Thursday, April 14, 2011

New FS Blog: We Meant Well, Plus a Book Coming Out This Fall

From We Meant Well Blog
The new FS blog, We Meant Well is by FSO Peter Van Buren and is a companion to his forthcoming book (coming out this fall from MacMillan), We Meant Well, How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

One of his new blog posts -- Bureaucratic Chlamydia: What to Wear to a War?

The first part of my book details the half-assed nature of preparing people like me to live and work in a war zone. State Department personnel are recruited for Iraq without much attention to their background, physical fitness or experience. This is not much of a problem for the majority who will serve at the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad, a $1 billion dollar complex constantly referred to as “bigger than the Vatican,” a really odd comparison until you remember the Vatican burned people at the stake for believing the earth was round.

In yesterday's post in FP's The Best Defense, Tom Ricks writes about
playing the Iraqi base bingo and this --  

Here a Foreign Service officer speculates on which bases the United States government might like to keep in Iraq after this year. But I disagree with his notion of forward bases on the doorsteps of Iran and Syria.

Ricks was talking about Van Buren's picks on locations of permanent bases --FOB Hammer, Victory Base Complex (VBC) and  Al-Asad Airbase.

The book presumably received clearance through the appropriate State channels, but  Mr.
Van Buren told me that the book was cleared as per 3 FAM 4170. I expect that the book and the blog will get a lot of eyeballs from Foggy Bottom and elsewhere. USIP has a collection of personal accounts on the PRT experience in Iraq and Afghanistan with the latest from 2009, but I think this is the first book to come out from a State Dept officer assigned to one of those PRTs.      

In 2009, Mr. Van Buren, a Foreign Service Officer with two decades of experience received a nod to go to a PRT in Iraq only to have the offer rescinded by MED.
It turned out, he actually did go to that Iraq PRT assignment in 2009-2010. We have yet to read his insider account of that experience, but below is a pre-publication review from Library Journal:

Van Buren, Peter. We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Metropolitan: Holt. Oct. 2011. 288p. ISBN 9780805094367. $25.

A Foreign Service officer for more than two decades, Van Buren led the State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team in its effort to win over the Iraqis through invigorating social projects—like sports murals in violence-wracked neighborhoods and pastry-making classes to help folks supply goods to nonexistent cafés on rubble-strewn streets without water or electricity. Talk about the arrogance of trying to remake a world in our image without even knowing the world we are trying to remake. Billed as bitingly funny, though I’m not sure I’m laughing; an important book from someone who was there.

More about the book from the website:
From a State Department insider, the first book recounting our misguided efforts to rebuild Iraq—a shocking and rollicking true-life cross between Catch-22, Dispatches and The Ugly American.

Charged with rebuilding Iraq, would you spend taxpayer money on a sports mural in Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhood to promote reconciliation through art? How about an isolated milk factory that cannot get its milk to market? Or a pastry class training women to open cafés on bombed-out streets without water or electricity?

According to Peter Van Buren, we bought all these projects and more in the most expensive hearts-and-minds campaign since the Marshall Plan. We Meant Well is his eyewitness account of the civilian side of the surge—that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed. Leading a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team on its quixotic mission, Van Buren details, with laser-like irony, his yearlong encounter with pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers, and oblivious administrators secluded in the world’s largest embassy, who fail to realize that you can’t rebuild a country without first picking up the trash.

Darkly funny while deadly serious, We Meant Well is a tragicomic voyage of ineptitude and corruption that leaves its writer—and readers—appalled and disillusioned but wiser.

We're looking forward to reading the book.

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