After months of cheap shots, bully boy retaliation, McCarthy-tactics and a damn cold shoulder, the Department of State finally responded to my book and blog. It was a wimpy, written response from the weekend spokesperson pulled away from delivering the weather and sports news to my interview on NPR, but a response nonetheless.
Let’s reprint the State Department’s response in its entirety and break it down:
The State Department values the opinions of its employees and encourages expression of differing viewpoints and is committed to fairness in the workplace. There are many examples of employees publishing articles and books in their private capacity that do not reflect Department views.
Yeah, right. I call bullshit. It would be cool if they would cite one published book besides mine critical of the State Department written by an active duty, employed Foreign Service Officer. I say they can’t because there isn’t one. And since they said “many” and “books,” let’s have more than one example please. Put up or shut up State.
At the same time, the Department of State has an obligation to ensure that official information is released in an authorized and appropriate manner, that classified and other protected material is not improperly disclosed, and that the views an employee expresses in his or her private capacity are not attributed to the U.S. government.
Actually, I agree with this.
Can State point to a single instance where I have released official information not already available elsewhere, absent perhaps my book, which was approved (perhaps by accident) by the State Department? Even if that is true, about when was State planning on releasing anything about the failure of the PRT program in Iraq? The only thing I have seen is a crude propaganda video about how wonderful the PRT program was.
Can State point to any classified information I have disclosed? Way back in October, the State Department’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Pubic Affairs Dana Smith claimed I revealed classified CIA info in my book. She sent a public unclassified fax to my New York publisher listing the alledged classified info (Doh!). That was that; we never heard back from Smith, the FBI, the Justice Department or the CIA on that made-up bunch of garbage howler.
And a link to Wikileaks counts as disclosing classified info, as State has claimed, even though the linked document is still on the web and has been quoted in several newspapers before me, and even though when I asked if I should take the link down State said not to?
Lastly, is there anyone anywhere who thinks this blog, with its daily flow of sarcasm, offensive criticism, swear words, evil clown photos, Simpsons references and sad attempts at humor might be confused with an official US Government statement? Even if the owned-by-the-People State Department seal appears? And lastly, for the deeply confused, the State Department recommended disclaimer appears below each of these blog posts. Duh.
The point is this: I agree with the State Department on these restrictions. I agree so much that I have not violated them.
Foreign Service Officers and other employees are well aware that they are expected to meet these obligations.
I have met all of my obligations State. You cleared my book. I never revealed classified info, personnel information, or pretended to be making official statements. Face it– you just do not like what I have written and you have retaliated because of that. You don’t like free speech that criticizes you. You don’t like when someone makes fun of the Secretary. You don’t like when someone blows the whistle on your massive money pit in Baghdad. You don’t like when your own employees exercise the same rights you demand for bloggers in China, because this time it is you, not the evil Reds, who are being called out.
I guess when you throw pies at clowns you can expect to get some whipped cream on your clothes.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Maybe later Mr. President. It looks like you may need to apologize again to Afghanistan. On Saturday, an Afghan employee of the Interior Ministry shot two U.S. officers inside the ministry’s Kabul headquarters, then walked out unmolested. On Sunday, a protester threw a grenade at a group of American troops, injuring six. It is all getting worse sir, not better.
What? Didn’t I already apologize for the Koran bonfire thing? What more can I say? I even called that joker Karzai and said I’m sorry.
Yes sir, that’s part of the problem. It seems that most Afghans do not like him or trust him. Since he won election through a rigged process the US silently endorsed, he isn’t as popular there as we like to think.
Got it, kinda a Romney-like dude.
I guess sir. Anyway sir, we’ve done some research, and it seems the Afghanis would like you yo apologize for a few more things before they’ll settle down. I’ve made a list:
Sorry we invaded your country, occupied it and kept a war going there for almost twelve years. We used to call it a war of liberation but it seems what you’d mostly like is for us to leave.
Sorry we’re too much of a bully to allow you to choose your own futures.
Sorry that we’ve mucked things up so bad you now prefer the Taliban.
Sorry we abused your people at the same prison we burned the Korans.
Sorry about the Afghans who will never leave Guantanamo (alive).
Really sorry about all those women, children, old people and wedding guests our drones keep wiping out going after al Qaeda number 3 every other week.
Sorry that over the course of 12 years the war has also spread into Pakistan.
Sorry that it was us that actually armed the Taliban in the 1980’s, called them freedom fighters and invited them to the Reagan White House.
Sorry our army is still squatting on your country, with over 90,000 troops still in-country.
Sorry our Marines peed on your dead.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
At the White House ABC’s Jake Tapper called out spokesperson James Carney on how the Obama Administration could square lauding free speech and internet freedom abroad while engaging in a record-setting campaign to silence whistleblowers at home. Carney (what a name, you can’t make this stuff up) ignored the question of why exposing government wrongdoing is desired when the target is Syria, China or Iran, but despicable when the target is the United States.
Free Speech Hypocrisy at the White House
Carney said “I’m not making the assumption” that the Espionage Act prosecutions suppress whistleblowers, yet the Justice Department is using the prosecutions for exactly that purpose. In the now-failed case against National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake, prosecutor William Welch II demanded a harsh sentence for Drake specifically to “send a message” to other employees. Of the six Espionage Act prosecutions under the Obama Administration, all involve journalists working with consciencious government employees trying to bring illegal, wasteful or immoral acts into the daylight. The Obama administration, which arrived in Washington promoting “sunshine” in government, turns out to be committed to silence and the censoring of less-than-positive news about its own workings. This administration fears the noise of democracy, preferring the silence of compliance just like in China, Iran and elsewhere.
Free Speech Hypocrisy at Other Agencies
At the Food and Drug Administration, they spy on their own employees’ email to prevent them from exposing wrongdoings.
At the Department of Defense, a soldier who speaks out about government lies in Afghanistan finds himself under investigation. Four employees of the Air Force Mortuary in Dover, Delaware, attempted to address shortcomings at the facility, which handles the remains of all American service members who die overseas. Retaliation against them included firings and suspensions. Bradley Manning is in his second year of confinement without trial for allegedly leaking Secret level documents that embarrassed the government, while a Top Secret leak that favors the Department of Defense position goes unpunished.
Free Speech Hypocrisy at the State Department
The same level of hypocrisy that applies to the White House also applies to the State Department. Secretary of State Clinton has made internet freedom and the rights of bloggers and journalists a cornerstone of her foreign policy, going as far as citing the free use of social media as a prime mover in the Arab Spring. At the Conference on Internet Freedom at the Hague, Clinton said:
When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices, the internet is diminished for all of us.
In China, several dozen companies signed a pledge in October, committing to strengthen their – quote – “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline.” Now, if they were talking about fiscal responsibility, we might all agree. But they were talking about offering web-based services to the Chinese people, which is code for getting in line with the government’s tight control over the internet.
The United States wants the internet to remain a space where economic, political, and social exchanges flourish. To do that, we need to protect people who exercise their rights online.
Yet inside her own Department of State, Clinton presides over the censoring of the internet, blocking objectionable web sites that refer to Wikileaks, such as TomDispatch (above), while allowing sites that play to State’s own point of view, such as Fox.com, which also refer to Wikileaks. The use of specialized software and VPNs that State recommends to Iranians to circumvent the firewall block placed by the Tehran government are prohibited by the State Department to its own employees to get around State’s own firewall blocks.
While Clinton mocks Chinese companies, claiming terms like “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline” equate to censorship, her own Department’s social media guidance reminds employees to “be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official,” and to “Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee.” Official guidance reminds employees that “All Department organizations with a social media site must monitor user-generated content,” and cites 27 laws and regulations that must be followed to be acceptable to the government. Self-censorship is the byword at State, as it is in China. Government bureaucrats know that this sort of slow-drip intimidation keeps people in line. They are meant to see what’s happening and remain silent.
One web site reported that when Matt Armstrong was hired as Executive Director for the now defunct Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a condition to his hiring was to stop blogging. The condition was set by the office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
Whistleblower Ray McGovern was arrested merely for physically standing and turning his back on Clinton at a public rally where she was speaking about the importance of freedom of speech. Did Secretary of State Clinton say anything about the arrest? She remained silent.
Another State Department official wrote in the Foreign Service Journal:
Anyone who has been called on the carpet for blogging — especially those who have been summoned more than once — can tell you that the only consistent aspect of the State Department’s feedback is inconsistency. Blogging is encouraged by some elements within the department and is even discussed on the official careers page, complete with a substantial set of links to popular Foreign Service-related blogs. Yet even bloggers listed there are sometimes targeted for official harassment by other elements within the department for having a blog in the first place.
Free Speech: All Politics is Local
I am told that, in its 223 years of existence, I am the only Foreign Service Officer ever to have written a critical book about the State Department while still employed there. We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People exposed what State did not want people to know: that they had wasted enormous amounts of money in Iraq, mostly due to ignorance and a desire for short-term successes that could be trumpeted back home. For the crime of writing this book and maintaining a blog that occasionally embarrasses, State Department officials destroyed my career, even as they confirm my thesis, and their own failure, by reducing the Baghdad Embassy to half its size in the face of Iraq’s unraveling.
“The State Department was aware of Mr. Van Buren’s book long prior to its release,” explained attorney Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who now represents me. “Yet instead of addressing the ample evidence of fraud, waste, and abuse in the book, State targeted the whistleblower. The State Department’s retaliatory actions are a transparent attempt to intimidate and silence an employee whose critique of fraudulent, wasteful, and mismanaged U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq embarrassed the agency.”
The State Department banned me from their building because I did not get permission for this article.
The State Department threw me out of my job because this posting offended the Secretary of State.
The State Department even chastised me for using its official seal in a satirical piece, showing censorship can be comprehensive, and petty, and that they know no boundaries between the two.
What is Not Petty
It is easy to magic-wand the problem of hypocrisy away– didn’t those government whistleblowers “break” rules? Well, yes, US government rules, the same as Syrian journalists broke Syrian government rules. Aren’t those websites blocked by the State Department objectionable on national security grounds? Yes, of course, the same way Tehran or Beijing claims its own national security is harmed by the web sites they block. The State Department blocks Wikileaks with its firewall same as China does not block the same site. But aren’t this blog’s posts offensive and not always “mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official”? Perhaps, but the highest standards we pretend to uphold in the First Amendment make no exceptions for offense nor include special categories for US government officials.
What is considered innocent, mindful and respectful today can be found to be offensive tomorrow by a government scared that its own employees will reveal its sad inner workings to the people it purports to serve. You cannot pick and choose among free speech; you get Richard Pryor, Kid Cudi and the KKK saying the N-word, Bill Maher and Glenn Beck, Your Candidate and that Other Idiot, the Pledge and flag burning. Inside of State, my blog and the so-called innocuous “Mommy Blogs” are no different, just occupying different points on the same continuum. My rights taken today, yours tomorrow.
If the US government in general, and the Secretary of State in particular, wish to be taken seriously around the world as advocates of a free internet and for free speech, they need to practice the same inside their own organizations. They cannot advocate for such abroad while using bully boy tactics to silence those at home.
As one Foreign Service blogger remarked about State’s free speech hypocrisy, “Your actions speak so loudly I can hardly hear what you’re saying.”
Can you hear us Mr. President? Madame Secretary? We are standing just outside your door, shouting.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
It is quite an honor to learn that We Meant Well has been nominated in the nonfiction category for the 15th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Award.
The winner is not announced until October, but if you’d like to learn more about the award, please see the Library of Virginia web site. Past honorees have included Tom Wolfe, John Grisham and William Styron.
Before I worked with the PRT program I thought the foreign service was full of brilliant diplomats and that all the policies were in good hands. Now I’m not so sure and feel unsettled anytime I hear the DOS is in charge of doing something important.
Your book brought back so many memories as I was reading it I was struck by how common the experience was that we shared. I did 2.5 years on two PRTs in [Iraq]. As hopeless and ineffective as the program was though, it was also the best job I’ve ever had, just like the Peace Corps but with money. Maybe we didn’t accomplish much but a few of us did learn a great deal. And I will never forget all those great soldiers and a few of the civilians I worked with. Seriously, I did learn a lot there and hope to use the skills and knowledge to actually have a positive impact on Iraq in the coming years. I am currently in Baghdad about to launch a consulting firm to help companies operate and set up shop here.
Despite all the incompetence that you accurately describe, I do see things going in a good direction in Iraq, at least as far as the economy goes. The commitment of the U.S. to stay despite all the losses we took deserves some of the credit for that. I set up a page on Facebook to follow economic developments.
Please check it out, as the news is not all bad and I will be posting at least a few positive stories here and there.
TomDispatch tells us more about how we evolved into a country without much purpose abroad beyond targeted killing with our robots:
Put drones in a more familiar context, skip the awestruck commentary, and they should have been eerily familiar. We should have known that remotely piloted vehicles were heading toward us these last four decades, that they were, in fact, the most natural form of war for the All Volunteer Military (and the demobilized American public that went with it).
Go back to one of the most momentous, if underrated and little considered, decisions of the “American Century” — the decision, in the wake of Vietnam, to sever the military from potentially unruly draftees and create an all-professional army, while not backing down from the American global mission. The amateurs, a democratic citizenry, were demobilized, sent home, and sidelined as a new American way of war was launched that would grow ever more remote (as in “remotely piloted vehicle”) from most Americans, while corporations, not citizens, would be mobilized for our new wars.
Although early drone technology was already being used over North Vietnam, it’s in another sense entirely that drones have been heading into America’s future since 1973. There was an eerie logic to it: first came professional war, then privatized war, then mercenary and outsourced war — all of which made war ever more remote from most Americans. Finally, both literally and figuratively, came remote war itself.
Read the whole article now on TomDispatch.
The problem of the MEK people in Iraq has a long and complex history. You can read a bit about it here if you are unfamiliar with the mess the US has gotten themselves into vis-vis the MEK in Iraq.
Short version is that the US and the UN brokered a deal to move the MEK people from their unsafe and politically volatile Camp Ashraf location to the old US Camp Liberty, where the UN would supposedly process them as refugees. As part of the deal, the US would monitor conditions at Camp Liberty to ensure the MEK were treated well.
In fact, back in December, Ambassador Daniel Fried, Special Advisor for Camp Ashraf for the State Department, made this exact promise:
Embassy Baghdad will visit former Camp Liberty on a frequent basis to provide robust observation. The US seeks a safe, secure, humane resolution. Our interest is humanitarian.
It seemed reasonable for diplomats to make the 45 minutes trip out to Camp Liberty once in awhile, in that the World’s Largest Embassy (c) comes with the World’s Largest price tag, some $3.8 billion (about $2.5 billion of that is for security) a year in operating costs, about a fourth of all State’s yearly costs. The idea of US diplomats visiting MEK completes the circle: the US Dips will be surrounded by massive security to protect them from the Iraqis the US liberated while at the same time using their own presence to protect the MEKs from the liberated Iraqis. It all added up to freedom somehow.
It seems however that the State Department fibbed about those visits. Here instead are the conditions out there at Camp Liberty as described by Allan Gerson, former Counsel to the US Delegation to the United Nations:
Camp Liberty has no serviceable water supply let alone drinking water.
The trailers in which new arrivals are to be housed are worn-out and extremely dirty to the point of being un-inhabitable. There are only 80 trailers and most of them lack electrical wiring and thus there is no light and no heating.
The sewage system is not functioning and thus the lack of hygienic facilities is likely to cause serious health problems, with raw sewage in open areas of the residential quarters.
The police headquarters is situated northwest of the camp, next to section where the residents are located. In addition there are four other police stations and checkpoints with one situated on the pathway to the dining facility so that every resident going to the dining facility must pass the police checkpoint. More ominously, the police commander in charge of the camp appears to be the same commander responsible for incursions into Camp Ashraf which on two occasions left a total of more than 40 unarmed civilians dead and hundreds wounded.
Apparently 16,000 State Department staffers at the cost of $3.8 billion at the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad does not buy too many “robust” inspections, as was promised to assure the safety of the MEK. That money also does not buy much credibility.
Today’s democratic acts included a series of explosions and shootings that killed 44 people and injured more than 200 in Baghdad. The bombings were all coordinated/timed and took in both Sunni and Shia neighborhoods. 2012 is well-placed to outperform 2011 in civilian deaths.
Luckily the World’s Largest and Most Expensive Embassy without Purpose wasn’t just shuffling papers as these terrible acts unfolded across Iraq. After what was no doubt hours of consultations, the Embassy released a statement saying it “strongly condemns” what it called terrorist attacks. The US Embassy also continues its planning for a concert in honor of Black History Month, as well as a reception and art exhibit featuring five Iraqi artists who took part in programs sponsored by the U.S. government. According to the Embassy, “The event not only created opportunities for people-to-people interactions but also celebrated our shared values, including freedom of expression. Such interactions are crucial to forging the strong bonds of friendship and mutual respect that we seek.”
So, it is apparent that the $5 billion a year it costs to operate the World’s Largest and Most Expensive Embassy without Purpose in Baghdad is not going to waste. At least they aren’t burning Korans. Pass the cookies, please.
Now of course there was only one candidate running for president, Vice President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, who has been acting president since November, has been vice president of Yemen since 1994. He is the hand-picked successor to his boss, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years. Saleh remains in the US on a State Department issued “medical visa,” though his treatment has apparently forced him to move from an apartment at the Ritz-Carlton in New York to California. The State Department also made sure that Saleh has diplomatic immunity for his many years of crimes against his own people. It is unclear how many mileage points you need for diplomatic immunity, but Saleh has ‘em while Syria’s Assad clearly does not.
Despite the Yemeni election being just one guy, who is the hand-picked successor to an evil thug autocrat, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland had a near-death level orgasmic reaction to the presidential election in Yemen– “The United States congratulates the Yemeni people on carrying out this successful presidential election and taking the next step in their democratic transition. Our understanding is that turnout was very high — and particularly high among women; among young people, voters under 30. And it just shows quite a bit of enthusiasm and ownership by the Yemeni people for this transition going forward.”
Other popular rulers elected as the sole candidate in their “elections” include Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il.
No doubt such a statement of pleasure by the State Department over the Yemeni race has dramatically increased US credibility throughout the Middle East.
Right… I’ll have whatever she is having.
The American Conservative magazine is looking for men and women who worked in Iraq during the post-war reconstruction effort from 2003-present, contractors, civilian personnel or military.
The magazine is doing a story on the shrinking US presence in Iraq and the legacy of the State Department. They are particularly interested in persons who worked on Provincial Reconstruction Teams.
I am not involved in the article itself, but am just helping the author locate people who might be interested in participating because I know a lot of former PRT folks read this blog. I have worked with the author before, and her writing on Iraq has always been fair and informed. I trust her to handle this complex issue well.
If you’d like to be interviewed for the piece please contact Kelley Vlahos directly at kv(at)kelleyvlahos.com for more details.
The House Subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government-Sponsored Enterprises passed a bill that severely weakens protection for corporate whistleblowers. The bill requires the whistleblower to confront the company in question first before going to a regulatory agency. Then the agency would notify the entity being accused of wrong-doing before any enforcement action is taken. Also it would legalize retaliation by the company against the whistle blowing employee. I joined RT.com to take a closer look at the rights of whistleblowers and how they’ve changed through the years.
(Follow this link if the video is not embedded above).
Well, it looks like my previous posting of counterinsurgency tips was not enough, as some ‘Mericans a’fightin’ the ever-lasting gobsmacker of a war in Afghanistan just thought it would be OK to burn ‘em up a bunch of unneeded Korans. This is a perfectly normal kind of mistake, since Americans always burn unneeded
flags bibles garbage.
A Western military official said the Korans were removed from a library at a detention center because they contained extremist messages. The reporters covering this story had no curiosity about exactly what that meant and so did not ask any questions as they took down dictation from the White House.
One more fucking time now, and pay attention:
Burning Korans is bad.
Using Nazi symbolism is bad:
Peeing on Taliban, also bad.
It all reminds people of this:
Any questions, please see your chain of command for more information! Otherwise, continue to follow the plan of the day.
Michael O’Brien, author of America’s Failure In Iraq: Intervention to Withdrawal 1991-2010, talks about the US Embassy in Baghdad, wondering along with just about every other sentient being just why America spent over $750 million dollars to build the World’s Largest Embassy.
(If the video is not embedded above, follow this link)
O’Brien also has a scathing blog on Iraq, Afghanistan and all of America’s wars of terror at America’sFailureinIraq.com
The State Department will convene its largest business conference ever today, bringing together representatives from over 100 countries to discuss how the U.S. government can help them succeed. State wants to leverage the U.S. diplomatic presence around the world to help American companies increase exports, and encourage foreign direct investment in the United States, all part of Hillary Clinton’s economic statecraft agenda, as she announced in a speech last October.
The foreign delegates (most attendees are actually Americans, not that this is an election year focused on the crappy economy or anything), meeting before the actual conference in the Foggy Bottom Dunkin Donuts, were initially concerned that State wouldn’t have coffee and snacks available, and so were stocking up. They also discussed among themselves what they would like from the US, as overheard by our blog correspondent:
–Less drones overall please.
–More visas. That’s about it, thanks.
–Don’t invade us, kill our citizens, render them, torture them, or hold them without trial in secret prisons.
–Oh yeah, don’t grab our junk in the airport. Also, can TSA “find” my iPad they “inspected” and did not return?
–More visas. Really, that will pretty much do it. Could Hillary ask Bill, this is really important.
–If you grant “Most Favored Nation” status to lots of countries, how can we believe we’re really the “most” favored? This seems wrong.
–Will the State Department pick up our hotel charges for in-room movies please? And it is true, right, that no matter what movie, it’ll just say “movie” on the bill, no title, right?
–It’d be cool if Americans spoke our languages, but really, if all some fat guy is gonna do is repeat “Ni hao! Ni hao!” over and over through the meal, it is probably better if we just stick with English for now.
–If we buy Chinese stuff from Amazon does that count?
–If every time someone says “social media” we have to put a Euro in the jar, we can have a helluva after party.
–What exactly does the US actually make or manufacture anymore besides weapons and fast foods? Do you guys have like a list we could see?
–Anybody heading to Dulles before lunch?
The blog History Unfolding, written by Naval War College professor David Kaiser, takes a look at We Meant Well.
It’s not clear how much of a future [Van Buren] still has in the foreign service. But it’s clear that we have had very little positive impact–although plenty of total impact–in Iraq, and we will have just as little, I am pretty sure, in Afghanistan. There will be no dramatic collapse, probably, like that of 1975 in Vietnam, and the effect on our society will be much less because we have a relatively small professional army now instead of a very large draftee one. (That is not to deny the enormous impact on surviving veterans, however.) The problem is not with our soldiers: it’s with the decision to try to use American military to transform two societies with which we have virtually nothing in common. We never had a chance. Van Buren’s book is interesting, because I don’t think I have ever read a book on Vietnam whose tone was comparably cynical. It really reads like All Quiet on the Western Front, even though death is nothing like such a constant presence.
Note: Kaiser guesses in the review that I am in my mid-to-late forties, though notes my picture “looks a little older”; I am 52 years old, having enjoyed my 50th birthday while in Iraq, standing atop Sumerian ruins at midnight drinking smuggled whiskey from paper cups with two Army colleagues.
Read the full review online at History Unfolding.
For those Marines who slept through their counterinsurgency lessons, let’s try again. Using Nazi symbology is bad:
Peeing on Taliban, also bad.
It all reminds people of this:
Any questions, please see your chain of command for more information! Otherwise, continue to follow the plan of the day.
AL ARABIYA is one of the leading Arabic-language news sources in the Middle East, with readership concentrated in Saudi Arabia. They were kind enough to review my book, We Meant Well.
The review notes:
There’s been an increase of news reports recently assessing portions of the legacy of the work and money spent by international forces along with aid workers in Afghanistan.
If the book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped to Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” provides any insight, the legacy could be defined by a few successes, but also, sadly, an overall environment of inefficiency, ignorance and a startling cluelessness that even billions of dollars couldn’t cure.
But the humor doesn’t mask his ultimate conclusion about the nation-building efforts of America and its allies. “Our efforts, well-meaning but always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect to local work with national goals,” he writes. “Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together,” something akin to monkeys typing, an effort which might produce Shakespeare.
In “We Meant Well,” Van Buren chronicles jaw-dropping sums being spent on a dizzying array of programs. At $63 billion and counting, “we were the ones who famously helped paste feathers together year after year, hoping for a duck.”
The review in Al Arabiya follows Al Jazeera reprinting my recent article on whistleblowers facing retaliation from the US government, including my own case. I have spoken with journalists from the UK, Iran, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, France and Japan. It remains something between amusing and just plain sad that while these news sources feel it important to bring a variety of opinions to their readers, and while even the US Army asked to hear me speak about reconstruction, all the State Department can seem to do is label me as insubordinate, like they are but some lousy naked emperor, embarrassed. It is not about agreeing, but agreeing to listen. Oh well.
One of my favorite episodes of the The Simpsons involves a take off of The Music Man, where a slick comes to town and convinces everyone that what they need more than anything is a monorail. Just like in the famous musical, where a brass band stood in for the monorail, all problems would be solved, bald men would grow hair, weak men would grow strong and average children would soon excel. All the good people of Springfield/River City/Foggy Bottom need do is hand over their money and believe in the dream (Trivia: The monorail episode was written by a young Conan).
Home Pages, Like It’s 1999
The State Department is not that different, especially with technology. Way back in the 1990’s, the flim flam of the day was “eDiplomacy,” web pages and chat rooms that would replace traditional work, give State a seat at the grown up table of foreign policy and all that other good stuff. Originally there was indeed a spark of innovation, as embassies abroad competed to use the technology and find ways to communicate. A lot of money was then wasted on consultants and studies and while the rest of the world recognized the web as an important tool, State devolved into cookie-cutter, nearly static bland “home pages” that made it feel safe. Go to “News and Events” for the Embassy in Damascus and it is all a rehash of what was said in Washington at the noon press briefing. Same thing for Baghdad, Bangkok and everywhere else. State gathered control of all of the Embassy pages and made them nearly identical, very pale. Yawn.
Social Media, It’s Outta Sight
But now there is “social media,” and if you did not know it (and how could you not?), January was groovy “21st Century Statecraft” month at the State Department! There were cookies and punch. It was the future ya’ all.
Social media is… the rage… now at Foggy Bottom and will cure all ills, allow bald men to grow hair, weak men to grow strong and average children to soon excel. We know this because the Secretary of State hired Alec Ross from the Obama campaign to be her most Senior Advisor for Innovation. Go look at his Wikipedia bio– it freaking says “Alec Ross (innovator)” as the title. That makes it true.
Alec now personally trains every US Ambassador in social media (imagine your parents: yes, yes, the email machine, that’s what I’m talking about, yes, you can see photos too, no, stop that, that’s Solitaire, not social media, dammit). Best of all Alec “gets” social media is different. He says things like this, as if
Marshall McLuhan Malcolm Gladwell had taken meth and installed himself in your ear:
What I tell our ambassadors is remember you only have one mouth, but two ears. So even if you aren’t using these tools to communicate out to people, at a bare minimum, you need to use them to listen to people, because this is how people are talking to you in the 21st century.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and as our information networks become more universal and more powerful, there’s more of this sunlight to bring to light what’s happening all around the world.
The difference in the United States versus other places is that we do this without sacrificing universal rights. So people have freedom of expression. They have the ability to exercise peaceful, political dissent. They have the ability to communicate however they see fit.
[W]hat social media tends to do, is it redistributes power. It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation-state to individuals and networks of individuals.
The 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak.
We can try to control the space, but I’m very skeptical about the degree to which we can or should control the internet. I think that it’s a losing proposition. The far better thing to do is to understand that everybody’s going to have a voice, that good points of view and bad points of view are going to be conveyed there, and what we need to do is be aggressive in getting out there and pushing out the truth.
Alec also “gets” that “young people” are “hip” already to social media. He even said so: “I’ve yet to meet a 22 year old, at least in the United States, who doesn’t understand social media.” Righty-right me gobsmacker Alec old bull, just because someone has had a Facebook page to update the ‘ole in and out relationship status does not make them a social media expert– US and China IN A RELATIONSHIP, IT’S COMPLICATED. Base familiarity with technology is good, but does not make everyone born after 1990 an expert.
What is true is that those young people are digital natives, having never lived in a world without the web, the good web with YouTube videos of cats, not the dial-up web our Ambassadors are still struggling with (someone still has all those active AOL accounts). Young people and even some older ones live on social media, and send out gazillions of Tweets, updates and blog posts. They did it before starting work at State and they do it after they join State. Freedom of Speech, that kind of thing.
The State Department is even this week– to coincide with Social Media Week– launching a super program to increase the number of friends/fans/followers for the social media of twenty embassies by 100 percent. Despite this being just what kids in junior high do, compete for numbers without caring who they are friended by, State is going to provide “targeted, relevant and engaging content” and offer “promotion and advertising gurus” to help out (they really do talk like that at State, I’m not making this up).
The dial-up State Department does not “get” social media. It is afraid of letting its people talk openly. It embarrasses faster than those crusty olds on Downton Abbey at dinner when someone drops a fork. The uber-State Department blog of record, Diplopundit, catalogs blogs that have been made to go away by the State Department.
So Alec made this promise in answer to the question posed on Diplopundit “How can State take a leadership role on Internet freedom while we continue to harass and discourage bloggers within our own ranks?”
If I’m given specific names of people doing the “discouraging” then I will take it up with those individuals (or their bosses or their boss’ boss) directly.
So Let’s Throw Down
The problem is that that is not true. It is all flim flam. I know, because I asked Alec to see if he could help me with my troubles with the State Department and this blog.
I asked Alec on his Facebook page. No response, friend request not accepted.
I asked Alec at a party to help. He awkwardly excused himself to chat with Amy Chua and never came back.
I asked Alec on this blog. No response.
And via his Twitter. #No_rspnse.
A week ago I wrote Alec an email to his State Department account asking for some assistance. No response.
Yeah, I Thought So
Social media, like all other forms of communication, is a valuable tool. But it is not just about numbers, amassing fake friends and dummy followers. If you have a message people want to hear, they will find their way to you, talk back to you, ask you to follow up on your promises. But if your only message is more flim flam, then you’re just another in a long line of fakes saying one thing and doing another while little of substance changes around you, albeit in a new medium. State does not understand that it is not about the numbers, or the slick tools they use, but about outcomes and results. Like the transition from kindergarten to college, results matter now, not just effort. Tweet up the Arab Spring until your thumbs bleed, but continued US support for the autocratic Egyptian military speaks louder than any 140 characters.
BTW, who else cracks down on bloggers in addition to the State Department?
Agree? Disagree? Are you a guru? Have a video of your cat? I’m on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, email info(at)wemeantwell.com, comments section below and often hang out at local bars dancing for nickles, so socially interact with me. Please please please, I’m trying to grow my circles’ 100 percent so bald men will grow hair, weak men grow strong and average children soon excel.
The war between the Government, which claims it is free to do whatever it wants, and its own employees, who continue to insist their duty is to the People, not to their bosses, rages. Here’s another skirmish.
The Food and Drug Administration secretly monitored the private e-mail accounts of six of its own scientists and doctors who had warned Congress and the White House that medical devices they were reviewing were approved or pushed toward approval despite safety concerns. Among the communications, made on agency computers, were e-mails the employees wrote to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which reviews disclosures about government wrongdoing and retaliation against those who report it (Full disclosure: The Government Accountability Project has filed a complaint with the OSC on my behalf against my employer, the Department of State, claiming State’s actions against me are retaliation for the book I wrote critical of their actions n Iraq).
On Wednesday, attorneys for the employees and two prominent Republican lawmakers asked the special counsel to investigate whether the employees’ communications with the office, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the inspector general that oversees FDA operations were protected under federal whistleblower laws. The attorneys and lawmakers say the e-mails were confidential and should not have been intercepted.
The idea is that certain communications are de facto private, even if made on a government or company computer. The message, not the tool used, controls.
“The confidentiality of these communications was broken,” said Stephen M. Kohn of the National Whistleblowers Center, whose firm is representing the plaintiffs. “As part of their official duties, they have the right to disclose confidential concerns. Employees throughout the government can work on these matters on paid time.”
The FDA tried but failed to have criminal charges brought against the whistleblowers for disclosing sensitive business information. The agency fired or harrassed the others.
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner warned against government monitoring of email communications with her office.
One hopes that the State Department is following the FDA case and not monitoring its own employees’ emails to their lawyers, the OSC or Congress, especially this time of year when Congress has budget requests in front of it. State’s monitoring of its own employees’ emails as a retaliatory tactic also flies in the face of all the barking Hillary does about internet freedom in China and Iran. Perhaps if the State Department had an Inspector General to review such matters internally things would be better. Awkward!
I found these ads on Craigslist Middle East. They had been misfiled under “therapeutic services” so you might have missed them:
L(.)(.)K! Rooms for Rent: Central Baghdad location, within mortaring distance of downtown. All the amenities– indoor pool, driving range, bar, own 5,500 man mercenary security force. This is the ultimate gated community folks! Due to unexpected vacancies, we now have 8000 spaces open, but don’t hesitate because they are going fast! Owner is motivated to sell or rent to the right buyer, financing (through our Bank of China partner) available NOW!!!!! it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services unless you know a way out of this nightmare.
Building for Sale: Downtown Damascus, Location, Location, Location! We lost our lease and have to liquidate everything in a hurry. Everything must go at low fire sale (maybe not tonight but eventually it’ll end up a fire sale) prices. Pre-approved credit through special UN deal (unless your application is vetoed by the Chinese or Russian loan officers) for most serious buyers. Be sure to ask about our upcoming openings in Cairo, Kabul and Yemen.
OWN CHEAPER THAN RENT!!!!! Building for Sale: Downtown Tehran. Vacant for many years, this fix-me-up handyman special can still turn out to be a nice move for the right family! Non-American Muslims only we’re afraid, must be willing to maintain large “Home of the Great Satan” sign on front lawn, on Historical Registry. Offering 444 day lease only. Diplomatic family preferred. PostingID: 28379012577
Hey, another job opening at the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security as our favorite “Special” Agent and Regional Security Officer from the American Embassy in London pleaded guilty to child porn charges.
According to the amusingly named web site gangsgoonsandgunz.com, the Department of State Diplomatic Security officer snared in an undercover FBI child pornography investigation pleaded guilty to a single felony count, according to a deal struck with federal prosecutors. By copping to transporting child porn, James Cafferty, 45, now faces a mandatory minimum prison term of five years (though a judge could sentence him to up to 20 years in custody). Cafferty is seen in the mug shot at right, taken from his online arrest record.
Details revealed say that Cafferty had in his sweaty hand more than 30,000 child porn images. Best of all, during questioning by federal agents, Cafferty “admitted ‘photoshopping’ himself into scenes constituting child pornography.”
According to one report, Cafferty’s use of his PayPal account to access child porn went back to 2006, leaving open questions about where Diplomatic Security was (answer: getting ready to chase down the Wikileaks of the future) while its employee was helping adjudicate the security clearances of others and having wide-access to personnel and other records in London and elsewhere. You can read parts of the sting email Cafferty responded to and get an even clearer idea of his motivations, or here.
So, a cop with a child porn conviction… wonder how that prison thing is gonna work out?
If you’re Syria’s evil dictator, Assad, the Secretary of State and her running dog UN Ambassador call you bad names. The say “your days are numbered” and that “you have lost all legitimacy.” Some Foggy Bottom lickspittal says that you are a “dead man walking,” and in a somewhat weird mix of things, refers to your country as “Pyongyang in the Levant.”
However, if you are the dictator of Yemen, the nice one who turned a blind eye to US drone attacks in his own country and even covered up drone strikes by claiming the bombs were his own, the State Department rolls out the red carpet.
Your dictator-in-residence status package begins with a medical visa, the travel document of choice for pro-US dictators such as the former Shah of Iran. Yemen’s thug Saleh is apparently staying at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City while he gets his “medical treatment.” Subtlety is not a dictator trait.
Better yet, the State Department treatment does not end with your visa. State will in fact cover your dictator ass even as you relax in the Ritz’ spa.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in the United States with full diplomatic immunity, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s legal advisor has written the Pentagon, and should not be compelled to provide sworn testimony for the Guantánamo war court. State Department Legal Advisor Harold Hongju Koh (photo above in his crazy ’70’s ‘do) wrote the letter to the Pentagon’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, opposing a request for a subpoena.
Koh’s letter makes no mention of Saleh’s medical treatment. Rather, Koh invoked “the particular importance attached by the United States to avoiding compulsion of an oral deposition of President Saleh in view of international norms and the implications of the litigation for the Nation’s foreign relations.” He did not describe those implications in the letter.
So, to sum up: Middle East dictators we don’t like get outed. Middle East dictators we do like live at the Ritz and are given immunity. Arab Spring cheerleaders, please make a note of this.
@LubnaNaji from Twitter sends us all Valentine’s wishes from Iraq. Bonus: See if you can spot the $63 billion spent on reconstruction there in the photo!
Also on Valentine’s Day in Iraq, gunmen assassinated an Iraqi army general in one of several incidents that left at least four people dead and 28 wounded.
Six people were injured in an explosion in al-Mashtal. Two suffered injuries in the al-Bayaa bombing
In addition, gunmen fired on a Health Ministry official in the al-Dora district of southern Baghdad.
In Mosul, about 220 miles north of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded outside a popular restaurant in the eastern part of the city, killing three people and wounding 19.
One of the used-to-be strengths of the United States’ foreign policy was a big tool box. We had the military of course, but in the right place at the right time the CIA, the State Department, charities and NGOs, each one doing something different. A smart leader could choose the right tool for the job.
The militarization of foreign policy since 9/11 has been a huge mistake, one that has rendered the State Department largely a vestigial limb of government. You see, there is something to be said for having America’s engagements overseas done by civilians. That system—we call it diplomacy—has worked pretty well for what it is for most of the last couple of thousand years. The military does some stuff well, and diplomats do some stuff well. Remember your Clausewitz: war is what happens only after diplomacy fails.
The other problem with militarization is that it makes military targets out of people like NGO workers who should not be in the cross hairs of the bad guys. The latest sad revelation out of Pakistan only serves to put more American lives abroad in danger.
According to the National Journal’s Marc Ambinder in his new book on Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army:
The U.S. intelligence community took advantage of the chaos to spread resources of its own into [Pakistan]. Using valid U.S. passports and posing as construction and aid workers, dozens of Central Intelligence Agency operatives and contractors flooded in without the requisite background checks from the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. (emphasis added)
So thanks JSOC, we’re all more valuable targets now that the bad guys can’t tell a legitimate reconstruction worker or NGO staffer from one of your goons.
Let’s see, pretty much everyone running for election in 2012 is barking about cutting spending, saving money, that sort of thing. It seems a popular tune these days. So course it is little surprise that after taking serious cuts last year, the State Department is actually asking for MORE money this year, ‘natch.
The fiscal 2013 budget request asks Congress for $51.6 billion for the State Department and USAID, which the administration describes as a 1.6 percent increase over fiscal 2012 levels in the latest appropriations bill.
Important to note for anyone who thinks our relations with China, India, Brazil or anywhere else we’re not at war with might matter, that $51.6 billion total includes $8.2 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is meant to pay for State’s 5,500 mercenaries, chicken wings and Splenda in Iraq, plus expenses in Afghanistan (which we are still reconstructing just like we did in Iraq) and Pakistan. The State Department budget request is also kind enough to include about $5.5 billion in foreign military financing, I guess because weapons are about America’s only viable export product left. You can go nuts and read the entire budget request here.
“We know that this is a time of fiscal constraint and economic hardship for the American people,” said Hillary Clinton, “So we are seeking out every opportunity to work smarter and more efficiently.”
That efficiency no doubts include the indoor swimming pool, driving range, tennis court and bar inside the Embassy in Baghdad, plus the staff in Public Affairs in Washington whose job it is to compile weekly lists of my blog posts (State has a new lawyer assigned to my prosecution, everybody say hi! to Anne). Oh yes, another efficiency are the Hall Walkers at State, foreign service officers State wants to dump but won’t or can’t and who draw full salaries to do little or no work. The electronic controls on State’s computers that block Wikileaks sites are another efficiency, no doubt. A bunch of money is headed toward “social media” (Guys, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts are free to sign up) and important diplomatic breakthroughs like “The 2012 Tag Challenge,” which “calls on technology enthusiasts from several nations to set their sleuthing skills loose on a mock gang of jewel thieves in an international search contest.” There’s a $5000 prize for that one, whatever the hell the point of it is. And hey, the State Department is now getting ready to offer Chrome as an in-house browser, and that’s free too, right? As a true friend of democracy, State also wants $1.3 billion in direct aid to the Egyptian military, plus more than $2 billion in aid to Pakistan.
But those are petty things, really, and limited to things I know of. Yet they illustrate an organization that, despite its request for more money and a place at the big peoples’ table, seems to also have plenty of time and money for petty things.
I’m sure Congress will approve State’s request for a budget increase. And the Beach Boys weren’t sad and old on the Grammy Awards.
I recently had the great honor to speak before the Maine Mid Coast Forum on Foreign Relations. The group included not a few retired State Department and CIA officials, as well as many academics, business people and the like, all with considerable overseas and foreign policy experience.
Previous forum speakers have included U.S. and foreign government officials, diplomats, representatives of international organizations, academicians, working journalists, exchange students, international businesspeople, and other foreign policy specialists. In addition, each spring since 1989 the Forum has played host to a dozen or so international Nieman Fellows and their families for a weekend of discussion and relaxation. Some of their previous speakers have included Juan Cole, Tom Ricks, Ira Glasser, Andrew Bacevich, Matthew Hoh– heady company to join.
Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas R. Nides may have set an actual world record for the most number of ridiculously wrong claims in a single government briefing. His topic was the State Department’s presence in Iraq. Here are a few of his statements:
We have stood up a robust police-training program, which is doing a terrific job working with the local police in training and developing a program, which I think will pay enormous dividends, too.
The New York Times reported “One State Department program that is likely to be scrutinized is an ambitious program to train the Iraqi police, which is costing about $500 million this year — far less than the nearly $1 billion that the embassy originally intended to spend. The program has generated considerable skepticism within the State Department — one of the officials interviewed predicted that the program could be scrapped later this year — because of the high cost of the support staff, the inability of police advisers to leave their bases because of the volatile security situation and a lack of support by the Iraqi government.”
FYI, State Department police training is also off to a robust start in Afghanistan.
We’re working on economic development, because as you know, they’re producing almost a million two barrels a day out of Basrah.
This is pretty much the same amount of oil that Iraq has always produced, since the 1980’s. Nothing to crow about for sure.
And as I’ve pointed out at the beginning is, we’re fully and completely engaged on the political deployment.
Prime Minister Maliki has an arrest warrant pending for his own Vice President, who has fled to Kurdistan, where Maliki’s own government troops cannot touch him. Sectarian violence is on the rise. Many ministers are boycotting Parliament.
For more than one year, the security ministries have been in the hands of acting ministers – Maliki himself for interior, with close allies at defence (Dulaymi) and national security (Fayyad). Two main attempts at having them filled through parliamentary procedure (March and May 2011) both failed. One of the few likely results of the upcoming national meeting in Arbil could be the appointment of a Sadrist deputy interior minister.
State has been backing away from responsibility for the post-US military withdrawal chaos.
And principally, our goal has been to shift our reliance on contractors to basically hiring local Iraqis. This is what the Iraqis want, and quite frankly, that’s what we want because it’s cheaper.
The Embassy tried hiring Iraqis back in 2005 or so. Many could not pass security checks, and most who did start work either were gunned down outside the walls or quit after threats of violence toward them or their families. Most Iraqis who worked for the US during the Occupation are in danger, and the State Department is delaying the Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) that would allow them to escape to the US.
We’ve had an unbelievable cooperation from the Iraqis, okay?
The New York Times reported instead that “At every turn, the Americans say, the Iraqi government has interfered with the activities of the diplomatic mission, one they grant that the Iraqis never asked for or agreed upon. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s office — and sometimes even the prime minister himself — now must approve visas for all Americans, resulting in lengthy delays. American diplomats have had trouble setting up meetings with Iraqi officials.”
The Iraqis have also objected to State’s 5,500 person mercenary army.
I think many folks thought that it was a difficult mission set and we – I think arguably – could suggest we’ve had a very successful mission… So I am – feel quite good about where we are.
OK Tom. If you’d return my calls, I would love to know how you define “successful mission.” I guess never mind about the State Department helicopter mishap or the arrest of the State Department mercenaries. And hey Tom, by the way, how’s the gravity on your home planet?
One more thing, and here’s where maybe I can help. Tom said “If I can get food purchasing – more food purchasing done in Iraq and not have to bring it in, that will dramatically decrease our dependency on contractors to do food service.” Food service is important, because there is no Baghdad Safeway open just yet for America’s robust diplomats to shop at. Indeed, some of those robusted diplomats were caught out complaining in the New York Times about food shortages at the Embassy cafeteria. One instance cited was chicken wing night, where wings were rationed at only six wings per dip.
Hey Tom, while I was a PRT Team Leader the US government spent over two million taxpayer dollars to build a chicken processing plant just outside Baghdad. The story of that plant’s failure is chronicled in my book, in a chapter called Chicken Shit, also available online. Maybe you could get the Embassy to re-reconstruct that plant to provide wings?
While the Embassy in Baghdad may lack chicken, the State Department in Washington certainly is well-stocked with Kool Aid.
Up next: Tom Nides explains how State won the war in Vietnam using flying pink unicorns.
Soldier-author Colby Buzell has a story in the Washington Post that comes close to required reading, asking not for a parade but for real help for veterans struggling after returning home. Colby writes:
I’m not all that concerned with parades, not in a big city or a small town, at halftime or any other time. What concerns me is the day after the parade, the day after the Sept. 11 anniversary events, the day when the flags are put away and America stops cheering and it’s back to business as usual. That’s what scares me.
Less than 2 percent of Americans serve in the military, and for them, a parade would be just another superficial acknowledgment of a sacrifice that has not been shared and certainly not celebrated.
The whole article is very important reading, online now.
Want more Buzell? His book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, is one of many first-person accounts of the current war. These books have their place in presenting the raw material of history; unlike previous wars stretching back to ancient times, today’s war is documented in detail and with immediacy unknown previously. There is no need to sit around and wait for Thucydides to jot down what happened anymore, as real soldiers blog in real time about what is going on.
The down side of course is Thucydides, by virtue of time and intellect, had a helluva lot more to say in his book than guys like Colby do in theirs. This is, however, not a cheap shot at Colby, or any others working in the blog/memoir/instant history genre (clears throat). They are honest about presenting what they saw, in words they used, and the reader benefits from the perspective. In Colby’s case, the book offers a realistic view of the slow-motion process of deciding to join the military (no parades, no recruitment posters, a series of dead-end jobs and suburban boredom), followed by one person’s vision of combat and Iraq in the second phase of the war, around 2004.
Between his CIA creds and his prosecutor’s sharp tongue, you can imagine his questions to me were just a bit outside of the usual softball inquiries.
If you missed the show live in Minnesota, the full interview, plus bonus podcast material, is online now.
(This piece appeared originally in the New York Times on February 9, 2012)
The State Department’s reduction of staff in Iraq is the final act of the American invasion. The war is now really over.
The U.S. has finally acknowledged that Iraq is not its most important foreign policy story.
Designed as a symbol of America the Conqueror, the United States Embassy in Baghdad included buildings for an international school that never opened. It featured apartments stocked with American-size refrigerators waiting for the first Baghdad Safeway. A lawn was planted to beautify the embassy, outdoor water misters installed to cool the air so even the stark reality of the desert was not allowed to interfere with plans.
Instead, the debris of failure to resolve the demons unleashed by the fall of Saddam crushed the U.S. Literally only days after the U.S. military withdrawal, the world’s largest embassy watched helplessly as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki tried to arrest his own vice president, who fled to Kurdistan where Iraqi government forces are powerless to intervene. Sectarian violence came back on the boil, returning if not with 2007’s vengeance, then at least with its purpose.
The U.S. has finally acknowledged that Iraq is not its most important foreign policy story, and that America’s diplomats cannot survive on their own in the middle of a civil war. The embassy will eventually shrink to the small-to-medium scale that Iraq requires (think Turkey or Jordan). America’s relationship will wither into the same uneasy state of half-antagonistic, half-opportunistic status that we enjoy with the other autocrats in the Middle East. Maliki will continue to expertly play the U.S. off the Iranians and vice versa. U.S. military sales and oil purchases will assure him the soft landing someday of a medical visa to the United States à la Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and not the sanctioned disposal awaiting Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
My book about the failed occupation and reconstruction of Iraq is called “We Meant Well.” Given the recent events, my next volume will be entitled “I Told You So.”