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We Meant Well (But Still Screwed Up)

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(Photo Credit: Hadi Mizban, Associated Press)

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, by former United States Foreign Service member Peter van Buren, is one of the most darkly comedic nonfiction texts I've ever read. 

The book provides van Buren's first-hand account of the American military's attempt to reconstruct Iraqi society in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War. His narrative, like the events it documents, quickly devolves into surrealist absurdism. I would say it'd be funny if it weren't so sad, but in reality it is funny: funny and sad. Van Buren is not a political scientist or even an academic, a reality reflected in the informality of his prose. This casual style of writing actually amplifies the book's power, because it enables the uninhibited transmission of van Buren's frustration, despair, and maddened disbelief. You feel all these things, and you can only laugh. That's clearly how van Buren coped with the bureaucratic insanity he faced, and his writing deliberately maximizes the comedic potential inherent to the American military's fantastical attempts to plant the seeds of Iraqi democracy. They would have had better luck growing Jack's beanstalk. 

Van Buren led two ePRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) units from 2009 to 2010. He lived with the Army at a Forward Operating Base for a year, where he witnessed first hand the wasteful spending and bureaucratic inefficiency of counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. His extensive disclosures of US military policy, in a mocking tragicomic style no else, cost him his professional career. After van Buren published We Meant Well, the State Department attempted to fire him on the charge of breaching confidentiality. However, after a six-month trial and the help of the ACLU, Van Buren was able to retire from the Department with full benefits and pensions. He had served for 24 years. 

What follows are some notes I took while laughing through the book. I thought I'd share my despair. 

Van Buren’s Counterinsurgency Assignment

  • Rebuild Iraq’s essential services to win over the hearts and minds of Iraqi people
  • Pump economy with jobs that would serve as alternatives to terrorism
  • Empower women by turning them into entrepreneurs
  • Strengthen the capacity and self-reliance of Iraq’s civil society and government institutions

Why We Failed (according to van Buren)

1. Disconnect between how Army and PRT (executors) conceptualized vision and how State Department (planners) did

  • Clash of feel-good projects (good for public relations but little else) and more impactful long-term projects
  • Embassy provided Lines of Effort which ePRT than had to fulfill through local projects for each LOE. Unfortunately, LOE’s were both broad and vague (i.e. empowering women)
  • Cumbersome bureaucracy
  • Embassy constantly shifted from short-term projects to long-term goals and back
  • Focus on form, not substance: “Instead of asking why an ePRT wanted to spend $22,000 to produce a stage play in Iraq, the committee asked why the play’s director needed five production assistants.”

2. Unqualified personnel

  • The Department of State couldn’t find enough qualified individuals from within its own ranks, creating an army of contractors called 3161s. Many were hired on the basis of brief phone interviews without any real background checks. Ultimately, very few 3161s had the experience to “administer the economy, establish the rule of law, and foster good governance.” Indeed, "the main criterion for hiring seemed to be an interest in Iraq for a year with a $250,000 salary and three paid vacations, and so that took a front seat to any actual skills.”
  • Examples: Aviation maintenance manager as a PRT co-leader; local council member became senior governance advisor; female gym teacher from the Midwest “morphed” into a women’s empowerment programmer; ultrasound technician became advisor to Iraqi provincial governor. 
  • Training didn’t help, since it either focus on useless skills or omitted vital information. It taught defensive driving skills, even though no one on the team drove in Iraq; had a weapons familiarization course, even though all were unarmed; and included no history of war, policy, or review of past construction projects--in other words, none of the cultural, social, or historical context essential for understanding the society they were trying to revolutionize. 

3. Lavish, pointless spending

  • The Army suffered no shortage of money in Iraq. Aside from the Congress-approved $63 billion for reconstruction efforts, the team had: $91 billion of captured Iraqi funds, $18 billion donated by Japan and South Korea, and $387 million for internal aid.
  • Individual military units were incentivized to spend cash, because “more money spent more reconstruction kudos on evaluation reports.”
  • Almost no proper research conducted before spending massive amounts of money
  • Most projects self-evidently pointless, about appearance more than actual impact
  • “Disresponsible” spending, of which the examples are many. See below.
  • Ø In an economically devastated environment hostile to business, one PRT decides to produce the first-ever Baghdad Yellow Pages. They hired a contractor to distribute the books, since it was too dangerous for them to do it themselves. Cost: $7,000
  • Ø Pastry class for disadvantaged women so that they could “open cafes on bombed-out streets without water or electricity.” Cost: $9,767
  • Ø The Doura Art Show. The Army poured money into sponsoring art shows to produce a narrative about the rebirth of Doura. "Like the rest of the war, it was a great narrative, albeit untrue." Cost: $12,000.
  • Ø Sports mural to bring about sense of “normalcy” for people. Cost: $22,180
  • Ø Iraqi Artists Syndicate paid to produce a comedic play about a silly legal dispute (value of donkey’s shade) that splits the town. The story sought to teach political reconciliation and peaceful disagreement. Cost: $22,500
  • Ø Attempt to modernize milk chain by building a distribution network via collection centers and dairy-processing plants. None of the Iraqi farmers had actually expressed any interest in this, since milk distribution was a highly localized affair that worked pretty well for everyone. Without consulting the farmers, the Army spent millions to fund milk collection centers, and then assign Iraqi partners tasks they had no idea how to do.
  • Ø Chicken processing plant. Failed because no market for fresh packaged chicken existed in Iraq. Research had been done that showed this, but evidently no one bothered to check it. Cost: $2.58 million
  • Ø Without research or testing, the Army bought 25 Mobile Maxes, trailer-mounted solar-powered water filters that they hoped would solve Iraq’s dirty water problem. It turned out that the machines could not handle Iraq’s high-salinity groundwater. A few were stolen, while the remaining 20 were delivered to someone else in Iraq to get them out of the way. Cost: $3.5 million

4. Intentional self-delusion

  • Army tricked themselves into feel-good narratives by measuring success in terms of input, not output. “Activity was valued over insight." Indeed, "we measured the impact of our projects by their effect on us, not by their effect on Iraqis. Output was the word missing in developing Iraq. Everything was measured by what we put in—dollars spent, hours committed, people engaged, bees pressed on windows, press releases written.” (p. 144) See below. 
  • Ø Women empowerment conferences (basically parties)
  • Ø Humanitarian Assistance. Basically, US Army would drive up to villages and hand out free packages secured from an Iraqi vendor. The bags had dry beans, a bottle of water, tin of Halal beef, canned vegetables, and some macaroni. Sometimes Army handed out blankets, wheelchairs, school supplies, Girl Scout cookies, and toiletries.
    • Ø HA drops good for PR and media but functionally pretty useless.
    • Ø Hand-outs did not build trust and amiability but in fact undermined respect for the Army, as they forced the Iraqis into an uneven and humiliating relationship.
    • Ø "Resorting to gifts to seem popular was quick and easy but, like most quick solutions, didn’t really help. Once you started down the path of easy answers, your methods tended to sabotage later efforts to try the harder way."

    5. Conviction that Iraqis wanted to be exactly like "Americans"

    • Forcing industrial modernization where it didn’t make sense (milk distribution, chicken packaging, etc).
    • Failure to acknowledge and accommodate cultural and social differences
    • “Our goal, the Embassy reminded us regularly, was to turn Iraq’s Islamically oppressed women into entrepreneurs and have them throw off their hijabs for miniskirts, liberated and free. Most Iraqi women, however, seemed less interested in owning businesses and hopping around in short skirts than in somehow finding water, medicine, and education for their non-miniskirted children.” (p. 131)

    7. Short institutional memory

    • People didn’t stay long and didn’t come with knowledge of context (short-term memory). So there was no consistent progression, and different teams didn’t build on each other’s work
    • Related to this, constant switching of progress models made it impossible to compare progress from year to year.
    • Short stay in Iraq encouraged people to think short-term (immediate gratification through PR events) than long-term (fostering wide-scale change through relation-building and institutional establishment)

    8. Corruption

    • Abundance of US spending contributed corruption. Iraq went from #20 pre-2003 to #4 in 2010 in most corrupt countries on Transparency International’s list.

    Where We Succeeded (according to van Buren)

    • Key to counterinsurgency is establishing a well conceived civic action program and fostering effective governance by a legitimate government
    • “You measured success more by what did not happen then what did, the silence that defined the music. Silence did not play well with self-promotion, but it sure as hell beat the sound of IEDs.” (p. 130)

    1. 4-H Club

    An agricultural club for kids which teaches farm-related subjects like raising animals, cultivating citizenship, grooming manners, and getting along. The 4-H club in Iraq attracted 24 children and aimed to democratically elect officials, foster pen-pal communication with 4-H club in Montana, and raise lambs.

    Reason it succeeded:

    • It taught children civic duty, thus planting seeds of democratic thinking and practice in the next generation
    • It engaged everyday Iraqis in an issue they cared about and thus compelled them to take the initiative, allowing them to demonstrate agency and self-sufficiency.
    • “We spent almost no money on it, empowered no local thugs, did not distort the local economy, turned it over as soon as possible to the local Iraqis, and got out of the way.”

    2. Dairy Carey

    Program led by a retired employee of the Department of Agriculture named Dairy Carey. It taught Iraqis how to produce milk that was “not deadly” instead of increasing milk yield, which they didn’t need. As van Buren notes, “our American goal, to help Iraqis produce more milk, was irrelevant.” The program helped Iraqis increase the quality, not quantity, of their milk, as Iraq led the world in cow disease and in transfer of tuberculosis from animals to people via unpasteurized milk.

    Reason it succeeded: Same as the 4-H Club.

    • Increasing quality of milk important, while increasing quantity was not (no transportation of milk, no employees, no refrigeration, no market).
    • It engaged local Iraqis by focusing on an issue relevant to their everyday lives. Their enthusiasm meant they could move the program forward on their own. Contrast this with the failed milk distribution plan, which sought to address an “issue” that nobody cared about and that thus motivated no one.

    Concluding Thoughts and Lingering Questions

    I still laugh when I review these notes. But that laughter should not trivialize the magnitude of devastation recounted here. No, that laughter affirms it. If we are to take van Buren at his word--and I see no reason why we shouldn't--the US reconstruction effort in post-war Iraq represented nothing less than the systematic destruction of an entire people, if the repeated military invasions and economic sanctions of the previous decade had not already done so. The Army's "reconstruction" effort was, and remains, a nauseating display of bureaucratic malfeasance, cultural condescension, destructive negligence, and ultimately catastrophic ignorance. 

    The extent of the calamity is such that I cannot help but cast a critical eye on Van Buren himself, in spite of the service he offered the world (and the historical record) in writing this book. Though unsparing in his criticism of the US government’s post-war policy in Iraq, van Buren ultimately doesn’t question its premises or its goals (building civic institutions and fostering democracy in Iraq). He criticizes the execution, not the plan itself.

    More so, Van Buren seems to believe that the US genuinely had its heart in the right place, hence the book’s title. He returns to this idea of good intentions gone wrong several times throughout the book, but his actual account complicates the simplistic image of the US as a failed do-gooder. Certainly, his portrayal of the State Department as deliberately careless and high-profile officials as willfully ignorant undermines any suggestion that everyone tried their best. Or does he mean that everyone on the ground tried well, but that high command forced their hands in unseemly directions, whether directly or by instituting a system that encouraged destructive behavior?

    Van Buren also leaves open the question of his own complicity in the governmental failure he describes. At times he seems to accept his own guilt, but at other times he portrays himself as the lone locus of sanity in a world of incompetent managers, forced into unfortunate policies by his superiors. When Van Buren says “we meant well,” does he mean himself and his teammates, who wanted to do good but were foiled by a terrible system? And if so, does that absolve him of blame? Again, Van Buren leaves unresolved the question of accountability.

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