An Educator Learns the Hard Way
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 mustache 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.
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 set ablaze, sending dark smoke billowing over the capital that day.
© 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.