On Rory Stewart’s ‘Occupational Hazards’

I wanted to build a gate for the souk as a permanent gift from the [Coalition Provisional Authority] to Amara, so that there would be at least one enduring trace of our presence. We discussed this with the governor, showed him photographs of traditional souk gates from Egypt to Kuwait, and suggested a competition for the design. The governor returned the next day with a design for a concrete arch, to be faced with bright modern bathroom tiles and fairy lights. Again we had to choose whether to empower the governor. We overruled him; the gate was never built.

Acknowledging failure is never an easy thing. It requires maturity, character and practice, so much so that the spectacle of seeing it done really well is strangely moving — at once levelling and liberating. This, for example, probably explains why even those of us who can’t stomach Orwell’s politics nevertheless regard Homage to Catalonia as a masterpiece. Effective rhetoric matters as much as sincerity: lack of bitterness is as important as the appearance of candour. Irony is necessary, up to a point, yet if taken too far becomes unwelcome, a distraction both from that necessarily wry, ‘what can I have been thinking?’ tone, but also from the flashes of real, still-raw anger, without which the whole exercise fails to persuade or convince.

By any standard, Rory Stewart’s Occupational Hazards (2006) deserves to be set alongside Homage to Catalonia. In September 2003, the 30-year old Stewart — an ex-diplomat whose almost uncannily assured, entirely compelling account of a journey on foot across part of Afghanistan, The Places In Between, appeared in June 2004 — was appointed deputy governor first of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, provinces in the marsh regions of southern Iraq, working on behalf of the occupying Coalition Provision Authority [CPA].

Over the next eleven months, Stewart struggled to make the CPA’s writ run in territory variously impoverished, semi-feudal and chaotic, amid a population traumatised by Saddam’s rule and radicalised by Iranian influence — encountering people pragmatic and chaotic, resourceful and evasive, their behaviour often deceptive to outsiders where it wasn’t simply unintelligible. Faced with this intractable mess, Stewart worked to understand the intricacies of local genealogies and tribal structures, immersed himself both in ancient and recent history, struggled to get the electricity working and salaries paid on time, negotiated hostage releases, engineered political compromises of extraordinary complexity and fragility, held elections, tried to establish something resembling a vaguely normal police service, participated in lengthy meetings abounding in heart-felt references to ‘gender equality’, ‘democratic transformation’, ‘capacity-building’ and so forth, all the while attempting — in the end, not entirely successfully — to prevent the expulsion of the CPA’s own staff, rule by Sadrist militias and local gangsters, the persistent violent disorder eventually shading into something very like civil war.

‘I wanted to build a gate …’ The short passage about the souk gate quoted above is really just a sort of rueful aside, one very minor incident set against much larger narratives. Clearly if quietly, though, it sounds the book’s central theme of well-intentioned failure. Stewart arrived in Iraq with limited expectations about what the occupying forces could hope to achieve — he hoped that they might, as he puts it, be able to ‘out-perform Saddam’ — but by June 2004, when the CPA transferred sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government, it was far from clear that even this modest goal had been attained.

Stewart emphasises, toward the end of the book, that the problem here wasn’t, as is often stated, some sort of failure of planning:

Even critics of the war mistake our capacity. Those who blame stupidity in the administration, the early decisions of Bremer or the failures to win ‘hearts and minds’ share many of the assumptions of the administration itself: principally that the invasion could succeed if the invaders were competent.

That the problem was a more fundamental one — a chronic under-estimate of Iraqi society, culture and politics — is less spelled out than it is illustrated, again and again, by the small-scale, localised, intensely human interactions that constitute the bulk of Occupational Hazards and make it the masterpiece that it is, a book which will ring true long after the circumstances in which it was created have, at least in the UK and US, lapsed into welcome oblivion.

For when Stewart expresses his desire to leave ‘at least one enduring trace of our presence’ at Nasiriyah, on the banks of the Euphrates River, not far from the 4,100 year old if much-reconstructed  Ziggurat of Ur, he reflects a reality perhaps more obvious to the Iraqis themselves than to the occupying forces or their civilian administrators. For all their experience and commitment, CPA staff struggle to engage in any genuine way with the people of Iraq, understand little of what goes on and in any event, won’t be there forever. There are plenty of points in the book where Iraqis mock Stewart, reminding him of the CPA’s long-term irrelevance. There are also plenty of points where they blame him for the lack of jobs, electricity, security, infrastructure and funding for reconstruction — for all the world as if the CPA were supplying none of these things (not true — under the circumstances, they did quite a lot) and also, more to the point, as if the Iraqis themselves were doomed to be nothing more than aggrieved spectators, decrying their own wretched circumstances yet in no way responsible for improving them. While Stewart claims to have come close to resigning over those photos from Abu Ghraib prison, the Iraqis he meets hardly comment on them: ‘I saw for the first time that they had always assumed we were doing these things and had never believed my statements about human rights and the rule of law’.

Perversely, the politics of occupation seem to have deformed the evolution of the sort of stable civil society anticipated by some observers once Saddam’s regime was overthrown. As Stewart writes,

Iraqi politicians frequently proved their capacity to compromise, control their militias and cut deals with the armed opponents. And, unlike the Coalition, they were now elected. […] But so long as foreign troops were present, pragmatic Iraqis left the fighting to them. Even the Iraqi police and military were reluctant to battle insurgents who claimed to fight for Islam and Iraq against foreign invasion. Our presence encouraged Iraqi politicians to be uncompromising because they could rely on the Coalition to support them against their enemies. And when they tried to compromise, we frustrated them. […] Our withdrawal would have forced Iraqis to take responsibility; it would have put more pressure on politicians to settle with their opponents, broadened the kinds of deals they could offer, and undermined the legitimacy and popularity of the insurgents.

These words from the Epilogue sound, admittedly, like rather abstract, generalising, anaesthetic stuff. In that sense, for all its clarity, the quotation is far from typical of Occupational Hazards.

Elsewhere, it’s obvious that Stewart is impatient with generalisations. His text is focused instead on individuals, their complex motivations, antipathies and enthusiasms, their bravery, irresponsibility or indeed callous cruelty, all complete with names, family history, local context and an accumulating sense of despair. The density of detail is sometimes bewildering, but then, at some level, that’s exactly the point. As Stewart more or less says in the Epilogue (this is a rather broad paraphrase, by the way), governing isn’t easy, and governing someone else’s country is almost impossible — entailing as it must, at least for a liberal occupying force, giving people the freedom to do things that are not only not very liberal, but sometimes silly or downright wicked, too.

Stewart believes, I think, that Iraq’s future may turn out to be relatively benign. This is less the result of the invasion, though, than something happening despite it, at a cost in human terms of which Occupational Hazards remains consistently conscious, even at those points — and there are surprisingly many of them — where the tone is affectionately bemused, or even bleakly funny. And it’s hard to put down the book without concluding, however unwillingly or cautiously, that Stewart may well be right.

Because Stewart is setting out the choreography of his own disillusionment — which is to say, in some very real sense, his own personal failure to achieve what he had hoped and wished to achieve in Iraq — Occuptational Hazards never strikes the declamatory, self-righteous note of conventional anti-war tracts. The son of a diplomat (‘deeply involved in counterinsurgency operations against guerrillas fighting the British colonial government of what is now Malaysia’, apparently) and an academic economist, Stewart — a Scot who spent his first eight years in Hong Kong and Malaysia, served with the Black Watch between Eton and Balliol College Oxford, famously passed a summer tutoring Princes William and Harry, was fast-tracked within the FCO’s diplomatic corps, was awarded the OBE for his services in Iraq, runs a successful Kabul-based charitable foundation much favoured by HRH the Prince of Wales, and now enjoys the title of Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University — would seem to lack counter-cultural credibility. He’s pretty obviously not some ex-Troops Out stalwart, Socialist Worker rent-a-trot or congenitally aggrieved academic.

And this, in turn, coupled with the unflashy lucidity of Stewart’s prose, is what makes Occupational Hazards such a very dangerous book. Whatever else it may achieve — whatever praise it may merit as literature or travel writing or first-draft history — it also provides a frame of reference in which the sort of conventionally patriotic, small-c conservatives who like to think they support our armed forces and who have little time for pacificism per se, can nevertheless articulate and justify the disquiet they feel not only about Britain’s engagement in Iraq but also, increasingly, in Afghanistan as well.

In the years since Occupational Hazards was published, Stewart has created a role for himself as a robust opponent of ever-increasing US and UK military involvement in Afghanistan, favouring instead a policy of scaled-down but continuing humanitarian commitment coupled with very tightly focused anti-terrorism measures, requiring perhaps 20,000 foreign troops on the ground. He condemns the goal of transforming Afghanistan into a modern, liberal state as fundamentally hopeless. In contrast, the leadership of the UK’s main political parties — and the main US political parties too, as far as I know — are ready to support increased troop levels, an ever-larger military footprint and, it appears, an ever-more amorphous and open-ended remit. At the same time, in Britain, at least, at least one poll has found that only one third of all voters support increased troop numbers, while more than half of all voters would prefer an immediate withdrawal. Whatever history will make of Stewart’s evolving views on this matter — and it’s quite typical of him to speak of policy decisions in terms of how history will regard them, rather than electoral expediency — it’s possible that even short-term political realities will make him look quite prescient.

Amidst all this, Stewart himself remains something of an enigma. Odd strands of biographical information surface briefly, then vanish again amid the swirl of the events taking place around him. We learn, for instance, that

in April 2002, after twenty months travelling in Asia, I returned from Afghanistan to my home in the Highlands of Scotland, a mile from the nearest town on the edge of a wood. There I wrote and planted trees: four hundred gean, rowan, Scots pine, oak, box and Simla deodar.

We learn that in Nasiriyah he kept oatcakes and marmalade in his office desk, and that on a flight back from Uzbekistan, aged 25, he occupied the time with writing poems to a blonde girl with whom he’d spend a week there, but who never answered his emails. Needless to say, the girl surfaces again in Iraq, if only so that Stewart — a convincing knight in shining armour when he’s not being some kilt-clad Highland version of the Virgilian soldier-farmer-poet — can play a part in rescuing her boyfriend from decapitation by the local Sadr militia. The acknowledgement of failure regarding Iraq would, of course, be less striking if those who failed weren’t so clearly successes in other, perhaps more important ways.

Much has been written about Stewart’s modesty, but it’s difficult to read Occupational Hazards without reaching the conclusion that Stewart has less than most of us do about which to be modest. When his compound at Nasiriyah is under sustained attack from the Sadrists, shells falling all around, parts of the compound being blown away every hour, the distinctly dubious support of the Italian ‘Quick Reaction Force’ still many hours away, Stewart is a model of courage and sang froid, providing what tough ex-British Army bodyguards would later call ‘real leadership’. Heaven knows, this is impressive enough. But he also finds time to raise the spirits of the civilian staff by calling them into his office, blocking the windows with mattresses and pillows, opening a bottle of wine, handing out the aforementioned marmalade and oatcakes, and blaring out Cosi Fan Tuti on his laptop computer. ‘I would have preferred bagpipes,’ he writes, almost apologetically — but close readers will have guessed this already.

It’s inconceivable, I guess, that someone blessed with Stewart’s rhetorical skills and lively curiosity fails to see that such a story reflects well on him. To be fair, there are lots of other points in Occupational Hazards where Stewart portrays himself in a marginally less heroic light. He loses his temper, he elbows into things that probably aren’t really his business, he has his own blind spots and he never manages to charm the famous Prince of the Marshes, Abu Hatim — although in the end it turns out that the Prince was a bad egg anyway, so perhaps that last actually reads as yet another point in Stewart’s favour. Having thought long and hard, though, about whether Stewart is actually some sort of monster of impacted egotism — and concluded, on balance, that he’s probably actually quite nice — the far more interesting point turns out to relate to the model of heroism Stewart’s books and other writings acknowledge. Unfashionably, Stewart neglects the heroism of victimhood, preferring instead an almost nostalgic heroism of good manners, humane intelligence, courageous endeavour and virtuous leadership. For the reactionaries amongst us, then, Stewart’s unabashed anachronism is not the least of his appealing qualities.

Stewart recently expressed a desire to answer David Cameron’s call for more non-politicians to stand for Parliament in the Conservative interest  — a remark I dismissed as mere enjoyable kite-flying until discovering, about a week ago, that Stewart is now, rather astonishingly, on the candidates’ list.

It’s hard to know where to begin in highlighting the already conspicuous beauty-and-the-beast weirdness of this relationship. In particular, why on earth would someone like Stewart wish to shackle himself to the increasingly regimented, repressed, gloomily resentful parliamentary party? For one thing, it’s far from clear that life as a very junior backbench MP would accord him more influence than, say, two hugely successful books, a Harvard professorship, what must surely be a jaw-dropping contacts list, a Time magazine cover-story, important articles in the LRB and elsewhere, giving evidence in front of a US Senate foreign relations committee, or even, heaven help us, presenting a BBC series on Lawrence of Arabia, or having parts of his life made into a film starring Orlando Bloom.

This, though, is obvious stuff — the sort of extravagant personal sacrifices that Stewart, no stranger to penitential hardship, might well undertake on a whim. Let us leave them aside. Let us leave aside also the question of whether the sort of local associations who increasingly look askance at even the odd light bit of Westminster-based consulting would welcome a candidate juggling a charitable foundation in Kabul, a professorship in Massachusetts, lecture tours and learned colloquia galore, plus a family life in the Highlands of Scotland and whatever other adventure he decides to undertake next. Let us leave aside, finally, our surprise that Stewart would be willing to undertake the everyday minor humiliations of being treated, as all MPs apparently must in the wake of the recent expenses scandal, as permanently guilty-until-proven-innocent, his financial affairs permanently subject to intense and intrusive scrutiny, any personal wealth (no matter how he’s acquired it, or what he does with it) taken by the media as proof-positive of his ultimate venality and lack of scruples. Alert to deeply-rooted cultural sensitivities as he clearly is, Stewart may have to abandon his slightly risky habit of suggesting that St ‘What Would Winston Do?’ Churchill ever even proposed to do anything slightly, err, ‘flawed’, lest the natives at ConHome are provoked into open revolt. It may take a while, too, before he feels comfortable confiding his insights not to the LRB or the New York Times op-ed pages, but to Grazia instead.

No, what I cannot figure out is what Stewart hopes to gain in jettisoning his hard-won non-partisan status. Stewart is, at present, rather widely respected — most politicians, Tory or otherwise, are not. Suddenly, whether or not he’s allowed to speak even relatively freely — and given Cameron’s track-record on this subject, the prospects are not encouraging — once he’s an MP, he’ll clearly have to follow the lead of Team Cameron on all sorts of policy matters, great and trivial. He’ll have to devote most of his waking hours to the wearing business of suffering fools gladly, defending whatever indefensible U-turns George Osborne has dreamed up that particular morning, embracing with pure delight whatever act of transparent opportunism Dave himself has concocted that afternoon. How congenial all this will be is an open question. Both in Occupational Hazards and The Places in Between, it’s quite clear that Stewart, for all his ability to work in a team, thrives on autonomy. The first half of The Places in Between depicts Stewart trying to free himself from his unwanted official escorts, while much of Occupational Hazards shows Stewart, in effect, constrained by other people’s lack of insight, bureaucratic inertia and a basically flawed high-level strategy. Stewart could, I have no doubt, bring something to the Tories. It is rather less clear what the Tories could bring to Stewart, or even whether they’d have the wit to welcome what he has to offer.

Stewart’s politics remain fairly inscrutable, although within the somewhat surreal context of direct rule of an Iraqi province containing nearly a million souls, a few points do become clear. Stewart is no great fan of unwieldy administrative structures or central planning; he admires displays of individual and community initiative; his commitment to localism may well range beyond architecture and craftsmanship; he’s pragmatic rather than ideological; he embraces contingency and complexity; he’s more than willing to bend the rules to achieve his ends. He’s very good with the media: he can survive a confrontational interview and emerge from it with credit, but is also capable of treating a mildly senescent Frost with all the polite respect he might more plausibly accord to some girlfriend’s ancient, erratic great-grandfather. (This latter point is all the more striking, given the truly dreadful mistake Frost makes in his words of dismissal. Astonishingly, Stewart manages to smile on regardless — visible evidence, I guess, of the skills that made him a more-than-passable diplomat.) He also clearly seeks to straddle enormous cultural chasms, establishing a basic shared humanity and defining common goals, which is why he apparently feels drawn to parliamentary constituencies with substantial Muslim populations, e.g. Wycombe.

How Stewart’s Iraqi experiences would translate into UK policy terms remains, of course, to be seen. If we get to a point at which London is lucky to have four hours’ worth of faltering electricity a day, where public sector salaries go unpaid for months at a time and where Committees of Public Safety are cobbled together to deal with the armed militias, Stewart will be in his element — but those of you who are slightly more optimistic than I am regarding the first twelve months of Cameron In Power will perhaps wish to hear from Stewart clearer statements on dreary subjects like economic and fiscal policy, the future of the NHS and state-run education, infrastructure funding, environmental policy, immigration, crime and anti-social behaviour, electoral and constitutional reform, on which he might well be expected to take a view as a Conservative candidate.

How far Stewart could go is similarly questionable — yet it’s clearly a question he’s already asking himself. In the interview in which I first read of his parliamentary ambitions, the following exchange takes place between Stewart and Financial Times journalist Emily Stokes:

“Do you think I should be a politician, Emily?” he asks. I say why not. “Do you think I should I be prime minister?”

Political life affords few pleasures as simple and genuine as that achieved by imagining David Cameron, confronted with the sudden realisation that someone considerably brighter, better connected, more ruthless, possibly more conservative, at least as grand yet far more well-rounded and charismatic than he is — six years younger, too — is after his job. Well, it made me smile, anyway.

On balance, then, I wish Stewart well in his ambitions. He won’t, I suppose, have an easy time of it. He will face, presumably, not only the well-earned resentment conventionally directed at A-list candidates and those whose hands and hearts do not bear the scars of a thousand evening survey-canvasses, but also the particularly septic resentment reserved for those who’ve actually achieved something interesting in life. To paraphrase Dr Johnson, there probably are at least a few men out there who, however unconsciously, think meanly of themselves for not having been Rory Stewart — thus garnering for Stewart their implacable hatred and contempt. Obviously, there will also be others who distrust his fascination with forms of experience other than our own, his lack of interest in trying to appear remotely ordinary, his respect for what’s best in Islam, and perhaps most of all, his emphatic preference, both at home and abroad, for something other than the ultimate all-consuming triumph of liberal cultural imperialism. Stewart has, however, managed improbable and possibly inadvisable feats before, not only surviving to tell the tale, but to tell it with some brilliance. And if, as all political careers apparently must, his own sojourn within the Conservative party ends in failure — and again, I think I rather hope it doesn’t — well then, let it be a noble failure, at least, once again elegantly acknowledged, without bitterness, but with more than a little cleansing anger.

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7 Comments

Filed under books, politics, reviews, Tory things

7 responses to “On Rory Stewart’s ‘Occupational Hazards’

  1. This is an excellent review, and overview, of a fascinating figure, of which I am sure we will be hearing much more. In terms of domestic UK politics, at the very least, with his hitherto unfettered independence of thought, Rory Stewart seems the antithesis of a corporate middle manager, with which, over the past 30 years, sadly, Britain, British consciousness – and British politics, on both ‘sides’ – has become engorged. If one invented a character like Stewart for a novel, no-one would believe the character to be credible – but then, as one constantly discovers, life is almost always more than art.

  2. A few weeks, it turns out, can feel like a long time in politics — who knew?

    Since writing that review — and your generous comment regarding it is, of course, much appreciated, all the more so after I had a look at your own extremely interesting website — I’ve become, for all sorts of reasons, increasingly enthusiastic about Stewart’s potential contribution to UK politics.

    The detail, admittedly, still baffles me. How will he balance all those other commitments with his parliamentary duties? Why does he even want to be an MP? Above all else, what on earth are his actual politics, international relations aside, really like — or to put it another way, in what sense is he plausibly a conservative?

    He might very well, in other words, turn out to be a disaster, albeit a fascinating one. On the other hand, I couldn’t agree more with your remarks about corporate middle managers. I’m bored rigid with standard-issue politicians who play it safe, do as they’re told and who’d regard an original thought, were they ever to encounter such a thing, as a particular worthless amalgam of eccentricity, risk and disloyalty to the party hierarchy, very much to be discouraged. Whereas, whatever his defects may be — a subject of considerable interest, if only because they are by no means easy to discover — Stewart is, at least, not boring.

    Being rather more serious for a moment, Stewart’s powerful critique of current US and UK policy on Afghanistan could also do with a wider hearing, not least in the mindlessly hawkish upper realms of the Cameroon ruling clique, as could his apparent conviction that Islam is best engaged with, at home as much as abroad, on the basis of knowledge, good manners and confidence rather than ignorance, bigotry and paranoia.

    I should add, in case anyone’s interested, that Stewart now seems to be on the short-list for at least three seats: Bracknell, Wycombe and Penrith and the Border. The last would, I guess, be the best for long walks.

    In any event, though, thank you very much for taking the time to comment. As you rightly put it, ‘life is almost always more than art’. Who knows what Stewart’s page-turner of a biographical profile will turn up next? I’m sure we’re not the only ones following this story with interest …

  3. My pleasure! Thank you very much for engaging so positively in this discourse. I know what you mean about him potentially having so many jobs (I have difficulty managing two!), though on the other hand, as you’ve suggested, having more MPs with active hinterlands can be a good thing. I’m really pleased, too that I’ve discovered ‘Fugitive Ink’!

  4. On the contrary, it sounds as if you’re rather good at managing your various jobs with considerable success!

    Fugitive Ink has its problems, but it sometimes does absolutely astonish me with the calibre of writers and thinkers it attracts as occasional commentators — which is obviously a great encouragement, although it does sometimes make me self-conscious about my sloppier, more slapdash episodes of prose-construction.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comments. I shall look forward to comparing notes with you on Rory Stewart’s career, and what its success (or otherwise) implies about our wider world.

  5. 1) I don’t understand this comment: “my sloppier, more slapdash episodes of prose-construction.” It doesn’t fit with the content of your blog.

    2) I don’t approve of hawkish foreign politics that consist in doing precisely what either the US government or the European Commission dictate.

    However, I think there is a proper reason for the continuity in British foreign policy since 1941: what has become the UK-USA Security Agreement.

    When this began, the British had Bletchley Park, which provided at least some parity to the arrangement.

    Since the end of the Second World War, and the great increase in the intelligence gathering capacity, the dominant partner has been the USA.

    One explanation I’ve heard for the continued relationship is that, post-Watergate, it is convenient for the politicians in both countries to be able to swear that they have not broken any rules about spying on their own citizens: the work is subcontracted to the other partner.

    To take a hypothetical case. If the UK’s Special Branch wanted to phone tap a suspected Communist activist in Yorkshire (who MIGHT have contacts with a foreign government), some sort of warrant would be needed. But the US National Security Agency could do the job without breaking any US laws. I would be amazed if US intelligence agencies hadn’t found ways of getting similar services in return from allies.

    The British Prime Minister gets a copy of the intelligence briefing that the US President gets. The price is that British troops have become barabarian auxiliaries (in the Roman military sense).

    Should the next British Prime Minister refuse this arrangement? I don’t know. But the advantages are too strong to be ignored lightly.

  6. Antoine,

    1) Not such a difficult concept, is it? Maybe I just put it badly, but all I was trying to say is that, because blogging is only a very marginal part of my life and because I can only afford to devote a vanishingly tiny amount of time to writing, quite a lot of what turns up here is written in enormous haste, isn’t even proof-read by me let alone by anyone else, and hence is over-written, under-considered and, frankly, a bit rubbish, in the sense that sometimes, when re-reading it, it puzzles even me. In general I accept all this, because I know a lot of other bloggers operate under similar constraints, and because most readers are generous in their willingness to work out what I meant to say, even when it doesn’t quite add up to what I did, in fact, write. But now and then, I’m reminded that some of my readers are, themselves, more careful, thoughtful and competent writers than I am. What’s wrong with admitting that?

    2) Hmm, perhaps so — a thought-provoking line of argument, anyway, with welcome references to ancient Rome, and doubtless worth pondering — although not something about which I know enough to comment with any seriousness.

    Anyway, thanks, as ever, for your comments. You always do shed light on things from interesting angles.

  7. I meant that “sloppy” is not what comes to mind when I think of your writing. Far from it.

    It is true that more would be nice. But I’m certainly not the one to complain about that!