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Peter Van Buren: “I am still haunted by the Iraqis we left behind”

As a State Department Foreign Service Officer in Baghdad from 2009 to 2010, Peter Van Buren consistently felt that his Provincial Reconstruction Teams could do little to lessen the sectarianism, corruption, and violence that Iraqis face every day.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Van Buren relates that whether sponsoring art shows or distributing seedlings to replant ruined orchards, he felt he was not addressing the true needs of the nation. One Iraqi he met captured the irony of undertaking such grand projects in towns without functioning sewers, electricity, or running water when he said, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head… Everyone comes in and puts ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
Most of all, Van Buren recalls the translators, imperiled by their service to the United States and left behind as we pull out. “With no sufficiently large-scale refugee program planned,” he notes, “we have no way to help the Iraqis who endangered themselves by helping us.”

Tomorrow marks the transition from military to civilian control of the United States mission in Iraq. Ensuring that the refugee program we do have for our Iraqi partners functions as justly and as generously as possible has never been a more important goal than it is now.