Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Iraq War Absurdity: We Meant Well

September 27, 2011
Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, WikiLeaked at the State Department
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: The book series I co-founded and co-edit, the American Empire Project, is rolling out its latest volume today, and it’s a news-maker.  Peter Van Buren, a Foreign Service Officer, spent a year at two forward operating bases in Iraq helping to “reconstruct” that country.  With its ironic title, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, his work, a remarkable deconstruction of that effort and more generally of the debacle of American-style armed “nation-building,” will be a classic in the annals of anti-interventionism.  He’s also a natural as a writer.  Think of him as the State Department’s Michael Herr, though in its first rave reviews his book is being compared to Joseph Heller’s classic World War II novel Catch-22.  As it happens (again see below), Van Buren is now paying for the devastating portrait he’s painted of America in action in Iraq quite personally.
Here in any case is the offer: your own signed, personalized copy of a remarkable book in return for a $100 contribution to this site.  I hope it’s an offer you can’t refuse.  The money will be a boon for TomDispatch as we plan for the future.  To find out more, visit our donation page by clicking here. Tom]
It’s hardly a secret at this late date that, while the Obama administration arrived in office promoting “a new standard of openness” in government, in practice it’s cast not sunshine, but a penumbra of gloom over the workings of Washington.  Talk about a closed and punitive crew.  Its Justice Department has notoriously gone after government whistleblowers and leakers, launching significantly more (largely unsuccessful) prosecutions than any of Obama's predecessors.  His people lit out with particular ferocity after WikiLeaks, and specifically Bradley Manning, the young Army private accused of passing enormous caches of Army and State Department documents to that website.  In the process, it developed special forms of pre-punishment to torment him while he was confined, still uncharged, at a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia.  (It also went to ludicrous lengths to bar government officials, workers, contractors, the military, and  anyone else linked to them from reading the leaked documents to which everyone else on Earth already had access.)
When it came to books by witnesses within the government or the military offering some version of critical openness, darkness has again been the order of the day.  The Pentagon actually bought up and burned more or less the complete stock of Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer’s insider’s account of Pentagon and Defense Information Agency mistakes in the invasion of Afghanistan, Operation Dark Heart (already thoroughly vetted by the Army Reserve), and forced his publisher to put out a highly redacted second edition.
More recently, the CIA took out after The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al Qaeda, a memoir by Ali H. Soufan, a former FBI agent long involved in the battle against al-Qaeda, demanding “extensive cuts.”  “In fact,” wrote New York Times reporter Scott Shane, “some of the information that the agency argues is classified, according to two people who have seen the correspondence between the F.B.I. and C.I.A., has previously been disclosed in open Congressional hearings, the report of the national commission on 9/11, and even the 2007 memoir of George J. Tenet, the former C.I.A. director.”
In recent weeks, a third version of this particular “national security” mania hit my radar screen.  The State Department is now hassling one of its own employees whose book is being published by a venture I co-run, the American Empire Project, and who has become a regular at this site.  State has taken out after Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren, calling for redactions of information (all easily Googleable online) in his new book, published today and long ago vetted by the Department, about his year running a provincial reconstruction team in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.  There can’t be a more devastating (or, I must admit, enjoyable) account of the particular form of misery we brought to Iraq than his.  Van Buren describes his own distinctly absurd situation in today’s post.  Kafka would have blushed and Orwell would have had a hearty laugh, but evidently at the State Department no one even blinks.
In increasingly post-legal America, Van Buren has, it seems, committed a new crime: the spreading of public knowledge.  Truly, if shame had any meaning, the State Department and the Obama administration should be filled with it. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses what it’s like to be interrogated by the State Department click  here, or download it to your iPod  here.) Tom  Reply |American Empire Project americanempireproject@e.macmillan.com via uark.edu to jbennet

"Freedom Isn’t Free at the State Department
The Only Employee at State Who May Be Fired Because of WikiLeaks
"By Peter Van Buren
On the same day that more than 250,000 unredacted State Department cables hemorrhaged out onto the Internet, I was interrogated for the first time in my 23-year State Department career by State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and told I was under investigation for allegedly disclosing classified information. The evidence of my crime? A posting on my blog from the previous month that included a link to a WikiLeaks document already available elsewhere on the Web.
As we sat in a small, gray, windowless room, resplendent with a two-way mirror, multiple ceiling-mounted cameras, and iron rungs on the table to which handcuffs could be attached, the two DS agents stated that the inclusion of that link amounted to disclosing classified material. In other words, a link to a document posted by who-knows-who on a public website available at this moment to anyone in the world was the legal equivalent of me stealing a Top Secret report, hiding it under my coat, and passing it to a Chinese spy in a dark alley.
The agents demanded to know who might be helping me with my blog (“Name names!”), if I had donated any money from my upcoming book on my wacky year-long State Department assignment to a forward military base in Iraq, and if so to which charities, the details of my contract with my publisher, how much money (if any) I had been paid, and -- by the way -- whether I had otherwise “transferred” classified information.
Had I, they asked, looked at the WikiLeaks site at home on my own time on my own computer? Every blog post, every Facebook post, and every Tweet by every State Department employee, they told me, must be pre-cleared by the Department prior to “publication.” Then they called me back for a second 90-minute interview, stating that my refusal to answer questions would lead to my being fired, never mind the Fifth (or the First) Amendments.
Continue Reading...
New From The American Empire Project
We Meant Well
How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
by Peter Van Buren

From a State Department insider, the first account of our blundering efforts to rebuild Iraq—a shocking and rollicking true-life tale of Americans abroad
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 caf?s 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 surgeãthat 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.
Read an Excerpt from We Meant Well     Visit Peter Van Buren's Website     Photo Gallery

Buy the Book:    

Praise for We Meant Well
"Long after the self-serving memoirs of people named Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld are consigned to some landfill, this unsparing and very funny chronicle will remain on the short list of books essential to understanding America's Iraq War. Here is nation-building as it looks from the inside—waste, folly, and sheer silliness included."
—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War
"We Meant Well is a must-read, first-hand account of our disastrous occupation of Iraq. Its lively writing style will appeal to a wide audience."
—Ron Paul, M.D., Member of Congress
"The road to Hell is paved with taxpayer dollars in Peter Van Buren's account of a misspent year rebuilding Iraq. Abrasive, honest and funny, We Meant Well is an insider's account of life behind blast walls at the height of the surge."
—Nathan Hodge, author of Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders
About Peter Van Buren
Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.
Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State's Congressional Liaison Office.
Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean. Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler. This is his first book.
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