Mr. Reed arrived in Iraq in May 2008. After five years of war, the situation on the banks of the Tigris was unspeakably worse than along the East River, yet both had undergone a considerable building boom that now needed managing.
“The mandate was, get as many projects built as possible, and let’s really start to demonstrate that the tide was turning and and conditions were improving,” Mr. Reed said. “But it was like community development gone wild.” He said it was common for a local battalion commander to be out on patrol, run into a sheikh, ask him what they needed, and voila, a school or hospital would materialize out of nowhere—with no one to run or even necessarily fill it. This not only created underutilized resources but a new vulnerable infrastructure that if not defended and put into could use could become a nest for insurgents.
“There was a lot of the best intentions that were meeting just a kind of discoordinated effort, and not through the fault of anyone specifically, but, I think, through the fault of being in a war zone,” Mr. Reed said. It was a year after the military surge, and things had begun to improve, but untold amounts of work remained to be done. Mr. Reed makes mention of 18- to 20-hour workdays.
“He’s kind and generous, but holds people accountable for their actions,” Lou Ann Linehan, a diplomat in the Basra consulate who was Mr. Reed’s superior in Baghdad, said in an email. “He fills up the room with his personality. He does not suffer fools.”
One of his fondest projects—something only a New Yorker could cop to—was helping to rebuild the sanitation network. “You’re working on trying to restore the most basic level of service where you’re training people to follow a set route, come at a dependable time each day to build the trust of the customer so they know if I go and put my garbage out at 5 o’clock it’s going to be picked at 5 o’clock, and that’s the most basic level of service because the place had evolved into complete chaos,” Mr. Reed recalled. “People aren’t really caring about garbage when you’re worrying about if you’re going to get blown up.” Yet that is part of the reason regular trash removal was so important—the ubiquitous piles of garbage were a popular hiding place for IEDs.
This was a matter of personal import, as well, since Mr. Reed was venturing out into these same streets three to four times a week from the relative safety of the Green Zone. In talking about his time in Iraq, Mr. Reed is careful to be matter-of-fact, not wanting to sound boastful or self-important. His posting is something he felt obligated to do, but it was also just another job to do and do right. “There was the physical danger aspect to it, which, when you’re in the situation, you kind of push to the back of your mind, because if you don’t, it will drive you crazy,” Mr. Reed said of the challenges of working in a war zone.
When he got homesick, he would watch Rick Burns’s New York documentary, and it helped inform his view of the city when he returned. “I watched the whole series while I was over there again, there is some quote in there from Fitzgerald talking about how New York burns with all the effervescence of the sun,” he said. “With all that ligh,t how could you not want to be a part of it?”
After only six months, Mr. Reed had been promoted from an adviser to chief of staff, but after seven more, he found himself exhausted. It was time to return home to the bright lights.