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Speaking Truth to Power

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When you dare speak truth to power, the reality is that power already knows the truth, doesn't want you to share it, and will punish you for your trouble.

That's the clear lesson from the State Department's persecution of Peter Van Buren, who dared to tell the American people about the failures of Iraq reconstruction in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (2011). His "crime" was his unflattering portrayal of misguided and mismanaged U.S. projects in Iraq, from American books translated into Arabic that were never read to a high-tech chicken factory that never worked to sewerage systems that grew worse rather than better despite infusions of machinery and countless millions of dollars.

Van Buren deserves a commendation for his honesty. A true servant of the American people, his cautionary (and often wryly amusing) tale should teach us that so-called nation-building efforts are difficult to implement and even more difficult to sustain. Even more: the resource-intensive, high-tech approach of U.S. government officials and private contractors is rarely well-suited for places like Iraq and Afghanistan, whose resource- and knowledge-base is less well developed, at least by American standards. Approaches that work, Van Buren suggests, are those that are better tuned to engaging and empowering the locals within specific cultural settings, an approach rarely followed by American "experts" and corporations, eager as the latter were to make a buck while trying to show quick results.

My own experience with winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis was limited but illustrative of Van Buren's conclusions. Back in 2004, an American official in Iraq contacted the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where I then worked, for help in translating a Peter, Paul and Mary song about tolerance. The idea was that Iraqi schoolchildren could be inculcated with a love of diversity, or at least a tolerance of the same, if they were taught the lyrics to this song. We engaged our Arabic translators, who quickly advised us that the lyrics to this touchy-feely American song would likely baffle Iraqi schoolchildren even when translated into Arabic. The American official at the other end of our conference call was very disappointed to hear that her bright idea to promote tolerance in Iraqi schools by translating feel-good anthems to diversity was a cultural non-starter.

A great strength of Van Buren's account is to show how we Americans delude ourselves into believing that our approach and our culture can be grafted successfully onto Iraqi and Afghan situations. Intentions may often be good but results are mixed at best because U.S. providers want to show rapid progress even as they're encouraged to allocate resources as quickly as possible (often a formidable task, given the bureaucratic red tape involved). Can-do spirit is frustrated by the realities of contractor and indigenous greed, cultural differences, and the short-term mentality of American managers who rarely occupy the same position for more than a few months.

Van Buren explains to us why the dedicated efforts of individuals like himself made so little difference in Iraq. His is a cautionary tale of waste, mismanagement, and hubris, one that should serve to discourage (or at least to inform) current efforts in Afghanistan.

It's not that our government doesn't want to hear that message; the powerful already know how much we've bungled these "reconstruction" efforts. It's that they don't want you the American people to know how much they've bungled these efforts.

Van Buren shines a light in places that many would prefer to remain dark. And that, sadly, is rarely rewarded, even less so today in an administration that's determined to silence whistleblowers from all quarters.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

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