What The US Didn’t Do In Iraq Education

Jun 15, 2004 by

Christina Asquith – June 15, 2004
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Baghdad: The sound of the American administrators pulling out of Iraq is the sound of silence.

The flutter of US helicopters over Baghdad still makes the barefoot children point and laugh. The daily drumbeat of suicide bombs and mortars landing in the city still cause everyone to jump. But the departure of the dozens of US administrators sent to rebuild the country has barely caused Iraq to skip a beat. Not now. Not during the occupation.

Christina Asquith

The Americans are leaving with much fanfare, but the truth is they’re presence in rebuilding most Iraqi institutions will barely be missed.

This isn’t the typical, America-centric attitude of the world. The conservatives credit American when they laud accomplishments here. The liberals blame America when they say Iraq is circling the drain. And, of course, America did start this debacle. But in truth, the Americans ceased to be the center of-the-universe at least a year ago, when the war stopped being a military venture and began to be about Rebuilding Iraq. That’s when the Americans slipped off stage, and left much more in Iraqi hands than has been generally recognized.

When I examine the last year in the rebuilding of Iraqi education, I see how American efforts here have been like a noisy, colorful sideshow, grabbing all the headlines but that’s about it. In fact, most of the 1,400 or so bureaucrats who lived in the Green Zone, the American headquarters in Baghdad have had little intervention in Iraq’s rebuilding. Now, as they leave Iraqis to the wolves, their legacy will become even smaller.

I realized this yesterday, when I read the Washington Post’s profile of Dr. John Agresto, US senior advisor to the Minister of Higher Education, who had just left Iraq and was breaking rank by admitting that the Iraqi higher education system was still crawling towards what it was before the war. The last year has been a missed opportunity in higher education, Agresto said.

What he didn’t say was how little effort President Bush’s administration put into higher education here in the first place.

Immediately after the war, President Bush-appointed about 20 Americans to serve as US advisors to Iraq’s centralized government ministries ”Ministry of Oil, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education.

The first US advisor appointed to the Ministry of Higher Education had nothing to do with education. He was a weapons of mass destruction expert, appointed because Saddam was known to use the universities as a launching pad for WMD experimentation.

By May, when little turned up, that advisor was replaced by Dr. Drew Erdmann, a PhD from Harvard University with no experience in university administration. Erdmann told me last June that he had driven into Baghdad along with a US Defense Department team with an unclear mission, and once he got there he was picked in a fluid process to be the US Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education. Since the Iraqi minister had been arrested, Erdmann became Iraq’s defacto Minister of Higher Education. He was 36 years old.

Let’s pause for a minute. Sit yourself down at the mahogany table with the 22 Iraqi university presidents. Men in there 50s and 60s, who all have PhD’s from top universities in England, Scotland and America; erudite, accomplished intellectual men. Due to the US invasion, they had just lost their offices, libraries and research equipment. The textbooks were burned and stolen. US soldiers occupied the dormitories. The Ministry building itself was burned to the ground, along with every file, computer and desk. In May, Amb. Paul Bremer instituted the DeBaathification Policy, which forced the firing of all the top university administrators and professors because they were Baath Party members. Half of the intellectual leadership in academia was gone.

Now, in a haphazard selection process, they were given 36-year old Drew Erdmann. He controlled the budgets, the staffing, the curriculum, and the physical renovation.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, President Bush’s administration was casting its net for someone permanent for the post. Please Note: The tanks had already rolled into Baghdad. The US military had been planning for a year. Still, President Bush’s administration didn’t have anyone for their most important representative in higher education.

They eventually picked Dr. Agresto, who told the Washington Post that his background on the Middle East was as deep as a Google search, which turned up nothing. But he was a loyal Republican and friend of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It was like this in most ministries: The US advisors appointed to run Iraq’s key institutions were Republican loyalists, few who had any background in the Middle East or spoke Arabic.

Not to demean Dr. Agresto, an accomplished academic, a Cornell University PhD and former president of St. John’s College in New Mexico. Agresto was popular among Iraqi presidents. He was known as candid, hard working, and for creating democratic procedures within Iraqi universities.

But, let’s face it, he and his staff of 10 weren’t enough to make a dent in the Iraqi higher ed. Agresto made some significant change, but he also got muddled in a lot of day to day minutia—creating budgets, smoothing over relations between the military and the universities over student dormitories, trying to get the proper government badges for his Iraqi staff, helping individual professors.

This isn’t only Agresto. I once saw a deputy senior advisor of a different ministry—a renowned US professor of art history and archeology—measuring a security fence. This is what the US’s best and brightest were doing in Iraq?

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said months ago that we were shortchanging Iraq. Is there anything more important to those in Washington DC right now than Iraq, he wondered? Why weren’t we doing more?

If the Bush administration was really serious about helping Iraq universities, why didn’t he put together a team of a dozen of the US’s top Middle East scholars, give them money and set them off? With $87 billion to throw around, why not appoint one US advisor to each of Iraq’s 22 universities? Why not have a US advisor in charge of funding, another in charge of rebuilding, a third in charge of curriculum revision? Why only Agresto, a man picked at the last minute?

If the US had had more people on the ground, then it wouldn’t have mattered so much when in March, due to security, Agresto could barely get out of the Green Zone, let alone visit some of the 16 universities outside Baghdad. In the last four months, the US advisors might as well have run the occupation via satellite phone from Virginia.  It didn’t even feel like the Americans were still ‘occupying Iraq’. They were just living there, uninvited, for a little while, offering a some good programs here and there, and complaining that journalists never write about them. In the last few months, the Americans in the Green Zone looked like the crew of the Titanic, offering nautical training courses on the deck as the ship slow sinks. 

This is why I say the US has been the side show. While they were trapped inside the Green Zone, the real players were reforming Iraqi higher education.

In the case of the universities, this was the Minister of Higher Education, who was picked by a Sunni religious member of the Governing Council, and who proceeded to fire all the democratically elected university presidents and appoint his own followers.

Then, there were the Shia militias, led by Moqadar Sadr, a bunch of thugs who descended onto campus to harass the women and intimidate free speech. They took over security on campuses and now patrol the entrances at some universities.

Lastly, there are the Iranians, who have been funding computer centers and offering aid on campuses. When Iraqi intellectuals talk about fear of the future, they don’t worry about Americans, who they see as having had a foot out the door from the beginning. They think closer to home. They worry about their neighbors, and former enemies, the Iranians. 

Although it is the educational system that I know best, I venture to guess much the same has happened in the other ministries.

Most Iraqis are beyond depressed. Apparently the line at the border checkpoint with Jordan is now four hours long. What will happen when the Americans finally leave on June 30th? Who knows, but it won’t have much to do with America.

For more articles on Iraq education, visit http://www.christinareporting.com/ Christina Asquith is a freelance journalist who’s written for The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and The Economist. She recently finished a book about her year as a teacher in a tough Philadelphia school. It is due out next year. Contact her at ChristinaAsquith@hotmail.com


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Posts

Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.