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How not to reconstruct Iraq, Afghanistan -- or America

An Iraqi holds up a portrait of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Basra, Iraq, March 19, 2012, as hundreds of thousands of supporters of the Sadrist movement wave the Iraqi flag during a rally to mark the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion.
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(TomDispatch) Some images remain like scars on my memory. One of the last things I saw in Iraq, where I spent a year with the Department of State helping squander some of the $44 billion American taxpayers put up to "reconstruct" that country, were horses living semi-wild among the muck and garbage of Baghdad. Those horses had once raced for Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and seven years after their "liberation" by the American invasion of 2003, they were still wandering that unraveling, unreconstructed urban landscape looking, like many other Iraqis, for food.

I flew home that same day, a too-rapid change of worlds, to a country in which the schools of my hometown in Ohio could not afford to pay teachers a decent wage. Once great cities were rotting away as certainly as if they were in Iraq, where those horses were scrabbling to get by. To this day I'm left pondering these questions: Why has the United States spent so much money and time so disastrously trying to rebuild occupied nations abroad, while allowing its own infrastructure to crumble untended? Why do we even think of that as "policy"?

The Good War(s)

With the success of the post-World War II Marshall Plan in Europe and the economic miracle in Japan, rebuilding other countries gained a certain imperial patina. Both took relatively little money and time. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan cost only $32 billion and $17 billion, respectively (in 2010 dollars), in large part because both had been highly educated, industrialized powerhouses before their wartime destruction.

In 2003, still tumescent with post-9/11 rage and dreams of global glory, anything seemed possible to the men and women of the Bush administration, who would cite the German and Japanese examples of just what the U.S. could do as they entered Iraq. Following what seemed like a swift military defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the plan had gotten big and gone long. It was nothing less than this: remake the entire Middle East in the American image.

The country's mighty military was to sweep through Iraq, then Syria -- Marines I knew told me personally that they were issued maps of Syria in March 2003 -- then Iran, quickly set up military bases and garrisons ("enduring camps"), create Washington-friendly governments, pour in American technology and culture, bring in the crony corporations under the rubric of "reconstruction," privatize everything, stand up new proxy militaries under the rubric of regime change, and forever transform the region.

Once upon a time, the defeated Japanese and Germans had become allies and, better yet, consumers. Now, almost six decades later, no one in the Bush administration had a doubt the same would happen in Iraq -- and the Middle East would follow suit at minimal cost, creating the greatest leap forward for a Pax Americana since the Spanish-American War. Added bonus: a "sea of oil."

By 2010, when I wrote "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People," the possibility that some level of success might be close by still occupied some official minds. American boots remained on the ground in Mesopotamia and looked likely to stay on for years in at least a few of the massive permanent bases we had built there. A sort-of elected government was more or less in place, and in the press interviews I did in response to my book I was regularly required to defend its thesis that reconstruction in Iraq had failed almost totally, and that the same process was going down in Afghanistan as well. It was sometimes a tough sell. After all, how could we truly fail, being plucky Americans, historically equipped like no one else with plenty of bootstraps and know-how and gumption.

Failure Every Which Way

Now, it's definitive. Reconstruction in Iraq has failed. Dismally. The U.S. couldn't even restore the country's electric system or give a majority of its people potable water. The accounts of that failure still pour out. Choose your favorites; here are just two recent ones of mine: a report that a $200 million year-long State Department police training program had shown no results (none, nada), in part because the Iraqis had been completely uninterested in it; and a long official list of major reconstruction projects uncompleted, with billions of taxpayer dollars wasted, all carefully catalogued by the now-defunct Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction.

Failure, in fact, was the name of the game when it came to the American mission. Just tote up the score: the Iraqi government is moving ever closer to Iran; the U.S. occupation, which built 505 bases in the country with the thought that U.S. troops might remain garrisoned there for generations, ended without a single base in U.S. hands (none, nada); no gushers of cheap oil leapt USA-wards nor did profits from the above leap into the coffers of American oil companies; and there was a net loss of U.S. prestige and influence across the region. And that would just be the beginning of the list from hell.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran Foreign Service Officer at the State Department, spent a year in Iraq leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now in Washington and a TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq, the Middle East, and U.S. diplomacy at his blog, We Meant Well. Following the publication of his book "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books) in 2011, the Department of State began termination proceedings, reassigning him to a make-work position and stripping him of his security clearance and diplomatic credentials. Through the efforts of the Government Accountability Project and the ACLU, Van Buren will instead retire from the State Department with his full benefits of service in September. "We Meant Well" is just now being published in paperback. Van Buren is currently working on a second book about the decline of the blue-collar middle class in America. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.