I Had to Tell the Truth About Iraq--Even Though it Cost Me My Career
Photo Credit: AFP
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People ask the question in various ways, sometimes hesitantly, often via a long digression, but my answer is always the same: no regrets.
In some 24 years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just hid the mistakes and flaws of those anonymous functionaries.
What I saw while serving the State Department at a forward operating base in Iraq was, however, different. There, the space between what we were doing (the eye-watering waste and mismanagement), and what we were saying (the endless claims of success and progress), was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not scaredy-cat bureaucrats.
That was too much for even a well-seasoned cubicle warrior like me to ignore and so I wrote a book about it, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I was on the spot to see it all happen, leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in rural Iraq while taking part up close and personal in what the U.S. government was doing to, not for, Iraqis. Originally, I imagined that my book’s subtitle would be “Lessons for Afghanistan,” since I was hoping the same mistakes would not be endlessly repeated there. Sometimes being right doesn’t solve a damn thing.
By the time I arrived in Iraq in 2009, I hardly expected to be welcomed as a liberator or greeted -- as the officials who launched the invasion of that country expected back in 2003 -- with a parade and flowers. But I never imagined Iraq for quite the American disaster it was either. Nor did I expect to be welcomed back by my employer, the State Department, as a hero in return for my book of loony stories and poignant moments that summed up how the United States wasted more than $44 billion in the reconstruction/deconstruction of Iraq. But I never imagined that State would retaliate against me.
In return for my book, a truthful account of my year in Iraq, my security clearance was taken away, I was sent home to sit on my hands for months, then temporarily allowed to return only as a disenfranchised teleworker and, as I write this, am drifting through the final steps toward termination.
What We Left Behind in Iraq
Sadly enough, in the almost two years since I left Iraq, little has happened that challenges my belief that we failed in the reconstruction and, through that failure, lost the war.
The Iraq of today is an extension of the Iraq I saw and described. The recent Arab League summit in Baghdad, hailed by some as a watershed event, was little more than a stage-managed wrinkle in that timeline, a lot like all those purple-fingered elections the U.S. sponsored in Iraq throughout the Occupation. If you deploy enough police and soldiers -- for the summit, Baghdad was shut down for a week, the cell phone network turned off, and a “public holiday” proclaimed to keep the streets free of humanity -- you can temporarily tame any place, at least within camera view. More than $500 million was spent, in part planting flowers along the route dignitaries took in and out of the heavily fortified International Zone at the heart of the capital (known in my day as the Green Zone). Somebody in Iraq must have googled “Potemkin Village.”