In 2009, the State Department sent me to Iraq for a year as part of the civilian surge deployed to backstop the more muscular military one. At the head of a six-person Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), I was assigned to spend U.S. government money creating projects that would lift the local economy and lure young men away from the dead-end opportunities of al Qaeda. I was to empower women, turning them into entrepreneurs and handing them a future instead of a suicide vest. This was newfangled hearts and minds, as practiced with a lavish checkbook and supervised by a skittish embassy looking for "victory" anywhere it could be found. We really did believe money could buy us love and win the war.
For telling the truth about what I saw in Iraq.
By Peter Van Buren
The work was done by amateurs like me, sent to Iraq on one-year tours without guidance or training, and eager to create photogenic success stories that would get us all promoted. No idea was too bizarre, too gimmicky, or too pointless for us hearts-and-minders: We actually preferred handing out croissants and children's calendars to tackling tough issues like health care or civic services. One month it might be guaranteed-to-fail small businesses like car washes and brake repair shops in an economy struggling just to take a breath; the next, an Arabic translation of Macbeth, with some of Saddam Hussein's henchmen in bad-guy roles. As one Iraqi told me at a U.S.-funded art show in Dora, one of the most violent suburbs of Baghdad, "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."
Here are some of the wacky ideas we came up with to rebuild Iraq, and remember: These are the wacky ones that actually got U.S. taxpayer funding.
French Pastry Classes
In the hands of one PRT in southern Baghdad, our instructions to help female entrepreneurs translated into pastry classes for disadvantaged Iraqi women who presumably could then go open cute little French cafes in their city's bombed-out streets. In the funding request, the PRT stipulated that "a French Chef with experience in both baking pastries and in teaching pastry classes internationally" would volunteer to teach. So, you may ask, if the French chef was volunteering le time, what was the $9,797 spent on? Well, some was certainly spent on paying students to attend. It was almost impossible to get Iraqis to show up for these things (as they had to, if you wanted your photos of the event to look good) without offering a free lunch, taxi fare, and a stipend. Needless to say, I never heard of any pâtisseries sprouting up on the road to Baghdad's airport.