Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren speaks Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. But at lunchtime on Feb. 6 he was not stationed at a U.S. Embassy putting to use his 20 years of experience in the State Department. He was giving a speech at the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations at Point Lookout in Northport.
The topic of his speech and the reason his career was terminated are one in the same: Van Buren told true and funny stories about his time in Iraq working on the “reconstruction” efforts in 2009-2010. When he returned from Iraq, he wrote the book “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” In his speech, Van Buren discussed how he ended up in Iraq, the things he saw, and the ramifications that came from writing and discussing those observations.
“Through a series of accidents and very bad decisions, I volunteered to go to Iraq largely because the State Department was running out of people to go and do it,” Van Buren said. “The State Department had volunteered to win the war after pretty much everyone else had failed.”
Van Buren noted that U.S. forces were in fact not welcomed with open arms as liberators in 2003; Jay Gardner’s humanitarian efforts to save the country didn’t work; Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority couldn’t fix Iraq’s problems with market-based solutions offered by young campaign staffers; it was too big a job for the Army Corps of Engineers; and major consulting firms spent a lot of money but didn’t fix much.
“Finally it got around to 2007. There was absolutely no one else in Washington who was going to win the war in Iraq and solve this whole problem and reconstruct the country … except essentially me,” Van Buren said. “This is where things started to go downhill for all of us.”
The State Department changed the rules so that diplomats seeking good future assignments had to first volunteer to go to Iraq. After three weeks of training, Van Buren landed in Iraq. Van Buren said the first thing he did was sign a fraudulent receipt; the next action was authorizing the “sheep for widows” program.
There were “lines of effort” that Van Buren and others had to accomplish. In his region, those were agriculture, widows (“Because there were a lot of widows in Iraq,” Van Buren said.) and empowerment of women.“So giving sheep to widows was great because it was agriculture, it was widows, it was women,” Van Buren said.
The project was to give sheep to five widows. The price was $25,000, or $5,000 a sheep. There was overhead, naturally. “It turns out the whole thing is just a joke. The only reason we were spending money that way is because we couldn’t find a match to set fire to it, which would have been slightly more efficient,” Van Buren said.This was the only the beginning of Van Buren’s time in Iraq. But like a bad first date, Van Buren said, he could see the signs.
“All the pieces of our failure in Iraq were all there right in the very beginning,” Van Buren said. “We picked the wrong people to go, we didn’t train them properly, we didn’t coordinate with the military, we were encased with our own mismanagement, corruption, fraud, mistakes — benign and not so benign. And all we were trying to do was check off items on a list to please our bosses back in Baghdad and Washington.”
Van Buren said there was no work plan, and no one seemed to care. So he called his boss in Baghdad. Van Buren said the instruction from his boss was: “You spend money. You spend it on projects that follow these lines of effort. And you take lots of pictures. And you keep your mouth shut and your year goes by. And then you go home and we’ll send you someplace nice after this.”
The U.S. kept spending money on projects such as a centralized milk distribution program. Iraqis, however, got their milk from local sources and the big stainless steel tanks were not used.
“When I finally gave up and said I don’t want to do this anymore I was brought into the Embassy for a re-education,” Van Buren said. The message: spend money.And there was plenty of money. Foreign Service officers carried the money in shopping bags until they switched from the dollar to the dinar. Then they moved money around in boxes of copy paper.
The money was spent for a pastry class for Iraqi widows, even as the communities lacked electricity, sewer systems and water. Bicycles were purchased for children, though the streets were unsafe even for armored vehicles. “That actually did some good – they took the wheels off the bicycles and made wheelchairs out of them,” Van Buren said. U.S. taxpayers also paid to produce the play “Donkey Shade.”
“We gave money to sheiks, we gave money to militia, we gave money to lots of people that if it was gangster movie you’d call it protection money. In our world we called it development,” Van Buren said. “None of these things were ever designed to do what development does, which someone defined as building the base that creates the possibility of a top.”
Van Buren said people cared only about the “appearance” of success. An example is a $2 million chicken-processing plant. The first time he went there, Van Buren prepared for a disgusting smell. “I took a deep breath and it smelled of paint,” Van Buren said. “They had just painted the place for my arrival. There were no chickens processed there.”
There were no chickens at the plant until a blogger, who was an acquaintance of Gen. Odierno, asked for a tour.A sheik that Van Buren called a Tony Soprano-type character who spoke Arabic sent his sons out to buy chickens. When the blogger arrived, it looked like the plant was operating. But more visiting journalists wanted to come and tour the plant.
“So we evolved a Potemkin Chicken Scale, where we would look at the visitor and decide how many chickens they might be worth,” Van Buren said. “If it was a big-shot, name-brand journalist he would get 60, 70, 80 chickens. If it was a print journalist, 10 or 15 chickens. Somebody from NPR, three or four birds would be good.”
When Van Buren returned to the U.S., he realized no one was hearing the real stories of the $63 billion in reconstruction spending. He did not intend to write a book, but had seen first hand the failure to create a stable democracy in the Middle East. Van Buren said this part of the story — writing the book — is just as tragic as what he saw in Iraq and not as funny. He submitted his book to the State Department for approval, and received the OK (surmising that no one read it).
He was doing his job at the State Department in D.C., when word began circulating around the department in August 2011 about the soon-to-be released book. Van Buren said his “world collapsed.” A link on his blog to wikileaks got his security clearance taken away. Because he did not have security clearance, his job was taken away. He was put on administrative leave with no assignment. His passport was taken away. He was physically banned from entering the State Department building. He was shunned, his colleagues were interviewed, and his old travel vouchers were scrutinized.
Five days before the book came out, the State Department alleged that there was classified information in Van Buren’s book “We Meant Well.” One claim: it is classified that the CIA had been in Somalia. “I obtained that information from watching the movie ‘Black Hawk Down,’” Van Buren said. Also classified: the U.S. had been on Saddam Hussein’s side during the 1980s war with Iran. “I obtained this piece of information from seeing the picture of Don Rumsfeld with his ‘70s haircut shaking hands with Saddam,” Van Buren said. With the publisher’s backing, the book was printed un-redacted.
Van Buren believes he was given a reprieve following a New York Times article. Former President Bill Clinton may have read the article, and called his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had given plenty of speeches about bloggers’ rights of expression. “This is why I’m not trussed up and chained to a wall some place,” Van Buren said.
The Government Accountability Project is now representing Van Buren, who went from administrative leave to teleworker. Van Buren said his speeches and Internet use is monitored, and he’s regularly called into the State Department to be scolded.
“I believe America is bigger and better than all that,” Van Buren said. “I went to Iraq to represent the United States, to do the United States’ business, and I found out that we were lying to ourselves. We weren’t doing what we said we were doing. And I simply came back and wrote that all down.”
Members of the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations gave Van Buren a rare standing ovation following the speech.