An Educator Learns the Hard Way

Task of Rebuilding Universities Brings Frustration, Doubts and Danger

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post Foreign Service

Monday, June 21, 2004; Page A01

Second of three articles

BAGHDAD -- John Agresto arrived here nine months ago with two suitcases, a feather pillow and a suffusion of optimism. He didn't know much about Iraq, but he felt certain the American occupation, and his mission to oversee the country's university system, would be a success.

"Like everyone else in America, I saw the images of people cheering as Saddam Hussein's statue was pulled down. I saw people hitting pictures of him with their shoes," said Agresto, the former president of St. John's College in New Mexico. "Once you see that, you can't help but say, 'Okay. This is going to work.' "

But the Iraq he encountered was different from what he had expected. Visits to the universities he was trying to rebuild and the faculty he wanted to invigorate were more and more dangerous, and infrequent. His Iraqi staff was threatened by insurgents. His evenings were disrupted by mortar attacks on the occupation authority's Baghdad headquarters.

His plans to repair hundreds of campus buildings were scuttled by the Bush administration's decision to shift reconstruction efforts and by the failure to raise money from other sources. His hope that Iraqis would put aside differences and personal interests for a common cause was, as he put it, "way too idealistic."

"I'm a neoconservative who's been mugged by reality," Agresto said as he puffed on a pipe next to a resort-size swimming pool behind the marbled palace that houses the occupation authority.

"We can't deny there were mistakes, things that didn't work out the way we wanted," he added. "We have to be honest with ourselves."

Agresto's candor is unusual among the staff of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. bureaucracy responsible for the civil administration of Iraq until June 30. He is one of the few American officials here to speak on the record at length about the shortcomings of the occupation. In his case, the frustration comes from the sense of a missed golden opportunity: to reconstruct Iraq's decrepit universities and create an educational system that would nurture and promote the country's best minds.

Iraq's institutions of higher learning were once the most modern in the Middle East. But they were asphyxiated under Saddam Hussein, then further devastated by the looting that engulfed the country after Hussein's government was toppled last year. In his initial travels around Iraq, Agresto observed students sitting on the floor in burned-out classrooms. He visited technical colleges with no tools. He saw academic journals from the 1960s kept under lock at an agricultural college because the school did not possess any more recent books.

"It's difficult to describe how bad things were," he recalled.

Agresto concluded that the universities needed $1.2 billion to become viable centers of learning and reap immediate goodwill for the American rebuilding effort. But of the $18.6 billion U.S. reconstruction package approved by Congress last year, the higher education system received $8 million, a tiny fraction of his proposal. When Agresto asked the U.S. Agency for International Development for 130,000 desks, he got 8,000.

Embittered, he sent the desks to the southern city of Basra, which was hard hit by the looting. He earmarked the $8 million for the construction of new science labs, leaving scores of other needs unmet.

"I really thought this would have been valuable money -- well spent and sorely needed," he said. "We're not buying books for the libraries. We're not buying saws and nails for the technical institutes. We're not replacing the computers that were stolen. I can't be anything but sad about it."

Agresto, a lifelong Republican and political conservative, does not regard himself as a turncoat. He still believes in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Despite his disappointment with the lack of reconstruction, he is proud of the changes the Coalition Provisional Authority instilled in Iraq's universities, including the promotion of academic freedom and a purge of senior officials of Hussein's Baath Party. He says he feels the CPA accomplished "a lot of good under very difficult conditions."

While acknowledging American mistakes, Agresto aimed some of his most pointed criticism at Iraqis. In his view, the Americans toppled a dictator and prepared the ground for democracy, but Iraqis have not stepped up to build on that start.

"They don't know how to be a community," he said. "They put their individual interests first. They only look out for themselves."

Invited by the Pentagon

Agresto, 58, has thinning silver hair, a gray-flecked moustache and a prominent nose. He has a stocky build and a fondness for self-deprecating comments about his appearance that usually begin with comparisons to Groucho Marx.

Garrulous and energetic, he came to work for the CPA in the same way most other senior-level officials did: He was invited by the Pentagon because of his experience and his political connections.

The son of a Brooklyn dockworker, he was the first in his family to go to college. He went on to earn a doctorate in political science from Cornell University. After a brief teaching career, he joined the National Endowment for the Humanities during the culture wars of the 1980s, and was deputy to two prominent chairmen, William J. Bennett and Lynne V. Cheney. In the 15 months between their tenures, he was the organization's acting chairman.

After leaving the endowment, he spent 11 years as president of St. John's, a small, classical liberal arts college in Santa Fe known for its Great Books curriculum. He retired in 2000 and set up a consulting company. He spent his spare time preparing homemade Italian sausage and relaxing with his wife in their cabin near the Pecos River in New Mexico.

After U.S. troops rolled into Baghdad, he got a call from his predecessor at St. John's, who asked whether he'd be interested in serving as the CPA's senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education. Intrigued, he placed a call to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose wife had served on the board at St. John's.

"I said, 'Do you think I'd be appropriate?' And he said, 'Yes. Absolutely,' " Agresto recalled. Agresto said he thought, "I'm almost 60 years old. I don't have that many years left to do good." And he accepted.

"This is what Americans do: They go and help," he said. "I guess I just always wanted to be a good American."

He knew next to nothing about Iraq's educational system. Even after he was selected, he did not pore through a reading list. "I wanted to come here with as open a mind as I could have," he said. "I'd much rather learn firsthand than have it filtered to me by an author." He did a Google search on the Internet. The result? "Not much," he said.

His training from the Defense Department was no more extensive. "They taught me how to put on a gas mask, how to get the helmet snug, how to button up your flak jacket," he said. "That's it."

None of that fazed him. He assumed, he said, that Iraq would feel like a newly liberated East European nation, keen to embrace the West and democratic change.

Not until he arrived in Baghdad on Sept. 15, and was assigned to live in a metal trailer with three other CPA staffers, did he realize how complicated his job would be.

Fundraising Failures

Looters began ransacking Mustansiriya University on April 9, 2003, the day Hussein's government collapsed. By April 12, the campus of yellow-brick buildings and grassy courtyards was stripped of its books, computers, lab equipment and desks. Even electrical wiring was pulled from the walls. What was not stolen was ablaze, sending dark smoke billowing over the capital that day.

When Agresto saw the damage to Mustansiriya and the nearby College of Technology -- where 3,000 computers and every bit of laboratory equipment were stolen in a four-hour period -- he was shocked. "What the looting did to the capacity to teach was incredible," he said. "The Americans don't want to talk about it because we did so little to stop the looting."

Soon, Mustansiriya was limping back to life. The school, which takes its name from a 13th-century Baghdad institution considered to be the first university in the Arab world, was being rebuilt by Iraqis, who were paid with donations from local mosques and charities. But the professors lacked the funds to replace computers, books and laboratory gear.

Agresto was determined to help. President Bush was preparing to ask Congress for billions of dollars in reconstruction assistance. Universities, Agresto figured, had to be among the most worthy candidates for American funding. He calculated that he could also attract money from an upcoming conference of international donors in Madrid.

After receiving reports from each of the country's 22 universities, whose collective enrollment is more than 375,000, CPA number crunchers estimated that Iraq would need $1.2 billion to "take its rightful place in the world's intellectual, cultural, economic, and political communities."

Agresto and his staff of 10 sent funding requests to the CPA officials who were compiling the administration's aid package. But word came back that the administration would focus its request on rebuilding Iraq's security services and electrical infrastructure. The White House planned to ask Congress for only $35 million for higher education. The rest would have to come from foreign donors.

Agresto put together what he hoped was a persuasive plea for international aid. It included plans for "a nationwide electronic library network" and a "Western-style graduate business school." "We now have the opportunity to make a new start, and to supply Iraq with, for example, some of the best classrooms, laboratories and libraries possible," the CPA wrote in its pitch to donors.

At the conference in October, donor nations pledged in excess of $400 million for Iraqi universities. But none of that money has arrived in Baghdad.

"There was a lot of talk," he said, "but little follow-through."

The same thing occurred on Capitol Hill. The $35 million request was whittled down to $8 million.

At Mustansiriya, where the labs are devoid of equipment and the student union is in a charred building, acting President Taki Moussawi said he has stopped waiting for help from the Americans. "We've had so many promises, so many hopes," he said as he walked through a gutted structure that used to be the president's office. "We don't believe the Americans anymore. We're just disappointed."

Some American academics who are familiar with Iraq's university system blame the Bush administration, and Agresto, for failing to secure more independent funding. They said that in choosing Agresto, the White House shunned scholars with greater acceptance in academic circles, many of whom had opposed the invasion, in favor of a conservative loyalist who had spent much of his career criticizing the U.S. academic establishment.

"Had it been someone different than Agresto, the possibility of that would have been so much better," said Keith Watenpaugh, an assistant professor of Middle East history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., who traveled to Baghdad last year to assess Iraq's university system. "The politics of the occupation were so divisive, and the American academy felt so disempowered by the way things were happening, that when such political creatures like Agresto came asking for things, it was too difficult to put aside those politics. If the administration had really been committed to rebuilding Iraq's education structures, they wouldn't have sent Agresto."

Rethinking Assumptions

At 8 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 18, a white pickup truck loaded with 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives and several 155mm artillery shells exploded at the main public gate to the CPA's headquarters. More than 20 people were killed and at least 60 were wounded. Almost all of them were Iraqis and many of them worked for the CPA.

Agresto, who was inside the palace and heard the blast, assumed that the attack would provoke widespread revulsion at the taking of innocent life, and would rally popular sentiment against the insurgency and in favor of the goals of the occupation.

"What I expected was the Mothers March for Peace or the Don't Kill Our Kids movement or somebody to come out and say: 'Stop this. We want democracy,' " he said. But that never occurred. Iraqis held funerals and went on with life. U.S. troops erected even larger concrete blast walls in front of the gate.

When he asked Iraqis working for the CPA why there was not more outrage, he sensed apprehension. Everyone he talked to was too scared to condemn the insurgents in public.

"I saw people still afraid," he said. "I saw how easy it was to speak against the Americans and how dangerous it was to speak for democracy and liberty."

The aftermath of the bombing led Agresto to rethink some of his most fundamental assumptions about the American effort to transform Iraq. Suddenly, a goal that had appeared attainable seemed so far from reach. Perhaps, he concluded, U.S. planners should have settled for something less than full democracy.

He reasoned that the occupation's chief goal should have been to restore security, and only later to begin other work in earnest.

"We're trying to establish a democratic government without a democratic people," he said. "I don't know how possible that is."

Agresto's views are a break from those of his allies in the Bush administration, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who argue that Iraqis are ready for democracy.

"We should have been less ambitious," Agresto said. "Our goal should have been to build a free, safe and a prosperous Iraq -- with the emphasis on safe. Democratic institutions could be developed over time. Instead, we keep talking about democratic elections. If you asked an ordinary Iraqi what they want, the first thing they would say wouldn't be democracy or elections, it would be safety. They want to be able to walk outside their homes at night."

Academic Freedom

As his white Toyota Land Cruiser pulled out of the Green Zone one day earlier this month and entered what CPA staffers call the Red Zone, Agresto took a deep breath. He was in the middle of Baghdad's hurly-burly morning rush-hour traffic. And he was exposed.

Instead of traveling in an earth-tone GMC Suburban with armed guards as many of his colleagues do, Agresto had chosen a lower profile. His Land Cruiser had a blue Ministry of Higher Education license plates. He was not wearing a flak jacket or helmet. He hoped his Mediterranean complexion would allow him to pass for a fair-skinned northern Iraqi.

As his vehicle crossed the Tigris River and sped through central Baghdad, he betrayed a pang of nervousness. "There's no safe way to travel here," he said, looking out the window.

Even higher education in Iraq has been dangerous business. A soldier guarding Agresto's predecessor, Andrew Erdmann, was shot dead at Baghdad University last summer. Agresto's translator received repeated death threats over the telephone for collaborating with Americans. An Italian in his office who had volunteered to teach at the informatics college was accosted in May by students who pounded on his car and shouted, "American! American!"

After a 15-minute drive, Agresto pulled up at the ministry's temporary offices at the National Informatics Commission. The ministry's headquarters -- an imposing, 12-story building in central Baghdad -- was gutted by looters and has not been rebuilt.

After a round of hugs with ministry officials, Agresto settled into the first meeting between the newly appointed minister of higher education and university presidents. In the past, such gatherings involved the minister lecturing to the presidents. But the new minister, Tahir Bakaa, the former president of Mustansiriya University, announced new procedures.

"The minister will not interfere with the universities," Bakaa told the 25 presidents and institute directors. "The heads of the departments, the deans and the university presidents are in charge of the higher education system. It's not the ministry."

Agresto smiled. It was just what he wanted to hear.

Agresto had made academic freedom a top priority. He believed that the minister of higher education, a political appointee, should not have the power to fire a university president. Students, he insisted, should be protected from religious or political intimidation.

These new policies were included in an academic bill of rights, which the university presidents endorsed this spring. Agresto saw the document as one of his most significant achievements.

Later in the meeting, Agresto distributed copies of a revised education law written by the CPA that included the rights document. He said the CPA had decided not to promulgate the law and instead was giving it to the ministry with the hope that it would be approved by the university presidents and the minister. The changes would have more legitimacy, Agresto figured, if they were enacted by the new minister, rather than the occupation authority.

Bakaa did not endorse the CPA draft, but he promised to take "what's best" from it. It seemed enough to satisfy Agresto.

"When I look at the rest of Iraq, sometimes I get very discouraged," he told the presidents. "But here at this meeting, I'm not discouraged at all."

But in a more reflective and private moment next to the pool, with pipe in hand and Iraq's future on the table, Agresto was far more sober. He said he still believes Iraq will become a democracy, but not the sort of democracy the Bush administration envisions.

"Will it be a free democracy? A liberal democracy?" he said. "I don't think so."

NEXT: Barriers to democracy