The U.S. State Department has been known to make noise about protecting free speech around the world. Writers and bloggers, the department says, should be allowed to publish their opinions even if they conflict with government dogma. But these freedoms are granted to humanity by the State Department under the strict condition that the people practicing the free speech live in a distant land, and that the government they annoy is just some bearded bogeyman religious regime like in Iran, or an inscrutable oligarchy like in China. Tell uncomfortable truths about U.S. policy, or so much as mention “Wikileaks,” and the American Authorities will hound you like a furious baboon (a furious baboon-hound, we mean). Hence the current jihad against Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. We have read and reviewed this delightful book!
Van Buren is a Foreign Service officer who spent a year in Iraq (2009-2010) heading two “reconstruction teams” assigned to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure and “win hearts and minds.” What Van Buren saw in Iraq during the “civilian surge,” however, was mostly waste, futility, and criminal insanity.
It’s not often your Wonkette book reviewer recommends “topical” books, but we recommend this book wholeheartedly. It’s savagely funny, hugely entertaining and 100% free from political and media clichés. Best of all, it’s filled with vivid (and grimly hilarious) pictures of the actual “reconstruction of Iraq.”
Van Buren outlines several comical ways our government is trying to Americanize Iraq. Just a few examples: a truckload of classic American books translated into Arabic that end up being dumped behind a Baghdad school (their purpose was to teach Iraqi children “basic literacy skills,” but they were apparently unreadable); the expensive construction of a milk-processing plant in the middle of the desert far from people or dairies; programs to make Iraqi women dress more like American women, etc. In the midst these schemes, no one thinks to attend to basic necessities like water, sewage, and electricity.
Van Buren has to endure several mind-numbing meetings with clueless administrators, advisers, policy wonks, and military brass. The cast of characters at a meeting with “fellows” from a “prominent national security think tank” includes an unnamed neoconservative journalist:
He liked military high tech; he used words like awesome, superb, and extraordinary (pronounced EXTRAordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns. He said in reference to the Israeli Army, “they give me a hard-on.”
And another fellow:
Beverly Hills surgeon explains at home fix for crepey skin around the arms, legs, and stomach.
He insisted on using the phrase tipping point to refer to just about everything, including lunch. He called people in the news by their first names (Barack, Joe, Meatloaf). He looked at his smartphone for messages a lot, even though we were several hundred years away from the right kind of cell phone coverage.
As Van Buren writes, “It became clearer to me why this war had played out so well, with people like this intellectually backstopping the policy makers.”
Some of your reviewer’s favorite scenes occur in the hyper-insular American Embassy in Baghdad (the world’s largest embassy, larger than the Vatican). Especially at 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 …. The serious drinkers rolled in right at 8 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 shitfaced. If you wanted to talk to anyone, you’d drunk-dial your ex-wife.
And then there’s dinner with the CIA in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces:
The Agency grabbed for itself one of Saddam’s primo palaces, in the Green Zone, of course, but separate from the Embassy and the Army …. Outside they had thrown up T-walls and barriers and checkpoints and enough razor wire to encircle Folsom, perimeter security so that any yahoo driving past would know this was a serious place, not some random Army IT office or a goddamn State Department motor pool.
The best parts were inside, where most of Saddam’s I’m-on-crack decorating style had been left untouched. You could blink and think you were in a Macao sauna or Sinatra’s Vegas for all the red velvet and brass, but the tacked-up strings of lights around the doorway and the big sign pointing to the bar as if you were in a frat house were giveaways for anyone who had been in any station anywhere. The pool with the winged griffin statues and red spotlights added to, but was not needed to complete, the scene. If you had ever gotten stoned as a kid, this was the vision you’d have wanted to stretch out your buzz.
…. We all took a moment to marvel at the plates and ask the person next to us what, if the room could talk, he thought it might say. Had Saddam deflowered virgins here, planned the invasion of Kuwait, and maybe met with al Qaeda right at this table, who knew? It was, of course, equally possible that in this room Saddam had met his Agency handlers in 1983 to discuss the war against Iran or receive info from Don Rumsfeld about the new weapons he was getting from the United States to kill Persians and Kurds.
There is much more, but we shan’t spoil it for you. You can find Van Buren’s website here. Buy the book, everyone!
It goes without saying that the State Department and the Obama administration are unhappy with We Meant Well. In fact, the State Department demanded redactions 1) after the book had already been cleared for publication, and 2) after it had been sent to booksellers. And now the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security is hounding Van Buren, ostensibly because he used the word “Wikileaks” on his blog.
The current administration cares as much about Van Buren’s right to criticize as it does about the demands of the OCCUPY movement, so expect the American Freedom Agenda to go on indefinitely.
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by Peter Van Buren, Metropolitan Books, 288 pages, $15.67