Peter Van Buren is the author of “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People”, a sarcastic, funny, sad, angry book about his work for the Department of State as the leader of two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in rural Iraq, 2009-2010. His blog at www.wemeantwell.com continues the story, with daily humor and commentary about Iraq, the Middle East and national security.
Van Buren, a 24-year veteran Foreign Service Officer at the State Department, spent a year in Iraq leading two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Following his book, published in 2011, the Department of State began termination proceedings against him, reassigning him to a make-work position and stripping him of his security clearance and diplomatic credentials. Through the efforts of the Government Accountability Project and the ACLU, Van Buren instead retired from the State Department with his full benefits of service.
Van Buren, along with other Federal whistleblowers like Tom Drake and Jesslyn Radack, is also working closely with Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker James Spione on a new film called SILENCED, due out in 2013.
He graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me in the form of an on-line interview. My profound thanks to Mr. Van Buren.
Teri: Your book is titled “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People”. I’ve often wondered who exactly did you mean by the “we”? Are you referring to we, the people of the US; or we, the Bush administration and the State Dept. under Bush as they (illegally) invaded Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein; or we, meaning specifically the State Dept. employees who came in later to try and clean up the mess?
Van Buren: The title is purposefully ambiguous. There is the obvious sarcastic meaning, because we did much harm and little good. But another intended meaning is that most of us involved in reconstruction at the ground level had decent intentions. None of the people I worked with intended to do harm, we just were ignorant, selfish, poorly-led and oafs who ended up harming people the way, say, a well-meaning amateur surgeon might. We went out of our way to make a poor impression: Sometimes when we rolled through the center of town, we made quite an impression because our vehicles were tall enough that they tore down all the electrical and phone lines that were strung across the roads. Sometimes we made quite an impression when we roared through fields and left ruts where there had been rice or wheat planted. And oftentimes we made quite an impression by attracting a lot of attention to people just by our presence.
Teri: Iraq will never be the same since we invaded. You were there in ’09 – six full years after the “Shock and Awe” started. Can you briefly describe the conditions under which you saw the average Iraqi living?
Van Buren: Most Iraqis lacked access to clean water, sewers, schools and health care. Most lived in fear of bombings and murder, at the ends of the U.S. and at the hands of militias, terrorists and their own government. It was a miserable way to live, and was almost entirely brought on by our invasion. We destroyed the civil society of Iraq and replaced it with chaos. One of the key problems of the whole venture was the inability to reconstruct something while it was essentially still falling apart.
Teri: What were the ramifications of the book on your job?
Van Buren: My employer of 24 years, the US State Department, first stripped me of my security clearance (the key to almost any decent job in the Washington area), then tried to prosecute me. Failed that, they tried to fire me. Failing that, we negotiated my voluntold early retirement.
Teri: In light of new reports on the wasted money we spent on Iraq’s reconstruction [see, for example: http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2013/03/iraq-waste/ ], I suspect you got an apology from the State Dept. Did you?
Van Buren: You’re a funny person. Let’s say my apology may have been lost in the mail.
Teri: You’ve worked for the State Dept. under a number of Secretaries. Who was the most effective of these, in your opinion?
Van Buren: Ironically, the first half of the Colin Powell tenure. Powell, likely because of his military background where caring for the troops is an essential requirement for any leader, was the only Secretary to make positive changes to the life and work of the rank and file. Powell, for example, overruled Diplomatic Security’s ban on the internet inside of the State Department. Security claimed it was dangerous to info security while Powell said the reality of our modern world demanded access. Without him State employees would still be getting their news a day late in paper form. The irony, of course, is that it was Powell who plunged State into Iraq and thus helped to destroy the rank and file by wasting their time, energy and lives inside that failed war.
Teri: Several highly-placed people called the imposition of a “no-fly zone” on Libya and the subsequent bombing – which went well beyond imposing a no-fly zone, and in fact decimated entire portions of that country – illegal, both by our Constitutional standards and by international standards. We were open about the US’ desire for regime change, which is a blatant illegality under international accords. What were your thoughts about Libya when this decision was made?
Van Buren: I am sickened by the casual ease with which America invades and destroys countries. There seems to be one set of rules/standards for what America wants and does, and another for the rest of the world. Would we be so casual if China decided to invade and occupy, say, Burma in the interests of freeing them from an evil dictator?
Teri: There is a short video of then Sec. of State Hillary Clinton laughing when she got the news that Ghaddafi had been tortured and assassinated. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DXDU48RHLU ] I found this extremely repugnant, especially coming from our “lead diplomat”; in fact, I thought she looked rather demented here. Your thoughts? And, by the way, is this sort of jokiness typical of the relationship between the press and the State Dept.?
Van Buren: I thought that and her yucking it up with James Baker on the “Charlie Rose Show” over the idea of the U.S. setting fire to the Middle East by engaging in war in Iran were atrocious. Talking about the death of Qaddafi, she says, “We came, we saw, he died” and then laughs about that with some robo-journalist. Chortling over anyone’s death is a disgrace. What’s next, displaying the skulls of our enemies in the Foggy Bottom lobby? Oh my god, America, what have we become?
Many senior officials pretend familiarity with the press to influence positive coverage. The press often behaves then like the high school nerd thrilled to hear a kind word from the cool jocks.
Teri: Are we going to invade Syria next? It seems an odd proposition, given that Hillary Clinton and Gen. Petraeus have both pointed out that in so doing, we would be fighting on the same side as al Qaeda and several other terrorist groups. (They both find it “ironic”, but not necessarily “wrong”, even though a civilian supporting these groups can be held indefinitely under the NDAA.)
Van Buren: We likely already have “invaded” in the form of special forces and/or CIA paramilitary trainers and advisers. We will likely conduct air strikes and a no-fly zone. We already are or soon will be shipping in arms. However, the mule-like American public and their Congressional reps only seem to care if we go (overt) “boots on the ground.” They see everything else warlike as harmless foreplay.
Teri: In 1998, the US government, under the aegis of the State Dept., set up a program called the Rewards for Justice Fund. Some background: In the beginning, this was a mixture of funds from private people and funds supplied by the government, used to offer cash rewards (bounties) for the capture/killing of wanted terrorists. The private money donated was considered a fully deductible charitable donation. (Hey, it’s tax deductible! Donate now to add names to your own preferred kill list!) As of 2008, the fund became known as the Rewards for Justice Program [http://www.rewardsforjustice.net/index.cfm?page=faq&language=english ] and no longer accepts private donations; the rewards are all backed by government money. It is still handled by the State Dept. It has paid out over $100 mm since 1998. Bounty is traditionally known as a reward for capturing an escapee or a bail-jumper – the majority of the “terrorists” the US offers bounties for actually have no legal charges against them and thus no trials scheduled – no bail to be jumped and no jail escaped from. I note that summaries of ‘most wanted’ on home page rarely include info that “suspect” has had any charges levied by any court anywhere in the world – almost all are merely “suspected” of something or another. Under this program, we offered, and paid, $20 million for Ghaddafi’s head (Wanted: Dead or Alive), although the State dept. has never said who collected the reward. This bounty program seems quite a peculiar endeavor for our department for diplomatic outreach to be running. In fact, it seems antithetical to diplomacy. Why was this program set up to be handled by State (rather than, say, the Pentagon)?
Van Buren: I am not sure why it went to State rather than DOD, CIA or maybe better, DOJ. I suspect little more than bureaucratic infighting and budget tricks. State was always angling for some piece of the war on terror and maybe they got thrown this bone. In the end it was all “US Government” and so it may not be significant which agency ran the show.
Teri: Overall, there seems to be a huge increase in the militarization of the State Dept.; they now have their own drone program, hire mercenaries, and run computer “psych-ops” on terrorist groups in conjunction with the CIA. In Feb. of this year, Ralph Nader wrote an essay for commondreams on this very issue. [http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/02/08-7 ] This is an excellent little essay in which Nader mentions you:
“3. Secretary Clinton had problems heralding accurate whistleblowers. A 24-year-Foreign Service Officer, Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq running two State Department Reconstruction Teams. He exposed State Department waste and mismanagement along with the Pentagon’s “reconstruction” efforts using corporate contractors. Unlistened to, Van Buren, true to his civil service oath of office, went public. Clinton fired him.”
Is this militarization in fact a new aspect, or have we always used State this way behind the scenes?
Van Buren: Of the many issues that debilitate the effectiveness of the Department of State, none should concern us all more than the ongoing militarization of America’s foreign affairs. This actually makes the State Dept. more and more irrelevant and obscures the reasoning for having a department of state. The increasing role of the military in America’s foreign relations sidelines State. The most likely American for a foreigner to encounter in most parts of the world now, for better or worse, carries a weapon and drives a tank.
I wrote an article for the Huffington Post in August of last year in which I go into some details on this subject. http://wemeantwell.com/blog/2012/09/03/americas-increasingly-irrelevant-concierge-abroad/
Teri: What do you make of the latest Pentagon announcement that the War on Terror [sic] is going to last at least another decade or two?
Van Buren: It is in DOD’s financial interest for the WOT to go on forever, and it likely will. Creating a “war” with no victory conditions, such as “capture Berlin”, was a clever move on the government’s part and has served as a handy justification for every war move and every step to denying our basic rights.
Teri: We have spent tons of money starting wars, paying contractors for weapons to invade other countries, paying mercenaries to fight in them, and then paying other contractors to “reconstruct” the ruined countries – yet within the US, the people are losing jobs, the infrastructure is crumbling, and Congress is passing austerity measures. Are we really spending our money wisely?
Van Buren: You really are a funny person. Yes, I think it is wonderful that we are spending all our money, plus that which we borrow from China, on war. It is good to neglect our infrastructure and economy so as to toughen up our population. It’s like Spartans having to camp out without food or warmth to make them hard and strong.
Teri: You have mentioned on your blog that you are working on a new book. Can you tell me something about that?
Van Buren: “The People on the Bus: A Story of the #99Percent” (Alternate Title: On the Bus with the Ghosts of Tom Joad) is about growth, failure and redemption. It is Earl’s story, tracing the rise of the Working Poor, and the non-working rich. It is funny and serious, Holden and Joe Dirt. Along the ride the story tackles bullying and suicide, first kisses and cunnilingus, and the protagonist’s struggle to overcome his father’s war that survived within him. It’s a question about how to still own something—your labor, your self-respect—you’d sold. At the heart of the story is the romance between Earl and Angel, a relationship that threads through Earl’s tribulations and ultimately gives him purpose at the end of his life.
The story takes place during Earl’s final metaphorical bus ride. Most of the folks who get on the bus with Earl have been long missing. Now they are coming and going, even talking to him, “just as if it was no big deal.” As Earl laments, “imagine running into both your mom and your old girlfriends in living color.”
Yet not everyone is familiar. A young Korean boy, silent in the back of the bus, represents a question Earl must learn to ask, and an answer from his father that will change him. As Earl tells us, “It seems everybody you run across in life you drag forward. You can’t help that. They’re all somehow on the bus with you.”
“The People on the Bus: A Story of the #99Percent” is about regime change, the death of manufacturing, the deindustrialization of America, and a way of life that was lost alongside those jobs. Wages never were higher than in 1973 and fell as poverty rose in almost equal proportion. How did we go from the booming prosperity of the 1950s and 60s to the Rust Belt of the late 1970s in the course of only two or three generations?