We Meant Well How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People

American Empire Project

Peter Van Buren

Metropolitan Books



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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Charged with rebuilding Iraq, would you spend taxpayer money on a sports mural in Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhood to promote reconciliation through art? How about an isolated milk factory that cannot get its milk to market? Or a pastry class training women to open cafés on bombed-out streets that lack water and electricity?

As Peter Van Buren shows, we bought all these projects and more in the most expensive hearts-and-minds campaign since the Marshall Plan. We Meant Well is his eyewitness account of the civilian side of the surge—that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed. Leading a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team on its quixotic mission, Van Buren details, with laser-like irony, his yearlong encounter with pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers, and oblivious administrators secluded in the world's largest embassy, who fail to realize that you can't rebuild a country without first picking up the trash.

We Meant Well is a tragicomic voyage of ineptitude and corruption that leaves its writer—and readers—appalled and disillusioned, but wiser.


Praise for We Meant Well

"One diplomat's darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and the State Department have done—or tried to do—since the invasion of Iraq. The title says it all."—Steven Myers, The New York Times 

"A burn-his-bridges book by a foreign service officer . . . A scathing, gallows humor look at a massif of missteps . . . Van Buren is merciless."—The Boston Globe 

"Checkbook diplomacy . . . In shopping for hearts and minds in Iraq, the State Department made some bizarre impulse purchases."—Foreign Policy 

"Laugh-out-loud funny . . . In more than 250 pages of text, Van Buren can think of almost no expenditure that made sense or helped with the long-term goal of stabilizing Iraq. Read it and weep, or laugh—or probably both."—The Dallas Morning News 

"If Joseph Heller's war began in 2004 instead of 1944, this would be Catch-22. I could not put the book down."—Seattle-Post Intelligencer 

"If this ain't Catch-22, it's awfully close. We Meant Well is held together by Van Buren's hilariously rendered absurdities, from his encounters with American officials and their fictitious reconstruction projects to the U.S. command's annual distribution of a single can of beer to the troops. I laughed 'til I cried."—SpyTalk 

"A foreign service officer exposes the truth about American aid to Iraq, using satire, irony, and sometimes laugh-out-loud humor to convey grim reality."—The Kansas City Star 

"I've read just about every memoir out of Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade, military or otherwise, and this stands as one of the best—certainly one of the most self-aware and best written."—Washingtonian 

"An amusing or horrifying account of the disposition of $172 billion—depending on how sensitive one is to seeing U.S. taxpayer dollars seep into the Mesopotamian sand." —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Reality so rich it stuns. A time capsule, priceless deep insights into occupation at its worst."—Public Intelligence Blog 

"Long after the self-serving memoirs of people named Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld are consigned to some landfill, this unsparing and very funny chronicle will remain on the short list of books essential to understanding America's Iraq War. Here is nation-building as it looks from the inside—waste, folly, and sheer silliness included."—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War

"The road to Hell is paved with taxpayer dollars in this insider's account of a misspent year rebuilding Iraq. Abrasive, honest, and funny."—Nathan Hodge, author of Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders

"One of the rare, completely satisfying results of the expensive debacle in Iraq."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"In this shocking and darkly hilarious expose of the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq, former State Department team leader Van Buren describes the tragicomedy that has been American efforts at nation building, marked by bizarre decisions and wrong-headed priorities . . . With lyrical prose and biting wit, this book reveals the devastating arrogance of imperial ambition and folly."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

In the Press

WE MEANT WELL by Peter Van BurenKirkus Book Reviews
Read the Kirkus Review of WE MEANT WELL How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Laugh-out-loud stories about how the United States failed to rebuild Iraq.

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Read an Excerpt

Help Wanted, No Experience Necessary

The reconstruction of Iraq was the largest nation-building program in history, dwarfing in cost, size, and complexity even those undertaken after World War II to rebuild Germany and Japan. At a cost to the US taxpayer of over $63 billion and counting, the plan was lavishly funded, yet, as government inspectors found, the efforts were characterized from the beginning by pervasive waste and inefficiency, mistaken judgments, flawed policies, and structural weaknesses. Of those thousands of acts of waste and hundreds of mistaken judgments, some portion

Read the full excerpt





  • Peter Van Buren Interviewed on RT.com

    Peter Van Buren has become one of the newest targets of the US Department of State. What did he do? He blogged. Van Buren posted a link to a publically available WikiLeaks diplomatic cable, but even after nearly a quarter of a century with the US government, they are opening up an investigation on him. Following the release of a new book from Van Buren, he talks to Lauren Lyster about what you can and can't say in the land of the free.

  • Peter Van Buren On Writing We Meant Well

    Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well, discusses his time in Iraq.



  • Peter Van Buren

  • Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

    Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

    Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean. Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler. This is his first book.

  • Peter Van Buren Araba S. Ankuma