• Why Being So Right Feels So Bad

    March 22, 2013

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Gentle readers, allow me a moment of angry self-congratulation. I’ll be back to normal with the next posting. This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

    I was right. When they print the next edition of my book, I’m going to change the title from We Meant Well to I Told You So.

    I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. As it became more and more apparent to me over the course of my time in Iraq that we were accomplishing none of those goals (while simultaneously wasting incredible amounts of money), I was compelled to tell the American people what I saw. It would be both a lesson for history and a warning about similar efforts already under way in Afghanistan. I wrote a book and lost my career of 24 years at the State Department as a result.

    What if Iraq Turns Around?

    When, in 2010, I sent the first draft of We Meant Well, about the waste, fraud, mismanagement, and utter stupidity surrounding the Iraq reconstruction efforts, to my editor, I remember her saying, “You know the book itself won’t come out for close to a year, and if things turn around in Iraq in the meantime, that will make you look wrong.” I told her not to worry.

    When the book did come out in September 2011, most of the interviewers I met with threw in skeptical comments: “Well, maybe it will work out like in Japan,” they said, or “It’s too early to tell.” When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, “We’d like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste.” Foreign Policy felt the need to run an angry rebuttal (“The greatest assets in many respects were our ‘clients,’ the Iraqi ministers, provincial officials, and local residents who were active and engaged at every level”) to an excerpt from my book.

    Failure Made Official

    Well, now it’s official. Although it took 10 years for the report to come out, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), “$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost.”

    Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq,” but the positive effects of those funds were too often “lost.”

    Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country’s top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not “achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general.”

    There “was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B,” said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

    Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money. According to the Associated Press, to date the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began. Some funds are still being spent on ongoing projects.

    I Told You So

    I hate to say I told you so — but I told you so. SIGIR, if you’re out there, perhaps it would have been better to agree to meet with me back in 2009. I could have saved you some time and money. SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.

    We all know that we study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, so with the dreadful example of Iraq now clear, we can draw from it to avoid repeating the errors in Afghanistan. In fact, speaking of book titles, my volume on the Iraq failures was originally supposed to be called Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq, before the editor thankfully nudged me toward the snarkier We Meant Well.

    What Went Right?

    And yet … and yet … only the day before the SIGIR report on Iraq was issued, this magazine ran a long piece by Peter Bergen titled “What Went Right.” The piece talks about al Qaeda on the run from Afghanistan (without mentioning how well the franchises in Iraq and North Africa are doing), cites gains in cell-phone usage (without discussing how much is due to billions of U.S. aid dollars dumped on the local markets), talks about how the Taliban have been vanquished (without understanding an insurgency avoids head-on clashes just before the other guys pack up and go home), and describes aspects of Kabul as “thriving” (based most likely on a conversation with some taxi driver). Incredulously, Bergen writes, “U.S. and other NATO forces have taken care to ensure that their soldiers do not contribute to the civilian death toll. Indeed, some American cities are today more violent than Afghanistan. In New Orleans, residents are now around six times more likely to be murdered than Afghan civilians are to be killed in the war” and concludes, “Maybe, not too long from now, a new generation of guidebooks will again be raving about the joys of springtime in the Hindu Kush.”

    Quite sadly, one only need change “Afghanistan” to “Iraq” in the article, and it could have been published in 2010, right down to the last line about tourists: The United States spent millions of dollars building tourist infrastructure around Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites for naught. It idiotically helped sponsor the “Iraq Tourism Week” expo in Baghdad in 2009.

    Meanwhile, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been issuing its own reports, saying among other things that “a significant portion” of the U.S. government’s $400 million investment in large infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2011 alone may have been wasted because of poor planning. In an episode that could have come straight out of my book — except that it took place years later in Afghanistan — SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, “yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most of the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability.” There are many, many more examples.

    History Repeats Itself

    In asking why such mistakes are being repeated, one need only look at the people involved: A large percentage of the State Department personnel on the ground in Afghanistan are veterans of the Iraq reconstruction, as are the soldiers reconstructing alongside them. The same two U.S. Ambassadors (Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker) ran both embassies at different times. Most of the lame and unskilled hirelings who worked with me in Iraq moved over to identical roles in Afghanistan, and even one of my old bosses found work in Afghanistan after retirement from State. On the macro level, the same massive contracting firms and security mercenaries continue to make bank. The fat paychecks help keep everyone looking the other way about “progress” and thus on-message.

    Despite SIGAR finding that “delays, cost overruns, and poor construction of infrastructure projects … resulted in lost opportunities and in incalculable waste,” the United States and its allies have already committed to $16 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Costs for maintaining Afghan security forces are expected to come to over $4 billion per year.

    There is a pop-psychology definition of mental illness that applies here: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. And there’s something grim about this. So while it feels good today to know I was right — the reconstruction of Iraq I participated in is now unambiguously acknowledged as the failure I said it was years ago — it still feels bad knowing someone else will need to write an article just like this in a few years, when we tally up the losses in Afghanistan.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Lafcadio said...


      “Well, maybe it will work out like in Japan.”


      It took me 10 minutes to recover from that one.

      PVB, how do you manage to continue a conversation with a person who makes such an assinine statement?

      03/22/13 12:57 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Maybe Iraq does have better cellphone service than US:

      Diplopundit: “And retired FSO Peter Van Buren went on Fox News to talk about $15 million a day spent on projects in Iraq (did you think he was going away?). We heard from a nosy source that a former US ambassador to Iraq was reportedly on the phone to offer a, what do you call it — a counter-point, during the segment but the line went dead as a door nail when informed that Mr. Van Buren was the guest. Them phone signals can get occasionally wacky, must be that dry western climate.”

      03/22/13 1:11 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Dick Cheney and the folks at Halliburton (KBR) think everything went WELL.


      And as Afghanistan, Syria and Iran will prove, we can’t go to the WELL too often. We can go to HELL but that’s another subject.

      03/22/13 1:31 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      There is no joy or smugness in being sadly right Those with a conscience today have had to transcend the Cassandra curse today. You don’t try to warn or reform the monsters running the empire today. Bush can joke about looking for WMDs under a chair and his audience hoots it up. That is true madness.

      03/22/13 1:56 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Shades of the 16th Amendment notwithstanding, bah!
      Who cares what it cost. By the time it’s paid for by taxpayers in 2081..well, we’ll all be dead, the Empire will have expanded to a planetary system 500 light years away, and another PVB will have written a We Meant Well about planet earth.

      Irony ain’t what it used to be.

      03/22/13 4:10 PM | Comment Link

    • marc said...


      Goodness everyone acts like all those billion$ just vanished into thin air. Go look at Dubai. The worlds tallest sky scrapers, indoor ski resorts in the middle of the desert, multistory luxury shopping malls on every corner. Dozens of whimsically shaped man made islands slowly sinking back into the gulf. Not one of those things makes any economic sense except as a way to soak up all that American and Iraqi cash.

      03/22/13 4:48 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote:”Goodness everyone acts like all those billion$ just vanished into thin air.”unquote

      Dick Cheney’s pockets notwithstanding.

      03/22/13 6:18 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Yes indeed, Funds are rarely “lost” or cease to be. Funds just go places where the supplier or disburser hadn’t intended and into hands not anticipated. I always laugh when some headline says, “Millions lost….”. They aren’t lost- they didn’t cease to be. They haven’t disappeared.

      03/22/13 6:53 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      And while you’re all cursing the current and recent governments of the American Empire, it’s just one reprise among many, of what the ancient Biblical prophets wrote over 2,500 years ago:

      Eg, Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 2 et seq:

      As he spoke to me, spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard the one who was speaking
      say to me: Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have revolted against me to this very day.
      Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you. But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD!
      And whether they heed or resist–for they are a rebellious house–they shall know that a prophet has been among them.
      3 But as for you, son of man, fear neither them nor their words when they contradict you and reject you, and when you sit on scorpions. Neither fear their words nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.
      (But speak my words to them, whether they heed or resist, for they are rebellious.)
      As for you, son of man, obey me when I speak to you: be not rebellious like this house of rebellion, but open your mouth and eat what I shall give you.
      It was then I saw a hand stretched out to me, in which was a written scroll
      which he unrolled before me. It was covered with writing front and back, and written on it was: Lamentation and wailing and woe!

      … So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat.
      1 Son of man, he then said to me, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll I am giving you. I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. He said:
      Son of man, go now to the house of Israel, and speak my words to them.
      Not to a people with difficult speech and barbarous language am I sending you,
      nor to the many peoples (with difficult speech and barbarous language) whose words you cannot understand. If I were to send you to these, they would listen to you;
      but the house of Israel will refuse to listen to you, since they will not listen to me. For the whole house of Israel is stubborn of brow and obstinate in heart.
      But I will make your face as hard as theirs, and your brow as stubborn as theirs,
      like diamond, harder than flint. Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house…”

      …cf the American Empire today.

      03/22/13 8:34 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      And then after I sober up, I simply remember this existential horror:


      03/23/13 5:26 AM | Comment Link

    • Michael Murry said...



      What on earth does an overweight dancing black woman have to do with America’s decades-long debacle (1991-2011) in Iraq?

      On the other hand, if you really need something justifiably derogatory concerning You-Know-Her to sober you up — like her stupid vote to enable Deputy Dubya’s stud hamster vendetta against the toothless Saddam Hussein — then I’ve got something appropriate for you:

      Buffaloed Girl
      (Somewhat after the traditional song of a similar name)

      Buffaloed girl, won’t you come out tonight?
      Bask in your fright; hide in plain sight.
      Buffaloed girl don’t you put up a fight;
      Just dance to the right with the goons!

      Buffaloed girl, don’t you burn any flags;
      Marry some fags; count body bags.
      Buffaloed girl, wrapped in riches not rags,
      Just keep raking in those doubloons!

      Buffaloed girl, send our troops to Iraq!
      Then leave them there! Don’t bring them back!
      Buffaloed girl, cover George Bush’s back,
      And scrape up a few more platoons!

      Buffaloed girl, just stay out of the fray.
      Keep your mouth shut! Keep making hay!
      Buffaloed girl, while the cat is away
      Just keep playing mice with buffoons.

      Buffaloed girl, don’t you hear the troops cry?
      Wounded for wrongs; dead for a lie
      Buffaloed girl, look in everyone’s eye
      And then soil your own pantaloons

      Buffaloed girl, under Lieberman’s wing
      Saving his job, that’s the main thing
      Buffaloed girl, you and Holy Joe sing
      The duet of right-wing spittoons

      Buffaloed girl, rail at video games
      Focus group that; spout the right frames
      Buffaloed girl, don’t you name any names
      Just save children from their cartoons

      Buffaloed girl, take a “listening” tour
      If you don’t know; if you’re not sure
      Buffaloed girl, voters like their fake “pure”
      Like war debt that simply balloons

      Buffaloed girl, when it counted you hid
      Don’t try to lie. That’s what you did
      Buffaloed girl, Dubya made you his kid
      When you bought the crap that he croons

      Buffaloed girl, your irrelevance mounts
      Even in small, measured amounts
      If “it” takes a village, by all your accounts
      Then take “it” to Mars and its moons

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2006

      03/23/13 6:30 AM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      And then after I sober up, I simply remember this existential horror:

      Fuck. You would ruin my day.

      03/23/13 6:23 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      speaking of sober…

      bartender…one scotch, one bourbon, one beer…er..
      on second thought..after seeing that video..make it doubles.

      03/23/13 6:25 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Thank you, Peter, for the link to that Foreign Policy article by a senior urban planner in Iraq. It was 9 pages of self-promotion — there are too many in DC who love to lay claim to being that magical person who can solve every problem, laying claim only at other people’s expense. There were a number of cringe-worthy comments in that article; here are a couple excerpted:

      1) “Across all our activities, the biggest stumbling block to Iraqi self-governance was the lack of basic maps, studies, and information to allow effective management. No two governors had the same maps of the same provinces, and many in key positions were constrained from traveling. Getting basic resources like geographic information systems (GIS, or integrated digital mapping and resource information) was a critical next step that, in real life, needed to be done on a national level and through the ministries. It was also part of our immediate assigned mission. ”

      Not enough maps?? UT Austin’s Perry Castegneda map collection has been available for many years, including before March 2003 invasion, on the world wide web. (Cost of printing 1 or 2 maps from Perry Castegneda website and sending to each Iraqi governor — about under $20 US dollars – a decent saving to the US taxpayer compared to hazard pay and salary for Mr Senior Urban planner and associates). Would Urban Planning bureau today know if Iraq (let’s make this easy and leave Afghanistan out for now) has regular electricity or water services?? Were said maps ever disseminated?

      2)”The military, as Clarke often explained, had a “do it now” attitude that compelled each new brigade to launch one “quick hit” program after another to have Iraqis pick up the trash. The PRTs had to break that mold by focusing on the real problem: The Iraqis had no system, post-2003, to pick up their own trash. PRTs had to work across the rotational boundary with Iraqi counterparties, down to the local and provincial levels, to create permanent solutions for Iraqis’ technical, resource, and administrative problems, or we would be locked in Iraq forever. The real conflict was the damaging one between U.S. bureaucracy (the embassy and agencies) and the field, where localized Iraqi solutions had to be found and nourished. ”

      An interesting justification for the Iraq war – the Iraqis had no system to pick up their trash. The Washington Post never divulged this in their articles run during the invasion period. The author does not mention whether our interagency trash collecting objectives were successful or not

      3) “Bringing in actual senior civilian advisors — the opposite of the tried-and-true “whole of government” strategy in which any federal employee (from the Internal Revenue Service? Department of Homeland Security?) could do a better job running a water-treatment-plant reconstruction than any experienced public-works engineer — threatened to open even more institutional Pandora’s boxes, especially if many of those civilians saw local power grabs and influence pressures as something routine to their field (the regular problem to be overcome) rather than as unique proof of the corruption and incompetence of the colonials in need of intense and enduring U.S. oversight. ” I have to admit I read this paragraph a few times, not sure if I understood it well the first ten times I read it. I had no idea we were referring to people in Iraq as “the colonials”.

      The article mentions it was hard to bring in the kind of people the seniors wanted and touts the usefulness of contractors with hope for easing the bureacracy. Was the author of the article one of the contracted senior specialists?

      It is rather difficult to make decisions at State — without running it through at least 20 offices — and that hasnt changed after the ‘reforms’ (were there reforms?) or writing of that article. Contracting out projects added to the bureacracy and buffeted questionable projects and practices. It made it easy to make a contractor the fall person if anything went wrong (or if someone just didnt like that person,) and it was easier to lean on a contractor to prevent them or their staff from raising critical concerns.

      The hiring ‘reforms’ also made it easier to hire political loyalists and the Heritage Foundation was reported to be hiring 20-year olds with zero development or middle east experience to manage projects in Iraq.

      As State civil service, I applied for an Iraq position. I had a degree in Middle East studies, had been a Peace Corps volunteers, worked for development NGOs, and spoke Arabic. I even learned basic Iraqi Arabic. I applied for an Iraq position after I raised red flags about cancelling the Fulbright Gaza program and Condileeza Rice put out a call for State employees to apply for Iraq because staff were critically needed. I received an email a few hours after I sent my resume to the office that did hiring for Iraq telling me it was the kind of experience they were seeking, then two weeks passed and no more word.

      I called, was informed my application had been rejected, and was told when I asked questions to ask my supervisor why I wasn’t being recruited for an Iraq position. Having already been accused of being ‘disloyal’ for alerting PAS about my local superiors’ desire to cancel the Fulbright Gazan program (the first time) put things into perspective for me. After that followed the freezing of my portfolio duties, which made me wonder if i was being prepared for an Iraq posting (just kidding, sort of).

      There were State employees sent to Iraq, who had excellent working intentions. The bureaucracy wasnt ‘there’. It never really was. To make bad matters even worse, too often employees who were sent to Iraq found their hands tied or they couldnt do their jobs. There were people who went there to enrich themselves, hoping to coast and who couldnt give a farthing about their portfolio

      03/23/13 9:03 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote:”To make bad matters even worse, too often employees who were sent to Iraq found their hands tied or they couldnt do their jobs. There were people who went there to enrich themselves, hoping to coast and who couldnt give a farthing about their portfolio”..unquote

      Portfolios. ..We Meant well to the log10th. Gotya..but ya know what…fuck you. You’re the one that believed. Your the one that thought your destiny was …like .. I can change the fukin world..right..I mean..c’maaan pal, did ya ever fucking once..look around and deduce ..hey..I’ma seeein war crimes and I”M part of it!

      03/24/13 2:38 AM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      I was not ambitious to think I could change the world or save the Death Star from destruction.

      If I had been ambitious, I would have kept quiet, play it safe, rather than express concerns international law on refugees might be violated and possible endangering of the well-being of the kids of these grantees might occur, or that State’s own policies (at least two of them up front, more followed as events unfolded) were at risk for violation by my local superiors who wanted to dump a group of State-sponsored grantees in a third country because “no one cared.”

      My colleague in the PAS office also had the balls to speak up and raise red flags, not thinking it a right thing to let happen to any human being. We both wrote a memo stating everything of concern. The situation, unheeded and the bell-ringers ‘subdued’ through sanctioned, retaliatory practices at State, worsened and things came to very public head. Among other things, the very thing we had raised alarms on was wrongly attributed to us when a media uproar later ensued and fingers needed to be pointed.

      I can understand the anger, I really can. But please be more careful and accurate when you point a finger. On the plus side, well, it’s not like my career can be ruined. No worries there!!

      The theme of this site and to a certain extent Peter’s posting is about a seriously broken system, acts of malignance and malfeasance, and denial. We do need people, including in government and outside, who think that should be changed and there is a way. Otherwise look for a rock to hide under and there really isnt such a place

      03/24/13 6:21 AM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      @Kyzl Orda

      My apology. I can be a real asshole sometimes and last night was one of those moments. Not making excuses, but a perineal abscess, even post surgery, can cause ones judgement to lapse. 🙂

      03/24/13 5:20 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Please, never stop asking questions. Up front, vigorous questions and the opportunity to reply, are infinitely better than the wall of silence. Hope your abscess heals fast and well

      03/24/13 9:36 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote “Hope your abscess heals fast and well”unquote

      Almost healed, vs the putrid, puss filled one’s on the ass of Iraq and Afghanistan. 🙂

      03/25/13 4:11 PM | Comment Link

    • Be Right said...


      03/25/13 11:22 PM | Comment Link

    • SIGIR Speaks | Isenberg Institute of Strategic Satire said...


      […] We Meant Well wrap-up of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion was unfortunately tainted by several gallons of bile […]

      03/29/13 12:14 AM | Comment Link

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