Matthew Parris

Those who opposed the war must not allow themselves to hope that things go wrong

Those who opposed the war must not allow themselves to hope that things go wrong

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In human governance, men matter as much as measures. If this is true for us in Europe, why should it be any less true for the occupying powers in Iraq? The governors whom America and Britain install there are not just ciphers or functionaries; their character, demeanour and local reputation will matter very much, and matter more as the smoke of war clears.

We British, whose experience of wielding imperial power is very recent, should know this perhaps better than our American counterparts in Iraq. Colonial history proves time and again that the difference between a good governor and a bad one may amount to the difference between peaceful administration and a riot. That a governor has not been chosen democratically may not make him answerable to the people in the obvious way, but it does not relieve him of the necessity to make himself admired, respected or at least feared. In some ways an imposed governor's personal standing is made more critical by the fact that he has been imposed: when people do not like their elected leaders they can blame their own choice and reflect that the solution lies in their hands. An occupied people is conscious of no such safety valve. Paradoxically, a governor – and especially a modern governor in an age which is uncertain of the legitimacy of the very role – needs to be a bit of a populist.

In very recent British history, two men have proved themselves conspicuously able as governors to balance diktat and populism. Both were politicians before they were governors. Both had experience not only of running things while keeping their fingers to the wind of public opinion, but also of handling fractious political groupings. Chris Patten in Hong Kong, and now Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia, have understood how to combine authority with a popular touch.

I doubt Chris Patten is available to be headhunted for a new governorship, and I am sorry. I remember walking with him through a market in Hong Kong, watching in astonishment a man more respected by a populace which had not elected him than most prime ministers, swept in on a popular mandate, could even dream of. Of course fear of the alternative had something to do with it – in an occupied country fear of the alternative always will – but there was no doubting Chris's ability to charm. Chinese people were venturing close just to touch him. A governorship is a sort of monarchy, and, like every successful modern monarch, Chris Patten knew the importance of being liked. He also knew the importance of preparing for a time when there would be no more governors.

I have not ventured out to Bosnia to see at first hand Paddy Ashdown's exercise of his office of High Representative there, but I have talked to more than one who has. Accounts concur. Mr Ashdown's energy and authority are hugely admired in Bosnia, both by the ordinary people and by those in the territory's administration whom he directs.

In truth a High Representative's powers are quite limited, but there is nobody else, and Mr Ashdown sweeps around his small kingdom, pressing the flesh, calling officials to account, striding into radio and television studios and making not only his presence but also his vision of a democratic future for Bosnia felt. He is forever telling people that he will not be around for much longer, and in time they will have to sink or swim as a self-governing nation. Most people have forgotten who the occupying powers actually are in Bosnia, and what the High Representative is the high representative of; but everybody knows Paddy. Among a frightened people, he has become the embodiment of ordered government.

An unhappier situation prevails in Iraq. Accounts, however, do not concur and I suspect that the picture of near-mayhem which some reports paint is unfair. Those of us who thought the original invasion a miscalculation may be tempted by an unconscious wish to see bad come of it now, and I think some of the reporting from Baghdad and Basra reflects that.

We should resist the temptation. Of course the response of the general population has been less ecstatic than London and Washington hoped, and the resistance to occupation – be it from Baath party recalcitrants or from new kinds of nationalism – has been more stubborn than expected. The continued loss of British, American and Iraqi lives is depressing. But behind the headlines about sabotage and ambush a picture should be building up – and if it is not yet doing so, then in time it will – of a gradual return to a sort of normality. Water supplies will return. Generators and power lines will be repaired. A measure of law and order will return to Iraqi streets.

I say so with confidence because any occupying power with the money and troops to make it worthy of that name is capable of doing this. It amounts to no more than the capability of shooting off the head of anyone who puts his own above the parapet. Establish that, and you can patrol. Once you can patrol, you can bring commerce, industry and ordinary human traffic back on to the streets, and offer people some kind of security at home. People can then get on with their jobs and family lives, which is all the majority want to do. If tiny, overstretched Britain was able to do this in Cyprus, Aden, Malaya, Kenya and many other colonial trouble spots right up to the second half of the last century – we never once handed over to its people a territory where ordinary administration had broken down – then the world's greatest superpower, with Britain's help, can in time achieve this in Iraq.

What I think is to be dreaded in Iraq is not the gaping wound but the running sore: endemic terrorism beneath the surface of an ordered administration. In places where this persists, the terrorists themselves are usually a small minority and it is always possible to report that most of the population 'support' the governing powers; the problem is that there are enough people whose support is ambivalent for the terrorists to find the limited cover they need. They cannot win because they dare not put their heads above the parapet. They cannot lose because the authorities cannot move easily below it.

The picture to be feared most is closer to the picture of post-1970s Northern Ireland or 1950s Algeria than to that of (say) Monrovia: the kind of chronic emergency where the lid can be kept on indefinitely but the cauldron keeps simmering. Should this develop, we shall look back years later and see the summer, autumn and winter of 2003, and early 2004, as the critical period during which the infection set in. Now is the time to get a grip on popular affection in Iraq.

We have someone who could do this well. I am not sure that Americans alone can. There should be a role for Paddy Ashdown in Iraq.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.