State department insider Van Buren exposes the bungled occupation and reconstruction of Iraq in We Meant Well.
Did you struggle with the decision to write about working for the State Department?
I did, and I continue to do so. The State Department, where I have worked for 23 years, is like a Mafia family: one doesn't talk about family matters outside the family. I can't name one objective book written by a State Department Foreign Service Officer—the few who do write things stay strictly within the exciting travel memoir genre or, if they are former Ambassadors, the "I was right all along" personal insights. When a colleague learns about my book, the first question is always "Are you in trouble?" I am afraid the answer is yes. State started an investigation against me—a hearing is scheduled coincidentally just about the time the book comes out. My current boss also told me she was asked to "deliver a message," just like in a gangster movie, from a "senior Department person" that my writing had left people at Foggy Bottom "more than upset" and threatened additional discipline, including suspension, if I continue.
You write that the small advances were inevitably cancelled out by tragedy. Can there be any hope gleaned from those small moments?
There were days when more things went right than wrong. If you were the American Embassy you could write happy press releases oozing with minor success. But what we were trying to do in Iraq over the course of eight years and $63 billion in reconstruction money was to rebuild a country we had destroyed, to provide a decent life for the 30 million people of Iraq. Those people needed electricity, hospitals, clean water, schools, and a government that would care for them. In those respects we failed spectacularly. We wanted to leave Iraq stable and independent, and we dropped 4,462 American lives, 100,000 Iraqi lives and a trillion dollars trying to do so. But we spent our time and money on obviously pointless things, like plays and pastries. As one Iraqi said, "It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked."
How did you chose the title, which can clearly be interpreted with varying degrees of irony?
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. 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.