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Friday, February 03, 2012

A report from Iraq

Some weeks ago, a regular reader, whom I believe works in the US Foreign Service, suggested that I read the book We Meant Well, by a Foreign Service officer named Peter Van Buren who served on a Provincial Reconstruction Team during the late stages of the Iraq War. I haven't quite finished it, but you don't have to read a great deal to get the basic picture. I am extremely curious as to the author's age. He has been an FSO for 23 years, and thus he is probably in his mid to late forties (though his picture looks a little older to me), and therefore a Gen Xer. He certainly writes like one. He makes me sound like a hopeless idealist when it comes to American foreign policy, and regular readers know that that is not an easy thing to do.

Our original mission in Iraq, while most unwise and certain, really, to lead to enormous problems, was well within our capabilities: the destruction of Saddam Hussein's Army and his regime. Now Van Buren, who is really an Asian specialist, arrived on the scene rather late. (Both the military and the Foreign Service have had to meet an extraordinary demand for officers in Iraq and, now, Afghanistan. Very few of them, of course, have appropriate language skills, and Van Buren got just a few weeks of training before he went.) Yet despite the success, by the time he arrived in 2008 or 2009, of the surge, the country evidently remained in a state of anarchy. It is not a joke to say that for every American like him, we needed several contractors to feed, house, and above all, guard him. Vietnam, where Saigon remained a functioning, westernized city right up until the end, was never like this. Interestingly enough, the Iraqi government, having gotten rid of American military personnel, is now making noises about expelling contractors as well. A friend of mine in a good position to know suggested that that might mean the end of our Embassy in Iraq as well, since the hundreds of Americans who work there would never be safe without them. (Note: a few days later it was announced that the Embassy is indeed being cut way back.)

Van Buren and his colleagues faced an endless pressure for results. Their mission was to make Iraqis happy and prosperous, in order that they would not be tempted to become insurgents. (Oddly, the Bush Administration took a real New Deal type of approach in Iraq and towards the whole Middle East: employed and happy people, they seemed to think, don't make revolutions.) But they couldn't do this, even though, as Van Buren shows again and again, Americans have spread untold millions of American dollars around Iraq--maybe more. He himself was involved in various economic projects, including a chicken processing plant and an attempt to turn widows (one of the few things, he notes, not in short supply in Iraq) into beekeepers. Virtually every project assumed a commercial and transportation infrastructure that Iraq does not have. A project for a chicken hatchery failed for want of electricity (a problem we have never fixed) to refrigerate them. Virtually every food product we tried to grow was easily undercut by cheap imports from Brazil. We never knew who really could do necessary jobs and who couldn't. Iraq has evidently been getting more and more backward economically ever since the first Gulf War, and we haven't stopped the downward spiral. Indeed, we made it much worse.

We easily forget that two million Iraqis, including most of the Christian community and many of the most educated, fled to Syria or Jordan in the period following the war. Another two million have been internally displaced. This has had many ironic consequences. Iraq has a population of wild pigs, and the Christians used to hunt and eat them. Now they are gone and the pigs are multiplying. This is not the only way in which the occupation was a setback for the values we claim to defend. Saddam had decreed co-education in Iraqi public schools, but the new government has resegregated the sexes. The result is that Iraqi children are on what we called in the 1950s double sessions, and both have to kill time for half the day.

I could go on a long time about this book, which is short, but not an easy read. Van Buren is back home now and he began blogging to publicize the book some time ago, and this got him into trouble with his superiors who accused him, it would seem on a very narrow basis, of leaking classified information. It's not clear how much of a future he still has in the foreign service. (You can read more about these issues by googling him.) But it's clear that we have had very little positive impact--although plenty of total impact--in Iraq, and we will have just as little, I am pretty sure, in Afghanistan. There will be o dramatic collapse, probably, like that of 1975 in Vietnam, and the effect on our society will be much less because we have a relatively small professional army now instead of a very large draftee one. (That is not to deny the enormous impact on surviving veterans, however.) The problem is not with our soldiers: it's with the decision to try to use American military to transform two societies with which we have virtually nothing in common. We never had a chance.Van Buren's book is interesting, because I don't think I have ever read a book on Vietnam whose tone was comparably cynical. It really reads like All Quiet on the Western Front, even though death is nothing like such a constant presence. As such it is a validation of generational theory: the Lost generation that fought the First World War were nomads, as Van Buren probably is. Boomers went to Vietnam with idealism, at least at first, and returned disillusioned; Van Buren was already a skeptic and returned much more of one. Tragically, George Bush took all the unity that emerged after 9/11 and poured it into useless, costly adventures that have increased cynicism about American institutions. This was terrible for America, but the Republicans are still trying to turn it into good politics for themselves.


Anonymous said...

Looks terrible the more one learns about it. I got all idealistic last year about the Arab Spring as they were doing most of the heavy lifting themselves, like say a successful internal revolt would have been against Saddam Hussein without US invasion.

Is this idealism totally unjustified? Will these countries go the way of Iraq and Afghanistan in their misguided democratic fantasy wish? I know you wrote about this earlier saying Islam is taking hold there, ironically, with our help. And what about Syria? The slaughter only gets worse every day. What can we do to stop it and should we care at all? Maybe twitter and handies and internet really just are costing these people their peace and their lives, like a renaissance and reformation revolution of ideas with a bloody chaotic end. I know I have heard that the Arabs never went through a renaissance and reformation so never came to a Western Model. Perhaps this is their chance to work this out by trying out moderate religious democracy like in Turkey and allowing freethinking people next to relgious without a dictatorship, i.e separation of church and state with respect for human rights. The road to democracy is long and hard as one saw in Germany, Italy and now in Russia.

Under such external negative influence of globalization of markets it should be hard to develop wealth and stability in these countries as Europeans did to develop their middle classes by trade, industrialism and colonialism so the Arab democracies could just become a pawn of the other powers and have no real chance of self control and therefore become extremist paranoids like Iran out of spiteful defiance.

Ray C Neill said...

Your reference to the ironies of the Iraq war gave interesting examples of the lack of positive outcomes as a result of many oversights and bad decisions. The greatest tragedy, however, has been the global loss of U.S. prestige and respect which has been dwindling since Vietnam. America no longer has the unconditional support of the world. This, combined with a significant demise in the domination of the world economy, has left its authority, motives, policies and tactics subject to increased scrutiny. As the current tension between Iran increases, it will be important to remember that it is not enough to have the world's most powerful military without the moral authority or perceived competency to engage it. The Iraq war has not succeeded on many levels. Most importantly, it has done little to stem America's downward spiral of diminishing returns. Ray C. Neill

Bozon said...


I have to say, I haven't really given Strauss & Howe a fair chance, however one would carry that out;

but my gut feeling is to be cautious about inferring very much from this kind of generational schema, in any direction.

Like all relatively limited ones, it is bound to disappoint, in the end, or at some identifiable point, whatever that turns out to be.

Nevertheless, you have proven that it can make for engrossing and persuasive narratives.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Truth, lies and Afghanistan
How military leaders have let us down


Publion said...

An effectively functioning democracy is like an aircraft carrier: it is a tremendously complex combination of skills, equipment, and spirt, all well-maintained, honed, and handled.

So, for instance, a nation doesn't simply buy a carrier and claim to have naval airpower. As the Imperial Japanese learned, once you've lost the hangar-deck crews and the pilots and perhaps the capable aircraft, then you don't really have anything left even if you build more of the hulls.

A democracy requires so much infrastructure and citizenship skills and - not to put too fine a point on it - Citizens.

You can't just 'give democracy' to nations, cultures, and peoples that aren't trained for it.

What I worry about it that we are losing those skills here as well; and in the absence of The People who are in the Framing Vision the governors of the government, then the government is starting to run out of control.

In fact, perhaps it's time to think of hoisting the two black balls that announce that unhappy fact to all nearby vessels.

And to ourselves so that we might get to some urgently needed ship's work and repair.