The rebuilding of Iraq was the largest, most ambitious nation-building project in history. It has also been a colossal waste of money, at a cost to the U.S. taxpayer of $63 billion and counting. Government reports have detailed how bureaucratic inefficiency, strategic ineptitude, mistaken assumptions, and straight-up corruption have ensured that, however well-meaning the efforts of the State Department and U.S. military, Iraq remains spectacularly un-put-together-again.
Now, with just over three months until the last U.S. troops are currently due to leave Iraq, comes the first insider account of the whole mad enterprise, a darkly comic, unsparing chronicle of good intentions gone absurdly (and shamefully) awry. In We Meant Well, career Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren describes the year he spent in 2009 heading up military-civilian reconstruction teams charged with creating projects that would "lift the local economy and lure young men away from the dead-end opportunities of al Qaeda." His sorry tale features plenty of pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, clueless "experts," oblivious administrators, and lots and lots of money flying around – but very little economic uplift.
Rolling Stone got Van Buren on the phone to talk about how he helped lose the battle for hearts and minds in Iraq – and how writing his tell-all account of State Department ineptitude has landed him in big trouble with his bosses.
In the book you describe being fired up with a sense of mission when you joined the Iraq "civilian Surge." That didn't last. When did you start to have doubts?
Even before I got to Iraq, during training. I was not a Middle East expert, so I was expecting the training to make up for my lack of knowledge about the Middle East and tell me what my job was going to be. But it didn't. We had a class that everybody called “Islam for Dummies,” taught by an ex-Army colonel who had served once as an attache in Tunisia. Then we had this funny exercise where an Iraqi-American was invited in and he played the town mayor and we were supposed to negotiate with him. He babbled on about the weather for a few minutes, and then he said, “OK, what are you going to give me, how much money are you going to bribe me to do the job you want to do?”
And then there was something called “Crash and Bang.”
We were taken out to an undisclosed location in West Virginia – an old farm next to an abandoned racetrack – and a bunch of State Department people whose idea of a casual day is khakis and button-down shirts were treated to an afternoon with a bunch of good ‘ol boys who gave us guns to shoot and let us drive cars really, really fast around the racetrack. Then we blew up an old car. It was kinda fun, it was kinda cool, but none of it was any actually preparation for Iraq. It was all in a way this twisted metaphor of saying that what we’re doing isn’t really that important and just play along with it and it’s mostly for show anyway.
And so then you went to Iraq and your job was to help get the local economy up and running?
Well, we didn’t know what we were doing! When I arrived in Iraq my expectation was that I would step into the middle of this storm of busyness and somebody would tell me what to do, but it turned out everyone – my State Department contractor teammates and the military unit I was embedded with – was looking at me saying, “We thought you knew what we were going to be doing here!”
So then you discover that your teammates, who are supposed to “subject matter experts,” are anything but.
My background was in assisting American citizens who get in trouble overseas and help them out, which wasn’t particularly relevant experience; so the State Department hired six contractors to help me. Unfortunately, the only qualification they seem to share was a willingness to accept a $250,000-a-year salary and to live in Iraq for a while. We had, for example, an Air Force navigator who was supposed to be our money man, and a hog farmer from Missouri who was supposed to advise our farmers in Iraq; needless to say the intersection of his knowledge of pigs and the Muslims’ concerns about pigs never really went over well. And there was a women’s phys-ed teacher who, because she had the right lady parts — boom — she became the “women’s empowerment advisor.”
And then you set to work – throwing money around.
We were spending money so fast that it went away faster than if you put a match to it. At one point in time, I had $100,000 in cash in a safe in my office in twenties and hundred-dollar bills. The Iraqis were so used to the amount of money that we were shoveling around for them that they invented a new slang term in Arabic to describe a pile of hundred-dollar bills. It was incredible the amount of money we wasted – a million here, a million there, overall $63 billion.
And where exactly was the money going?
The stupidest, most amazing thing — I still see myself doing it — was the micro-grant project. And this was decided on that we would kick-start small businesses by literally handing $5,000 in cash to Iraqis and encouraging them to use at the start of business. And we literally would drive into town and round up some people and hand them bundles of $5,000 in cash and say Please start a business. No obligation, no follow-up. Nothing. They looked at us like we were completely insane.
In the book you write that a lot of money went to fund “pointless projects.” Can you give a few examples?
Someone had determined that we were to print a Yellow Pages for the city of Baghdad and the surrounding area so that people could do business with each other in some way. It took months and months and months. We ended up with something like only 200 phone numbers out of a city of 20 million. And then it turned out that it was too unsafe for us to go out and distribute the phonebooks, and we ended up paying a contractor $7 a book to hand them out to people, who no doubt threw them away.
Some of the projects that I was personally not involved with, but were done by other provincial reconstruction teams, included a plan to give bicycles to Iraqi children. No one really understood what the purpose of that was. Of course the roads were full of shell holes, and garbage, and rabid dogs and bombs, so you couldn’t ride bicycles. It turned out that the kids’ parents took the bikes away from them, took the wheels off and made wheelchairs out of them. So at least some good came out of that one.
How did you feel about all that waste?
It was sad that we were failing to do what we went there to do – we were failing to help the Iraqis. We were failing to build this economic base that was supposed to take away the incentives for terrorism. We were failing to teach them about the democratic process so they had a chance to govern themselves. And we were failing the United States, which sent us out there to try and fix some of these problems. In my mind, and in the book and in real life, I alternated between moments of black comedy and moments of shame and despair.
And to your knowledge, did any economic development worthy of the name result from any of this activity?
Well, a lot of the things we bought ended up on the black market. So if you count that as economy, I guess there was some circulation. The Baghdad phone books were used in a landfill project, so that might have helped. The $5,000 that we gave out in micro-grants – I’m not sure where that money ever ended up, but if you follow it statistically, apparently most of that money made its way overland and into bank accounts in Jordan or Dubai. So in a larger sense something happened. We spent $63 billion. It had to go someplace.
How much of this do you put down to incompetence and how much to cynicism?
I think that most people at least started out with good intentions – I certainly did. They didn’t start out cynical. Unfortunately, the senior leadership of the Department of State in the embassy in Baghdad and certainly in Washington didn’t want to hear bad news. They wanted a constant stream of happy stories and photographs. Understand that the embassy in Iraq is a fortress; the walls keep people out but it also they keep people in. My boss was located in the Embassy in Baghdad; in an entire year he visited me only twice, and one of those was to get his photo taken in front of another project that we had paid for. Our reporting was always edited as it went up the line so that negative things were taken out, projects were exaggerated and successes were overstated.
You’re still employed by the State Department. How has the book gone down with your bosses?
As you can imagine, the Department of State was not particularly thrilled to have one of its mid-level officers announce to the world that $63 billion had been wasted and the effort was nothing but a farce. Unfortunately, I am under investigation now by our Office of Diplomatic Security, I’ve been called in and questioned. They’ve tried to delay the publication of the book. They have moved me to a less substantial job, and they’re very close to firing me.
How do you feel about that?
Luckily I’m eligible for retirement, so whatever they do to me is fine. At the end of the day what matters is what I saw and what I’ve written, which in my mind is the raw material of failure. It will serve as a marker for people who want to study this thing more fully in the future and as a warning to American taxpayers.