'We Meant Well': An Attempt To Rebuild Iraq

Peter Van Buren was a career U.S. Foreign Service officer for more than two decades when he left for Iraq in 2009. He discovered that the success of his mission might depend on contented cows and slaughtered chickens. Host Scott Simon speaks with Van Buren about his new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. It's a sharp, bitter and sometimes funny account of his time embedded with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Peter Van Buren was a career U.S. Foreign Service officer for more than two decades. When he left for Iraq in 2009, he discovered that the success of his mission there might depend on contented cows and slaughtered chickens. Mr. Van Buren spent a year in Iraq, with a Provincial Reconstruction Team -part of a civilian surge charged with rebuilding the country. His new book, "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." It's a sharp, bitter, sometimes very funny account of his time embedded with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

Mr. Van Buren joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

PETER VAN BUREN: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And you were in the Foreign Service for more than a couple of decades.

VAN BUREN: Yes, sir, 23 years.

SIMON: But had never served in the Middle East.

VAN BUREN: No.

SIMON: How did you wind up in Iraq?

VAN BUREN: It was kind of an accident really. I call it the nexus of terrorism and tuition. The State Department had had a hard time finding enough Foreign Service officers to go to Iraq and so had to manipulate some of the personnel rules to add a little extra money for the hardships and to make it more likely that you get promoted if you served out there.

My oldest daughter was going to college at that time and it seemed like a good way to kill a couple of birds with one stone. I would take care of her tuition. I would maybe get myself promoted. And so I stuck up my hand and volunteered and before I knew it I was getting off an airplane at the Baghdad airport.

SIMON: There's a notable phrase in the book that I want to get you to explain to us. You write (Reading) We were the ones who famously held paste together feathers year after year hoping for a duck.

VAN BUREN: I wish it was original and I'm not sure who actually made that one up. But it came to be sort of a motto for what we were doing. Here's a feather. There's a feather. Here's a project. Here's some money. Did it become a duck yet? No. OK, we'll keep trying.

SIMON: Hmm. What went wrong with, for example, the chicken factory?

VAN BUREN: The chicken factory was the most money that our - my little organization ever spent. Someone had decided that the current system of selling chickens, which had been in place for roughly 5,000 years in Mesopotamia, where farmers raised live chickens, brought them to the market where people purchased them, took them home, was no longer any good.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

VAN BUREN: That the fact that folks didn't have refrigeration and there were no transportation logistic networks was not going to stop us from building a large automated chicken factory in the middle of a rural Iraq.

SIMON: But they didn't have refrigeration because they didn't have electricity. And if you have an automated chicken factory...

VAN BUREN: It's kind of like which comes first, the chicken or the egg. How were we going to distribute this chicken that was now in nice Styrofoam packages just like you get at Safeway when there were no logistic networks, where there were no refrigerated trucks, where the people who were going to buy the chicken couldn't afford to store it even if they had electricity? We thought about none of those things. We simply built the chicken factory for $2.5 million, and as far as I know it sits out there empty, vacant and unused even today.

SIMON: You did see some projects you think worked, didn't you?

VAN BUREN: I'm still thinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VAN BUREN: When things worked it worked almost by accident, almost against our will. We, for example, handed out a number of what we called micro grants, $5,000 in cash in order someone to start a small business with. We had no real requirements other than they sign the receipt. And they took the money and they did with it what they wanted to.

But these were small. They were inconsequential. They were accidental. Until my colleague Dairy Carey came along. She was a grandmother from Minnesota who couldn't really articulate how she ended up in our program. One almost gets the impression that she went through the wrong door in an office building and ended up on a plane to Iraq.

Dairy Carey started out - and that's no her real name of course. She started out one day with an Iraqi group saying to them we're going to help you increase the output from your cows. The Iraqis wanted no part of this. Their cows were making enough milk, because they were selling the milk locally and there was a very fragile but complex system in place where there were enough farmers and enough cows and enough people buying milk that everyone got their share and it worked out quite well for everyone.

Whereas, in our previous projects we would panic at that point, usually run away and try to do something else in another place, Dairy Carey was not to be stopped. She said, well, all right. What if I help you to have better milk?

This, in fact, was the key to everything. The farmers were very, very interested in learning how to produce milk that was healthier, that their children could drink it without getting ill. It was a breakthrough and it offered up this incredible window that allowed us to see how Iraqi people really thought and acted.

SIMON: Mr. Van Buren, what's your status with the U.S. Department of State now?

VAN BUREN: I haven't checked yet today, but as of yesterday I was still employed by the Department of State. The State Department is not very happy about my book.

SIMON: Are you out to make the State Department fire you?

VAN BUREN: I hope not. My goal was not to embarrass people, but instead to draw attention to what we as an organization have done.

SIMON: Mr. Van Buren, in the end, did you do more harm or good in Iraq?

VAN BUREN: I think the best that I could hope for is that I didn't do much harm, in the sense that the things that we did probably disappeared the same way water poured into the desert goes away. In a moment, you don't even realize it was ever there.

We saw the problems. We couldn't help but see the problems. And instead of spending the money to bring clean water to children, we spent the money on Arabic language translations of American novels. When we had a chance to actually help farmers, we did it only by accident, only because of Dairy Carey's efforts. When we really decided to spend some money, we spent it on a giant Potemkin chicken factory that serves no one. So the harm was what we didn't do more than what we did do.

SIMON: Peter Van Buren, his new book, "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." Joined us here in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

VAN BUREN: Thank you for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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