Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart, who once walked across Afghanistan, is currently the UK minister of state for international development.

How to Serve Coffee: Aleppan Manners

Rory Stewart, 16 February 2017

The fighting​ that began in Aleppo on 19 July 2012 lasted four years, five months and three days, killing more than thirty thousand people – almost three times the number killed in the siege of Sarajevo twenty years earlier. Most of the tens of thousands of buildings and apartments which were destroyed lay in the modern residential areas in the east of the city, but fighting in the...

Because we weren’t there? In Tripoli

Rory Stewart, 22 September 2011

Entering Libya four days after the fall of Tripoli did not seem, at first, very different from trips I had made to Kosovo, Baghdad and Kabul shortly after those interventions. There were as yet no formalities, still less visas, at the Libyan border. The dusty office chairs at the checkpoints in the Nafusa hills, crookedly propped on their remaining castors, were those favoured by militias in Afghanistan. The charred government office in Zawiyyah could have been in Sarajevo. Similar Japanese cars formed longer lines at the petrol stations in Baghdad. Here too, torn posters of the leader lay in the street; here too, angry crowds shouted outside a bank; and here too, a villa, ‘J-Dammed’ flat by Nato bombs, smelled of dead people.

Until yesterday, I thought we were at the end of the age of intervention. The complacency that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union had been shattered by the Balkan wars; despair was followed by the successful interventions in Bosnia and then Kosovo; then triumphal pride led us to disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan. Midway through the period, in 2000, it seemed we could intervene anywhere....

Obama and Brown rely on a hypnotising policy language which can – and perhaps will – be applied as easily to Somalia or Yemen as Afghanistan. It misleads us in several respects simultaneously: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion.

“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.”

Last June’s​ xenophobic campaign and the Brexit vote that followed have left Scots – even the most unionist – estranged from the idea of Britain. In the months before the...

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Not long ago I attended a lunch at which the guests were invited to discuss the Iraq debacle. It was deep in red-state America, but everybody present was an academic, and expressed due sentiments...

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