An on-the-ground account of the botched reconstruction of Iraq.
Plenty of ink has been spilled on what turned the greeted-with-candy-and-flowers predictions of Iraq’s liberation into a seemingly intractable bloody conflict, and Stephenson, the former director of the USAID mission there, covers little new ground. His narrative recounts the ways in which USAID, a non-military foreign-aid agency, clashed with the various U.S. departments in charge of rebuilding the country, especially the ad hoc Coalition Provisional Authority, which he calls “the most dysfunctional organization I have ever seen.” In order to give Iraq the functional democracy it was promised, Stephenson argues, the occupying forces had to provide security, build democratic institutions and create the conditions for economic growth. The failure to do so quickly after Saddam Hussein’s government fell meant a vital opportunity was lost, one that can never be fully recovered. A vital opportunity was lost in this retelling as well, as the author focuses too much on who was at fault and on his own memories, experiences and relationships with various bureaucratic staffers, rather than on providing a sober analysis and recounting of what went wrong. This is a shame, since there is a good and important story to tell. But the general reader is likely to get bogged down in an endless stream of bureaucratic acronyms and one-dimensional characters.
A decent textbook for students of international development in a war zone; those interested in Iraq, foreign policy or compelling narrative nonfiction should look elsewhere.