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We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People

A US State Department insider examines the one thing no one in Iraq wanted to admit: defeat.

By Jina Moore / October 6, 2011

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People By Peter Van Buren Henry Holt 288 pp.

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Peter Van Buren is not a writer, and he admits as much from the beginning of his memoir, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He’s a smart guy with a distinct sense of humor who was thrust, with thousands of other Americans, into an historic moment, the American effort in Iraq. He’s not out to write the definitive tome on that effort, or even to offer specific advice. Instead, he’s out to offer a generation of future scholars and policymakers “the raw material of failure,” and thereby to get a hearing for the one thing no one in Iraq wanted to admit: defeat.

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Van Buren writes from the perspective of a guy trying to execute an ever-changing series of orders, and that may be the harder book to write. Before Baghdad, he was a career service officer, enlisted “on the benign side of empire” in helping Americans navigate the unexpected abroad. By the time he got to Baghdad, he’d won accolades from the State Department for his work after an earthquake in Japan and a tsunami in Thailand. Crisis response was not new to him.
But what’s happening in Baghdad is new – for van Buren, and for the country. When he lands in the region, he wants to be intoxicated by the danger, the exoticism, and the nobility of purpose.

“I wanted the air to feel electric and for people to ask me who I was and why I was there,” he says of the waiting zone in Kuwait, “but the air was dry and nobody cared who else was present.” When he finally lands in Baghdad, he steps onto the tarmac, takes a big whiff of jet fuel, “trying to have a significant moment.”

He would end up impressed instead with the insignificance of it all. Iraq drained from him any notion that one person can make a noticeable difference, especially in the quagmire of bureaucracy that governed day-to-day American efforts there. Van Buren led a Provincial Reconstruction Team, a civilian-military hybrid tasked with guiding local government and other structures toward independence. When he starts asking follow-up questions about projects old and new, he encounters resistance from his team and smiling silence from some Iraqi partners.

Eventually, he realizes no one is evaluating nation-building in Iraq by whether a nation was actually being built. The American government exhibited its priorities not by pointing to real change on the ground but to line items in the budget. “We measured the impact of our projects by their effect on us, not their effect on Iraqis,” he writes. Meanwhile, he watched project after project stall and disappear, a paper trail or a photo-op the only evidence of that day-long pastry class for widows. “If publicity were democracy,” he writes, “this place would’ve looked like ancient Athens.”

Much of van Buren’s book focuses on the dramatic waste of financial resources, and the unintended consequences that has wrought. It would be a mistake, however, to see his book a chronicle of boondoggles. It is instead about the failure that inevitably follows when pre-existing visions refuse to adapt to reality. This clash dominates the book, sometimes in stories as short as one sentence – hundreds of donated soccer balls, decorated with flags of the world, go unused because they “included the flag of Saudi Arabia, which has a Koranic verse on it, and you cannot put your foot to a Koranic verse.” Other examples rise almost to the level of parable, as when an unnamed ambassador demands to grow grass on the Embassy grounds in the green zone. When the seeds didn’t take, he imported sod from Kuwait, “brought by armored convoy to the Embassy. No one confessed to what it cost to import, but estimates varied between two and five million dollars,” van Buren writes. “No matter what Iraq and nature wanted, the American Embassy spent whatever it took to have green grass in the desert…. It was the perfect allegory for the whole war.”

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