This is a difficult book to review. It is the the chronicle of Rory Stewart, professional diplomat, adventurer, politician and all-round old school colonial officer. He details his efforts after his appointment as ad interim governor of the marshland province of Maysan in Iraq, with virtually unlimited powers and little or no help or information, somewhat like a Roman proconsul in a hostile province. Few people have been in anything remotely like this sort of position, so it is hard to find a standard to judge the book by.
"The Prince of the Marshes" is certainly a very informative book. It is astonishingly detailed in every aspect of the rule of Iraq in the early years of the occupation after the 2003 war, from the local tribal and religious leaders and their individual proclivities to the boardroom discussions with Paul Bremer. One gets a sense he leaves very little out that he was permitted to put in (likely security reasons proscribe some information). It is to some degree also a personal book, although not as much as his travelogue of Afghanistan in 2002, "The Places in Between" (The Places In Between), but given the more formal and impersonal nature of his job in Iraq that should come as no surprise. It is an intriguing and at times exciting book also. Stewart's deft attempts to engage with the many different power players in Maysan and their constantly shifting contradictory interests and alliances, and the sense of total disinformation and opacity of politics in Iraq, make for fascinating reading. His survival of various mob riots and militia offensives against his office are an extra thrilling diversion in between, although I'm sure Stewart at the time would have preferred it differently. He manages amazingly well to keep the narrative clear and structured despite the perpetual confusion around him, and a moderately informed reader should have no difficulty remembering names or meanings.
That said, there is also much missing from the book. Stewart says he wants the reader to make up their own mind as to the purpose and success of the occupation in Iraq, but precisely his lack of much reflection on this subject makes the point of the book somewhat unclear, informative as it is. He also insists that the use of political concepts to describe the situation in Iraq are wrong, whether it's talk of classes or of civil wars; instead, he insists it is all about the personal relations between the relevant individuals, and whether or not the 'reconstruction' of Iraq succeeds stands and falls with that. But he gives the reader absolutely no reason to believe that he is right about this, and neither does the history of empires and occupations of the past. Rory Stewart himself often reflects on how his position differs from that of the British colonial officer of olden times, who would be more or less permanently in one place and would have intimate knowledge of local conditions as well as a clear goal (maintaining the colonizer's power), whereas he is there very temporarily and barely knows Arabic. But this is all the more reason to disbelieve the idea that the personal attributes of this or that leader, whether they are American or Iraqi (like the eponymous Prince of the Marshes), matters very much to how events developed and will develop in Iraq. Stewart's refusal to do any systematic analysis is a result of the lack of knowledge and skills to govern Iraq on the part of the occupation, and yet he is not willing to acknowledge this but attempts to make a virtue of it. This is simply unconvincing.
It is true nonetheless that the book does well maintain a balance in its description of the occupation, and both proponents and opponents will be able to find ammunition for their position in it. On the whole, I would say it does not lend itself as well to the cause of the proponents; Stewart is eventually put in charge of the province of Dhi Qar which is even worse off than Maysan, and he leaves in both places in a spate of sectarian and nationalist violence. What is particularly important about the book with respect to 'success' or not in Iraq is not so much his own successes or failures, but the internal relations in Iraq itself as he portrays them. Despite the reformist-nationalist policies of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is clearly a deeply divided country; and not just by religion, but also economically. Regional and class divides in income and education are enormous, unemployment was and is very high, and the Iraqi secular left is strong among the workers but greatly hampered by the still very rural and underdeveloped nature of most of Iraq's countryside, as well as by the religious divides. Saddam's tyrannical policies against his own people and especially Shia and Kurdish rebels need little elaboration, but what is important is to also not overstate his socio-economic successes (although some of the problems were caused by the sanctions policy). This book gives some evidence of that. Nonetheless, it is not at all clear from "The Prince of the Marshes" that anyone in the occupation is at all capable of improving any of this, and indeed since occupation the socio-economic indicators have become much worse.
Overall, the "Prince of the Marshes" is fascinating and highly informative reading to get an impression of what contemporary Iraq is like and how difficult it is to govern or manage, whether by politicians or officers. It also gives some more insight into the already highly remarkable career of Rory Stewart, who is standing in the coming elections as candidate for the constituency of Penrith and the Border, unsurprisingly for the Conservative Party. Since he is almost certain to be elected there, one can expect some great political future for him in Britain too, given his indisputable talents and his Eton background. But this book is not the best to turn to for analysis of the political situation and prospects of Iraq.