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“ In Iraq, we had money everywhere. It was literally in boxes you had to step over. At one point in time, I had $100,000 in a safe in my office. I felt like a drug dealer pulling out bundles of money. There was so much money that the Iraqis invented a new slang term in Arabic that means 'a large pile of hundred dollar bills.'”—Peter Van Buren was sent to Baghdad as part of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team, where he was in charge of a group trying to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and economy. For the next year, he encountered oblivious bureaucrats, comically-misguided projects, greedy contractors, a never-ending cash flow and campaigns aimed at improving the lives of Iraqi people. But many of those campaigns were misguided, says Van Buren, and they often wasted a lot of money.
“We rarely thought past next week's situation update. The Embassy would rarely engage with us on a project that wasn't flashy enough to involve photographs or bringing a journalist out to shoot a video that looked good. The willingness to do long-term work ... never existed in our world.”—In 2009, Peter Van Buren joined a team working to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and economy. For the next year, he encountered comically-misguided projects, greedy contractors and oblivious bureaucrats.
Mission Accomplished: Iraq as America's biggest Blunder
Peter van Buren, Informed Comment, March 7, 2013
I was there. And “there” was nowhere. And nowhere was the place to be if you wanted to see the signs of end times for the American Empire up close. It was the place to be if you wanted to see the madness—and oh yes, it was madness—not filtered through a complacent and sleepy media that made Washington’s war policy seem, if not sensible, at least sane and serious enough. I stood at Ground Zero of what was intended to be the new centerpiece for a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the invasion of Iraq turned out to be a joke. Not for the Iraqis, of course, and not for American soldiers, and not the ha-ha sort of joke either. And here’s the saddest truth of all: on March 20th as we mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion from hell, we still don’t get it. In case you want to jump to the punch line, though, it’s this: by invading Iraq, the U.S. did more to destabilize the Middle East than we could possibly have imagined at the time. And we—and so many others—will pay the price for it for a long, long time.
It’s easy to forget just how normal the madness looked back then. By 2009, when I arrived in Iraq, we were already at the last-gasp moment when it came to salvaging something from what may yet be seen as the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. It was then that, as a State Department officer assigned to lead two provincial reconstruction teams in eastern Iraq, I first walked into the chicken processing plant in the middle of nowhere.
By then, the U.S. “reconstruction” plan for that country was drowning in rivers of money foolishly spent. As the centerpiece for those American efforts—at least after Plan A, that our invading troops would be greeted with flowers and sweets as liberators, crashed and burned—we had managed to reconstruct nothing of significance. First conceived as a Marshall Plan for the New American Century, six long years later it had devolved into farce.
In my act of the play, the U.S. spent some $2.2 million dollars to build a huge facility in the boondocks. Ignoring the stark reality that Iraqis had raised and sold chickens locally for some 2,000 years, the U.S. decided to finance the construction of a central processing facility, have the Iraqis running the plant purchase local chickens, pluck them and slice them up with complex machinery brought in from Chicago, package the breasts and wings in plastic wrap, and then truck it all to local grocery stores. Perhaps it was the desert heat, but this made sense at the time, and the plan was supported by the Army, the State Department, and the White House.
Elegant in conception, at least to us, it failed to account for a few simple things, like a lack of regular electricity, or logistics systems to bring the chickens to and from the plant, or working capital, or… um… grocery stores. As a result, the gleaming $2.2 million plant processed no chickens. To use a few of the catchwords of that moment, it transformed nothing, empowered no one, stabilized and economically uplifted not a single Iraqi. It just sat there empty, dark, and unused in the middle of the desert. Like the chickens, we were plucked.
In keeping with the madness of the times, however, the simple fact that the plant failed to meet any of its real-world goals did not mean the project wasn’t a success. In fact, the factory was a hit with the U.S. media. After all, for every propaganda-driven visit to the plant, my group stocked the place with hastily purchased chickens, geared up the machinery, and put on a dog-and-pony, er, chicken-and-rooster, show.
In the dark humor of that moment, we christened the place the Potemkin Chicken Factory. In between media and VIP visits, it sat in the dark, only to rise with the rooster’s cry each morning some camera crew came out for a visit. Our factory was thus considered a great success. Robert Ford, then at the Baghdad Embassy and now America’s rugged shadow ambassador to Syria, said his visit was the best day out he enjoyed in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commanding all U.S. forces in Iraq, sent bloggers and camp followers to view the victory project. Some of the propaganda, which proclaimed that “teaching Iraqis methods to flourish on their own gives them the ability to provide their own stability without needing to rely on Americans,” is still online.
We weren’t stupid, mind you. In fact, we all felt smart and clever enough to learn to look the other way. The chicken plant was a funny story at first, a kind of insider’s joke you all think you know the punch line to. Hey, we wasted some money, but $2.2 million was a small amount in a war whose costs will someday be toted up in the trillions. Really, at the end of the day, what was the harm?
The harm was this: we wanted to leave Iraq (and Afghanistan) stable to advance American goals. We did so by spending our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most Iraqis lacked access to clean water, regular electricity, and medical or hospital care. Another State Department official in Iraq wrote in his weekly summary to me, “At our project ribbon-cuttings we are typically greeted now with a cursory ‘thank you,’ followed by a long list of crushing needs for essential services such as water and power.” How could we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons? As one Iraqi told me, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
By 2009, of course, it should all have been so obvious. We were no longer inside the neocon dream of unrivaled global superpowerdom, just mired in what happened to it. We were a chicken factory in the desert that no one wanted.
Anniversaries are times for reflection, in part because it’s often only with hindsight that we recognize the most significant moments in our lives. On the other hand, on anniversaries it’s often hard to remember what it was really like back when it all began. Amid the chaos of the Middle East today, it’s easy, for instance, to forget what things looked like as 2003 began. Afghanistan, it appeared, had been invaded and occupied quickly and cleanly, in a way the Soviets (the British, the ancient Greeks…) could never have dreamed of. Iran was frightened, seeing the mighty American military on its eastern border and soon to be on the western one as well, and was ready to deal. Syria was controlled by the stable thuggery of Bashar al-Assad and relations were so good that the U.S. was rendering terror suspects to his secret prisons for torture.
Most of the rest of the Middle East was tucked in for a long sleep with dictators reliable enough to maintain stability. Libya was an exception, though predictions were that before too long Muammar Qaddafi would make some sort of deal. (He did.) All that was needed was a quick slash into Iraq to establish a permanent American military presence in the heart of Mesopotamia. Our future garrisons there could obviously oversee things, providing the necessary muscle to swat down any future destabilizing elements. It all made so much sense to the neocon visionaries of the early Bush years. The only thing that Washington couldn’t imagine was this: that the primary destabilizing element would be us.
Indeed, its mighty plan was disintegrating even as it was being dreamed up. In their lust for everything on no terms but their own, the Bush team missed a diplomatic opportunity with Iran that might have rendered today’s saber rattling unnecessary, even as Afghanistan fell apart and Iraq imploded. As part of the breakdown, desperate men, blindsided by history, turned up the volume on desperate measures: torture, secret gulags, rendition, drone killings, extra-constitutional actions at home. The sleaziest of deals were cut to try to salvage something, including ignoring the A.Q. Khan network of Pakistani nuclear proliferation in return for a cheesy Condi Rice-Qaddafi photo-op rapprochement in Libya.
Inside Iraq, the forces of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict had been unleashed by the U.S. invasion. That, in turn, was creating the conditions for a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, similar to the growing proxy war between Israel and Iran inside Lebanon (where another destabilizing event, the U.S.-sanctioned Israeli invasion of 2006, followed in hand). None of this has ever ended. Today, in fact, that proxy war has simply found a fresh host, Syria, with multiple powers using “humanitarian aid” to push and shove their Sunni and Shia avatars around.
Staggering neocon expectations, Iran emerged from the U.S. decade in Iraq economically more powerful, with sanctions-busting trade between the two neighbors now valued at some $5 billion a year and still growing. In that decade, the U.S. also managed to remove one of Iran’s strategic counterbalances, Saddam Hussein, replacing him with a government run by Nouri al-Malaki, who had once found asylum in Tehran.
Meanwhile, Turkey is now engaged in an open war with the Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey is, of course, part of NATO, so imagine the U.S. government sitting by silently while Germany bombed Poland. To complete the circle, Iraq’s prime minister recently warned that a victory for Syria’s rebels will spark sectarian wars in his own country and will create a new haven for al-Qaeda which would further destabilize the region.
Meanwhile, militarily burnt out, economically reeling from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lacking any moral standing in the Middle East post-Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the U.S. sat on its hands as the regional spark that came to be called the Arab Spring flickered out, to be replaced by yet more destabilization across the region. And even that hasn’t stopped Washington from pursuing the latest version of the (now-nameless) global war on terror into ever-newer regions in need of destabilization.
Having noted the ease with which a numbed American public patriotically looked the other way while our wars followed their particular paths to hell, our leaders no longer blink at the thought of sending American drones and special operations forces ever farther afield, most notably ever deeper into Africa, creating from the ashes of Iraq a frontier version of the state of perpetual war George Orwell once imagined for his dystopian novel 1984. And don’t doubt for a second that there is a direct path from the invasion of 2003 and that chicken plant to the dangerous and chaotic place that today passes for our American world.
On this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Iraq itself remains, by any measure, a dangerous and unstable place. Even the usually sunny Department of State advises American travelers to Iraq that U.S. citizens “remain at risk for kidnapping… [as] numerous insurgent groups, including Al Qaida, remain active…” and notes that “State Department guidance to U.S. businesses in Iraq advises the use of Protective Security Details.”
In the bigger picture, the world is also a far more dangerous place than it was in 2003. Indeed, for the State Department, which sent me to Iraq to witness the follies of empire, the world has become ever more daunting. In 2003, at that infamous “mission accomplished” moment, only Afghanistan was on the list of overseas embassies that were considered “extreme danger posts.” Soon enough, however, Iraq and Pakistan were added. Today, Yemen and Libya, once boring but secure outposts for State’s officials, now fall into the same category.
Other places once considered safe for diplomats and their families such as Syria and Mali have been evacuated and have no American diplomatic presence at all. Even sleepy Tunisia, once calm enough that the State Department had its Arabic language school there, is now on reduced staff with no diplomatic family members resident. Egypt teeters.
The Iranian leadership watched carefully as the American imperial version of Iraq collapsed, concluded that Washington was a paper tiger, backed away from initial offers to talk over contested issues, and instead (at least for a while) doubled-down on achieving nuclear breakout capacity, aided by the past work of that same A.Q. Khan network. North Korea, another A.Q. Khan beneficiary, followed the same pivot ever farther from Washington, while it became a genuine nuclear power. Its neighbor China pursued its own path of economic dominance, while helping to “pay” for the Iraq War by becoming the number-one holder of U.S. debt among foreign governments. It now owns more than 21% of the U.S. debt held overseas.
And don’t put away the joke book just yet. Subbing as apologist-in-chief for an absent George W. Bush and the top officials of his administration on this 10th anniversary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently reminded us that there is more on the horizon. Conceding that he had “long since given up trying to persuade people Iraq was the right decision,” Blair added that new crises are looming. “You’ve got one in Syria right now, you’ve got one in Iran to come,” he said. “We are in the middle of this struggle, it is going to take a generation, it is going to be very arduous and difficult. But I think we are making a mistake, a profound error, if we think we can stay out of that struggle.”
Think of his comment as a warning. Having somehow turned much of Islam into a foe, Washington has essentially assured itself of never-ending crises that it stands no chance whatsoever of winning. In this sense, Iraq was not an aberration, but the historic zenith and nadir for a way of thinking that is only now slowing waning. For decades to come, the U.S. will have a big enough military to ensure that our decline is slow, bloody, ugly, and reluctant, if inevitable. One day, however, even the drones will have to land.
And so, happy 10th anniversary, Iraq War! A decade after the invasion, a chaotic and unstable Middle East is the unfinished legacy of our invasion. I guess the joke is on us after all, though no one is laughing.
Peter Van Buren, a retired 24-year veteran of the State Department, served in Iraq. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq, the Middle East, and U.S. diplomacy at his blog, We Meant Well. He is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
Inside the World's Largest Embassy
By Peter Van Buren, Mother Jones, Sep. 28, 2011
Editor’s note: In 2009, Peter Van Buren, a two-decade veteran of the Foreign Service, volunteered to go to Iraq. Drawn by “the nexus of honor, duty, terrorism, and my oldest daughter’s college tuition,” he signed on as the head of an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team, part of a “civilian surge” to rebuild the country and pave the way for the withdrawal of American combat troops. He’d joined the biggest nation-building exercise in history, a still-unfinished $63-billion effort that Van Buren compares to “paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck.” Van Buren’s acerbic new memoir, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, recounts his two years as an official feather-paster in a country that’s become an afterthought to most Americans.
Even before he hit the ground, Van Buren found that the State Department’s efforts to stabilize Iraq were as haphazard and unrealistic as the initial military effort to invade the country. In his acknowledgments, Van Buren singles out former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, “who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned us there.” Not surprisingly, Van Buren, who still works for the State Department, has ruffled some feathers at Foggy Bottom. “The State Department…is like a Mafia family: one doesn’t talk about family matters outside the family,” he told Publisher’s Weekly. “When a colleague learns about my book, the first question is always ‘Are you in trouble?’ I am afraid the answer is yes.” Van Buren says the department has been investigating him and that his boss delivered a threatening message from an unnamed superior, “just like in a gangster movie.”
Though Van Buren spent much of his time in Iraq in the field, in the excerpt below, he recalls life inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to an immense, surreal US Embassy and “the world’s worst bar scene.”
The World’s Biggest Embassy (104 acres, 22 buildings, thousands of staff members, a $116 million vehicle inventory), physically larger than the Vatican, was a sign of our commitment, at least our commitment to excess. “Along with the Great Wall of China,” said the ambassador, “it’s one of those things you can see with the naked eye from outer space.” The newly opened embassy was made up of large office buildings, the main one built around a four-story atrium, with overhead lights that resembled sails. If someone had told us there was a Bath & Body Works in there, we would not have thought it odd.
The World’s Biggest Embassy sat in, or perhaps defined, the Green Zone. Called the Emerald City by some, the Green Zone represented the World’s Largest Public Relations Failure. In the process of deposing Saddam, we placed our new seat of power right on top of his old one, just as the ancient Sumerians built their strongholds on top of fallen ones out in the desert. In addition to the new buildings, Saddam’s old palaces in the Zone were repurposed as offices, and Saddam’s old jails became our new jails. Conveniently for Iraqis, the overlords might have changed but the address had not. The place you went to visit political prisoners who opposed Saddam was still the place you went to look for relatives who opposed the Americans.
The new embassy compound isolated American leadership at first physically and soon mentally as well. The air of otherworldliness started right with the design of the place. American architects had planned for the embassy grounds to have all sorts of trees, grassy areas, and outdoor benches; the original drawings made them look like a leafy college campus. For a place in the desert, the design could not have been more impractical. But in 2003, no projection into the future was too outlandish. One building at the compound was purpose-built to be the international school for the happy children who would accompany their diplomat parents on assignment. It was now used only for offices. Each embassy apartment offered a full-size American range, refrigerator, and dishwasher, as if staffers might someday take their families to shop at a future Sadr City Safeway like they do in Seoul or Brussels. In fact, all food was trucked in directly from Kuwait, along with American office supplies, souvenir mugs, and T-shirts (“My Father Was Assigned to Embassy Baghdad and All I Got Was…”, “I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel”) and embassy staff members were prohibited from buying anything to eat locally. The embassy generated its own electricity, purified its own water from the nearby Tigris, and processed its own sewage, hermetically sealed off from Iraq.
The ambassador, who fancied himself a sportsman, ordered grass to grow on the large sandy area in front of the main embassy building, a spot at one time designated as a helicopter-landing zone, since relocated. Gardeners brought in tons of dirt and planted grass seed. A nearly endless amount of water was used, but despite clear orders to do so, the grass would not grow. Huge flocks of birds arrived. Never having seen so much seed on the ground in one place, they ate passionately. No grass grew. The ambassador would not admit defeat. He ordered sod be imported into Kuwait and then brought by armored convoy to the embassy. No one confessed to what it cost to import, but estimates varied between two and five million dollars. The sod was put down and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water were used to make it live, in what was practically a crime against nature. Whole job positions existed to hydrate and tend the grass. No matter what Iraq and nature wanted, the American Embassy spent whatever it took to have green grass in the desert. Later full-grown palm trees were trucked in and planted to line the grassy square. We made things in Iraq look the way we wanted them to look, water shortages throughout the rest of the country be damned. The grass was the perfect allegory for the whole war.
The efforts were not wasted, as the ambassador organized an embassy lacrosse team to gambol on the lawn. At one point the official Web site featured photos of young Iraqis receiving a donation of Major League Baseball equipment on the turf. The event was a special program the ambassador was personally involved with, because he believed in “sports diplomacy.” Once he invited Iraq’s only baseball team to his residence for some drills. He wore a replica of a Japanese-born Major League star’s jersey, making the point that baseball, although invented in America, was an international sport (which is why the World Series includes only American teams and potentially a Canadian one). “Baseball is like democracy,” he liked to say, “you cannot impose it. People should learn it and accept it.” A previous sports diplomacy program donated hundreds of soccer balls to Iraq, each colorfully decorated with flags of the world. No one would play with the balls, because they included the flag of Saudi Arabia, which has a Koranic verse on it, and you cannot put your foot to a Koranic verse. Luckily, the balls were made in China, where they already knew not to include the Israeli flag, as it would have been awkward if we’d had to ask.
Most of the State people at the embassy were not me or my kin. While the various job specialties in the military (mortar plate carrier and helicopter pilot, cook and General) were united by a single uniform, a common service affiliation, and an esprit de corps, the State Department was more of a confederation, where lines were rarely crossed. If my kind were strip malls, the people here were Galleria.
The traditional diplomat was a big part of the organization and provided most of the upper management. While diversity played its role, this group was still mostly male, pale, and Yale in orientation if not in actual appearance. They were the deep thinkers, the plotters, the negotiators, the report writers. These folks, the ones the media always refer to as attending receptions wearing striped pants (striped pants went out of style with Hoover although many State officers have hung on to bow ties, seersucker, and men’s hats), were content in their Iraq assignments, as their work involved staying in the embassy and sending important memos to one another and to Washington, nipping out occasionally for chats with ex-expat Iraqis imported and perhaps even test-tube-bred by us for such purposes. Upper management types created their own reality and walled it off from the rest of the country. Army joke: How does the embassy keep an eye on events in Iraq? From the roof.
Coming into the embassy from the field was one of the more stressful things you could do in Iraq, made worse if you drifted into Baghdaddy’s, the embassy bar. You began to understand why embassy policy forbade photography at after-work events once you learned that the most important characteristic of Baghdaddy’s was that booze was cheap. You bought a punch card for 20 dollars and drank and drank, as all the bartenders were volunteers from the embassy community and free drinks, heavy pours, and loose accounting were the norm. The serious drinkers rolled in right at 8:00 p.m. to start on two dollar shots of vodka, grain, or maybe kerosene. These were the older, former alpha males of the community, no longer able to attract mates and shorn of their once proud plumage, who just wanted to get drunk rapidly with purpose. Eight o’clock was like the VFW hall on a pale Wednesday afternoon—if you were there, you were there to drink, and if you were drinking, you wanted to get smashed. If you wanted to talk to anyone, you’d drunk-dial your ex-wife.
The next phylum slid in around 10, the 20-to-30-year-old embassy staffers. They all knew one another and liked to dance and have a good time, basking in their youth and coolness and self-importance. Baghdaddy’s was not Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, but with a popped collar on a pink polo shirt, a mixed drink in a Day-Glo color, and sunglasses indoors, there was no reason why it couldn’t be undergrad glory days all over again. Life in Iraq was no more real for these people than it was for anyone else dragging slowly through a one-year tour, but it was better dressed.
Things started to turn seriously sad around 11:00 p.m. Older women drifted through the door in twos and threes, with the occasional grim single. They eased on strappy sandals to take advantage of the embassy’s 800 to 1 ratio of men to women. The odd dance between the older females and the game 30-year-old undergrads would be pathetically interrupted by the stirrings of the now drunken former alphas, clumsily trying to make conversation while pushing aside the young challenger bulls from the kill site. Natural selection was not a pretty sight.
The world’s worst bar scene ended when the overhead fluorescents jerked on at midnight, trapping the unsuccessful hunters in the glare. Quick words were exchanged on the dance floor in desperate attempts to seal a deal, while the serious boozers retreated to their stools and a final drink. Back in the room, late-night TV offered little solace, with an Islam Gigante Lebanese dancing show interrupted by nearly constant commercials for a Middle Eastern product called Pif Paf. Baghdaddy’s made everyone grow apart, while maintaining the illusion of bringing them together.
Excerpted from We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by Peter Van Buren (Metropolitan Books)
“The official Report of Investigation in my case contains significant redactions, as if parts of my own life cannot be revealed to me. Facts can be hidden from Freedom of Information Act requests and even court-ordered discovery in the name of “security,” and thus manipulated to document pre-determined outcomes. ”—
Peter Van Buren, Foreign Service Officer
“Iraq is not for amateurs,” said Ambassador Chris Hill in Baghdad, though it was mostly amateurs whom the State Department found.”—Peter Van Buren
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project)
(via Magnus Halsnes)
LouNotKY at Idea Festival (Day 2) (finally)
In episode five of “Louisville, Not Kentucky,” Melissa says there are two types of Louisvillagers: Idea Festival people and Derby people. What we cut out was me asking what kind of Louisvillager that made me, as I’d been to neither (her answer? “A bad one.” Ruthless!)
But now, after a day at Idea Festival, I’m inclined to think I’ll be an Idea Festivillager. Don’t get me wrong — I love Derby season, and I think it’s impossible to make the call before I’ve actually attended Derby at Churchill Downs. But I doubt the horses and “My Old Kentucky Home” could bring me the kind of inspiration, laughter, sadness, and even anger the four IF sessions I attended did (although I can well imagine scenarios that might spur each of those emotions at the track).
I hope you’ve had a chance to read Melissa’s articles for WFPL, which summarize all the sessions of the Festival. Between deciding to take pictures, write notes, or tweet about what was going on, here’s what I retained.
Grimanesa Amorós started the day, taking the audience on a journey from Lake Titicaca, in her homeland, Peru, to the many places she’s exhibited her work: Manhattan, Italy, Finland, southern France, Switzerland, and most recently, Mexico. She focused mainly on her Uros sculptures, inspired by the Uros people of Lake Titicaca, who live on floating islands they construct from totora reeds. Amorós will have a piece at 21c Cincinnati when it opens (sometime before the end of the year).
The Creative Capital panel followed Amorós. Creative Capital is a non-profit that provides funding and non-monetary support to artists like Liz Cohen, who spent eight years converting a German Trabant into a an El Camino (the Tranbantamino); Hasan Elahi, who has put details of his entire life online, from photographs of his food to his exact location at any moment, and regularly communicated with the FBI since they erroneously put him the terrorist watch list; and Tahir Hemphill, who created the Hip-Hop Word Count, a searchable database containing the lyrics of more than 50,000 hip-hop songs. Sam van Aken’s Tree of 40 Fruit stuck with me most. Grafting different trees, Van Aken created one that could produce 40 types of stone fruit and blossomed in an explosion of pinks and fuschia.
You can see these artists’ work on display at the Land of Tomorrow gallery in Louisville through November 2nd.
I have an ever-growing list of books to read, and shortly after hearing the next speaker, Peter Van Buren, I added his book, “We Meant Well,” to the list. Van Buren worked in the foreign service for 24 years before volunteering for an assignment with the State Department in Iraq. He began with stories about the confusion and absurdity he encountered during “reconstruction.” His endeavors included blowing money on a chicken factory with no chickens in need of processing and building internet portals in places without electricity (you know, just in case they eventually got electricity). And then:
“It was pretty funny , until you realized we spent $44 billion in Iraq and didn’t accomplish any good.”
Van Buren wrote his book about his time in Iraq, and someone at the Pentagon approved his manuscript for publication. But then, after he linked to WikiLeaks on his blog, the government called him in for interrogation, took away his security clearance, sent him home on paid leave, put him under surveillance — essentially trying to shut him up. Through the help of the Government Accountability Project and the ACLU, Van Buren was able to publish his book and will retire this month with his full benefits. In closing, he encouraged the audience to ask any presidential candidate to spend $2 for every $1 that was spent reconstructing Iraq on rebuilding American cities like Detroit and New Orleans.
Finally, if you also have a To Read list, I highly recommend the next speaker’s book. I just finished reading Baratunde Thurston’s “How to Be Black” last week, so learning about his writing and marketing process (and having drinks with him after, thanks to our awesome book club) was a treat. From allowing the People of the Internet to watch his screen as he wrote the book to parties in place of bookstore readings, Thurston has practiced his own advice to “make everything cool.” And he was hilarious, explaining the Twitter hashtag #whiskeyfriday (“On Friday, you drink whiskey!”), and thanking the Internet for its role in the publication of his book (“If you haven’t tried it, go Google that”).
There were two more speakers on Thursday, but I decided to visit a few Parking Day parks. I’m thinking about taking off Sept. 25-28, 2013, for next year’s Idea Festival. Now if I can just to Derby…
For more IF12 photos, see the small gallery here.
“When Iraqis were asked in an August 2005 poll how often they had safe, clean water, 72 percent responded “never.”16”—Peter Van Buren
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project)
“It was weird. We’d be watching the news from home about foreclosures, and I’d be reading e-mails from my sister about school cutbacks, while signing off on tens of thousands of dollars for stuff in Iraq. At one point we were tasked to give out microgrants, $5,000 in actual cash handed to an Iraqi to “open a business,” no strings attached. If he took the money and in front of us spent it on dope and pinball, it was no matter. We wondered among ourselves whether we shouldn’t be running a PRT in Detroit or New Orleans instead of Baghdad.”—Peter Van Buren
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project)
(via Carol Rosenberg)