes, more troops and better counterinsurgency tactics—in short a more considered imperial approach—are equally unlikely to allow the US today to build a state in Iraq, in southern Afghanistan, or Iran. If Bell is a heroine, it is not as a visionary but as a witness to the absurdity and horror of building nations for peoples with other loyalties, models, and priorities.

Charlie is reluctant to follow Rory all the way down this rabbit hole (which ends with him saying that unless local leaders are "literally eating babies," we shouldn't intervene). But there's a sobering history lesson here that suggests that treating these efforts as engineering problems in need of slight tinkering at the margins (tighten up the language here, add a bit more culture there) can actually be worse in the long run. It looks as though we will now have twice learned that lesson in Mesopotamia.

*Stewart himself is the author of two fantastic books: The Places in Between (a travelogue about his walk through Afghanistan in Jan-Feb 2002 that's sure to make our upcoming reading list) and The Prince of the Marshes (a memoir of his year as a CPA official in southern Iraq). A former British Foreign Service Officer, Black Watch soldier, and occasional host of Charlie in Kabul, Stewart doesn't come to his policy conclusions lightly.