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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2
HowWell Did
We Mean?
We Meant Well: How I Helped
Lose the Battle for the Hearts
and Minds of the Iraqi People
Peter Van Buren, Metropolitan
Books, 2011, $25, hardcover,
269 pages.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
Peter Van Buren’s account of his
year in Iraq (2009-2010) is both poetic
and prosaic (and frequently profane),
often in close juxtaposition. That is apt
for conveying the futility and frustra-
tion he experienced in trying to lead an
embedded Provincial Reconstruction
Team stuck in the middle of nowhere,
near the end of a war that had long ago
lost whatever purpose it originally had.
Nearly everything he says about
U.S. policy in Iraq, and how it was im-
plemented, rings true, thanks to the
kind of colorful details that prove truth
is stranger than fiction. And while
most reviews of the book I’ve seen
justly praise its mordant humor, Van
Buren is equally effective in the more
reflective passages.
Yet, regrettably,
We Meant Well
also chock-full of cringe-inducing pas-
sages that show just how far out of his
depth Van Buren, a Foreign Service
officer since 1988, was in his Iraq as-
Take his first day on the job. Dur-
ing a staff meeting dissecting a confer-
ence for local nongovernmental
organizations held the week before his
arrival, Van Buren refused to author-
ize a supplemental payment to the
Iraqi conference organizer because, as
he starchily declares, the request was a
shakedown. Predictably, that sparked
what he terms “an animated discus-
sion,” during which his colleagues
rightly pointed out that accusing a key
local contact of dishonesty, even if true,
was likely to damage working relations
across the board.
On the merits, Van Buren was right
to question the bill. Indeed, I might
well have reacted the same way in that
situation. (Which is probably one of
the many reasons I am a
Yet nearly two years later, he still seems
utterly clueless as to how ineffectual,
and arrogant, his approach was.
At a minimum, he could have
played the “newbie” card and said he
needed to consult Embassy Baghdad
for guidance before making a decision.
Instead, he dug in his heels and re-
fused to temporize or haggle — even
though, as he melodramatically de-
clares at the end of the chapter, that
night he “went to bed fully expecting
to be killed in my sleep” in retaliation.
That episode sets the tone for the
rest of
We Meant Well
. Van Buren
wants to be seen as a rueful hero, a sort
of “Mr. Smith Goes to Iraq” figure who
dares to speak truth to power, the con-
sequences be damned. But even by
his own account, he fell well short of
the mark. Halfway through the book,
he confesses: “I became inured to
doing little and expecting less, and it
was gallows humor fun (sic) to mock
art shows and make jokes about wid-
ows trying to eke out a living. I was
agreeing to coast along, possessing
sight but no vision.”
The author expresses genuine sym-
pathy for the plight of the Iraqi people,
but deep contempt for virtually every-
one else he met there. In particular,
he dismisses his State Department col-
leagues as mediocre, clueless func-
tionaries who spend as little time in the
field, and do as little work back in the
embassy, as possible. (Speaking of the
embassy, for sheer entertainment value
it would be hard to beat the chapter
detailing Van Buren’s own brief excur-
sion to the Green Zone for consulta-
tions and “re-education.”)
Van Buren also takes it as a given
that the U.S. Army is full of “crackers”
and killers — though every so often, al-
most in spite of himself, he concedes
Van Buren wants
to be seen as a
“Mr. Smith Goes
to Iraq” hero.
But he doesn’t quite
pull off that feat.