Peter Van Buren’s "We Meant Well" and the Disresponsibility in Iraq Reconstruction

I received a pre-publication copy of Peter Van Buren’s book,“We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle For the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” (Metropolitan Books, 2011). The author is a career member of the United States Foreign Service and served a tour at a PRT in Iraq from 2009-2010.  I spent the last few days reading the book, which is bitingly funny, snarky, sad, all of the above.  The author is an engaging storyteller of our unfortunate misadventures in Iraq.  When I asked the author what made him write this book, he said, “I wanted to tell people back home what I was seeing … I wanted to bring home with me a record of what America was doing in Iraq. I wanted to remember everything.”

In addition to being an engaging storyteller, the author was smart enough not to fill his book with too much government jargon and acronyms that you need a dictionary just to read it. People back home, if they’d bother to pick up the book will find it a fast read.  It is also a book that will be a helpful addition to our understanding of what is wrong in Iraq, provided that we care and want to know. For the plenty squeezed and suffering American taxpayers, this would be a hard book to read.

At some point in the book, he asks:

“How many PRT staff members does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One to hire a contractor who fails to complete the job and two to write the press release in the dark. We measured the impact of our projects by their effect on us, not by their effect on the Iraqis. Output was the word missing from the vocabulary of developing Iraq.”

It’s easy to see why the folks in Foggy Bottom will be none to pleased with the stories in this book.

Learning from one’s mistakes is one of life’s most important skills. And if we are really serious about learning the mistakes of nation building in Iraq, Peter Van Buren’s book should be required reading not just for decision makers but for everyone heading to those PRT gigs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan and where ever else it is we are conducting reconstruction and stabilization efforts these days.

Required reading of this book is not in great danger of happening soon. Although if my readers at the Executive Office of the President is are interested, I will personally ask permission from the author and publisher to send them my digital copy of the book as a public service. Email me here, you guys!

About the lack of comfort in Iraq, Peter Van Buren writes, “We lacked a lot of things in Iraq: flush toilets, fresh vegetables, the comfort of family members nearby, and of course adult supervision, strategic guidance, and common sense.”

Well, I’m glad somebody finally came around to admit that one.

Of Deaths and Absurdities

This is a book about his reconstruction experience at a PRT in Iraq, a country that we broke and have failed to put together again like Humpty Dumpty. In the sad chapter entitled Missing Him, he writes about death –

“In Iraq, I saw a girl crushed when a wall collapsed, her face looking like a Halloween pumpkin a few days too late. There was a drowned man in an irrigation ditch, gray and bloated, no eyes, no fucking eyes.”

And about that third suicide in his FOB:

“A young Captain rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”

I must confess I cried reading that chapter. I can’t say why. I just did.

All sorts of absurdities abound in the book including the fact that FSOs undergo defensive driving skills when none of the FSOs ever drove on the streets of Iraq and they don’t go anywhere without a driver and tons of security escorts; a weapons familiarization course when all FSOs in Iraq never carried guns. I thought you learn those things and you practice to get better at them; it’s not like you get an embedded chip and you just go on operation mode.  So if the only time FSOs fire a weapon is during a week of training (coupled with crash and burn driving) at some farm in the U.S. can FSOs really be expected to fire a weapon, hit their targets and keep themselves alive when under fire at month 10 in Iraq? I hope to god they did more than a table top exercise of that scenario; and you’d be surprise at what they were not taught.

Pasting Feathers … Hoping for a Duck

The book, of course, is also a sad catalog of our failed nation building, excuse me, reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Iraq. The author did not excuse himself for his role in Iraq’s reconstruction. In fact, I have a nagging suspicion that perhaps part of the reason this book got written was a desire for some sort of civic penance.

“Of those thousands of acts of waste and hundreds of mistaken judgments, some portion was made by me and the two reconstruction teams I led in Iraq, along with my goodwilled but overwhelmed and unprepared colleagues in the State Department, the military, and dozens of other US government agencies. We were the ones who famously helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck.”

And paste feathers they did, the list is long, many pages long but a few quick examples below …

  • My Arabic Library , a Bush- era, US government–wide project to translate classic American books like Tom Sawyer, The House of the Seven Gables, Of Mice and Men in Arabic worth $88,000.  No one wanted the library until the PRT arm-twisted a principal into accepting the donation, who failing to sell the books on the black market, dumped them behind the school. $88K flushed down the drain.
  • There was the $25,000 for Iraqi widows to raise pregnant lambs.  Which turns out to be one local sheik’s job creation for his extended family. 
  • There were microgrants of $5,000 in actual cash for Iraqis to “open a business,”no strings attached. Gawd! I wish they did that in Detroit.
  • There was $700,000 spent in Babylon to build the rest rooms and a gate near the ruins, $300,000 to create the Baghdad Tourism Institute, $2 million for the Habbaniyah Tourist Village.
  • For $200,000, we apparently funded a large medical gases factory in south of Baghdad. Except that the owner was later unable to transport the gas cylinders past Army checkpoints because terrorists used such cylinders as bomb casings!

The Green Grass Ambassador and the Whys of an Iraq Tour

Perhaps one of the more glaring contents of the book is the part where the American Ambassador to Iraq ordered green grass to grow in front of the Embassy building and  apparently the grass refused!  The Ambassador who did not want to admit defeat ordered sod to be imported into Kuwait and then trucked by armored convoy to Baghdad. Price tag? No one knows but the estimate for the green grass project reportedly varied between two and five million dollars. Holy crap! Didn’t anyone had the guts to tell him that they were in a WTF war zone and that green grass does not come with the territory?  The Green Grass Ambassador is mercifully not named in the book but he is the one who apparently considered himself a sportsman and has now decamped from Iraq. Would make for a great question in Jeopardy-Iraq.

Peter Van Buren was not short on confession about the “perks” of serving in the war zone or his motivations for going there:

“The new rules boxed me into serving or seeing my career flatline. Less cynically, despite my reservations about the war, I still believed in the idea of service (love the warrior, hate the war) and wanted to test myself. I also needed the money, and so the nexus of duty, honor, terrorism, and my oldest daughter’s college tuition (hopefully there’ll be another war when my youngest is college age) led another FSO into semivoluntarily joining The Cause.”

About that Waste of $12 Million a Day Every Day the Last 10 Years

If one has been following the reports through the years from the State OIG, SIGIR, GAO, and the Commission on Wartime Contracting about our Iraq Project (which was supposed to pay for itself but did not) perhaps this book won’t really be much of a shocker. But unlike those reports written by officials who conducted their reviews for a variety lengths of time, this one is written by career diplomat who got a T-shirt that says, “Been There, Done That and Here to Tell About It In 285 Pages”

When the Commission on Wartime Contracting released their final report last month, I wondered how it is possible to waste $12 million a day in Iraq and Afghanistan, everyday for the last 10 years?  Peter Van Buren’s book help explains what made that $12 million a day possible. And he gets a medal in my book just for that, because dammit, I get these lousy headaches trying to figure out how you waste $12 million a day everyday in the last ten years when there’s so much that needs fixing at home.

Rank Downgrade to FSO-O?

Remember that big news flash when Matthew Hoh resigned from the State Department in 2009 over our strategery in Afghanistan? Well, some folks were quick to point out to me that Matthew Hoh was not a real Foreign Service Officer. Yep, some folks are quick to make that distinction sometimes. That is, he was not in the career service.  Which actually begs the tricky question of where the career professionals were on the subject and debate about Afghanistan. If there was dissent over our policy and strategy over there, we have not heard about it. But that’s for another post.  

With Peter Van Buren who is a 20+ year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, folks cannot make the same claim. And for that same reason and the very fact that he published this highly critical book, he will quickly be downgraded to the rank of FSO-O (O for “other” or outgroup).  He has committed the cardinal sin in the bureaucracy. Remember that one that says – “thou shall not throw pies at your own agency?”

No one comes out of this book without pie splatters on his/her face. And that is an unforgivable offense that will put you in a dog house like forever.

Of course, the old hands in the Big House would shake their heads and whisper, “if only Van Buren thought this through.”  FSOs who disagree with official policies can use the Dissent Channel to register such disagreements.  Of course, we need to point out that those dissent messages are considered not for public consumption and therefore not ever accessible to the American public. One blog pal called the Dissent Channel “a format that can be buried so deep, no one has to know about it.”  So had the old hands got their way and had Van Buren went through that channel, I would not be writing about this book.

Fair and Balanced and the PRT Documentary

There will be those who will predictably complain that the book tells a one-sided story of PRT work, well, that’s why he is marked down as the author, silly. This is his story. At least, he did not call his book a “documentary.”

Below is a video floating around online about the legacy of PRT Iraq. It appears to be put out by some unidentified office in DOD (see military ranks in the credit list) but has walk on parts by PRT team leaders in Iraq, the former spokesman of U.S. Embassy Baghdad, and the current U.S. Ambassador there. This one, by the way, also tells a one sided story of just how great are the PRTs and had the gumption to label it a “PRT documentary.”

Since this is in English with no Arabic subtitles, one can only presume
that the target audience is not in Iraq.  I get a pretty bad feeling that the video
is aimed at winning hearts and minds in the United States of A.  When I
inquired from U.S. Embassy Baghdad what role it played in the production
of this not fair/not balanced/too happy presentation of the PRTs in
Iraq, my “contact” whose main job includes responding to press and public inquiries and had no problem “talking” to me in the past, told me to ask somebody else as he was leaving post.

Which did not surprise me. A tour is done, on to the next one. In We Meant Well, the author invented a new word, “disresponsible: 

“In our reconstruction efforts there was no question about our courage in the face of personal danger, but we lacked the courage to be responsible. It was almost as if a new word were needed, disresponsible, a step beyond irresponsible, meaning you should have been the one to take responsibility but shucked
it off.”

That is probably one of the saddest words in a bureaucracy.

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle For the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan Books, 2011) available in bookstores near you on September 27.

Related post:
September 20, 2011 | Will the State Dept Declare FSO Peter Van Buren Persona Non Grata For His Book on the TragicComedy of PRT Iraq?