New FS Blog: We Meant Well, Plus a Book Coming Out This Fall

From We Meant Well Blog

The new FS blog, We Meant Well is by FSO Peter Van Buren and is a companion to his forthcoming book (coming out this fall from MacMillan), We Meant Well, How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

One of his new blog postsBureaucratic Chlamydia: What to Wear to a War?

The first part of my book details the half-assed nature of preparing people like me to live and work in a war zone. State Department personnel are recruited for Iraq without much attention to their background, physical fitness or experience. This is not much of a problem for the majority who will serve at the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad, a $1 billion dollar complex constantly referred to as “bigger than the Vatican,” a really odd comparison until you remember the Vatican burned people at the stake for believing the earth was round.


In yesterday’s post in FP’s The Best Defense, Tom Ricks writes about
playing the Iraqi base bingo and this —  

Here a Foreign Service officer speculates on which bases the United States government might like to keep in Iraq after this year. But I disagree with his notion of forward bases on the doorsteps of Iran and Syria.

Ricks was talking about Van Buren’s picks on locations of permanent bases –FOB Hammer, Victory Base Complex (VBC) and  Al-Asad Airbase.

The book presumably received clearance through the appropriate State channels, but  Mr. Van Buren told me that the book was cleared as per 3 FAM 4170. I expect that the book and the blog will get a lot of eyeballs from Foggy Bottom and elsewhere. USIP has a collection of personal accounts on the PRT experience in Iraq and Afghanistan with the latest from 2009, but I think this is the first book to come out from a State Dept officer assigned to one of those PRTs.      


In 2009, Mr. Van Buren, a Foreign Service Officer with two decades of experience received a nod to go to a PRT in Iraq only to have the offer rescinded by MED.
It turned out, he actually did go to that Iraq PRT assignment in 2009-2010. We have yet to read his insider account of that experience, but below is a pre-publication review from Library Journal:

Van Buren, Peter. We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Metropolitan: Holt. Oct. 2011. 288p. ISBN 9780805094367. $25.

A Foreign Service officer for more than two decades, Van Buren led the State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team in its effort to win over the Iraqis through invigorating social projects—like sports murals in violence-wracked neighborhoods and pastry-making classes to help folks supply goods to nonexistent cafés on rubble-strewn streets without water or electricity. Talk about the arrogance of trying to remake a world in our image without even knowing the world we are trying to remake. Billed as bitingly funny, though I’m not sure I’m laughing; an important book from someone who was there.

More about the book from the website:

From a State Department insider, the first book recounting our misguided efforts to rebuild Iraq—a shocking and rollicking true-life cross between Catch-22, Dispatches and The Ugly American.

Charged with rebuilding Iraq, would you spend taxpayer money on a sports mural in Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhood to promote reconciliation through art? How about an isolated milk factory that cannot get its milk to market? Or a pastry class training women to open cafés on bombed-out streets without water or electricity?

According to Peter Van Buren, we bought all these projects and more in the most expensive hearts-and-minds campaign since the Marshall Plan. We Meant Well is his eyewitness account of the civilian side of the surge—that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed. Leading a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team on its quixotic mission, Van Buren details, with laser-like irony, his yearlong encounter with pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers, and oblivious administrators secluded in the world’s largest embassy, who fail to realize that you can’t rebuild a country without first picking up the trash.

Darkly funny while deadly serious, We Meant Well is a tragicomic voyage of ineptitude and corruption that leaves its writer—and readers—appalled and disillusioned but wiser.

We’re looking forward to reading the book.


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Funding Smart Power Maybe Smart, But What About My Re-election?

Joseph S. Nye Jr., professor at Harvard and author of The Future of Power writes Foreign Policy: Cutting From Foreign Aid Doesn’t Help.  Excerpt below:

[…] On Tuesday, the axe fell: The State Department and foreign operations budget was slashed by $8.5 billion — a pittance when compared to military spending, but one that could put a serious dent in the United States’ ability to positively influence events abroad.
[…]
Now, in the name of an illusory contribution to deficit reduction (when you’re talking about deficits in the trillions, $38 billion in savings is a drop in the bucket), those efforts have been set back. Polls consistently show a popular misconception that aid is a significant part of the U.S. federal budget, when in fact it amounts to less than 1 percent. Thus, congressional cuts to aid in the name of deficit reduction are an easy vote, but a cheap shot.
[…]
In 2007, Richard Armitage and I co-chaired a bipartisan Smart Power Commission of members of Congress, former ambassadors, retired military officers, and heads of non-profit organizations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. We concluded that America’s image and influence had declined in recent years and that the United States had to move from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope.

The Smart Power Commission was not alone in this conclusion. Even when he was in the George W. Bush administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on Congress to commit more money and effort to soft-power tools including diplomacy, economic assistance, and communications because the military alone cannot defend America’s interests around the world.
[…]
The obstacles to integrating America’s soft- and hard-power tool kit have deep roots, and the Obama administration is only beginning to overcome them, by creating a second deputy at State, reinvigorating USAID, and working with the Office of Management and Budget. Increasing the size of the Foreign Service, for instance, would cost less than the price of one C-17 transport aircraft, yet there are no good ways to assess such a tradeoff in the current form of budgeting. Now, that progress may be halted.
[…]
Leadership in a global information age is less about being the king of the mountain issuing commands that cascade down a hierarchy than being the person in the center of a circle or network who attracts and persuades others to come help. Both the hard power of coercion and the soft power of attraction and persuasion are crucial to success in such situations. Americans need better to understand both these dimensions of smart power.

Nowhere is this more true than on Capitol Hill. While Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have spoken about the importance of soft power, they do not have to face the American electorate. As a friend in Congress once told me, “You are right about the importance of combining soft power with hard power, but I cannot talk about soft power and hope to get re-elected.” The defense budget affects almost all congressional constituencies in the United States; the budgets for State and USAID do not. The result is a foreign policy that rests on a defense giant and a number of pygmy departments. For example, when Gates and Clinton recently agreed to transfer an aid program from the Pentagon to the State Department, the program’s budget was cut in half. And now, Foggy Bottom faces cuts across the board.

Congress needs to be serious about deficit reduction, and it also needs to be serious about foreign policy. The events of the past week suggest it is serious about neither.

Read in full here.


US Mission Afghanistan: Amb. Eikenberry Visits PRT Farah

U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry visited Farah Province and met with Governor Amin, PRT Commander Joseph Bozzelli, PRT lead civilian Mark Thornburg and PRT USAID Ben Kauffeld and Marsha Michel. They visited an agricultural market and also a newly built Appeals Court for improving Rule of Law in the province.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.
Photos from US Embassy Kabul/Flickr