Lessons Learned: Aaron Mannes in Policy Review on Agresto’s Iraq Memoir


The latest issue of Policy Review just published my review of John Agresto’s Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq.

Agresto, a former President of St. John’s College and chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities served as the special adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education for about a year. Although a true believer in the cause, he has harsh criticism for poorly thought out U.S. policies. However, as that story has been told by so many others I focus on Agresto’s deeper questions about the nature of democracy, the role of higher education in democracy, and the enormous challenges to building an Iraqi democracy. I did not realize that the article would come out as Iraq’s provincial elections were being held. The elections have been generally peaceful and according to some reports the secular parties are winning. However, as I discuss in the review, the Iraqis appear to have adopted the forms of democratic government – but the open question remains whether or not the substance has taken hold. This is a fundamental question for reform in Iraq and throughout the region.

Lessons Learned in Iraq

By Aaron Mannes

Aaron Mannes on Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions by John Agresto

John Agresto.Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions. Encounter. 300 pages. $25.95

John Agresto’s Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions is dedicated to Jim Mollen, a State Department official advising the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education who was killed on November 24, 2004, and Ali al-Hilfi, an Iraqi who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). After Agresto helped Ali’s sister transfer to another college — a small favor — Ali was so impressed that he declared he was going to start becoming “an American.” When Agresto asked what this meant, Ali replied, “Everyday I will try to do something good for someone I don’t know, like you did for my sister. That’s all.”

Ali was assassinated in his car on August 7, 2005 — a punishment for working with the Americans.

This vignette captures the hopes and frustrations Agresto felt about his own service in Iraq, from 2003 to summer 2004, as the CPA advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education. Agresto’s experience with poor planning, inflexible bureaucracies, bad decisions at the top, and a military not configured to its new mission echo other critiques of the American endeavor in Iraq. Many of these problems have since been rectified or ameliorated. Agresto warmly praises many of the individual Iraqis with whom he worked, but, unbound by political correctness, he candidly details not only American failings, but also those of the Iraqis. His greatest criticism of the American liberation of Iraq is of its failure to understand human nature. In examining this critical issue, Agresto sees past the immediate challenges and takes on the broader problem of building a culture that can support democracy.

John Agresto was a true believer, not just in Saddam’s perfidy and the security rationales for removing him, but in the idea of building a new Iraq. When he was invited to play a role in the CPA he signed on “For the duration.” Agresto reminds readers that many shared these ideas and hopes: Virtually all of the civilians he knew in Iraq had volunteered to go in order to help build a new and better Iraq. Ali would have said that Agresto and his CPA comrades were being Americans.

A former policy chief at the National Endowment for the Humanities and president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Agresto became the CPA advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education, though it was a role in which he had little formal authority or access to resources.

Decades of Saddam’s misrule had taken its toll on Iraq’s institutions of higher learning, just as it had on every institution in Iraqi life. The Baathists had closed Iraq’s private colleges in the 1960s, leaving the entire higher education system under state control. University presidents and officials were selected not to build programs or encourage research and education, but rather to spy on their faculties and keep them in line politically. Saddam’s police state created a culture of fear throughout Iraqi academia that extended to matters major and mundane. A professor insisted, for example, that Agresto sign off on a student’s transferring classes, even though as CPA advisor he had no authority to do so. But the professor pressured Agresto because, as he told him, “your signature will mean that, if a question ever arose, that you yourself had authorized it.” In another instance, a professor of literature and Iraq’s leading authority on Shakespeare, who was considered the best English speaker in the country, feigned public drunkenness to avoid serving as Saddam’s interpreter. Saddam had ordered his execution, but the U.S. invaded before the order was carried out.

Iraqi universities also suffered from material deprivations, which were exacerbated by the post-Gulf War sanctions regime that ended most academic travel and contact with the outside world. Universities were starved for funds (although Saddam could be generous in supporting sectors of the higher education system he found useful and founded several universities himself.) Facilities were hopelessly out of date. In some universities, forty- and fifty-year-old periodicals formed the core of the faculty research collections and were kept under lock and key. Many of the “books” in the university libraries were actually copies of copies of old texts. Basic scientific equipment was scarce, while computers and internet connections were virtually nonexistent.

Unfortunately, according to Agresto, post-liberation mistakes by U.S. forces had some truly terrible consequences. The looting, which then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed by stating, “Freedom is untidy,” had a profound effect on Iraqi infrastructure. Agresto writes:

However many books the library at the Arts College in Baghdad once had, after the war they had none. I toured Mustansiriya University in September of 2003, right after I arrived in Iraq. Vandals had taken everything. Desks, air conditioners, chalkboards, chalk, doors, windows and window frames. . . . They pulled the wiring out of the walls and ripped out plumbing fixtures. And what they couldn’t use — like books — they burned.

Much of what was taken was for use or sale. The wire stripped out of the walls had a good market in Iran. . . . But so much of what happened was simply wanton destruction. . . .

The physical damage was only part of the harm done by the post-invasion looting spree; it also had a devastating impact on how Iraqis viewed the future and the Americans. Many Iraqis greeted the Americans with tremendous hope. That the Americans would permit the vast outbreak of national “untidiness” was inexplicable to the Iraqis, who assumed that there must have been some devious American purpose to this failure to secure order. That the one ministry protected by the Americans was the Oil Ministry only fueled this speculation. All of this set the stage for Iraqis to shift from seeing the Americans as liberators to seeing them as occupiers.

Iraqis also saw the looting as a harbinger of social disorder, and in that environment the dark spots in the Iraqi national psyche began to emerge — particularly sectarian, ethnic, and tribal rivalries. The upsurge in religious fanaticism had a particularly powerful effect on Iraq’s university campuses. Religious groups began insisting on segregated classes and women, even Christians, began covering their hair. Professors and staff reported being harassed. Religious groups began forming campus branches and blocking secular groups from campus elections. Religious fanaticism would have almost certainly surfaced in Iraq no matter what the situation, but the lack of order and security following the U.S. liberation fostered conditions conducive to this rise.

To stem this growing trend, Agresto and his team cobbled together a Bill of Rights for the universities of Iraq. This document declared that the goal of Iraq’s higher education system was promoting “broader capacity for thinking, accepting the opinions of others, and encouraging the search for truth.” It also insisted on freedom of thought, belief, and, significant in the wake of the Islamist resurgence, freedom of dress. It gave university authorities the power to expel individuals who did not respect these rights. This document had some impact, but not for long. The religious militias were too powerful; Agresto started to worry that the American effort to bring democracy to Iraq would lead to elections bringing religious extremists to power.

He ruminates in his book on the nature of democracy, observing that American democracy has been so successful that Americans believe it is easy. But it is not. Elections and institutions are essential to a liberal democracy — but they are not its essence. Something else is required to make democracies run. Agresto illustrates his point by noting that when King Faisal II of Iraq was overthrown in 1958, he was hanged and then dragged behind a car. It is simply inconceivable that in 1958 then-U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower would have had his electoral opponent, Adlai Stevenson, murdered to solidify his own rule. For a democracy to function, citizens must hold certain fundamental values, such as the rejection of violence as a means of resolving disputes, tolerance of dissenting viewpoints, and respect for the freedom of others. Iraqis themselves have an intuitive sense of this problem.

On a trip to the University of Dohuk in Kurdish Iraq, Agresto met the university’s president, Dr. Asmat Khalid, who was hoping to establish a true liberal-arts curriculum. In Iraq, such a program would have been novel. Iraqi higher education was a strictly utilitarian endeavor, and therefore subjects such as medicine and engineering were the most prestigious. Students in these fields had minimal exposure to other subjects, too. Because students were strictly tracked according to test scores, the best students studied the most respected subjects, while areas such as history were the provinces of the less capable. A student in a medical program who preferred history or literature would be considered foolish. Furthermore, most education was rote memorization. Agresto had been lobbying Iraqi university presidents to strengthen their liberal-arts programs, arguing that the liberal arts and social sciences were needed to cultivate future democratic leaders and citizens. Without leaders who have knowledge both of the world and of themselves, and citizens who have some grasp of their political system and can resist propaganda, no democracy can survive.

For Agresto, the critical importance of liberal education crystallized during his trip to Dohuk, when his translator Suhail and Dr. Khalid had an argument — that is, they were “laying out their positions, marshaling evidence, debating consequences.” This, Agresto observes, was the first real intellectual argument (as opposed to the mere assertion of opposing positions) he had observed in his six months in Iraq. Agresto views not only liberal education’s subject matter but also its methods — inquiry, deliberation, interpretation, and argument — as fundamental to the building of an Iraqi democracy.1

That is a powerful and compelling idea. One Iraqi university president, after observing a college seminar in the United States in which students questioned the professor and each other in working to solve a common problem, stated that upon his return he would have all the desks and lecterns at his school removed and replaced with chairs and seminar tables.

In his 2001 What Went Wrong, Bernard Lewis describes the many failed instances of Middle Eastern states attempting to import Western ideas. These transfers began with Western weapons, and when Western arms did not stem the tide of Ottoman defeats, Middle Eastern powers began adopting Western uniforms. They even established Western-style military bands. These transfers extended to politics, the arts, and virtually every aspect of life. Yet, time and again, the transplants were unsuccessful. Most Middle Eastern states have constitutions, elections, and parliaments — but none is a true democracy. Rearranging the furniture in Middle Eastern universities might become only another instance of what Stanley Kurtz has called “adopt[ing] the ‘words’ of various Western cultural innovations while nonetheless failing to master the ‘music.’”2

Iraq’s universities are poorly equipped to take on the challenge of building a democratic culture. While Agresto met many Iraqis of great ability and virtue and is unsparing in his praise for them in his book, Iraqi academics reflect their society. Agresto found even among the most educated Iraqis a predilection for conspiracy theories, and many Iraqi academics were inflexible and resistant to pragmatic reforms. He is somewhat forgiving, noting that the effects of decades of Saddam’s repression understandably squelched normal initiative. But, he writes, “I was constantly reminded of the difficulty of making any progress in a system where honor counted for more than service.” The most often-heard complaint was over faculty pay (perhaps no surprise to any veteran of campus politics). In fact, during Agresto’s tenure, senior professors were paid extremely well by Iraqi standards, receiving twice what they had been paid under Saddam. The problem was that junior professors were making three times as much. When Agresto asked a full professor what would best rectify the situation, raising his salary or lowering the salaries of his junior colleagues, the professor responded, “It doesn’t matter; either way.”

The obsession with honor, even among educated elites, is not an idiosyncrasy; it reflects the core values of the societies of the greater Middle East and is a critical reason why the region (not just Iraq) has been so resistant to Western ideas when, in every other part of the world, nations have been able to adopt at least some aspects of liberal democracy.

McGill University anthropology professor Phillip Carl Salzman, in Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Humanity Books) argues that the importance of honor is an outgrowth of the patrilineal kin-based social structures that evolved in the Middle East in response to competition for scarce resources. The system is best characterized by the Arabic expression I against my brother; I and my brothers against my cousins; my brothers and my cousins against the world. Under this system, an individual seeks gains, first on behalf of his family against rival families, then on behalf of his clan against rival clans, and so forth. The Sunni-Shia split was rooted in a clan dispute. Ultimately, this framework extends to the Muslim world itself against non-Muslims.

While individuals are not prisoners of their culture, in this highly competitive social system, honor follows strength and is the central social currency. That educated Iraqi professors remain mired in this outlook demonstrates its resilience despite the inroads of urbanization and modernity. It is in this context that Agresto’s friend Ali saw the Americans doing good things for people they did not know as exceptional.

According to Salzman, the clan system that prevails in the Middle East is antithetical to the ideals of liberal democracy:

The particularism of Middle Eastern culture precludes universalism, rule of law, and constitutionalism, all involving the measuring of actions against general criteria, irrespective of the affiliation of the particular actors. What is right and wrong is defined under the rule of law and constitutionalism by general values that apply to all, not by whether one’s group is advantaged or disadvantaged.

The lineage-based clan system is not unique to the greater Middle East. Western history is replete with examples of feuds between lineages, but in such cases there usually have also been alternative sources of legitimate authority. Thus, Agresto’s hope of establishing outlets for liberal education in order to cultivate the values underpinning democracy seems, at best, quixotic. Having repelled so many previous Western imports, Iraq’s rejection of Western education seems comparatively easy. Over the past two centuries Europeans and Americans have established schools and colleges throughout the Middle East. And although they have educated many distinguished graduates, they have failed to spark broader changes.

But there is at least some potential for Iraq to break the tragic cycle of history. First, Salzman and others have observed that if any worldview can dilute the clan-based outlook that prevails in the Middle East, it is individuation: the emphasis of the rights and goals of individuals over the goals of the group. Liberal education can help introduce these perspectives, but it will be decades before more than a tiny number of Iraqis benefit from them. Fostering liberal, democratic values among the elites is essential, but the trickle-down approach to building a democratic culture is insufficient. The broader public must embrace these values as well. Without at least some support from the general public, no democracy is viable, and without public pressure, elites (who frequently benefit under the established system) may not be inclined to support reforms.

There is the potential for a bottom-up approach to social reform based in popular culture. In her brilliant autobiography, Ayaan Hirsi Ali mentions that while she was inspired by great literature, romance novels, with their depictions of such Western ideas as love and passion, also moved her. (Her own, incredible journey to the West was sparked when she fled an arranged marriage.) Other media can also deliver these messages. A Turkish soap opera featuring an independent woman with a glamorous career and a supportive, romantic husband has become a hit in Saudi Arabia.

Without changes in the power structure, the impact of new ideas on a Middle Eastern nation will be minimal. In Iraq, there is a new political situation. Security has improved due to the combination of the surge, the U.S. military’s adaptation to its Iraq mission, the increased capabilities of the Iraqi forces, and the realignment of key Iraqi tribal and militia leaders. As security has improved, Iraq’s democratic government has become increasingly confident and effective. However, without fostering a culture that supports these new democratic institutions, Iraq risks becoming a giant Lebanon — a confessional democracy that functions for a time but is ultimately overwhelmed and collapses. The emerging Iraqi democracy offers a favorable environment to encourage democratic values. The Kurds, in particular, may be an important asset to building a democratic culture there. In his time in Iraq, Agresto consistently found Kurdish educators among the Iraqis most committed to breaking the cycle of history and developing educational programs that will foster democratic values.3

Despite the dramatic improvements in Iraq, a favorable outcome is not guaranteed. Fostering the values needed to support democratic institutions is a long-term project. The U.S. has opened a space where Iraqis can begin to absorb and adapt the values and ideas needed for a democratic culture. But in the Middle East, oppositional, regional forces can close such spaces very quickly. It appears that major American fighting forces will be withdrawn from Iraq in a few years but that substantial residual forces will remain to provide critical intelligence, logistical, and training functions for the Iraqi government, helping to secure it against internal and external foes. These forces will also ensure that the United States has some leverage over the Iraqi government that can, if used judiciously, keep it from slipping into incompetence or autocracy. The enduring American mission in Iraq will be to ensure that this space remains open by helping to ensure Iraq’s security against internal and external threats while also assisting its evolving government so that it does not slip into autocracy or incompetence. Finally, the U.S. needs to promulgate the ideals of liberal democracy by strongly supporting higher education, cultural exchange, and Iraq’s internal dialogue. Achieving these goals will require resources and leadership, but most importantly it will require more of the spirit that so impressed Agresto’s friend Ali — the spirit that made him want to become “an American.”

Aaron Mannes is a researcher and Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park. He can be reached via www.aaronmannes.com.

1 Agresto admits to a certain irony here because as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he was a frequent critic of American higher education.

2 Stanley Kurtz, “Root Causes,” Policy Review112 (April & May 2002).

3 After his service with the CPA, Agresto returned to Iraq to serve as the acting chancellor and provost at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani and continues to serve on its Board of Regents and Trustees.

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