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State Dept. Veteran Peter Van Buren Defies U.S. Censors to Recount Failed Reconstruction in Iraq

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In “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” State Department official Peter Van Buren provides a first-hand account of the faltering and often misguided attempts at reconstruction in Iraq undertaken by the U.S. government. Van Buren published the book after rebuffing heavy State Department pressure to redact a number of passages. Van Buren joins us to discuss the failed efforts he witnessed in Iraq and his struggle to tell his story to the world. “The State department is very much like the Mafia,” Van Buren says. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Peter Van Buren. He is a current State Department Foreign Service officer who, for more than two decades, worked with the State Department and has written a new book. It is called We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He’s in Washington, D.C.

Talk about this book, why it has caused such ire within the U.S. government, how they tried to get the publishing delayed. But you managed to get this book out and have been, it seems like, exiled for what you have been talking about happened in Iraq, Peter.

PETER VAN BUREN: Concurrent with the military surge around 2007, the State Department took over the job of reconstructing Iraq, the “hearts and minds campaign,” the counterinsurgency, if you will, whichever name you like to put on it. Spending over $63 billion, the State Department was supposed to clean up the mess that had been made by the invasion, to rebuild Iraq into a stable democracy, to fulfill the vision of two presidents that Iraq was going to be something other than a wasteland left over from our invasion.

I was sent by the State Department in 2009 to participate in this campaign, spend some of the money. And unfortunately, I found that things did not work out the way they were intended to do. What I confronted was a situation that was full of waste, fraud, mismanagement, the type of foolishness that doomed the efforts. I started keeping some notes that eventually evolved into a book that the State Department tried very hard to stop from being published. They were embarrassed by it. They were concerned that it would affect their budget negotiations with Congress. They were concerned that it might cause someone to question why the United States needed to keep 16,000 people at the world’s largest embassy in the country of Iraq.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Peter, can you talk about—because in the book, you have some very interesting examples—some of the examples that you mention of the kind of waste and fraud that you witnessed when you were working in the provincial reconstruction team in Iraq, when you were leading it?

PETER VAN BUREN: Sitting here in Washington, it’s almost hard for me to even imagine the things that we spent money on. In our clumsy attempts to buy love, to make friends, to win over the Iraqis, we sponsored pastry-making classes for Iraqi widows. We handed out gifts—sheep, bees—in hopes that Iraqis would pick these things up and make a living from them. We spent $2.5 million on a chicken processing plant that never processed any chicken. We gave driving lessons to women. We painted murals on the sides of gymnasiums. We handed out bicycles to children that they were supposed to ride on streets that were so pockmarked with shell craters that you couldn’t take a car down them. We did a number of foolish things that were feel-good projects, perhaps, short-term goals at best. They produced some lovely photographs, occasionally some good propaganda.

But none of them were designed as part of any organized campaign that could have seriously led to something called reconstruction in Iraq that would have satisfied our political goals of creating enough stability in the economy that young men and young women would choose to participate in the economy rather than becoming insurgents or terrorists. The system was flawed from its beginning. It lacked adult supervision. And we basically were cut loose in the countryside to spend money in hopes that something good would come of it, the same way that, the joke goes, you could have 10,000 monkeys typing randomly, and occasionally they might produce a line of Shakespeare.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about, Peter Van Buren, what happened to you when you came back, when you started to raise concerns, and also how it is you’re still working for the State Department—well, working after a fashion.

PETER VAN BUREN: The State Department is very much like the Mafia, in the sense that they don’t like you to talk about the family outside the family. And what my book did was expose some of the failings of State Department leadership, from the highest levels down to the levels where I worked, that contributed to the lack of success in Iraq. This was not taken very well by the State Department, and I was initially punished by having my security clearance removed, ostensibly because of a link—not a leak, a link—on my blog at to a WikiLeaks document. In fact, the 500-pound gorilla in the room was the book.

The State Department then sought to make me disappear—shave off my beard and push me out of the tribe, if you will. I was placed on administrative leave six weeks ago. My badge was taken away. My diplomatic passport was taken from me. I was marched out to the front door, where I was ceremoniously told I was officially banned from entering any State Department facility. And I was sent home. Unfortunately, the State Department found no mechanism to actually punish me or challenge me in a way that I could respond to, so they sent me to sit at home with full pay, to be quiet, to stay out of the way, to make me go away.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Peter, I just want to return to the point that you and our previous guests have also raised, about the size of the U.S. embassy in Iraq. So, with the U.S. military withdrawal scheduled for the end of this year, you have also mentioned in a recent article, as have others, that the State Department will be required to hire thousands and thousands of contractors to fulfill security as well as other services that the military previously provided. Can you say a little about that?

PETER VAN BUREN: Absolutely. The State Department has created the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad, literally the size of the Vatican, something you can see from space, and, with the military leaving, has hired over 5,000 mercenaries, contract security people, similar to Blackwater under some different names, as well as creating its own armed air force, its own blood system to supply people who are injured, and a whole lot of other militarized functions that have no place in diplomacy. In many people’s minds, the 16,000 personnel who are going to occupy the State Department facilities are nothing more than an extension of the occupation of Iraq, albeit under civilian control rather than military control.

In countries around the world the size of Iraq, the State Department typically will have a mission of a hundred to 150 people. In Iraq, before the 1991 Gulf War, our embassy was relatively small, about the size of the mathematics building at some state college, with about a hundred people working in it. And that is typical around the world for us to have a medium-sized embassy like that in a country that is about the size and complexity of Iraq. Why 16,000 people? Why 5,000 armed security contractors? Why an air force, helicopters with weapons? Why all this equipment? The State Department is occupying Iraq. It’s an attempt to continue our influence there, absent the military, or least until Joe Biden can negotiate a return of the military to Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that’s why he was in Iraq?

PETER VAN BUREN: I think Joe was there for a couple of things, partially, of course, the negotiations that your previous guest referred to. But I think also this is an attempt to have a victory lap, if you will. The President campaigned on getting the United States out of Iraq. It was only because the Iraqis refused to grant us immunity for our soldiers that the President was able to fulfill his campaign promise. That said, the White House is trying to make the most of it, announcing that the President has done what he said he was going to do. And I think Biden’s visit to Iraq was something of a chance to crow a little bit, to celebrate the end of the war at Obama’s hands, and to run a victory lap.

I’d like to propose that no VIP be allowed to go to Iraq, certainly not to announce anything using the words “victory” or “success,” until he or she is willing to do that on an announced visit with the airplane landing in the daytime. As long as the visits have to be kept secret and the planes have to land at night, I’d like to suggest that we not use the words “victory,” “success,” “completion,” or anything equivalent.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Van Buren, we want to thank you for being with us. His book is called We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He is a State Department Foreign Service officer and continues to be one. He has worked there for almost a quarter of a century.

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