Anybody interested in helping people across the world better their lives should read Bad Days in Basra (I.B. Tauris & Co, 2008). It matters little if you seek to help establish basic security, shore up the economy, curb corruption or reform schools—it is all in there. We learn that countries like Iraq, depleted by Saddam and by the sanctions imposed by the West, and countries that are in the very early stages of economic and political development, like Afghanistan, cannot be “reconstructed” quickly, especially not by foreign powers. There is no reason to expect that the developments that took the US and the UK several generations can be achieved on the run, in war-torn zones, and among people who have priorities other than material affluence.
Bad Days in Basra is written by a person with a unique qualification to address the topic: Hilary Synnott was a British diplomat when he was appointed the man in charge of Basra (the city and the province), after the British liberated it in 2003. On first read, one may see the book as a long list of all the things one must be prepared to do when seeking to jump a country from its present dilapidated condition to that of a prosperous, democratic nation. One may think that one can take the list of all the things that went awry in Iraq, or were mismanaged, or were missing, and fix them or provide for them.
For instance, Synnott shows that one of his major problems was that the American authorities in Iraq insisted on controlling most matters from the national capital, and that all provinces follow the same national policy. You may well conclude that next time around one should allow for more local autonomy. When you read that the military and the civilian authorities marched to different drummers, you may hold that next time they must work together much more closely. Similar ideas may well come to mind when you find that funds allotted were woefully inadequate; corruption was rampant; feuds among various sectarians groups, brutal; security lacking; the occupying authorities had little understanding of local habits, traditions, preferences (even the spoken language) and so on and on. Practically every page of the book details one or more such problems.
On second read, however, it becomes all too clear that what Synnott faced in Basra, and what the US and its allies face all over Iraq and Afghanistan, is a mission impossible. To change a society requires changing all the key elements. If corruption is rampant, more money will do little good. If corruption is curbed (a major and very difficult and slow undertaking) but basic security is not provided, a cleaner government will do little good. Both in turn require political solutions which necessitate that the representatives of different tribes find ways to work things out. Fair and free elections are a fine step, unless they bring forth people who are keen to undo the democratic project and impose Sharia. I can go on and on, but best read the book: it will give you a feel, which this brief discussion cannot, of how enormous the task is, and how ill-equipped foreigners are to carry it out, especially in quick order.
For those not inclined to read one more book about the misadventures of the US and its allies in Iraq, I should say that the author is not only a man of considerable candor, but also commands a sharp wit, which turns a very depressing subject into an enjoyable read. To provide but one teaser: Soon after his arrival in Basra Mr. Synnott called on the local sheik as part of his efforts to build a relationship with the local leaders, whether elected or otherwise. The sheik presented him with a gift of a fair bunch of dates, which Mr. Synnott left in his front office to share with visitors, having precious little else to offer them other than tepid water in plastic cups. At the end of an interview with a young woman reporter, Mr. Synnott asked her if she wanted a date, to which she responded with a horrified look ( Mr. Synnott was close to retirement, several decades her senior).
It is important to read the book from cover to cover. At first one may sense that if only this or that matter had been fixed (as the author often asked London or the American authorities in Baghdad to do) the whole enterprise of redoing Iraq may have been successfully accomplished. Only as one reads on does one slowly develop the sense that it is a bridge too far, that it cannot be reached unless one stays the course at least for a generation, has very deep pockets, and a profound commitment to understanding the natives and to working with them.
Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Security First (Yale, 2007) www.securityfirstbook.com email: firstname.lastname@example.org