Peter van Buren's lighthearted account of botched US reconstruction projects in Iraq raises deeper questions about the role of a fading superpower.
US blunders in rebuilding Iraq signal a delining superpower
For two decades, Peter van Buren held a boring desk job as a low-level employee in the US state department. Then, in 2007, he suddenly received a big promotion: he was given a vast bump in his salary and told to fly off to a chaotic war zone, where he helped to spend $58 billion (Dh213bn) of US government money on the reconstruction of Iraq. In his book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, van Buren gives a hilarious account of his year as the plucky yet clueless leader of two US “provisional reconstruction teams” in Iraq. He also chronicles the jaw-dropping chaos and waste that inevitably ensued.
Van Buren describes with acid wit the projects with which the US hoped to win back the affections of a people it had only a few years earlier set out to shock and awe.
His unit – which included a former local councillor, a former military police officer and a former gym teacher from the US Midwest – ran pastry classes in the vain hope that the women trainees might open cafes in war-ravaged Iraq. It paid $2.58m for a chicken-processing plant that was never properly put into service. And it commissioned a comedy centred on a dispute about the value of shade cast by a donkey in the hope that, somehow, this might “help the people focus on the importance of learning to disagree without being disagreeable”. As can only be expected, each new project failed more spectacularly than the last.
Even as I laughed out loud at van Buren’s cutting description of yet another miserable failure, I found myself wishing that he had tried more seriously to draw the real lessons from his own tale.
For what else could the US have done? Is there simply no way to help reconstruct a war-ravaged country such as Iraq, or to dissuade the local population from supporting terrorists? Does van Buren’s light book contain the dark message that the war on terrorism is bound to fail?
One way of grappling with the questions van Buren leaves unanswered is to think back to US reconstruction programmes that actually did work. The Marshall Plan, which was meant to rebuild Europe’s economies and keep communism at bay after the Second World War, is the most obvious such success story. To take just one example, it made possible Germany’s post-war economic miracle and was partly responsible for persuading the country’s leadership to seek a firm alliance with the West.
Even once adjusted for inflation, the US actually spent more money trying to rebuild Iraq than it did reconstructing Germany. Yet its efforts can hardly be called a success: Iraq’s political system is unstable, its economy stagnant and its people are far from turning – as George W Bush seems to have hoped they would – into contented clones of suburban Americans. Why this disparity in outcomes?
It is perhaps unrealistic to expect that the reconstruction of post-war Iraq should have been as successful as the efforts undertaken after the fall of Hitler’s Germany. Many factors explain the ability of the US to impose its political system and its values on Germany, not the least of which is that the European nation had previous experience with democracy. Likewise, the Second World War had not been started by the US, both countries shared a predominant religion and could also be construed as culturally similar. All of these circumstances are conspicuous by their absence in the case of Iraq.
But while Germany in 1945 was rather different from Iraq in 2003, changes in the US itself also help to explain why Washington failed this time around. As soon as the US entered the Second World War, high-level staff began to plan Germany’s post-war order. The US had access to thousands of experts who knew the country extremely well and those charged with administering post-war Germany were well-trained.
The current US bureaucracy can pride itself on no such accomplishments. In mid-2007, only 29 of the 610 members of provisional Rreconstruction teams spoke Arabic. In van Buren’s training, there was no mention of ongoing reconstruction efforts, US policy goals or even the history of the war. Overall, he writes, “it felt like we would be holding an intervention for the war, forcing it to confront its shortcomings: ‘Tell him, tell him to his face, you are a bad war. You disappointed me, war’.”
So the original question still stands. If the security of the international community requires removing rogue regimes through extensive bombing campaigns, what should and what can be done to rebuild the country after this destruction to rebuild the country? And if the success of such an intervention ultimately hinges on winning over the hearts and minds of the local population, how can we ever hope to do so?
Insofar as van Buren has an answer to these questions, it seems to be that the US should not have got itself into such a mess in the first place. Given that his book is dealing with Iraq, that is probably right. But it is also a little too easy.
The Iraq War, as van Buren points out, was a misguided war of choice. But the war in Afghanistan, which continues to pose many of the same problems, was not. With regard to Afghanistan – and, who knows, perhaps Yemen or any number of other countries in the near future – the task of reconstruction, thankless and difficult as it may be, remains unavoidable.
It is therefore a relief that We Meant Well did not convince me that reconstruction projects can never help to “win over hearts and minds”. In fact, it is precisely because van Buren shows that the lack of planning and local knowledge to have been so extreme that the story of post-war Iraq says so little about reconstruction efforts in general. Certainly, if you go about reconstruction with as little planning, expertise or local knowledge as the US did in Iraq, you are bound to fail. That simply proves that the job is hard, but it does not show beyond doubt that it is either pointless or impossible.
We Meant Well, then, is ostensibly a book about reconstruction, the war on terrorism and the battle to win over the Iraqi people. But, unbeknown to the author, it may ultimately say more about the future of the US as a superpower.
Indeed, van Buren’s book is just one more indication that many of the country’s recent troubles are homemade. As is well known, the US embarked on the Iraq adventure in part because Bush naively expected his troops to be welcomed by crowds of freedom-loving citizens in Baghdad.
The failure of reconstruction, too, was caused by a lack of understanding about the Middle East. The $58bn spent on development projects in Iraq was a waste of money in part because US policymakers did not have sufficient knowledge about Iraq to choose sensible projects. This lack of expertise threatens to dog US foreign policy well into the future.
As China rises, it seems inevitable that the relative power of the US will decline. But how steep and how traumatic this decline will be depends in part on whether the US uses its resources wisely. That, in turn, depends on whether US foreign-policymakers recover the detailed expertise that – as in the times of the Marshall Plan – once allowed them to create big effects with limited means.
Thus, in the short term, the greatest challenge facing the US may be its inability to understand how different parts of the world work. Under Barack Obama, the US is not losing this challenge with quite the oblivious smugness of the Bush administration. But nor have US policymakers suddenly developed a deep understanding of the world beyond its borders.
The future of the US as a world power depends on many factors, from its relative military capabilities to its success or otherwise in dealing with the current economic crisis. But van Buren’s book is a welcome reminder that it may also depend on such seemingly mundane questions as whether the next provisional reconstruction teams will figure out how to put in service a functioning chicken-processing plant.
Yascha Mounk, a political theorist at Harvard University, is founding editor of The Utopian.