A Book A Week: We Meant Well

The phrase “winning their hearts and minds,” is an old one at the Pentagon, going back to the heady days of the Vietnam War. Besides making the unfortunate acronym: WHAM, it’s indicative of how the U.S. military has planned wars: deep down, the logic goes, everyone loves America, and by extension, Americans.  The Vietnamese didn’t really want to fight us, they just didn’t know any better. Sometimes they had no choice: Ho Chi Minh was poisoning their minds with anti-American propaganda and the Viet Cong were threatening their villages. According to this logic the key to winning Vietnam was getting the locals on our side: their hearts and minds were ours to count on, if only we could figure out the right incentives.

Well, we know how well that went.

Fast forward a few decades, replace Vietnam with Iraq and Ho Chi Minh with Saddam Hussein, and you get an idea of where this leads: Operation Iraqi Freedom. The particulars are different, the grand plan is not.

Welcome to the wacky world of Iraqi independence from something. But not from American influence and aid, as Peter van Buren describes in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Place: Iraq. Population: the U.S. army, a bunch of Marines, the U.S. Navy, which flies combat air patrols from off the coast, a few diplomats, a huge number of private contractors, no small number of mercenaries, and Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren.

The State Department was tasked in 2003 to gaining the trust and co-operation of the Iraqis in managing the American presence in their country. In some cases this meant buying loyalty from local troops. Sometimes it meant paying informants for intelligence on local troublemakers. More than once it meant teaching the Iraqis to create local businesses, complete with written plans, venture capital, income and expenses, and financial reporting. (You’ll notice it generally had to do with spending money.)

The reality was usually  different.

Peter van Buren was intimately familiar with these situations. A career diplomat, he volunteered to serve as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in Iraq from 2009 to 2010. Most importantly, as soon as this book was published, the State Department lost no time in revoking his security clearance and then filed paperwork in order to dismiss him. A case might be made for his situation based on his publishing without a government mandate, but not a good one. The government received a draft for their examination as the rules dictate. There is nothing in this book that suggests vital intelligence was leaked. There’s nothing in here that suggests anything but the pervasive incompetence that comes from following the theory even when it’s been disproved by reality.

But the book is embarrassing, or it should be. It begins with the story of My Arabic Library, a collection of American titles translated into Arabic for the U.S. government, with the stated purpose of teaching literacy to the natives. The possibility that Iraqis might not care to read Huckleberry Finn or Moby Dick never occurred to the planners who developed the project (at a cost of $88,000.) The books arrived and end up in a rubbish heap in back of an Iraqi elementary school.

There’s the story of how they went into the desert to evaluate a  sewage plant (among many throughout Iraq) for repair: under Saddam, all water and sewage services were free. The new paradigm meant (among other things) adding machinery to measure flow rates in order to sell services to locals. Repairing the plant involved huge government outlays to be divvied up between contractors in multiple countries, none of which were Iraqi. The plant is never repaired. The cost: $4.6 billion dollars.

There’s the story of sex on Forward Operating Bases: the official rules say don’t do it. Unofficially, there’s plenty of action going on. Some couples head to latrines for a bit of privacy, others beg their room mates to take an extra long coffee break. Propositions fly across offices in e-mails, and some get forwarded all over the Internet. Like seeks like, and the lonely seek each other. What happens in Iraq stays in Iraq.

There are extensive chapters on entering and exiting the country through military way stations: warehouses full of men and women beset by paperwork, gear checks, body armor snafus, and a lot of waiting for something to happen.

There’s the story about seeking coherent trash collection led to van Buren’s meeting Yasmine, an honest municipal service director who concedes that the corruption and lack of skilled technocrats would stymie any attempt to fix existing problems. Everyone agrees that trash pickup is a real need: the army fears that piles of garbage will make hiding spots for home made bombs, the civilians fear the vermin the piles attract, locals hired to actually do the work seem better at making the money disappear than the garbage.

The result is the same, time and time again: the Americans define a problem, the government fronts a huge amount of cash to fix it, the money disappears, the problem never gets fixed. Never has so much been spent to enrich so few with so little result.

And yet . . . we meant well. If those three words don’t make you want to cry, the rest of the book will.

Van Buren is now a regular contributor to Tomdispatch.com. You could do worse than to follow his posts there.

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