Wednesday, March 14, 2012

American Empire Project by Peter Van Buren

The reconstruction of Iraq was the largest nation-building program in history, dwarfing in cost, size and complexity even those after World War II to rebuild Germany and Japan. At a cost to the U.S. taxpayer of over $63 billion and counting, the plan was lavishly funded, yet, as government inspectors found, the efforts were characterized from the beginning by pervasive waste and inefficiency, mistaken judgments, flawed policies, and structural weaknesses. Of those thousands of acts of waste and hundreds of mistaken judgments, some portion was made by me and the two reconstruction times I led in Iraq, along with my good-willed but overwhelmed and unprepared colleagues in the State Department, the military, and dozens of other US government agencies. We were the ones who famously helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck. The scholarly history that will one day write about Iraq and reconstruction will need the raw material of failure, and so this story will try to explain how it all went wrong.

As a longtime Foreign Service Officer, I was sent by the Department of State to Iraq for one year in 2009 as part of the civilian Surge deployed to backstop the manlier military one. Along with a half dozen contractors as teammates, I was assigned to rebuild Iraq’s essential services, to supply water and sewer access as part of a counterinsurgency struggle to win over the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. It was Vietnam, only better this time around, more T.E. Lawrence than Alden Pyle. I was to create projects that would lift the local economy and lure young men away from the dead-end opportunities of Al-Qaeda. I was also to empower women, turning them into entrepreneurs and handing them a future instead of a suicide vest. A robust consumer society would do the trick, shopping bags of affirmation leading to democracy.

Executing all this happiness required me to live with the Army as part of an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT) on a Forward Operating Base (FOB). I spent the first six months on FOB Hammer in the desert halfway between Baghdad and Iran before moving to FOB Falcon just south of Baghdad for another half a year. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, the United States established massive military bases throughout Iraq. Some,. Like the grows-like-crabgrass Victory Base, were as big as cities, with thousands of personnel, a Burgher King, samba clubs, Turkish hookah bars and swimming pools. Some were much smaller, such as FOBs Hammer and Falcon, with a couple of hundred soldiers each, Army food and portable latrines.

[All of these bases generated tons of garbage daily the lack of proper disposal of which simply added to the nightmare of native trash, untreated sewage and contaminated water… problems American reconstruction efforts never addressed effectively.]


If bullshit were water, we’d all drown, so take a deep breath.. A couple of days at the Embassy for an economics conference left my head spinning. The participants were the usual pickup team that runs the war’s civilian side: slick, private job shoppers (3161s), retired thises, a former that, and a few once-wases, people who incestuously briefed one another – all of the facts, none of the understanding, the big picture, our “legacy”. The new adjective of choice was robust. Iraqi Americans increasingly figured on the team, some remembering Baghdad from their youth, most still struggling with English, but all empowered to spend, spend, spend – money is a weapons system. So much cash in play, there’s a new slang word in Iraqi Arabic, duftar, a tall pile of Benjamins totaling $10,000-Ka-Ching!

A session on car loans, a new front to spur the economy, but the challenge: Iraq has no repo law. A name needed for a bridge to Diyala, “American Freedom Bridge” our choice, a plaque to be bought. USAID briefs, gonna spend $82 million to strengthen government-provided health care. Forward movement, money equals progress, activity is achievement, $60 million to revive the financial sector, most definitely time to form a bankers’ association so there’s someone to work with. Will plan webinars and roundtable discussions, maybe a blog, oh yes, a blog is modern, get an intern on it, they know this online stuff.

The State Department up next, tells us we must double down on our government of Iraq partners, help them spend Iraqi money on reconstructing Iraq, take the R out of PRT, and make the locals pay, spend, spend, spend, volume the key to success. Create Chambers of Commerce to facilitate investment, maybe with a nice brochure, the lack of a chamber the last obstacle on the road top prosperity.

Quick bright things come to confusion, said Shakespeare. Don’t slow down. Integrate. Act, engage, facilitate, mentor, promote, task, develop. There are no problems just challenges and issues. Security is an issue; a guy murdered in front of his family a challenge to stability. Language employed to keep thought at bay, said Harold Pinter.

Task One:

Suspend disbelief, rewire your brain, accept that people at the Embassy who never stray outside the Green Zone tell you about Iraq, the place you live 24/7. Safety improving, suicide bombings down, democracy up, cognitive dissonance not a problem, you can’t really tell but we’re winning (the preferred narrative of the war). From the head PRT office, “Due to security concerns, we are unable to visit the Baghdad Flower Show, which the Mayor intended to be a symbol of stability.”

Task Two

Convince yourself of the overall premise of US efforts, that Iraqis want to be like us. They want to have banks like us, farms like us, governance like us, repo laws like us, fast food, rock and roll, MTV like us. Hire Iraqis who see it our way, find young women who change from hijabs into club wear on campus, happy natives top confirm our vision in the heat. Enjoy the Kool-Aid, sweet even when it is bitter.

Much crowing over success in persuading Craigslist to add a page for Iraq – most sections not used (it is in English), still definitely a step to economic growth. Rabbit-quick checked my computer: lots of Men Seeking Men personals, military-age male Americans looking for boy sex in Iraq, (XXX)...

New briefer, just in from Washington, pretty junior, given the spot right before lunch when no one was interested in another rap. Things slowed down. She said Iraq ranked 175th out of 180 countries as the hardest place in the world to start a business, that illiterate and high school graduates command about the same salaries because most hiring is for government patronage jobs (maybe 60 percent of everyone employed in Iraq now works for the government, no one knows). Most people in the room looked away, embarrassed for her not getting the memo. She offered a formula to explain it all: Corruption= Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability. She believed that the social fabric of Iraq is now in “survival mode.” Woooh, awkward, suicide right on stage. We exchanged glances, some signifying fear of agreeing, most shock over the heresy; she’d be reeducated. Conference organizers hit 911, rushed into the breach with a quick lunch, club sandwiches with crunchy bacon, then ice cream from Baskin-Robbins, brought in from the States, because we could. Back on track, no mind to the interruption, jury should disregard the last witness.

Next up, tourism briefing. This could be a big thing, says some reservist who was handed the portfolio as his way to fight the war. US government spent $700,000 in Babylon to build restrooms and a gate near the ruins, $300,000 to create the Baghdad Tourism Institute, $2 million for the Habbaniyah Tourist Village, to include $698,000 for beach refurbishment, literally paying for sand in Iraq. Guy says that in 2009 sixty-five Western tourists visited Iraq (including 18 Taiwanese, stand-in Westerners, and seventeen Americans). US Army polled them, learned they loved Iraq but hated the hotels, hoping to attract more next year. United States not involved in the five to seven million Shia tourists who visit Iraq each year, kinda ceded that market to Iran, we’ll focus on those sixty-five Westerners. Good news: US Army will spend $100,000 to fly a hundred travel agents from around the world (including from Iran and this time Japan) for “Iraq Tourism Week” in early October. Market looking up for tourism, for sure, for sure.

Last briefing: Foreign Commercial Service will hold a “trade mission” charging US companies $6,000 to meet Iraqi business people. The $6,000 includes personal security detachment (good value), but you’ll need to stay at the al-Raheed Hotel, an additional $300 a night, plus pay for your own meals, US cash only, please. Brochure has the word business misspelled, oops, pointed that out to the guy, he wasn’t happy with me, says they already sent out two hundred copies. Brochure also does not list the dates of the trade mission, security concerns, ssshhh, in October. Foreign Commercial; Service briefer admits he has not been outside the Green Zone but relies on an Iraqi New Zealander to make contacts.

Final Notes: good conference overall, a lot to take back, not much to remember.


Private First Class (PFC) Brian Edward Hutson, in Iraq, put the barrel of his M-4 semi-automatic assault rifle into his mouth, with the weapon set for a three-round burst, and blew out the back of his skull. He was college-age but had not gone and would never go to college. Notice appeared in the newspapers a week after his death, listed as “non-combat-related”.

Of the 4,471 American military deaths in Iraq, 913 were considered “non-combat-related,” that is, non-accidents, suicides. In 2010, as in 2009, more soldiers died by their own hand than in combat. Perhaps related, mental disorders in those years outpaced injuries as a cause of hospitalization. The Army reported a record number of suicides in a single month for June 2010. Thirty-two soldiers in all, more than one a day for the whole month. Given that suicides sometimes occurred after soldiers departed from Iraq, and given that death by enemy action was no longer as common, their lives were probably in as much danger at home as in Iraq.

A week before Hutson’s death, another soldier lost his life. This soldier, a turret gunner, was killed when his vehicle unsuccessfully tried to pass at thirty-five miles per hour under a too-low bridge. The Army counted deaths by accident as “combat deaths,” while suicides were not. Under a policy followed by George W. Bush and for more than two years by Barack Obama, the families of suicides do not receive a condolence letter from the President. Suicides apparently do not pertain to freedom. They died of the war, but not in the war…

Other books in the American Empire Project by Metropolitan Books [Henry Holt &Co., N.Y.):

Noam Chomsky; Hegemony or Survival and Failed States
Chalmers Johnson The Blowback Trilogy
Andrew Bacevich; The Limits of Power and Washington Rules
James Carroll; Crusade
Michael; Klare; Blood and Oil
Walden Bellow; Dilemmas of Domination
Robert Dreyfuss; Devil’s Game
Alfred McCoy; A Question of Torture
Howard Zinn; A People’s History of the American Empire
Nick Turse; The Complex
Greg Grandin; Empire’s Workshop

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