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

A US State Department insider examines the one thing no one in Iraq wanted to admit: defeat.

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We Meant Well:
How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
By Peter Van Buren
Henry Holt
288 pp.

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Peter Van Buren is not a writer, and he admits as much from the beginning of his memoir, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He’s a smart guy with a distinct sense of humor who was thrust, with thousands of other Americans, into an historic moment, the American effort in Iraq. He’s not out to write the definitive tome on that effort, or even to offer specific advice. Instead, he’s out to offer a generation of future scholars and policymakers “the raw material of failure,” and thereby to get a hearing for the one thing no one in Iraq wanted to admit: defeat.

Van Buren writes from the perspective of a guy trying to execute an ever-changing series of orders, and that may be the harder book to write. Before Baghdad, he was a career service officer, enlisted “on the benign side of empire” in helping Americans navigate the unexpected abroad. By the time he got to Baghdad, he’d won accolades from the State Department for his work after an earthquake in Japan and a tsunami in Thailand. Crisis response was not new to him.
But what’s happening in Baghdad is new – for van Buren, and for the country. When he lands in the region, he wants to be intoxicated by the danger, the exoticism, and the nobility of purpose.

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