In a revealing book about the limits of public diplomacy, a long-time U.S. State Department official analyzes why "soft power" didn't work in post-war Iraq.

U.S. public diplomacy in Iraq: failure or success? Photo: Reuters

Peter Van Buren, a U.S. State Department official with 24 years of experience, describes in his book We Meant Well:  How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People the types of public diplomacy projects carried out by the United States in Iraq, with an emphasis on how much money they cost U.S. taxpayers.

The book could, in fact, serve as a practical guide for public diplomacy anywhere in the world.

Not a hero of our times

2013 marked the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq. Many articles, books and research reports have been devoted to analyzing this conflict. The memoirs published in 2011 by an American diplomat, Peter Van Buren, could have become just another book that reads like a progress report.

However, this book is something else entirely. The author refused to stick to professional clichés. His narrative style is far from the usual diplomatic language and closer to that of literature. The book is full of sarcasm and irony, with bitterness and resentment evident throughout.

Throughout the narrative, the author emphasizes his pragmatism, calls himself a participant in the lost battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, and doesn't allow himself to look like a hero in the eyes of the reader.

For example, here’s how Van Buren writes about his personal motivation for spending time in Iraq.

"I had never served in the Middle East and knew nothing about rebuilding past the Home Depot guides, but people like me were what the Department had been dealt to play this game. The new rules boxed me into serving or seeing my career flatline. Less cynically, despite my reservations about the war, I still believed in the idea of ​​service (love the warrior, hate the war) and wanted to test myself. I also needed the money, and so the nexus of duty, honor, terrorism, and my oldest daughter's college tuition (hopefully there'll be another war when my youngest is college age) led another FSO into semivoluntarily joining The Cause."

Public diplomacy: good intentions, poor execution

As the head of the Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT), Van Buren had enormous sums of money at his disposal, however, according to him, they were spent on the botched plan to "win the hearts and minds" of Iraqis.

The author notes in particular that the directives issued from the U.S. State Department usually contradicted each other and were largely cut off from reality. They were not backed up by any sustainable strategy either from the State Department, or from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The ineffectiveness of the "soft power" that was supposed to be a tool in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people was demonstrated by the "My Arabic Library" project. The designers of the project felt that, in order to acquaint the younger generation of Iraqis with American culture, they should be introduced to American literature. To do this, American classics such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The House of the Seven Gables, Of Mice and Men, and others were translated into Arabic.

Creating the library and delivering it to Baghdad cost $88,000. However, the developers of the project did not bother to check if the books were used in Iraqi schools. Since these books were not included in the centralized curriculum, the school had to get rid of them. The collection of books ended up on a trash heap in the schoolyard.

A careful analysis of these and other examples of public diplomacy projects described by Van Buren leads to the following conclusion: Even very well-funded public diplomacy projects will not succeed if their results are not monitored and evaluated (in Iraq this ultimately led to massive corruption) by qualified national experts in various fields, ranging from agriculture to public service, and staffed by qualified employees.

The failure of the project was also largely due to the gap between theory and practice. Often, the staff at headquarters did not have any idea what was going on in the field. Ideas that could have worked very well during times of peace did not work in post-war Iraq, because the reality of the situation was not understood. Projects were sometimes thwarted for lack of the most basic supplies -- water, electricity, or vehicles.

Takeaway lessons

A weakness of the book is, first of all, in the author’s description of the military and the U.S. Army, which rightfully deserve special attention. The author's positions are not entirely clear, he both "despises" the military and sympathizes with it.

The philosophical reflections and nostalgic chapters stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the book and blur the portrait of the author. Throughout the narrative, Van Buren is attempting to understand himself. Who is he -- a hero and villain rolled into one, a whistleblower, or just an opportunist? Van Buren leaves it up to the readers to answer that question.

The undoubted merits of the book include, firstly, the extensive and colorful descriptions of public diplomacy projects (although he mostly mentions the failed projects as examples that should be studied in order to avoid similar errors). Secondly, he offers a detailed analysis of the reasons these projects failed. Thirdly, there is a huge amount of factual and statistical information. And fourth, his language is fresh and figurative, he describes colorful, life-like characters that ring true in the atmosphere of post-war Iraq.

Van Buren’s book is in its own way a warning to those who believe whole-heartedly in the power of public diplomacy and "soft power."

The original text is available in Russian at Russian International Affairs Council's website.