• Book Review: American Ambassadors, The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats

    February 28, 2015 // 15 Comments »


    The micro-review of Dennis Jett’s American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats is this: Since 1960, 72 percent of America’s ambassadors to Western Europe and the Caribbean have been political appointees, their primary if often only qualification being that they donated obscene amounts of money to the guy who won the presidency. America is the only first world country that hands out ambassadorships as overt prizes of corruption. Many/most of these political ambassadors have done mediocre-to-poor jobs, and no one does much of anything about that, or even seems to care. Likely the only way to reform this sad system is to reform big money politics in America.

    Getting to Know Our Ambassadors

    Author Dennis Jett, himself a two-time career ambassador (meaning he served as a State Department diplomat, rising through the ranks to one of its highest positions) is now a professor of international relations and founding faculty member of the School of International Affairs at Penn State University. His book is one of the few (only?) volumes that parses the idea of politically-appointed ambassadors outside of a partisan rubric, and is the only one I am aware of that fully details the actual process and mechanics of becoming an ambassador. It also manages to be a quick, entertaining read, all at the same time. While Jett does not traffic in gossip, his book is filled with anecdotes and details that reveal the at times pathetic actions of America’s representatives abroad.

    How about the one whose signature accomplishment was a new mattress for her residence? The one who was absent from her assigned country almost half the time? The ones who stumbled in front of the very host country officials they were supposed to get to know? The one who insisted on singing popular tunes at all of his formal dinners, drowning out critical sidebar interactions? The one who… well, you get the idea.

    A Little History

    Professor Jett’s book begins with a history of America’s ambassadorship, noting that an early attempt to reform the spoils system so angered one job-seeker that he assassinated President Garfield. Things only went downhill from there.

    Various well-meaning moves by Presidents from Taft to Teddy Roosevelt failed to budge the spoils system through Republican and Democratic administrations. Along the way presidents stopped trying to change the system and began to openly embrace it as a tool to reward both individual donors and, the whales of any campaign, the “bundlers,” those connected individuals who not only drop off millions of their own money, but get their wealthy friends to do the same.

    It would be foolish to expect someone not to want something in return for their cash.

    The Best and the Worst

    To be fair, Jett offers his share of criticism to ambassadors in general (about 70 percent are in fact State Department careerists, though as noted, career diplomats are disproportionately assigned to hardship posts; some 14 percent of African embassies are run by career Foreign Service Officers.)

    One of the most overriding criticisms is the lack of standards and definitions of success for an ambassador. Easier to delineate are the points of failure, and Jett’s book has far too many examples for any taxpayer to be happy about. The problems range from ambassadors who seem to have little-to-no interest in the job save some social aspects and the title itself, to those who hamstring an embassy through mis- or micromanagement.

    The better ambassadors (surprise!) use the resources at hand well, rely on their career No. 2 (the Deputy Chief of Mission, or DCM) to handle most of the internal embassy management, and respect the chain of command. Add to that an ambassador who is willing to work with not only the State Department personnel under his/her direct authority, but also the many other Federal workers in a modern embassy, never mind the ever-growing military presence abroad, and you have a recipe for success. The book is clear what happens in the inverse.


    American Ambassadors is also an excellent resource for those seeking to learn more of the inside baseball side of the American ambassador game. Jett surveys the roles of women, African-Americans and gay ambassadors, and charts the changing way race and religion have played out in assignments. Readers get to see the lengthy actual questionnaire used to vett Obama’s appointees, guidelines drawn up for successful ambassadors by informed third parties, and examples of the Letters of Instruction three presidents wrote as “marching orders” to their new envoys. These resources are likely of more use to a student, researcher or potential political appointee than a general reader, but are not uninteresting to browse.


    Reform to a spoils system so deeply embedded in the way someone gets elected to the White House depends on reform of how someone gets elected to the White House. This is a task far beyond the scope of Jett’s book, though he touches on some ideas. Recent Supreme Court decisions that allow virtually unlimited corporate funds to flow nakedly into the system won’t help.

    So if you can’t do away with the spoils system, the only alternative left is to better prepare the political appointees. Making Dennis Jett’s American Ambassadors required reading for every person up for consideration would be a hell of a start.

    Full Disclosure: Like Jett, I also was a career Foreign Service Officer. Unlike Jett, I never rose beyond the middle ranks. Jett also cites my issues with the Department of State as an example of the perils of dissent inside the organization.

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    Book Review: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

    February 23, 2015 // 4 Comments »

    Kim Phuc story

    Chris Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America’s place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.

    Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam

    Appy’s book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy’s book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not as isolated factoids but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.

    We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley’s garbage selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.

    The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0’s non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0’s “Save the Yazidi’s” rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. “Saving” things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was “Operation Babylift,” where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to “save” them.

    Vietnam as a Template

    Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.

    — The 1960’s infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980’s to frighten Americans into tacit support for America’s wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.

    — Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.

    — A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of “Munich.” If we don’t stop _____ (Putin?) now, he’ll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That “appeasement” and “diplomacy” are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.

    — Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities — My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more — are the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.

    No More Vietnams

    Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.

    The aftermath — No More Vietnams — is well-covered in Appy’s work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980’s), more over-the-top justifications (“You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.

    Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media (“Pat Tillman was a hero,” “Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support”) and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.


    For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.

    Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.

    You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. “There remains,” concludes Appy, “a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain… the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.”

    How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy’s words, what our record is, and who we now are.

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    Morris Berman’s New Book, Spinning Straw into Gold: Chicken Soup for Reality

    September 5, 2014 // Comments Off on Morris Berman’s New Book, Spinning Straw into Gold: Chicken Soup for Reality

    Look at any list of popular books and you’ll see it obsessively packed with self-help manuals, Chicken Soup for Teens, How to Be a Better Whatever, books about having better sex, better relationships, better jobs. At the same time, we live in a world under attack from advertising that cleaves to a single theme: whatever you have now, it is not enough. You need to buy something new! to smell better, look better, have a bigger TV, a bigger penis, a faster car. Buy a Model II today! and see it overwhelmed by the new must-have features in the Model III, three months later. With all that need for personal and material improvement, it can be darn hard to just be… happy. So you get back on the circle and read some more self-help books.

    Repeat. Want more? Desire less.

    Morris Berman Writes to Us

    Morris Berman, whose prescient work detailing the decline and literal deflation of the American economy forms much of the philosophical underpinning of my own upcoming book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has written a new volume, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times.

    Unlike his previous books, which focus on society and economy in decline, Spinning Straw is different. Maybe.

    Actually, maybe not. The themes here are indeed about society, and economy, but zoomed out then into a very personal view. Berman reflects on his own life, with mention of a failed marriage, his decision to move to Mexico, all part of tracing his personal journey away from a world based on I Want into one where one’s happiness and contentment is divorced from more material things. But this is no hippie trip, and Berman’s book is no feel-good experience with a happy ending. In that sense, and it matters, Spinning Straw picks up the themes from his previous books and slaps them down inside you. In an interview, Berman spelled it out:

    I was living in Washington, D.C. for eight years before I moved to Mexico, and I told myself I would be like the proverbial lotus in a cesspool. All that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. I discovered that the best way of escaping American values—values that were killing me—was to escape America. It was the smartest decision I ever made. Most of us don’t realize how the corporate-commercial-consumer-militarized-hi-tech-surveillance life has wrapped its tentacles around our throats, and is squeezing the life out of us. We merge with “our” narrative so as to have some measure of safety in our lives; but what if it’s a death-oriented narrative? (Usually it’s some version of the American Dream, which is the life of a hamster on a treadmill)… Life has a tragic dimension, and no amount of Oprah or Tony Robbins can change that. To hide from sadness—and one way or another, that’s what Americans struggle mightily to do—is to remain a child all your life. Most Americans have never grown up. Americans are probably the most superficial people on the planet. To dull your sadness with Prozac or cell phones or food or alcohol or TV or laptops is to suppress symptoms, and not live in reality. Reality is not always pleasant, but it does have one overriding advantage: It’s real.

    Old Kyoto

    In reading Spinning Straw, I was reminded of my chance encounter in old Kyoto with an elderly man who was one of the last makers of hand-crafted wooden buckets for use in a Japanese bath. He worked slowly, and seemed to make very little money, selling his product to mostly other elderly people. I asked him why he did what he did and he said “Because wooden buckets are good,” turning away from me. It was up to me to discard the simple truth– he did what he did because it was right– or learn from it. The old guy could care less what I thought, he had buckets to make. So it is with Spinning Gold; the author is not selling seats at a seminar or a CD collection of his happy talk; there are no “steps” or Five Most Important Things to Do Now. Indeed, you walk away with the feeling that while the author has much to say, if you’re too stupid to listen he could probably care less. There are buckets to make.

    If the author was however forced into making some sort of list, it would be short. Slow down. Think more, purchase less. Look for meaning more than Wikipedia-ized facts. Enjoy the dance. The journey’s all we have until we get there, then that’s that. Hell, the whole book’s only 90 pages.

    Those 90 pages are packed with stuff to think about. The need to break a cycle of what the author calls “stuckness,” the focus on elevating little things into big things where you end up screaming at a minimum wage worker because your coffee isn’t right or the Bubblicious is out of stock. There is the danger of buying (!) too deeply and quickly into a “narrative,” a way of life dictated to you where you falsely think you’re picking up safety and security but instead fall into a trap. Choosing competition over community isn’t like deciding caff or decaff, it is a philosophical “vector” that shoots you down a very different life path.

    Blended into the pages are inklings of the “old” Berman. Obama’s seemingly overnight transformation from Hope and Change into a nightmare of drones and perpetual war is offered as an example of what happens when one doesn’t care about one’s soul. Power and influence require you to “inject poison into culture’s veins on a daily basis.” But if instead you follow the fairy tale of making straw into gold, you have a chance at a life that is full, meaningful and pleasantly finite– you can be happy and content once and for all. As Berman says, life is over faster than a blink, and then all you are is dead for a really long time.

    You get it. The book is brief, the lessons long. In the time it took to read this review you could be well-stuck into Berman’s thoughts. Better to put this down and pick those up before another blink goes by.

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    Posted in Embassy/State

    Review: Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent– “Well done on so many levels”

    May 2, 2014 // 2 Comments »

    Joseph Spuckler is in with a wonderful review of Ghosts of Tom Joad. His piece is full of excerpts from the book to illustrate his points, so best to read the full review.

    Some highlights:

    Every so often I pick up a book to review that not only wakes me up with a slap to the face but also beats me down and makes me realize how one decision put me where I am today and not unemployed, working for minimum wage, and a step away from being homeless. I felt very much like I could have been Earl if I had stayed. The story is very realistic and typical of the environment. I highlighted and noted almost as many passages from this novel as I would from a nonfiction book on an unfamiliar subject… It reads as real life.

    Ghosts of Tom Joad is a book about the 99% but told from a very personal level. I needed to remind myself throughout the book that this is fiction, but it is also so many people’s real life story. It could have very well been my story. Van Buren laces factual information throughout the book, but it fits into the story. It does not read like a collection of statistics or a leftist/union propaganda brochure. It reads as real life… This book is very well done on so many levels. The story and the message are both appropriate and accurate in America’s former industrial centers. Even though I left long ago, it is not something I, or anyone else, can run from forever. It is spreading across the country with every business that closes, every job that goes away and is replaced with a part time dead end job…”and you can’t build a nation on the working poor.”

    See the full review for more…

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    Book Review: Voices from Iraq

    October 7, 2012 // 9 Comments »

    While there are a lot of books about the most recent Iraq war, there are very few books that try and show the civilian side of the conflict. We all know the rough outline of the narrative—US invades, society breaks down, sectarian violence spins off into civil war, followed by a low hum of more targeted violence and unstableness that now characterizes life in “free” Iraq. Broad strokes; but what was history like for the average Iraq? Until now, few have told us their stories.

    Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003-2009 is an imperfect book, much as could be expected from a first oral history of the civilian side of the war. Author Mark Kukis interviewed those he could reach, restrained by the continuing violence in Iraq that threatened both him and his subjects. Consequently, more than a few of the subjects are Iraqis who worked for Western media outlets or who otherwise interacted with the Americans.

    However, Kukis, through friends of friends, did gain access to a number of more ordinary people, and it is in these interviews that the book shines. Tale after tale accumulates around you, like snow piling up: a son killed, a child murdered, a father kidnapped, a bombing, an assassination, a life ruined by torture. Before you realize it, you are drawn deeply into the horrific world the US created in Iraq post-2003, forced to acknowledge America’s complicity by the simple tone of the stories, the tellers too tired to embellish and too plain in their suffering to politicize what happened to them.

    If journalism is the first draft of history, this is version 1.5. Readers interested in a 360 degree view of events in Iraq 2003-2009 should listen to these Voices.

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    POGO Summer Reading List: We Meant Well

    June 22, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) published its summer reading list, and was kind enough to include We Meant Well alongside books like Michael Hastings The Operators, Drift by Rachel Maddow and Black Banners by Ali Soufan.

    The whole list is worth reading and, packed on to your Kindle and digested over the summer, provides a tidy snapshot of the current state of the War of Terror.

    One of the few books I have not read on the list is Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Timesby Eyal Press. The book tries to explain what impels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention and become whistleblowers, protesters and heroes. The conclusion tracks with my own experience and the experiences of the other whistleblowers I have come to know, that acts of dissent are often carried out not by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but by true believers who cling to their convictions.

    See the whole list of summer reading over at POGO.

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    Captivity: Book Review

    April 23, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War is a new book by James Loney recounting his days in Iraq, a victim of kidnapping. Loney went to Iraq as part of a Christian anti-war group, stumbled along with three colleagues into the vicious sectarian nightmare created by the US invasion and was held for ransom alongside his friends for those 118 long days and nights before being freed by US and British Special Forces.

    Ostensibly about the kidnapping ordeal itself, Loney’s book is actually about Faith. It is a powerful document to the power of Faith to push believers through the worst hardships, of Faith to conflict with the harder realities of war and of Faith as a way to live one’s life. Expecting a cowboys and Indians tale of survival and Special Forces machismo, I was first caught off guard and then drawn in to the more simple story.

    Loney begins his journey to Iraq believing he and other Christians can somehow affect the chaos there as a “Christian Peace Team.” Their goal is to negotiate, mediate and at times physically separate warring parties in hopes of achieving peace. Their naiveté is palatable, almost comical to anyone even vaguely familiar with the horrors of Iraq, yet decent writing and an almost childlike belief in his faith make Loney’s motives credible. He and the others are kidnapped immediately, as expected.

    The bulk of the book details the hour-by-hour struggles to stay alive and strong in captivity. While the four men were not tortured, they spent their days chained and had little food and no amenities. The spectra of death was present, and their limited ability to communicate with their captors kept the anxiety high. As one can imagine, spending 118 days chained together under such conditions makes for rough interpersonal relations, and how the men called on their faith to stay mentally whole and not turn on each other sticks with the reader. A secularist myself, faith remains something of a mystery and the window Loney provides is revealing.

    That said, Loney leaves the reader wanting more. Did none of the men ever seriously question their faith while in captivity? When confronted by a US Army officer angry at having risked his life to save people he felt were so stupid they never should have been allowed into Iraq, why was Loney silent? Any reflections on an antiwar group being freed by Special Forces’ violence? After the men were released, they refused as a matter of conscience to testify against their captors, knowing their testimony would result in the death penalty. Was this decision taken lightly? Were there no crisis’s of faith to confront? More introspection and less certainty would be welcome.

    Readers looking for insights into Iraq will probably not enjoy Captivity, but those seeking a deeper understanding of the role faith plays in the lives of believers will come away awed by Loney’s book. God bless him for it.

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    Build Your Qaddafi Library Now While You Still Can

    October 20, 2011 // Comments Off on Build Your Qaddafi Library Now While You Still Can

    Remember how your Mom threw away all your baseball cards and Matchbox cars? Man, you could have sold that stuff on eBay for like a zillion dollars, if only you had held on to it all.

    Well, here’s your chance. With the Qaddafi family headed toward exhile, execution, or worse, a reality show, books by the master will become collector’s items– they ain’t gonna be making any more of ’em people!

    Luckily Amazon.com has three choices available. Now neither is available for Kindle, but both are eligible for Free Super Saver Shipping.

    If you will only buy one book, go for the classic “little green book” of Qaddafi’s, where he laid out for all his revolutionary theories. The most important one, Jamahiriya (Arabic for “Juche”) has governed the boss’ thinking on Libya for 40 years. Quite a run.

    Qaddafi the revolutionary, Qaddafi the prophet, these themes are addressed in his other works. This book might be considered “Qaddafi unplugged,” where the man explores his sort of essayist side. Entertainment Weekly said it for all of us when it wrote
    “Qaddafi… often reminds one of Dennis Miller, albeit slightly funnier.”

    The product description for the book My Visionalone makes it an obvious winner; this is not a narrative you are gonna hear out of Wolf or Anderson anytime soon:

    In 2004, the international embargo and sanctions that had been imposed on Libya for more than a decade were lifted by the UN Security Council when Colonel Muammar Gadaffi announced that Libya would give up its nuclear weapons. Further, Gadaffi agreed to compensate the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and the attack on the TWA flight that occurred in the late 1980s. This remarkable gesture showed Gaddafi’s commitment to seeing Libya rejoin the international community. In the sprit of reconciliation, Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to Tripoli, declaring that Libya was now an ally in the fight against global terrorism. How is this reversal explained? Born from conversations between Gaddafi and political expert Edmond Jouve, this book retraces the Libyan leader’s political and ideological journey.

    Don’t worry if the image if the book cover image is not showing up; it’s just Qaddafi’s mug again.

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    SpyTalk: New Review of We Meant Well

    September 21, 2011 // Comments Off on SpyTalk: New Review of We Meant Well

    A new review on the blog SpyTalk says some nice things about the book. The blog is a must-read for Washington insiders keeping track of naughty and nice developments in the intel community.

    SpyTalk columnist Jeff Stein writes:

    Now, a handful of wars later, comes “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” by Peter Van Buren, a veteran State Department officer who spent a year working in the black hole of the notoriously inept, $63 billion Iraqi reconstruction program.

    If this ain’t “Catch-22” (which has just been reissued in a 50th-anniversary edition), it’s awfully close.

    For sure, it’s not a novel, but as they say, you can’t make this stuff up.

    But like Catch-22, “We Meant Well” is held together by Van Buren’s hilariously rendered absurdities, from his encounters with self-important Iraqi and American officials and their fictitious reconstruction projects to the U.S. command’s annual — which is to say, once a year– distribution of a single can of beer to the troops.

    I laughed ’til I cried. But I think that was the point.

    Read the whole review on SpyTalk.

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    Book Review: Father of Money, Buying Peace in Baghdad

    July 6, 2011 // 2 Comments »

    While I especially wish I had read this book before I went to Iraq, I am glad to have been able to read it after I came home.

    Among the many things we lacked in Iraq (good food, loved ones, adult supervision), the history of the place, specifically what previous Americans had done on the same ground interacting with the same people, was high on everyone’s list. There was simply no record keeping, no oral history of what happened just before you arrived. That meant not only ignoring Santayana’s famous dictate (“don’t remember history, doomed to repeat it”), it meant flushing it right down the pooper.

    This mattered to us, and it matters to you if you are interested in the full story about how things went so wrong in Iraq. Until some future historian ties all of these threads together and produces a definitive history of the invasion and occupation, you the reader will need to do it one book, one year of duty, at a time, pretty much the same way it happened. Jason Whiteley’s story will help.

    In March 2004, Army Captain Jason Whiteley was appointed the governance officer for al Dora, a mixed Sunni-Shia ‘hood that was one of Baghdad’s most violent districts. His job was to use US money to oversee a council structure for Iraqis that would allow them to begin governing themselves. The nature of persuading Iraqis to support the coalition quickly progressed from simply granting them privileges to a more complex relationship defined by illicit dealing, preferential treatment and a vicious cycle of assassination attempts. In al Dora, Whiteley was known as Abu Floos–or “Father of Money.”

    Money was indeed Whiteley’s weapon. He immediately fell into the trap of failed quick fixes to complex problems, and slipped deeper into the muck when clever attempts to play one Iraqi side off the other backfired in violence (Hint: they have been playing this game way longer than we have). His early enthusiasm and optimism fade into a familiar pattern of cynical “making do,” sadly capped off with the death of a close teammate in a fight that accomplished nothing. The book ends in 2005 with Whiteley and his unit returning stateside, their war in al Dora thankfully over. There was little to show for the effort.

    I say that with some authority, as the same ground Whiteley covered, and many of the same characters, were in my own area of responsibility as a PRT Team Leader in Iraq 2009-2010. Five years after Whiteley left, al Dora remained a nasty, violent place. The Sunni-Shia violence he writes about continued, albeit at a slightly lower tempo as so many Sunnis had been killed or driven out between Whitely’s tour of duty and my own. We did still keep digging the same hole, however, and a chapter in my own book We Meant Well chronicles the silliness of the USG paying to hold an art show in this same violent neighborhood.

    Some other well-meaning American is there now, no doubt meeting some of the same questions, ignorant of the other Americans who walked those same streets. I hope he gets the chance to read Jason Whiteley’s book.

    Click to buy Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad

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    Posted in Embassy/State