They called it “rebuilding Iraq,” and Peter van Buren knows a lot about what went wrong—he’s a career State Department foreign service officer who spent a year there on a Provincial Reconstruction Team. He has written about it in a terrific new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I spoke with him recently on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles.
It says here you speak Japanese, Mandarin and some Korean—why did the State Department send you to Iraq?
Along with the WMDs, there was another misunderstanding: we also expected to find a lot of Chinese-speaking people there. Actually what happened is the State Department had to ramp up its part of “the surge” and we ran out of Arabists pretty quickly. So they took people who were willing to volunteer. My daughter was going off to college and I needed the extra money from the hardship pay. What sent me to Iraq was the nexus of terrorism and tuition.
The reconstruction of Iraq was by far the biggest nation-building effort in history, much bigger than the post-WWII Marshall Plan in cost, size, and complexity. Your part in it involved leading something called a “Provincial Reconstruction Team”—and the key here is that you were based outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, at a place called "Forward Operating Base Hammer.”
FOB Hammer was literally carved out of the desert in 2007. The idea was that simply killing folks was not going to accomplish what we wanted to do. In a war like Iraq, the battle for hearts and minds could only be won by reaching out to the Iraqi people. So people like me were sent out to the boondocks to take care of that hearts and minds thing.
Your Provincial Reconstruction Team rode around in giant armored vehicles called M-RAPs—you say you “made quite an impression” when you rolled through an Iraqi town.
One of the problems of the reconstruction was that we were trying to do it while the de-construction was still going on. Iraq was still a dangerous place in 2007. When we went out to win hearts and minds, we had to travel in these military super-trucks—covered with armor plating, with machine guns on top. We wore body armor and helmets. We were like aliens in spaceships descending on the Iraqis. At best, we scared the heck out of people. When we roared through towns, our trucks tore down electric lines and phone lines that had been strung across the road.
Conservatives have said for decades that “it doesn’t work to throw money and problems." How much money was in the budget for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams?
That statement only applies here at home, not overseas. The reconstruction of Iraq cost Americans $63 billion. There was money everywhere in Iraq. Iraq had no bank wire transfers, no credit cards. Instead we had boxes and shopping bags filled with $100 bills. At one point I had a safe in my office with $100,000 in cash. I felt like a drug dealer. When we paid for a $2.5 million chicken processing plant, we paid for it in cash.