Wednesday, May 02, 2007


I've been lucky recently: I've hit a rich vein of fascinating books. The latest is Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It is an astonishing, darkly funny read, which shows what happened when the acolytes of neo-conservative ideology collided with the reality of Iraq. I am less than halfway through but key among the failures so far was the de-Baathification programme, which disqualified most of the key personnel in Iraq's one-party state and command economy from holding any kind of office, creating unemployment, resentment and the seeds of the later insurgency at a stroke.

Hindsight of course is a wonderful thing, but eighty years earlier the British had done much the same thing, dismissing the existing Ottoman administration in Iraq - composed mainly of Sunni Arabs, as it was in 2003 - and replacing them with British political officers, with disastrous consequences.

Then this evening I happened to read a comment by Gertrude Bell in January 1921, when she was looking back on what might have been. "Think" she wrote to her father, "if we had begun establishing native institutions two years ago! By now we should have got Arab govt and an Army going; we should have had no tribal revolt; all the money and lives wasted this year would have been saved."

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