We Meant Well: the Uneasy Legacy of US Foreign Policy

The US has invested vast sums into Afghanistan and Iraq with limited success. Peter Van Bure, author and state insider, meets Stephanie Foster to discuss his warts-and-all account of rebuilding Iraq and the awkward position of an imperialist force without an empire.

We Meant Well is a fascinating and troubling read about your experiences in Iraq as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). It also paints a fairly negative picture of how the US used its power and resources abroad. What positive impact did you see from the work you did as part of a PRT?

Almost all of the money, time and other resources we used in Iraq were wasted; they did not benefit the Iraqis as intended and did not enhance the image of the US, which was another of our goals. We squandered our time and money on short-term, “feel good” projects without ever addressing the real issues before us.

From 2003 onwards, Iraq was a broken society, without any of the fabric that keeps a country running. There were no effective organs of government, no police, and no basic services like water, electricity, sewers, healthcare, or reasonable schools. Had the US picked any one of those things and focused its attention on it, we might have made some important differences to the lives of Iraqis. However, we did not.

Any successes, such as the founding of 4-H clubs I wrote about in my book, were small-scale things; good but not good enough. Think of our successes as picking up a few pieces of stray litter on the street. That’s not a bad thing, but unless it is done on a large scale and coordinates efforts in one place with those of another, it is ultimately of little value to the greater society. Considering reconstruction in Iraq consumed $63bn dollars; it was a big miss on our part. Take that in the context of a war that killed 4,479 Americans, over 100,000 Iraqis, and cost trillions of dollars and it is one of the largest foreign policy failures in world history.

What role do you think the military can play in peace building and conflict resolution?

The military is often thrust into roles it is little prepared for, simply because it has lots of people who will do what they are told (shovel snow, hand out candy, shoot to kill, etc.), all the hardware needed to move things around, and a code that says they never say “no” to an order when given one.

None of that means the military is good at every task (and they’ll be the first to admit they are not), only that they will step up when told to. The military are not diplomats, not development specialists, not democracy trainers, and not conflict resolvers. We should play to our strengths and use the military for things they can do well: provide security, handle logistics, transport personnel, and be a ready supply of labor when needed. Interface those capabilities with real development professionals and you have a very powerful tool for foreign influence. If instead you just send soldiers in to “fix everything,” well, the results are obvious.

What should we be doing differently? Do we need different strategies and different skills for the people we send abroad?

If the US wants to make reconstruction, development, nation building, whatever, a potent tool of foreign policy, then let’s train and hire people to do that well. Not just as front organizations for contracting like USAID, but people dedicated to the task—professionals that now migrate into the NGOs rather than government work.

Or, let’s have the government step back, empower those NGOs, and support them. That means giving up a lot of political control, but it may perhaps achieve more real results at much lower costs without the burden of USG propaganda tagging along.

One unexpected outcome of your book is that you met a lot of people with an interest in a Foreign Service. What kind of advice do you have for them?

Before getting dumped into admin leave limbo by the State Department because of my book and blog, my position was at the Board of Examiners, where for over a year since returning from Iraq I administered the oral exam and helped choose the next generation of Foreign Service officers. I was competent at the task, got a good performance review and, after a year on the job, it was only because of my book that State decided I could not work there.

So, I spent a lot of time around people interested in a Foreign Service career. They did not ask for advice and at the board we did not offer it. However, since my book came out and I have gotten some media attention, ironically more people now approach me with the same question about joining the Foreign Service. There is too much irony these days.

What I tell them is this: think very, very carefully about a Foreign Service career. The State Department is looking for a very specific kind of person and if you are that person, you will enjoy your career and be successful. I have come to understand that the department wants smart people who will do what they are told, believing that intelligence can be divorced from innovation and creativity. Happy, content compliance is a necessary trait. The Department will not give you any real opportunity for input for a very long time—years, if ever. Even consular work, which used to offer some space, now has fallen victim to standardization as posts must conform websites to a single model, for example. There is no agreed upon definition of success or even progress at the State Department, no profits, no battles won, no stock prices to measure. Success will be to simply continue to exist, or whatever your boss says it is, or both, or neither. You may never know what the point is other than to have a congressional delegation go away “happy,” whatever that even is.

At the same time, the State Department has created a personnel system that will require you to serve in more and more dangerous places, and more and more unaccompanied places, as a routine. That sounds cool and adventurous at age 25, but try and imagine if you'd still be happy with it at age 45 with a spouse and two kids. What are your core obligations with a child who needs some extreme parenting as you leave your wife at home alone with him for a year?

Understand that promotions and assignments are more and more opaque. Changes in Congress will further limit pay and benefits. Your spouse will be un- or under employed for most of their life. Your kids will change schools for better or worse every one, two, or three years. Some schools will be good, some not so good, and you'll have no choice unless you are willing to subvert your career choices to school choices, as in let’s go to Bogota because the schools are good even if the assignment otherwise stinks. You'll serve in more places where you won't speak the language and get less training as requirements grow without personnel growth. As you get up there, remember your boss can arbitrarily be a used car salesman who donated big to the President's campaign. Make sure all these conditions make sense to you now, and, if you can, as you imagine yourself 10, 15, and 20 years into the future. It is a unique person who can say “yes” truthfully after real soul-searching.

What lessons do you draw from your experiences for how the US works abroad; whether it is in post-conflict zones like Afghanistan or in transitional democracies like Egypt and Tunisia?

The US will face a continued stagnation on the world stage. When we, perhaps semi-consciously, made a decision to accept a role after World War II, we never built the tools of an empire. No colonial service, securing critical resources, or carrot and sticks. We settled on a military-only model of soft occupation. We made few friends and allies, accepting reluctant partners instead. As changes take place in the developing world, the most likely kind of American encountered wears a uniform and carries a weapon. By making every challenge ideological—from communism to Islam—we have assured ourselves of never really winning a struggle.

America faced a choice and blew it. As an empire, we either needed to take control of the world's oil or create a more equitable and less martial global society to ensure our access to it. We did neither. We needed either to create a colonial system for adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan along the Victorian model, or to not invade and rebuild those places. We did neither.

Simply pouring more and more lives and money into the military is a one-way street going in the wrong direction. We can keep spending, but when the millions of dollars spent on weapons can be deflected by acts of terrorism that cost nothing, we will lose. For most of the next century, America still has a big enough military that our “decline” will be slow, bloody, and reluctant. But it is inevitable nonetheless.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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