Sunday, October 21, 2007

Greeted as Liberators

Rory Stewart, who served as governor of Maysan province under the CPA, reviews several biographies of one of his forebears, Gertrude Bell: "The Queen of the Quagmire". Both the review and his book The Prince of the Marshes show a kind of modesty that might be impossible for any American writing about our occupation of Iraq. For Americans, it seems to be all about us. This flaw doesn't invalidate the writing of George Packer, for example, whose essay on our contemptible neglect of Iraqis who've chosen to help the occupiers by serving as translators I highly recommend. Yet Packer was a liberal hawk only a few years ago, and it's very difficult for him, writing now, not to attribute the obvious failure of our occupation (and of his arguments at the time) to the people carrying it out, rather than to a more fundamental cause. In other words, if the CPA had not put the obtuse Paul Bremer in charge, it might have worked.

Gertrude Bell is one of the architects of modern Iraq, if that's something she'd really want to claim credit for at this point. In contrast to the liberal hawk's regret that we didn't put the smartest people in charge, not to mention Edward Said's imputation of a fundamental bad faith, Stewart credits Bell and her colleagues with quite impressive knowledge of Arabic, of tribal power structures, of how to ride a camel, etc.: "Some suggest that the US failure in Iraq is due simply to lack of planning...They should consider Bell and her colleagues, such as Colonel Leachman or Bertram Thomas, a political officer on the Euphrates. All three were fluent and highly experienced Arabists, won medals from the Royal Geographical Society for their Arabian journeys, and were greatly admired for their political work. Thomas was driven from his office in Shatra by a tribal mob. Colonel Leachman, who was famed for being able to kill a tribesman dead in his own tent without a hand lifted against him, was shot in the back in Fallujah." Bell herself has to take the blame for agreeing to tack the Kurdish areas onto this new entity, at subsequent great cost to the Kurds.

It's too easy to hate the smirking fatuity of Donald Rumsfeld. But it's entirely beside the point. There is no objective measure of the depth of our understanding of Iraq. Who's to say that their self-understanding is any better than our understanding of them? The obstacle to building a new Iraq for the Iraqis is not that we don't understand them. The obstacle is that they're just not that into us. That's what it's like to be an occupier.

No comments: