John Agresto: Disquieting Lessons from Iraq ... A Conversation





John Agresto, a longtime N.A.S. supporter and member of its Advisory Board, served as president of St. John’s College, Santa Fe for over 10 years. From September 2003 until the end of June 2004 he served as the Senior Adviser for Higher Education and Scientific Research, working with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under Paul Bremer in Iraq.

Agresto has taught political philosophy and American government at the University of Toronto, Kenyon, Duke, Wabash College, and the New School University. He also spent seven years in government service, in positions that included deputy and acting chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In his forthcoming book, Mugged By Reality (Encounter), Mr. Agresto characterizes our mission in Iraq as having gone from an initial military and political success to “a turbulent spectacle of corruption, revenge, sectarian barbarism, and death.” His views present a contrast to those expressed by Joseph Skelly, “A Professor at War,” in our Spring 2006 issue.

How did your appointment to work in Operation Iraqi Freedom come about?

I was asked by my friend Ed Delattre, who preceded me as president of St. John’s, if I might be interested in serving in this position. Ed, in turn, had been asked by John Silber, who had been contacted by the Pentagon, I believe. I decided to do it, and contacted my friend, Don Rumsfeld, who did his best to cut through bureaucracy at the Department of Defense.

What did you see as the U.S. mission when you accepted this assignment?

To open another front in the War on Terror by helping to bring about a stable, prosperous, free and friendly Iraq.

What did you hope to accomplish in your own work in Iraqi higher education?

To stabilize the universities; strengthen their programs wherever possible; give them some exposure to liberal rather than simply specialized education; build connections and partnerships with European and American universities; and, through all this, to help with the opening, or re-opening, of the Iraqi mind.

Could you give us a little history of higher education in Iraq, before and then under Saddam, leading up to what you found when you arrived?

This is too much to put in a sentence or two, but briefly, this is what I found: 20 universities, 46 or so vocational colleges; extreme specialization—no liberal education whatever; heavy emphasis on medicine, science and engineering; significant political intimidation and control over what was read and taught. On the plus side, integrated (men/women) classes, no religious intimidation, and a cadre of older teachers who had studied and gained their doctorates abroad. All younger professors, however, had received their higher degrees in the highly inbred atmosphere of Iraq and neighboring Arab states.

What were things like in Iraq when you first got there?

Besides very hot? The most obvious thing was not its danger, though that element was present. Most apparent was the frantic pace of commercial activity—consumer goods, automobiles, electronics, and above all satellite dishes, TVs, computer equipment—anything to connect once again to the world and its treasures.

Second, however, under all this activity was the sad condition of Iraqi’s infrastructure. Our military managed to take out only the most obvious political/military targets. But the looting that followed the war destroyed virtually all public buildings; pillaged museums, schools, and universities; burned libraries to the ground, and so on. Ever so much was destroyed by marauding Iraqi thugs.

Third, I found what looked like general insouciant anarchy prevailing in the streets. Thousands of cars, no working stop lights, driving on sidewalks, no effective policing—just anarchy. But this was just the tip of what soon became terribly apparent—a near total collapse of all law and order. Saddam, remember, had emptied the prisons. Literally tens of thousands of rapists, thieves and murderers were now on the streets. And hardly a police force to speak of. For the criminal element, virtually every day was a feast day. And our military are warriors, not policemen.

Could you describe more specifically the effect of the looting on the institutions of higher education particularly?

Except for the three universities in the Kurdish region and a very few others, the universities were fundamentally stripped bare—no desks, chairs, equipment, computers, typewriters, copiers, lecterns, paper, pencils, blackboards, fans, wiring, plumbing, or books. And what couldn’t be stolen, like libraries, was generally burned.

So what were the primary needs in beginning to rebuild and reconstitute higher education in Iraq?

They had nothing. A needs assessment we conducted concluded that simply to rebuild and re-supply the classrooms, dorms, bathrooms, labs, and libraries would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

And the students. Were they eager to see reform of the educational system?

At first, yes, but over time we began to see more and more students, primarily male, turning to religious extremism....


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