I was surprised to see Foreign Policy providing so high a soapbox for Peter Van Buren, a U.S. State Department Foreign Service officer who, by his own admission, "meant well" during his brief and unproductive jaunt as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader in Iraq in 2009, but, according to him, caused more damage there than most any other individual I have ever heard of or witnessed.
For telling the truth about what I saw in Iraq
Obviously, Van Buren never got the drift of PRTs, a decisive and controversial 2007 effort by the State Department's Office of Provincial Affairs' director, Henry Clarke, to break through the failed bureaucracy of top-down U.S. colonial administration programs by forcing decision-making out to committed civilian reconstruction staff on the ground. Clarke always knew that the Achilles' heel of PRTs was poor assignments of unqualified individuals and that the only defense against the Peter Van Burens was to have many PRTs so that the failures did not pull down the whole mission.
The real Iraq PRT story is not pretty, is fraught with bureaucratic snafus, and involved much waste, fraud, abuse, and war wreckage. The best laid plans of mice and men seldom survive a powerful IED, regardless of bravery or the best of intentions! But it is not the story that Van Buren tells, which inaccurately paints a very bad light on the entire Foreign Service, with which he seems very dissatisfied.
The military, as Clarke often explained, had a "do it now" attitude that compelled each new brigade to launch one "quick hit" program after another to have Iraqis pick up the trash. The PRTs had to break that mold by focusing on the real problem: The Iraqis had no system, post-2003, to pick up their own trash. PRTs had to work across the rotational boundary with Iraqi counterparties, down to the local and provincial levels, to create permanent solutions for Iraqis' technical, resource, and administrative problems, or we would be locked in Iraq forever. The real conflict was the damaging one between U.S. bureaucracy (the embassy and agencies) and the field, where localized Iraqi solutions had to be found and nourished.
Clarke's effort echoed the philosophy of former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) colleague Ronald Neumann, who later served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, that endless weekly metrics reporting -- the underpinning of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's managerial philosophy -- always showed the same problems and never solved anything, and that absent a new approach, the only way to improve the metrics was to manipulate them or fudge the reports.
Of course, none of that was PC for Rumsfeld, who, according to Pentagon documents released after a Freedom of Information Act request from the New York Times, opined:
The guy who replaced him is just terrible Neuman [sic]. I mean he's a career foreign service officer. He ought to be running a museum somewhere. That's also off the record. No, he ought to be assistant to the guy.... I wouldn't hire the guy to push a wheelbarrow.