PROMISES UNKEPT : The U.S. Occupation of Iraq
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."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Above, U.S. adviser John Agresto, approaches group of men at right during a meeting with Iraqi education and university officials at the Ministry of Higher Education in Baghdad. Agresto has been trying to revitalize Iraq's university system.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
_____About This Series_____About This Series
What went wrong with the U.S. occupation of Iraq: As the handover approaches, goals are unfulfilled and promises are unkept.
The education of an American nation-builder: A conservative's frustration over a missed opportunity to reconstruct Iraq's universities.
Examining the failures to build grass-roots Iraqi democracy and the struggles involved in representative government.