Murray Polner, Review of Peter Van Buren’s “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle For the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” (Metropolitan Books, 2011)


Murray Polner is a book review editor for HNN.

This book by a State Department insider and eyewitness turned whistle-blower is about our misadventures in Iraq.  Andrew Bacevich, the prescient author of the recently published Washington Rules,shrewdly noted that years after the self-serving memoirs (mainly ghost-written) by the major actors in the invasion and occupation “are consigned to some landfill,” Peter Van Buren’s sensible, funny, and ultimately sad portrait of  failed nation-building will need to be resurrected and read and re-read, especially in our schools and media offices, the latter because so many publications and TV commentators were cheerleaders for the invasion.

We Meant Well, both title and concept, is how pro-war policymakers and pundits rationalized the bloodshed and chaos by doing good things for post-Saddam Iraqis.  Largely ignorant of Iraq’s history, culture, and language, Washington’s elite foreign policy circles actually believed the con men and living room warriors who conjured up visions of WMDs and of spreading America’s economic empire by war and thereby transforming the country into a fair and open society.  Van Buren says he is currently being investigated by the State Department; his supervisor was asked to tell him—“just like a gangster movie”—that a “senior Department person” was angry at the publication of this book and had opened an investigation.

Van Buren had served as a Foreign Service Officer for more than twenty years and was appointed  head of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) for a one-year stint in 2009.  These military bases, some as large as cities, were scattered throughout Iraq with “Burger Kings, samba clubs, Turkish hookah bars and swimming pools.”  Van Buren spent his time on smaller FOBs where soldiers dined on army food and used portable latrines.  His job was to lead a team “to rebuild Iraq’s essential services,” designed a la Vietnam to persuade the Iraqi people that we conquerors were their friends.

The PRTs had a $63 billion budget that was designed to run the most expensive U.S.-financed national building program since the Marshall Plan.  It was, he writes, a program characterized by “pervasive waste and inefficiency, mistaken judgments, flawed policies and structural weaknesses.”

Despite the extensive American presence, Van Buren writes that “I could travel nowhere without an armed vehicle and armed soldiers for protection.  The bases were guarded by Ugandans and served by Third World men and women who dug and cleaned latrines and other dirty work.  The luckier ones among the soldiers were assigned to finance and personnel.  Behind them were huge private contractors, such as Kellogg Brown and Root, plus countless numbers of smaller contractors and subcontractors (more than three hundred American firms had employees in Iraq).  There were also many civilian fighters hired for their military skills.

It was on this tormented and lethal piece of the earth that Van Buren observed first hand the consequences of the invasion.  While he accepts some of the blame for  the missteps taken by his unit, he was appalled at the efforts to spread a version of democracy and the rule of law to a country beset by poverty and cursed with the plague of deadly ethnic, tribal and religious blood feuds, plus the loss of much of its professional and middle class to immigration.

Above all, Van Buren is astounded at the vast amounts of money available.  Together with the $63 billion allotted to the PRTs, it also had $91 billion of “captured Iraqi funds” that in the end, “were mostly misplaced by the Coalition Provisional Authority,” yet another botched do-good function dreamed up by remote hard-line visionaries.  Billions and ultimately trillions was spent on trying to transform Iraq into an American outpost, perhaps another “shining city on a hill” about which deluded fantasists may have dreamed.  All this was to arise in a Middle East mainly governed by religious and secular authoritarians, many of whom were closely tied to Washington.

The vast sums of money spent in Iraq—add that to what is daily spent in Afghanistan—was aimed at developing a spirit of self-reliance, yet all it accomplished was an easily-perceived and subtle message to Iraqis that Uncle Sam was ready to foot the bill for everything, which unexpectedly included collecting mountains of Iraqi garbage.  Baghdad, he tells us, produced eight thousand tons every day, most of which was uncollected.  Who knew, he asks—I suspect smiling through tears at the irony of it all—that picking up massive amounts of garbage “was now a major front in the Global War on Terror”?

Amidst the continuing war, internal hatreds, torture of captives and what not, Van Buren describes many of the presumably well-meaning efforts to change Iraq.  He once paid an unannounced visit to see to see how some of the donated money in an embassy-approved project was being spent.  Visiting a “conference hall” where classes were supposed to be held, he witnessed a building filled with garbage, broken windows and home to an army of feral cats.  Other PRTs and the military paid for “guaranteed-to-fail” small businesses, such as car washes and auto repair shops “in an economy struggling just to take a breath.”  There were also driving lessons for people who didn’t have the money to pay for cars.

There’s more: A scheme whereby a French pastry cook allegedly volunteered his services to teach women how to bake and decorate cakes (it cost $9,797.69) and Van Buren wonders why so much when the chef was supposedly volunteering his time.  In any event, the American planners hoped the training would motivate women to start cafes, this on "bombed-out streets without water and electricity.”  It cost $24,750 to buy children’s bikes even though streets were dangerous, wrecked by bombs and overrun by wild dogs.  Weight-lifting gear, perhaps to teach our culture’s fondness for manliness, was bought for $6,590.  Then, too, $200,000 was spent in a failed attempt to ship gas cylinders to a medical gas plant because the army blocked entry since terrorists liked using the cylinders for their bomb casings.  A Yellow Page phone directory was dreamed up for Baghdad, a city “with few landline phones and an almost toxic environment for business” and only 250 businesses.  Van Buren’s PRT was told to try distributing the volumes door to door but that was too dangerous so they hired a local guy to hand out free copies.  Van Buren was also ordered to give out mini-grants of $5,000 in cash to encourage Iraqis to “open a business, no strings attached.  If he took the money and in front of us spent it on dope and pinball, it was no matter.”

“Meaning well,” the Army completed ten rooms on a hospital, but abandoned it because there was no roof, no electric power, no staff, and in the end no more money.  It cost millions, Van Buren estimates.  The Army also funded a newspaper Baghdad News for years but it had virtually no readership.  Citing a Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction study in August 2010 which claimed these reclamation projects amounted to a “legacy of waste” the failures included a “$40 million prison that was never opened, a $104 million failed sewer system in Fallujah, a $171 million hospital in southern Iraq that Laura Bush ‘opened’ in 2004 but that still has never seen a patient, and more totally, $5 billion.”

Meanwhile, compared to his FOBs and the streets, life at the air-conditioned embassy in Baghdad was good, very good indeed.  Visiting, he gawked at terrifically dressed civilian women, liquor available everywhere, well-stocked commissaries, dance lessons, tennis courts,  hair salons “that did highlights” a swimming pool and a golf driving range—“all dizzying reminders that we Americans were strangers, useless to the needs of the place.”

So why didn’t Americans back home shout “stop?” Well, for one thing, visiting politicians and journalistic hacks told them all was going well in the effort to build democracy in a land they knew only from groupthinkers on their TVs, internets and newspapers, let alone Washington politicians.  Van Buren tells of two think tank civilian “fellows” flying in on a fact-finding mission.  They were both veterans of Sunday TV talk shows, authors, consultants and obviously well-connected in Washington.  When riding together in an armored vehicle riding near Baghdad all Van Buren heard them speaking about were future book contracts, literary agents and large advances.   Apparently  it was too much for Van Buren. “It became clearer to me why this war had played out so well, with people like this intellectually backstopping the policy makers.”

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Americans remain in Iraq with no specific departure date.  The cost has been enormous, not only in money but more significantly in lives:  4,500 Americans killed and 32,000 wounded and perhaps 100,000 or more Iraqi civilians dead.

 “‘Tell me how this ends,’ General David Petraeus famously asked a reporter during the early days of the Iraqi invasion.”  In We Meant Well Van Buren answers, “I know, Dave—it ends when we leave.”

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