Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Revolt on the Tigris

I go to the county library once every three weeks. I usually take out five or six books, expecting that one or two of them will turn out to be worth reading. The books I have now are all good. But it's Mark Etherington's book Revolt on the Tigris that I keep returning to. In October 2003, Etherington became the "Governorate Coordinator" in the Iraqi province of Wasit, just south of Baghdad. Wasit is one of four provinces for which the British assumed the awesome responsibility of reconstruction.
"What was needed was the broadest possible participation of Iraqis in the political and physical re-fashioning of the country. Where there was no civil society it should be created. Where we had established sets of regular interlocutors we should now add others to broaden and reinvigorate political debate. Councils should be established in towns and villages where there were none -- Iraqis should be given a stake in the democratic process. There was a caveat -- there should be no elections. We were not ready for them..."

I readily admit my anglophilia. Etherington hits the nail on the head with this description:
"One of the points about the British, I often explain to American friends, is that the cult of the amateur is historically important. Calm under-statement is also essential. One should not be seen to try too hard at anything, or ever to claim competence in any sphere at all. This gets the British into all kinds of difficulties, particularly when applying for jobs. A friend of mine insists that the only correct response when asked if one has any interests is to look one's interlocutor straight in the eye and firmly reply "None whatsoever." The late nineteenth-century British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury once characterized his view of British foreign policy as floating gently downstream in a boat and putting out one's oar at intervals to avoid collisions."
You have to love someone who describes Ambassador Paul Bremmer as "unclubbable," that is, "a man who would not mix or invite one for a beer in the evening."

But universal truths crop up repeatedly in Etherington's book.
"The principal moral danger of taking part in great endeavours is the human temptation to be an onlooker rather than to assume the active and evaluative role for which one has been employed."
"The Iraqis" seemed at once to long for change -- and to kick against the bondage of occupation while simultaneously avowing that Iraq was incapable of self-betterment. They wanted, I thought, a miracle; but almost without exception none saw themselves as a part of the solution."
Isn't that true of Americans, too, in the face of almost any problem?

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