FDL Book Salon Welcomes Peter Van Buren, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]
Host, Marcy Wheeler:
You can summarize the story of Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People with his assessment of the scams Iraqis pulled off with reconstruction dollars: “It wasn’t so much we were conned, it was as if we demanded to be cheated and would not take no for an answer.” The book describes what he saw of the various reconstruction efforts in Iraq, particularly his experience serving on a State Department Provisional Reconstruction Team in 2009.
While the book catalogs the great variety of stupid projects we funded—including a chapter of the greatest hits—it’s also a book about the power structure of our imperial project in Iraq. Van Buren offers this taxonomy of the “tribes” in his Forward Operating Base in Iraq, from the soldiers driven to enlist for financial reasons, the three different shades of KBR contractors distinguished by their tasks and the size of their biceps, the Iraqi-Americans from Detroit hired though an Alaskan pass-through, and the Ugandans guarding the base, probably working for slave wages. And all that’s before you get to the Embassy, with its impossible green lawn and complete isolation from the rest of Iraq.
Van Buren juxtaposes this taxonomy with the description of a scam a local sheik dreamt up, which not only would have gotten him a free flock of sheep, but would have set up a bunch of widows in hock to him.
Next up was a meeting to discuss the purchase of pregnant sheep for a small number of local widows. For $25,000 we’d buy the widows pregnant lambs to raise. They’d sell the offspring. It seemed like a good idea, helping widows, so I asked the team how they had determined the cost of a pregnant ewe. My colleagues had asked one local sheik for a price. I asked why they hadn’t sought several prices to compare; they said that would have been inconvenient. They implored me to sign off on the idea “to make things easier.” …
I asked how many lambs a ewe could be expected to produce in a year, … what the going price was for a lamb, and what a decent income for a widow was in Iraq. No one knew the answers. How would the widows be selected? The sheik selling us the animals would select the recipients from his extended family. He would also teach the widows about sheep raising but would take from them the first healthy lamb in return. How would the widows get by if they would not be able to keep the firstborn lamb? Not our problem.
Finally, Van Buren contrasts his fight not to fund such stupidity with the question Americans increasingly ask: if our government is demanding we spend money on Iraqis, why can’t we spend money on Americans?
We’d be watching the news from home about foreclosures, and I’d be reading e-mails from my sister about school cutbacks, while signing off on tens of thousands of dollars for stuff in Iraq. At one point we were tasked to give out micro-grants, $5,000 in actual cash handed to an Iraqi 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. We wondered among ourselves whether we shouldn’t be running a PRT in Detroit or New Orleans instead of Baghdad.
As I read the book, I couldn’t help but conclude our empire in Iraq is just a perverse mirror image of our increasing governance failures in the US. As Van Buren points out, the same folks who here might push to control women’s wombs and lives in the US were demanding we turn a bunch of Iraqi women into small business owners (though predictably shut down a woman’s social work and medical center). The same people refusing to invest in infrastructure here are measuring performance in Iraq by how much money gets spent and what kind of PR pictures result.
It’s a depressing story—though written in sardonic, readable prose. But it has started to get Van Buren in trouble. Just this past week the State Department suspended his clearance, effectively punishing him without giving him a means to appeal the punishment. His crimes? Linking to a WikiLeaks cable describing Joe Lieberman and John McCain sucking up to Moammar Qaddafi on his blog, refusing to answer some questions about his associations, and not withdrawing the book’s print run to redact some details in a chapter describing a CIA party in an old Saddam palace outside the new gigantic Embassy. (Note, Van Buren uses the WikiLeaks revelation about the Frago permitting Americans to ignore Iraqi-on-Iraqi abuse to supplement his discussion of a Sunni Sheikh’s description of his torture in the lead-up to elections, but he sources it to the Guardian.)
In short, between the details of the caste system built into our “democratic” empire and the Iraqi tribal system our lavish spending has only made more corrupt, descriptions of our attempt to solve a huge problem by blindly throwing money at it, and the now-typical response to exposure of such things–punishing the whistleblower rather than the incompetence, the book captures the corruption at the core of the late American Empire in a remarkably good read.