By Russ Baker and Kristina Borjesson
Editor: Jonathan Rowe
Co-published on Salon.com
Anyone who still wonders why the Bush administration invaded Iraq would do well to become familiar with an institution whose existence few Americans are aware of: the American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniya.
Located in Kurdistan, at the nexus of northern Iraq’s border with Iran and Turkey, AUI-S opened its doors in 2007. At the time, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote about it with the sort of wide-eyed enthusiasm that had generally accompanied the invasion itself four years before. “Imagine for a moment if one outcome of the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been the creation of an American University of Iraq…Imagine if we had created an island of decency in Iraq…Well, stop imagining.”
You don’t have to imagine, though, when history provides enough clues. For more than one hundred years, American business leaders (usually with the cooperation of local potentates) have funded Christian missionaries to set up universities in foreign countries with valuable resources to exploit. This collaboration has served to create a more friendly environment for establishing a business foothold while simultaneously fulfilling the missionaries’ desire to spread the Word around the globe.
In the Middle East—where the business has primarily been oil—the Rockefellers and others generously funded such institutions as the American University of Beirut, which was established on the bedrock of conservative Christian values more than one hundred years ago. It began modestly, with one class of sixteen students in 1863. Over time, it became a venerable academic oasis, characterized by values that could be accurately described as cosmopolitan and liberal.
With AUI-S in contemporary Kurdistan, however, it was back to square one, ideologically speaking. Oil—or “The Prize” as it is often called—was once again the business at hand. This time, access to The Prize was given to George W. Bush’s good friend and contributor, the Texan Ray Hunt, whose Kurdish oil concession is potentially worth billions of dollars. And from the beginning, the academic component of this particular foreign foothold has been plagued by problems far worse than the usual disarray that attends any new university venture. That’s because the people setting it up were missionaries of a uniquely postmodern variety.
As with the Occupation itself, the task of building and running the American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniya was given to Bush/Cheney administration loyalists. Generally, they were neoconservative ideologues with a fundamentalist Christian outlook, who brashly dismissed prior experience and scholarship so far as it concerned the culture and conditions on the ground.
The failure to do even the most basic homework was quickly apparent. Right after its opening, the university was caught up in a sex scandal. Officials discovered that they had improperly vetted Owen Cargol, the man chosen to be AUI-S’s first chancellor. Somehow, they had missed news reports that Cargol had resigned his previous post as president of Northern Arizona University only four months into his tenure after being accused of sexual harassment.
A male employee at NAU had filed a suit alleging that Cargol—the married father of two—had grabbed his genitals. Cargol’s accuser made public the contents of an email in which Cargol had written: “For sure, I am a rub-your-belly, grab-your-balls, give-you-a-hug, slap-your-back, pull-your-dick, squeeze-your-hand, cheek-your-face, and pat-your-thigh kind of guy.” Cargol was let go without any severance pay or benefits. The accuser received a settlement of more than $100,000.
Cargol’s replacement in Iraq was a man named John Agresto, an old friend of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Agresto had been a senior official at the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Reagan Administration, alongside Lynne Cheney and Agresto’s personal mentor, William Bennett. His nomination to be Archivist of the United States had been blocked by concerns voiced by more than a dozen academic and professional associations that he was inappropriately partisan and lacked qualifications for the position.
Through his connections, Agresto, former president of St. John’s College in New Mexico (on whose board Rumsfeld’s wife served), had originally been appointed as the education advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority that initially ran the American occupation under Paul Bremer’s command. (He noted proudly that he hadn’t done research about Iraq’s educational system besides a Google search before landing in Baghdad in September, 2003 with two suitcases and a feather pillow. “I wanted to come here with as open a mind as I could have,” he told the Washington Post in a profile that appeared prior to his taking the university position. “I’d much rather learn firsthand than have it filtered to me by an author.” )
This was, to say the least, an unusual approach for someone who had been and would again become the head of an academic institution. But though he seemingly did not realize it, Agresto was in fact being influenced by others’ perceptions—albeit perceptions carefully orchestrated by the invading power. “Like everyone else in America, I saw images of people cheering as Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down,” he said. “I saw people hitting pictures of him with their shoes. Once you see that you can’t help but say, ‘Okay. This is going to work.’” At the time, Agresto assumed that Iraq “would feel like a newly liberated East European nation, keen to embrace the West and democratic change.”
Once in country, Agresto was immediately confronted with the fact that Iraq wasn’t Eastern Europe but rather a frenetic Middle Eastern shooting gallery. “Visits to the universities he was trying to rebuild and the faculty he wanted to invigorate were more and more dangerous, and infrequent,” wrote Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran. “His Iraq staff was threatened by insurgents…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…”
Puffing on a pipe by a swimming pool in the Green Zone, safely away from the bullets and bombs outside, a defeated Agresto told his interviewer, “I’m a neoconservative who’s been mugged by reality.” It was a reference, of course, to the old Neocon saw about conservatives being former liberals who finally had faced the cold hard facts. But in his case, it seems to have meant forsaking notions about democracy in favor of a more colonial approach. (Agresto did not respond to an e-mail from WhoWhatWhy seeking an interview.)
Agresto left Iraq after his Occupation stint, but was reinvited to the scene of his “mugging” in order to replace Cargol as AUI-S chancellor. This time, it was no more Mr. Nice Guy. Ditto with the man who followed him into the chancellorship when he became provost. This was Joshua Mitchell, a Georgetown University Professor of Political Theory. From the time Mitchell began pursuing his PhD in the late 1980s at that neoconservative temple, the University of Chicago, he’d drawn considerable funding from the right-wing Bradley and Olin foundations, half of the conservative movement quartet dubbed the “Four Sisters.” Mitchell had also gotten money from Lewis E. Lehrman, a well-known financier of rightwing political and academic projects, who endowed a chair for him at the Fund for American Studies, an ideologically conservative educational institute.
If Agresto had become a neo-colonialist by the time he returned to Iraq, Mitchell in some ways was the classic colonial university official with the bible in his pocket. In addition to teaching political theory at Georgetown, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Shortly before he signed on with AUI-S, he delivered a speech at a religious conference in Colorado Springs in which he observed that Americans were fundamentally Calvinists “with purity and stain, with salvation and damnation, and with the inner perspicuity that was needed to tell the difference.”