Losing Hearts and Minds and Money

A book about the quagmire in Iraq came out a few years ago. It was written by Peter Van Buren, a former government official. It’s about the losing of hearts and minds and lots of money.

I haven’t read the book itself, but came across some discussion about it online. The supposed reconstruction of Iraq sounds like a key example of bureaucracy taking on a life of its own, where having the results looking good on paper became more important than ensuring actual results. Massive amounts of money were thrown around to make it look like something was being accomplished, with large numbers of troops there for almost a decade to help in the process.

Here is the book and some related stuff:

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
by Peter Van Buren (excerpt at Rolling Stone)

Murray Polner, Review of Peter Van Buren’s “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle For the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” (Metropolitan Books, 2011)

‘We Meant Well’: An Attempt To Rebuild Iraq (NPR audio)

“We Meant Well” by Peter Van Buren (Youtube video)

On a related note, there is a good Wikipedia article on the Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

The popular support for the war evaporated and by 2007 most registered voters supported troop withdrawal. The U.S. government had been discussing withdrawal in the last years of the Bush administration with Congress making a decision for withdrawal in 2007 and Bush signing an agreement involving withdrawal in 2008, although Bush had already begun withdrawal in 2007.

Obama, once in office, followed Bush’s official agreement with the Iraqi government. It would have required Obama to break Bush’s agreement for him to have refused the already declared and agreed upon plans for and promises of troop withdrawal. The plans were already set in place and already being implemented before Obama took office. For him to have changed course would have meant not only breaking a formal international agreement but changing the then established US foreign policy toward Iraq that was based on troop withdrawal.

In a Reuters article by the above author, Peter Van Buren, this pessimistic conclusion was given:

As for any sort of brokered settlement among the non-Islamic State actors in Iraq, if 170,000 American troops could not accomplish that in almost nine years of trying, retrying it on a tighter timetable with fewer resources is highly unlikely to work. It is unclear what solutions the United States has left to peddle anyway, or with what credibility it would sell them, but many groups will play along to gain access to American military power for their own ends.

It failed the first time around — according to Van Buren, it was a failure early on because of lack of leadership, seemingly because of the false assumption by the Bush administration that all it takes to win a war is large numbers of troops and large piles of money. Power and wealth. There is no evidence that leadership has improved over time.

I would add that winning the Iraq War, in the traditional sense of winning, may never have been the purpose in the first place. Even leaving the country more stable might have always been irrelevant to whatever the agenda was in seeking to maintain hegemony in the Middle East. Maybe simply destabilizing the area was always the purpose, a common strategy by both the US and USSR during the Cold War.

Mission accomplished?