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.
What’s this about a chicken processing plant?
The idea was conceived entirely in our own minds. Iraqis had been raising and selling chickens for about 4,990 years before we showed up, and it worked for them: farmers brought live chickens to the market, people brought live chickens home, slaughtered them and cooked them.
We wanted none of that. We built a large chicken processing plant that was going to package and sell frozen chicken parts. It costs us $2.5 million. But the Iraqis don’t have refrigerators, in part because they don’t have reliable electricity. So the chicken processing plant just sat there. There’s an army video promoting the chicken processing plant as a great success story [watch it HERE], but it’s pathetic. The video shows eight or ten Iraqis plucking sadly at a few dead chickens, while the audio talks about hiring 400 people.
Why didn’t somebody at the State Department think this through? Why didn’t Hillary Clinton review this proposal?
Hillary is not returning my calls any more, so I can’t speak for her directly. We fought an eight-year war but everything we did, we did for ourselves, not for the Iraqis. Everyone worked for one year and was under a lot of pressure to produce results. Things were never going well. Washington wanted short-term positive press with photos that could be put up on the embassy website. Big problems like water networks and sewage networks and electrical networks didn’t fit into that framework.
You still work for the State Department—are you in trouble for writing this book?
I haven’t checked in yet today, so I’m not sure I’m still employed there. When you throw pies in the face of clowns, they sometimes get angry. The State Department has accused me of leaking classified information because a blog post of mine linked to a Wikileaks document. They’ve made all sorts of goofy allegations against me. There’s no doubt in my mind they’d like to get rid of me, and they may succeed. But I had a chance to write down what I saw in Iraq, and now readers have a chance to read about it. It doesn’t really matter if they fire me.