Rory Stewart gives us a rare, enlightening and honest (albeit subjective) account of what it was like on the ground as an administrator in provincial Iraq in the early days after the invasion.
Tasked with developing and effectively governing one of Iraq's regions, he encounters slippery sheikhs, treacherous clerics, post-modern civil-society-builders, cowardly Italians and -- later -- mortar bombs and RPGs. On arriving, he seems to be terribly out of his depth, largely because he is unprepared and unsupported, but he never seems daunted and one gets the impression that most people would have done a much worse job. But it's painfully clear that the overall operation was woefully inadequate in preparation, naive in its conception and incompetent in its execution.
The story is littered with broken promises that seem to surprise Stewart and his hard-pressed colleagues. If you were against the war to begin with, you may find yourself wondering: "Just what did you expect? How could you ever expect to just walk in there and run Iraq?" But Stewart seems confident that success is possible and he tirelessly tries to engage with all the major players. His optimism is completely devoid of any neo-con zealotry -- he's just there to do a job. This is laudable, but with hindsight we know all his efforts are doomed, thwarted by US incompetence, Iranian interference, and Iraqi sectarianism, and so, unavoidably, it proves.
Stewart writes well, explains complex tribal politics elegantly, and is thoroughly polite about the people he deals with, often through gritted teeth. Even the people who really let him down, like the Italians, are only a small part of a much bigger picture, so it would have been interesting to hear him explain why he thought the whole project fell apart in the end. Similarly, his descriptions of Bremer's bureaucracy in Baghdad are peppered with black humour and appalling indifference to reality but, although he teeters on the brink, he never launches a real barrage at Bremer and his flunkies. One wonders why not. Is he just too diplomatic? Were they not to blame?
His book is a fascinating insider's perspective and will be a useful source for historians of the war for decades to come.