Failed Occupation? – II

WaPo’s three part “PROMISES UNKEPT : The U.S. Occupation of Iraq” series concludes today. As with its predecessors, it’s above the fold on page A1.

Because of the strange headline, I missed yesterday’s installment, “An Educator Learns the Hard Way.” It tells the story of a 60-year-old NEH bureaucrat who volunteered for duty in Iraq who has had a bit of a reality check.

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.

The piece doesn’t examine why he might have been turned down before going on to criticize the politicization of the enterprise, which resulted in Agresto being chosen over prominent education establishment scholars. This is an ironic juxtaposition since, presumably, less well-connected person would have had less success in getting funds.

Today’s installment, “Death Stalks An Experiment In Democracy,” notes that the insurgency has led to a more closed government than the CPA would have preferred.

The nascent political institutions designed to replace the U.S. administration of Iraq are beset by challenges to their popular legitimacy and effectiveness, and by grave risks to Iraqis who have joined the experiment in representative government. As Iraqis prepare for their country to regain sovereignty, it is uncertain how much their political future will be shaped by the $700 million program in democracy-building that has been at the core of the U.S. occupation.

Inside the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority, which will dissolve with the handover on June 30, some officials express doubts that Iraq’s political system will conform to the American blueprints. “Will this develop the way we hope it will?” a CPA official involved in promoting democracy said. “Probably not.”

New political institutions to replace Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party dictatorship are among the chief legacies of the U.S. occupation. Every city and province has a local council. New mayors, provincial governors and national cabinet ministers have been chosen. The Shiite Muslim majority, shut out of power in Hussein’s government, is widely represented, as are religious minorities and women. Hundreds of political parties have formed, and thousands of people have participated in seminars on democracy.

But Iraqis criticize the local councils and the interim national government as illegitimate because their members were not elected. The country’s top Shiite cleric has repudiated the interim constitution drafted by the U.S.-appointed Governing Council. In several recent meetings about the country’s political future, Iraqis who favor a Western-style democracy have been drowned out by calls for a system governed by Islamic law.

This is all rather amusing, given that the people of Iraq have never had the slightest say in their government, unless one counts sham elections where Saddam won with 100% of the vote.

Given the overwhelmingly negative tone of the press coverage of the war since its inception, one wonders why a PROMISES UNKEPT series was necessary. Indeed, a PROMISES KEPT feature would have been far more interesting, since that would actually be news.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.