Storms that knock out power for days, stripping away the veil that America’s infrastructure matches its first-world ambitions, are now common-place. Equally common, at least while there was an election on, were statements by candidates about “nation building at home” and “rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”
Candidate Obama repeatedly assured Americans that it was time to reap a peace dividend as America’s wars wind down. Nation-building here at home should, he insisted, be put on the agenda: “What we can now do is free up some resources, to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges.”
The news is that the spending process is already well underway, albeit by the Pentagon, in the Middle East. TomDispatch, in an excellent piece America Begins Nation-Building at Home (Provided Your Home is the Middle East) by Nick Turse, lays out the extent of taxpayer money being spent: The Pentagon awarded $667.2 million in contracts in 2012, and more than $1 billion during Barack Obama’s first term in office for construction projects in largely autocratic Middle Eastern nations, according to figures provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District (USACE-MED). More than $178 million in similar funding is already anticipated for 2013. These contracts represent a mix of projects, including expanding and upgrading military bases used by U.S. troops in the region, building facilities for indigenous security forces, and launching infrastructure projects meant to improve the lives of local populations.
The figures are telling, but far from complete. They do not, for example, cover any of the billions spent on work at the more than 1,000 U.S. and coalition bases, outposts, and other facilities in Afghanistan or the thousands more manned by local forces. They also leave out construction projects undertaken in the region by other military services like the U.S. Air Force, as well as money spent at an unspecified number of bases in the Middle East that the Corps of Engineers “has no involvement with,” according to Joan Kibler, chief of the Middle East District’s public affairs office.
But what is a picture if not worth a few million bucks? The photo above is of the $1 billion U.S. embassy in Baghdad, bad enough but at least still in partial use. Here’s a photo of just part of the U.S.-built facility at the Baghdad Airport. Everything you see was carted to Iraq with your tax dollars, put up and maintained with your tax dollars, and then simply abandoned along with your tax dollars when the Iraq War got boring for the U.S. Have a look:
To do it right takes some time and expertise. Blow in, blow off and blow out doesn’t work.
That about sums it up.
Along with the semi-regular threats (why are they ALWAYS IN ALL CAPS!?!?!??!), people do ask about the title of the book.
Here is what one faithful reader wrote as a comment in Salon:
We meant well?
Why not be honest and title it ” I’m a brick in the road to Hell”?
Everybody wants a pass on their part in the last decades madness. Fuck That. You willingly took part. The day of the sin eater is long past, nobody on this planet can absolve your sins.
Now go make few bucks in false piety.
We had a lot of discussion about the title, We Meant Well. The idea is that many reluctant participants in the war, like me, started off with good intentions. We never intended to be complicit in fraud, sign off on waste and encourage corruption, but that is what happened. We came to see that is what had to happen, given how messed up the entire effort was from the start. Let’s destroy a country and then rebuild it begs the question of why destroy it in the first place.
So, over the course of the war/book, what starts out as good intent– We Meant Well and we’ll try to fix things– ends up as irony– We Meant Well but we fucked up. Like living it, after reading the book I hope you will come to the conclusion that what was called reconstruction (or nation building, or promoting democracy, etc.) was doomed by the lack of thought and planning needed to backstop good intentions. These were peoples lives we were playing with, and people in need of water, medical care and basic services could not have their thirst slaked simply by good intentions.
It would have been an easier war to understand, and an easier book to write, if I had found our efforts populated by Americans out to steal money, or mean-spirited State Department people set on messing up Iraqi lives. But that wasn’t the case. What happened was a sad but intensely American thing, the destruction of a civil society simply through misguided good intentions we were too clueless to even see as we committed our sins.
Senator Jim Webb of Virginia had me at “hello” when he faced down George Bush a few years ago. The Senator hit it square on the head again yesterday when speaking about the money pit we are feeding in Afghanistan. Webb said:
“You can pretty well fight international terrorism without remaking an entire societal structure. The real question is: what is the ultimate objective with all of these ground forces and all of these infrastructure programs in terms of the long-term advantage?”
“If there is any nation in the world that really needs nation-building right now, it is the United States. When we are putting hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure in another country, it should only be done if we can articulate a vital national interest because we quite frankly need to be doing a lot more of that here.”