Degrees of Not Knowing

Rory Stewart

  • What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building by Noah Feldman
    Princeton, 154 pp, £12.95, November 2004, ISBN 0 691 12179 6
  • Blinded by the Sunlight: Surviving Abu Ghraib and Saddam’s Iraq by Matthew McAllester
    Harper Perennial, 304 pp, US $13.95, February 2005, ISBN 0 06 058820 9
  • The Fall of Baghdad by Jon Lee Anderson
    Little, Brown, 389 pp, £20.00, February 2005, ISBN 0 316 72990 6
  • The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq by Christian Parenti
    New Press, 211 pp, £12.99, December 2004, ISBN 1 56584 948 5

On 30 January, the day of the election, in Amara in the old marsh region of southern Iraq, the sheikh advances and smiles and hugs me and kisses me: once, twice, pauses and, as I am about to step away, a third time. He greets me in Farsi: ‘Khubi? Chetori? Hal-e-shoma chetor ast?’ He is speaking Farsi rather than Arabic as a joke, I think. The joke is that he and I are both accused by local politicians of being Iranian spies. The sheikh lived in exile in Qom, the theological capital of Iran, for 15 years, and his Farsi is decent. He looks pale and his clerical turban is draped over his head, rather than worn in a tight knot. I have never seen him dressed like that before, though it may have nothing to do with his recent ‘accident’.

‘Shlonak, Sheikh?’ I ask how he is in Iraqi Arabic.

‘Al hamdullilah’ (‘God be praised’).

‘Ahlan wa sahlan’ (‘Welcome’).

‘And I you, Mr Rory,’ he says, in a rare phrase of English, and giggles. His English is probably good but he prefers to use interpreters.

‘I am so sorry to hear about your accident.’

‘Shukran’ (‘Thank you’).

‘Are you feeling recovered?’

‘Al hamdullilah.’

‘What happened?’

‘I was coming out of the mosque in the souk in Amara and two gunmen were waiting. It was dark because there is no electricity,’ he winks: he blames me, in my old capacity as ‘deputy governorate co-ordinator’ for Maysan province, for the lack of electricity in Amara. ‘They shot at me. Three bullets hit me, here, here and here.’ He jabs at three points close together on the right side of his stomach.

‘Do you know who did it?’

‘No, I do not know. I have good relations with everyone.’

We have known each other for 18 months but this is all I am going to get. I am left to guess whether it was part of a gangster shooting, revenge for a killing he instigated, something connected with the Iranian secret service, or simply an attack by one of the two main groups which I know oppose him. ‘Perhaps,’ he concedes, ‘it is because of my criticism of the corruption.’

The Coalition gave $2 million directly to the provincial council to spend on local development. The sheikh says that the council stole it. The council claims he stole tens of thousands of dollars which he received from the Coalition to set up internet cafés, to buy and distribute clothes to the poor at Ramadan and to refurbish his mosque. Now he is to be given money by a development agency to run a ‘political participation project’ designed to raise awareness of the constitution in rural areas. He espouses a popular and moderate Islamic politics, supports a free press, accepts electoral results, and condemns violence.

‘Despite the shooting you are still smiling,’ I say.

‘We will always keep smiling, whatever happens,’ he replies, and smiles more broadly. The sheikh’s brother was governor of Amara for a week during the 1991 uprising against Saddam before he was killed. One of his sons was killed last year by a bullet falling from the sky during one of the frequent bursts of celebratory gunfire.

‘The future,’ the sheikh continues, ‘will be peaceful, inshallah.’ And then, as an afterthought, he raises an index finger, its tip dyed purple to show that he voted.

‘There are still three groups in the province,’ I say, ‘each with their own armed militia: your group, the Sadrists and the Prince of the Marshes. Why should you suddenly get along?’ The Prince of the Marshes is Abdul Karim al Muhammadawi, who led part of the Shia resistance to Saddam Hussein from 1991 to 2003.

‘You have never listened to us, have you?’ His thin fingers come together and he starts to speak in the slow, clear formal Arabic that I suspect he uses when preaching. ‘We were grateful when you arrived. But you did not listen to the right people. You failed to provide security or basic services. We lost our trust in you. Only now security has improved. You ask why we will support the new council? Because, you, Mr Rory, chose the last council. We elected this one ourselves.’

Will the election make all the difference? For a year after the invasion the policy was to reduce the number of police in Maysan and make them more ‘citizen-friendly’. In the last six months the police force has tripled in size and is now heavily armed. People in Maysan seem to enjoy voting. But the province on election day looks a little like a police state. There are armed men at checkpoints every few kilometres up the highway; policemen with vehicle-mounted machine-guns are checking IDs on almost every street corner; no civilian vehicles are allowed to move on the streets. This may be part of the reason ‘security has improved.’ Yet despite the checkpoints, which are in place every day, there are still daily car-jackings and roadside bombs, and towards the Iranian border there’s drug smuggling, looting, and kidnapping of children. The improvement is relative. As the sheikh found when he was shot on the steps of his mosque.

No foreigner really knows what is going on in Iraq. There are diplomats – both British and American – who speak good Arabic and have studied Iraqi history; there are intelligence officers who know tribal genealogies; and there are many soldiers who get out on the ground, build good relationships with rural leaders, deliver services and win respect. The quality of journalists in Iraq has been high: Elizabeth Rubin for the New York Times Magazine and the New Republic, George Packer for the New Yorker, Rory McCarthy for the Guardian and James Astill for the Economist have produced great pieces. But even the most energetic analysts cannot move freely. Astill’s longest conversation with an Iraqi in Fallujah was with a man urinating against a wall with a suitcase on his head, and thus unable to move for twenty seconds.

I certainly don’t know what is going on in Iraq. In January, I sat in the military airport in Kuwait staring at razor wire, tents, humvees and a green plastic portaloo and wondered what it would feel like to land back in Baghdad. I boarded a noisy military transport plane and flew to a gravel wasteland surrounded by razor wire, humvees and brown portaloos. Only the sand in the wind indicated I was in Baghdad not Kabul.

Over the next three weeks, I either sat behind concrete T-walls and sandbags or looked at the street through the inch of bullet-proof glass in my vehicle. When I saw Iraqi friends it was in the formal surroundings of heavily defended offices. My experience is not unusual: Iraq is dangerous. Sixty journalists have been killed since the invasion. Foreigners live in heavily defended compounds and go out only on short, targeted trips. They are not in a position to participate in Iraqi domestic life or understand the detail of local power and society.

Things are not much better when organisations rely on middle-class or English-speaking Iraqis for information. It is not only Ahmed Chalabi who proved to have little idea about the situation in Iraq. Saddam’s regime worked hard to fragment and isolate the population. Religious sheikhs in Karbala do not know how to assess the influence of a tribal sheikh; Baghdad intellectuals don’t understand the status of the mirjaiya, the most senior Shia clerics, such as Sistani. Giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to engineers and doctors in Basra to speak on behalf of Marsh Arabs is like hiring a London investment banker to represent the unemployed in Glasgow.

And who has the background knowledge to develop a nuanced and comprehensive picture of the structures of Iraqi society? Or the incentive? Journalists are employed to produce readable stories. Development agencies are rewarded for spending and auditing. The military are charged with security. The ambitious are interested in playing the system, impressing bosses and laying the foundations for their post-Iraq careers. Foreigners in Iraq may work hard and take risks, but they are not prepared to sacrifice their future in order to understand and transform the country.

The gap between the way foreigners talk about Iraq and the reality is monstrous. Our political vocabulary – ‘rogue states’, ‘nation-building intervention’, ‘WMD’, ‘neo-imperialism’, ‘terrorism’ – is useless. Does anyone know how to govern Iraq, or what the country will look like in five years’ time, or what effect this will have on the international system?

Critics are no better informed than members of the administration. Many authorities on Iraq have spent little or no time there. The most to be hoped for of a foreigner’s book published today would be the equivalent of an account of Britain written by a non-English-speaking Arab who had spent 18 months in the country, unable to travel freely. But the generals, the journalists, the academics, the politicians (Iraqi or foreign), the diplomats and the aid workers rarely admit that they have almost no idea what Iraq is like or is going to be like. Everyone is an expert.

It is hard to turn from the daily experience of Iraq to the discourse that surrounds it. Probably the most sophisticated account of what the Coalition thinks it is doing is Noah Feldman’s What We Owe Iraq. Since billions of dollars are being spent with little clear idea of what we are trying to achieve, Feldman’s project is important. He speaks fluent Arabic, knows his history, and was in Iraq in 2003 as the CPA’s senior constitutional adviser. He writes well, particularly about the absurdities of everyday life in the CPA palace in the Green Zone during the occupation: everything they did was overseen by ‘enormous facsimiles of Saddam’s head … clad in helmets that looked a bit like a combination of a Prussian Pickelhaube and an Arab kaffiyeh. The moustaches alone must have been ten feet across and three or four feet high.’

Feldman, a constitutional lawyer, is largely concerned, as his subtitle says, with ‘the ethics of nation building’. He doesn’t discuss whether or not the invasion was justified: instead he considers the Coalition’s responsibilities now the invasion has happened. He sees democracy as the foundation of legitimacy and argues that the unelected Coalition, therefore, has an uncertain legitimacy and should act only as an ‘impartial mediator’ or trustee. The Coalition does not know how to ‘produce a successful functioning democracy better than do others’; it should not define Iraq’s democratic institutions, or write a constitution, which in any case would never be accepted or implemented. It should only establish security, hold elections, transfer control of security to the elected assembly, and leave in place a democratic government.

Feldman talks of human rights and of ‘creating democratically legitimate states that would treat their citizens with dignity and respect, and in which political change could be brought about via party politics not extra-legal violence’. But he does not analyse the ethical foundations of this democracy. Instead, he points to its complexity and then, when the problem becomes interesting, sets it aside – a bad habit he shares with his mentor Robert Nozick.[1] Feldman writes, for example:

It is appropriate for us to favour – not to impose – certain substantive constitutional outcomes, particularly those that guarantee equal treatment of all Iraqis, regardless of sex, religion and so forth. But the reason to favour these outcomes must be that we believe that the vast majority of Iraqis want them. If large numbers of Iraqis disagreed, expressly preferring overt inequality, that would complicate matters considerably, forcing a direct confrontation between the principle of equality and that of self-determination that I do not propose to resolve here.

He is wrong to assume that ‘the vast majority of Iraqis want … the equal treatment of all Iraqis regardless of sex, religion and so forth.’ In the latest election, the majority of Iraqis voted for parties which did not favour such things. On the national level, the victorious Sistani faction seems relatively certain to implement traditional Shia property laws, which would limit women’s inheritance to half that of men. In Maysan, the winning Sadr-backed party is not only in favour of requiring women to wear headscarves and banning the public sale of alcohol (neither is part of the social practices of the minority religious groups) but also quietly in favour of a government supervised by clerics.

An Islamic society in Iraq emerging from an authoritarian state will have few of the substantive ingredients associated with a democracy in the developed world. There are strong ethnic and religious tensions. Civil society, trust in government and the rule of law are almost absent. The media and the judiciary are weak, and ideas of civil liberty poorly developed. Security has collapsed. The Sadrist party in the sheikh’s province runs a heavily armed militia, which tortures and murders its opponents. The necessity of establishing security may encourage the government to suspend democratic rights. Iraq today is still a hollow democracy, consisting of little more than elections.

This is problematic for Feldman, not least because he justifies Iraqi democracy on the grounds that it will serve the self-interest of the US. ‘We want,’ he writes, ‘legitimate democracy in Iraq for the instrumental reason that it represents a form of institutional power-sharing with the capacity to sustain itself internally.’ ‘Such a democracy would be desirable from the American perspective because it would promote the stability and legitimacy of the Iraqi government and consequently protect the United States against terror.’ This belief that we can simultaneously pursue our ideals and our self-interest is common in faculties of International Relations, where instead of asserting that democracy, justice, healthcare, equality, the prevention of torture and women’s rights are good in themselves, it is more usual to claim that these things have instrumental benefits. So it is said that democracies don’t go to war; that interrogation without torture produces better information; that war crimes tribunals prevent conflict; that better healthcare for children will reduce population growth; that forgiving debt will reduce conflict between the West and the developing world; that women’s rights raise GDP.

Democracies in the developed world are indeed stable, responsive, good at resolving conflict, and therefore less likely ‘to give rise to broadly supported terrorist movements that might end up harming us’. Iraqi democracy, however, could coexist with a regime which is barely legitimate, unstable and dangerous both for its citizens and for the international system. It remains to be seen whether the Shia coalition can prevent violent conflict with the Sunni, the Kurds and other Shia groups, and deliver security, essential services and justice outside the Green Zone. If it fails to create a functioning state, hollow democracy will be little consolation.

Feldman’s optimistic belief that a ‘neutral’ respect for local culture will be enough to allow a nation-builder in Iraq to provide the preconditions not merely for an elected government, but for a sustainable democracy that will respect human rights and citizens’ equality, and protect the US against terror, is typical of modern US foreign policy. Bush’s State of the Union address made almost exactly the same claims about neutral democracies and the protection of the US:

Our … responsibility to future generations is to leave them an America that is safe from danger, and protected by peace … In the long term, the peace we seek will only be achieved by eliminating the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder … The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom … The United States has no right, no desire, and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else … And because democracies respect their own people and their neighbours, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.

Feldman and others not only avoid the moral question of what kind of democracy is good. They also fail to tell us how an Iraqi democracy is likely to come about and how it will look in practice, which does nothing to increase confidence in the instrumental claim that Iraqi democracy will protect the United States against terror. Feldman’s analysis of Iraq is on occasion quite brilliant. It is a pity that he does not engage more with either the theory or its logical relation to the facts on the ground.

Few Iraqis themselves have a clear understanding of the differences at a provincial level between the three different Da’wa parties or the leadership and ideology of Da’wa Iraq, let alone a sense of the relationships between the sheikhs of the Albu Muhammad area. What expertise foreign officials build up is continually lost as each one leaves and is replaced: every six months for the British military and US marines, every 12 months for the US military and some civilians. There are very few people on the ground who can even remember the final days of the CPA. There is almost nobody who has worked in Iraq continuously since the invasion, which was less than two years ago.

The best recent descriptions of Iraqi society have been by journalists. Matthew McAllester of Newsday has assembled a remarkable range of informants and illuminates issues from unexpected angles. Uncovering a mass grave, he is able to provide biographies of the corpses, witnesses who were present at their shooting and photographs taken by their executioners. When he writes about Abu Ghraib under Saddam, he interviews prisoners, meets the American engineer who built the prison and questions guards and interrogators. He was himself imprisoned in Abu Ghraib for eight days, and interrogated by Saddam’s security services, as American tanks approached Baghdad. His account of this terrifying experience is modest and precise.

The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson first met Ala Bashir, an Edinburgh-educated plastic surgeon, one of Saddam’s few intimates and his official sculptor, in August 2000. As Bashir evolves from an apologist for Hitler and Saddam into a critic of Saddam’s cabinet, Anderson begins to reveal some of the ambiguity in Bashir’s surrealist art. After the invasion, his paintings were destroyed in the looting and his public sculptures defaced; he was recognised on the street as a friend of Saddam and assassins tried to shoot him in his hospital; he was recruited by the CIA to locate Baathists; and eventually forced into exile. Anderson visited him daily, throughout all this, struggling to understand how this contradictory and intelligent man makes sense, on the one hand, of the invasion and, on the other, of his friendship with Saddam. Anderson’s book is generally dominated by elite figures such as Bashir; in Jordan and Iran, too, he concentrates on the grandest tribal sheikhs or ayatollahs. But when he is with a US patrol in Fallujah, he illustrates the daily humiliation not just of being occupied but of being the occupier:

Next, a husky young man, a teenager, pushed up to Lieutenant Ganci. He gestured to a rubbish pile that filled a vacant lot next to the shops and houses. In an overly loud voice he asked Ganci: ‘Why don’t you Americans clean up the garbage?’

Sighing, Ganci replied: ‘Why don’t you clean it up yourselves?’

The boy said, theatrically: ‘Oh, because we’re not like you Americans. We are savage and primitive people.’

Journalists’ accounts have their flaws, however. Least satisfactory are their descriptions of the invasion. Most of them were either embedded with the troops rolling north – Oliver Poole, David Zucchino, or Evan Wright of Rolling Stone, who wrote Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War[2] – or in Baghdad waiting for the troops: McAllester, Anderson and Anne Garrels, the NPR correspondent and author of Naked in Baghdad.[3] These are talented writers, yet what they produce is reminiscent of the work of a still-life class, all of whose students are drawing the same object from the same perspective.

Trapped by the regime in the Palestine Hotel, the journalists in Baghdad were reduced to worrying about their visas and the American bombs; hiding their illegal satellite phones; and dealing with the ministry, the hotel staff and their drivers’ translators. McAllester and Anderson feature in each other’s books and both spend time eating with John Burns, the New York Times correspondent whom they describe frequently as the ‘doyen’ or the ‘veteran’ of the press pack. They describe the same briefings, the same riverside search for a downed American pilot, the same wait for B-52s flying from Britain, and the sight of the Baghdad skyline on fire. Such experiences – strange and dangerous for the journalists themselves – are less interesting on the page.

Christian Parenti, the Nation correspondent, also spent time with other journalists at the press briefings and at the Palestine Hotel. But he portrays himself as an outsider, and his alternative agenda has resulted in one of the most revealing accounts of a security situation largely ignored by the grand narratives. He captures the emergence in 2003 of criminal gangs and militias; the explosion of looting and racketeering; the enforcement at street level of extreme Islamist social codes, rape and intimidation. The police do nothing. The Coalition forces do not intervene. Local leaders are unwilling or unable to unsettle a fragile balance of violent local tribesmen, political parties, religious factions, gangsters and terrorist insurgents.

William Langewiesche in the Atlantic elegantly demonstrates why occupations fail by recording the CPA’s introduction in Baghdad of the Maryland Traffic Code. George Packer explains the mechanics of Arab-Kurd conflict in an article in the New Yorker. Georges Malbrunot’s description of Salafi Sunni hatred of the Shia in the Figaro suggests how Iraq might come to resemble Lebanon in 1984. But I am most sympathetic to Parenti’s account of street-level violence, one which implies that the outcome might not be a grand civil war between monolithic blocs of Shia, Sunni or Kurd, but anarchy at a localised level, with conflict between different armed factions, none of which wants visible or formal political power. The government may control the major cities, but rural areas will be marked by continual violence, disrupting people’s lives, enforcing traditional social codes, preventing the delivery of basic services. In other words, an Iraqi democracy could resemble democratic pre-Musharraf Pakistan, or the longest continuous democracy in Latin America: Colombia.

This is not an argument for replacing Saddam with a moderate dictator. Iraqis deserve (and want) not just normality, security and employment but a democratic participatory government. There are indigenous elements in Iraq which would support a development of this kind – elements that include secular political thought, social traditions of consultation and religious ideas of justice. The recent elections have produced a moderate Islamist government that is better than anything Iraqis have experienced for the last thirty years. But we are a very long way from a democracy with the kinds of institutional benefit that Feldman imagines; and what it would take to bring that about is far from clear. In thirty years Iraq may well look more like Turkey than Egypt, but it will achieve this change in a way which we, the foreigners, are in no position to understand or predict and, therefore, which we are unlikely to be able to control.

The sheikh I met with on 30 January had just been elected to the provincial council in Maysan. I have met him at least fifty times. He served as deputy chairman of the old Provincial Council and his influence helped to determine whether the 850,000 people in Maysan rioted or voted, shot at the Coalition or attacked minority religious groups. But foreigners know next to nothing about the local influence of even a noteworthy figure like him. Iraqis in Maysan often suggest they know nothing about the sheikh either.

But there are degrees of knowing nothing. Most of the Iraqi provincial leadership had known his father, who was a prominent cleric in the city. They knew that his first cousin was posing as the paramount sheikh of a tribe of ten thousand people on the edges of the marshes of Dhi Qar but was less powerful than his second cousin. They knew which of his relatives had been killed in the 1991 uprising and what position he had managed to seize between the fall of Saddam and the arrival of the Coalition. They had some sense of his 15 years in Iran and his relationship to the Iranian secret service. They knew where his house was, which contractors he favoured, which parts of the Da’wa Party he was close to. They had been his guests. They had watched him at weddings and funerals and in the mudhifs; they had a sense of whether he was funny or pompous, arch or considerate, wise or sly. They knew what kinds of obligation he could be expected to fulfil; when a promise was sincere; when he would go out of his way and when he wouldn’t.

But there were many things that no one knew. They did not know whether he would prove an efficient administrator or whether he would push for a more Islamist style of government. They did not know how much influence his clerical rank, his charisma or his tribal connections would carry in the street; how many armed men he could rely on; whether he was under the control of the Iranians or playing them; whether he would be able to count on his old allies in the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq or the armed militia; whether the Coalition would support him. They did not know how much power he had. These kinds of question were going to determine the future of the province. And I don’t think the sheikh could answer them either.

[1] In a footnote in Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick, to whom Feldman dedicates his book, having emphasised the importance of human rights as ‘side-constraints’, comments: ‘The question of whether these side-constraints are absolute, or whether they may be violated in order to avoid catastrophic moral horror, and if the latter, what the resulting sequence might look like, is one I hope largely to avoid.’

[2] Bantam, 329 pp., £12.99, June 2004, 0 593 05347 8.

[3] Picador USA, 264 pp., $14, September 2004, 0 312 42419 1.