“We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” by Peter Van Buren

October 28, 2011

Why couldn’t $63 billion invested in the reconstruction of Iraq manage to keep the lights on? How can it be that in 2011, blackouts are still part of daily life, drinking water remains a luxury, and only about a quarter of the population has sewage? If reliable utilities are fundamental to both the grand goal of nation-building and the narrower mandate of counterinsurgency, why didn’t the largest nation-building effort in history get those utilities back up and running?

Peter Van Buren tries to answer those questions in his memoir, “We Meant Well.” A Foreign Service officer sent to Iraq as part of the civilian surge in 2009, Van Buren was assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team and embedded for a year with the U.S. Army. His account from beyond Baghdad is a nice companion piece to Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.”

“We meant well” is the sort of phrase whose meaning depends on emphasis. It can be a defense of truly good intentions or a flippant excuse. In Van Buren’s usage, it seems to be more the latter. He describes the majority of his State Department colleagues as people negligently prepared for their jobs, motivated primarily by the prospect of promotions, willingly ignorant of actual needs in Iraq, too lazy to do the necessary groundwork, and with too-short attention spans to care about whether a project is successful and self-sustaining. “These were,” he writes of his team members, “by and large people aggressively devoted to mediocrity, often achieving it.”

As an example of the ineptitude, he offers the case of a chicken-processing plant. The idea was to create jobs (in the hope that they would keep young Iraqis too busy for insurgency) and to provide a fresh, halal-certified alternative to Brazilian-imported frozen chickens. But the project didn’t do much on the jobs front. For one thing, the plant relied heavily on automation, including a tramway that transported chickens to be slaughtered. As Van Buren points out, “If employment was indeed the goal, why have an automated plant with the tramway of chicken death?” Even more basic, the project team had ignored a U.S. AID report recommending against chicken processing because of “prohibitive electricity costs” and the absence of refrigerated transport and storage. The chicken plant sat idle — at a sunk cost to U.S. taxpayers of $2.58 million.

More successful were projects instigated by Iraqis. Among these was a women’s center on the outskirts of Baghdad. A local women’s group identified the need: Sparse facilities and dominating fathers and husbands often kept women from receiving basic medical care. Van Buren’s team gave $84,000. And the Al-Zafraniyah Women’s Support Center was born, with a social worker offering counseling, two lawyers helping women obtain government benefits, and a female medical doctor coming twice a week to lead workshops and see patients. An immediate success, the center served more than 100 women in its first month. Yet it was shut down after six months. “The initial funding had run out,” Van Buren writes, “and U.S. priorities had moved on to flashier economic targets.”


‘We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People’ by Peter Van Buren (Metropolitan Books)

Van Buren’s prose is accessible, colloquial, somewhat macho, with sustained skepticism and moments of humor. After an Iraqi sheik suggested that he would think better of the Americans if they gave him a new generator, Van Buren writes: “I pretended to jot a note: next invasion, bring more generators.”

Yet the narrative is disjointed, structured less like a memoir than an International Crisis Group report. There’s a section on trash, another on water and sewer, another on corruption, and so on.

Van Buren manages to conjure up a few vivid scenes, such as one in which a demonstration at the chicken plant leaves one worker with a beard full of feathers. But generally, the writing lacks scenes and characters and dialogue. In fact, almost all the dialogue in the book is separated off in a chapter called “Soldier Talk.” It’s hard to know whether that was an effort to preempt State Department redactions or because Van Buren didn’t take great notes. (Since the book’s release, Van Buren has been almost gleeful about the trouble his writing has gotten him into at State. “I . . . morphed into public enemy number one — as if I had started an al Qaeda franchise in the Foggy Bottom cafeteria,” he wrote in Foreign Policy. Although he remains on its payroll, the department suspended his security clearance for “publishing articles and blog posts on [matters of official concern] without submitting them to the Department for review.”)

Also unsatisfying is Van Buren’s level of introspection. The “how I helped lose” in the subtitle suggests a certain self-criticism. But his skeptical tone allows him to remain detached. And it’s often not clear what his role was, or whether he was even involved, in the projects he describes.

An actor Van Buren could have blamed, but didn’t, is the U.S. taxpayer. “We Meant Well” leaves one wondering how we could have spent so much money, and asked so few questions.

Marisa Bellack is an opinions editor at The Washington Post.

Marisa Bellack is an opinions editor at the Washington Post.

WE MEANT WELL

How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People

By Peter Van Buren

Metropolian. 269 pp. $25

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