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http://www.dailystar.com.lb/features/29_08_03_c.asp Feature American policy in Iraq: educational imperialism? Academic watchdog advises caution on Washington's plans for post-war universities This is the first of two articles looking at the Iraq Observatory Report on the state of Baghdad's universities, libraries and archives Jim Quilty Daily Star staff Beirut: America's plans for rebuilding Iraq as a bastion of democracy and free enterprise capitalism have inspired intense criticism from several quarters, including the international academic community. Keith Watenpaugh, the associate director of the Center for Peace and Global Studies at Le Moyne College in New York, is one such critic. But he does not sound triumphant as he discusses the present chaos in Iraq. "It's easy just to throw your up hands and say 'The Americans made this mess, let them fry in their own juices,'" he says. "But the real losers in that case are the Iraqi people." Academics became vocal opponents to America's Iraq policy shortly after the fall of Baghdad, when US forces stood by while Iraq's libraries, archives and museums were systematically looted. With little reliable information about the fate of Iraq's cultural patrimony, a small team of Middle East historians Arab, American and European decided to find out for themselves. The "Iraqi Observatory," as the team is now known, traveled to Baghdad in late June to renew contacts with Iraqi academics, gauge their status and professional welfare and through them assess the material condition of Iraq's libraries, archives, universities and research centers. The resulting 29-page preliminary report, Opening the Doors: Intellectual Life and Academic Conditions in Post-War Baghdad, transcends their original objectives. At once a report and a critique, Opening Doors scrutinizes the state of Iraq's intellectual and academic community, its cultural and intellectual life, and the relationship between this community and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Its conclusions are "based on a rapid assessment of the situation, often less than forthcoming answers from CPA officials and occasional obfuscation by Iraqi bureaucrats." Nevertheless, the IO report provides an invaluable snapshot of the unsettled state of Iraq and is a catalyst for further inquiry. The report addresses how a country with a long tradition of publicly funded cultural institutions will be reformed under US tutelage. The CPA does not fare well. Shortly after returning from Iraq Watenpaugh the IO team leader remarked that the mainstream media has been derelict in its Iraq coverage. Unless you use the terms "occupation" and "colonialism," he said at that time, you aren't really addressing the present dynamic in Iraq. Since then, Western media has come to terms with the occupation of Anglo-American troops and any others willing to join them. "Colonialism" has yet to enter the popular lexicon. The IO's role, as Watenpaugh sees it, is to register voices critical of the occupation from within the US, Europe and the Arab world and thus to create a parallel discourse to that of the CPA. "The American administration in Iraq has been infected with the pathologies of imperialism," he says. "They're not responding to criticism. They're appointed by the president, accountable only to him. There's no broader public accountability they're certainly not accountable to Iraqis. "We don't want to advance American interest in Iraq but where those interests coincide with what is positive and progressive for Iraq development, technical investment, investment in human capital there's no reason to oppose this just for the sake of opposition. "We're trying to navigate between a rejectionism and collaboration." The IO's principle critique of CPA policies is that they are impractical and ideologically driven. They point out how few Americans serving in the CPA are Arabists that is, trained in Arabic and presumably knowledgeable of Arab culture, politics and society. "Arabists," says Watenpaugh, "are inconvenient to the CPA because they have a more nuanced understanding of the country and region and tend to see things in terms of the interests of Iraqis and not simply those of Washington. "At the end of the day," he continues, the issue is that the people running the CPA "are more qualified to assert America's agenda in Iraq than they are to oversee Iraqi reconstruction." Though Washington's official line is to restore Iraq to political, social and economic health, the IO found the CPA's agenda for Iraq's universities is less committed to developing a system of higher education that will serve as a basis for civil society than it is to counterterrorism and weapons nonproliferation. A case in point is Andrew Erdmann, the man first appointed as CPA adviser to Iraq's Higher Education Ministry, a post he was meant to hold until October at least. "Adviser" is a misleading term. Answering to Paul Bremer and the Pentagon, the adviser is the de facto head of Iraq's university system, with the power to veto appointments and set budgets. Erdmann's US State Department biography was not encouraging. In 2000 the Harvard history graduate defended a doctorate titled Americans' Search for 'Victory' in the 20th Century. He has formal preparation in neither Middle East History and Politics nor Arabic. A former member of the secretary of state's policy planning staff responsible for counter terrorism, homeland security, and Central Asian policy Erdmann also has no training in university management or practical leadership experience. Based on interviews with some of the few Iraqi academics and intellectuals who have met him, the IO found that Erdmann did not seem to command the respect of those whose interests he represented. The adviser's intentions for Iraq's university system did nothing to allay IO members' fears. Iraq's universities and research institutions have been through a lot. The looting after the fall of Baghdad was "a last humiliating act in a longer process of erosion that transformed what was perhaps the most elaborate and well-developed higher educational and research system in the Arab world into a pale shadow of its former self." Before the imposition of UN sanctions in the early 1990s, Iraq's university system was well-funded and, it seems, basically egalitarian. Education was available to all classes. Academic success was performance-driven. Academic life under Saddam was far from utopian, of course. Iraqi academics relate anecdotes of cronyism and mental and physical abuse by the ruling elite. Still, the academics "conveyed the sense that there were no inherent flaws in the system of higher education or professional development per se." The situation changed for the worse with sanctions and falling oil revenues. In need of loyal and well-trained technocrats, the state established a number of ad hoc elite institutions. Essentially parasitic, they poached the most talented faculty and students from Baghdad University. These days, without independent budgets or endowments, Iraq's universities, research and cultural institutions are US dependencies. Erdmann, the IO reports, sent mixed signals about Washington's plans. He said the CPA was committed to putting Iraqis back in control of their own destinies as soon as possible. But Washington has four "bedrock principles" for rebuilding Iraqi higher education. They are, in ascending order: the "normalization" of Iraq's scientific community; de-Baathification; expanded communication and exchange; restructuring to make Iraq's universities "autonomous entities." The IO objects that the CPA's use of "de-Baathification" fails to grasp the fact that under Saddam Baathism relied less on ideology and bureaucratic mechanisms of domination than on tribal ties, filial and ethnic networks. Given the arbitrary and nontransparent manner which it has been implemented, de-Baathification has the potential to be a source of tremendous injustice, resentment and distrust. More contentious, and vague, is the intention to make Iraq's universities "autonomous." Erdmann told the IO the Higher Education Ministry could be abolished and universities "floated." It was unclear what this means exactly, but Watenpaugh speculates that the intention is to insulate the Iraqi academy from politics, which would also provide additional opportunities for non-Iraqi control and oversight. It is unclear if "autonomy" means American-style "privatization." Since the IO report was published, several Iraqi university presidents and administrators have told the press that to this point there hasn't been much discussion of privatization. The CPA has said that officially it has no intention of privatizing Iraqi universities and that such decisions will be made by Iraqis. It seems likely that any ideological predisposition to privatization the CPA might have has been overruled by obstacles on the ground. "A university education is considered a human right in Iraq," says Hala Fattah, a Jordan-based independent researcher. "What will you do with the thousands of young Iraqis who want to go to university and have no money to pay tuition? "Efficient university administrations paying for themselves is a vision of the future, not of the present. The CPA is very lackadaisical with regard to the very privatization schemes it's promoting. When we were there (in late June) it had just started to pay monthly budgets to universities. "Imagine how long it will take them to bring efficiency experts to the country's universities so that we'll have 'lean and mean' educational institutes of higher learning." Like Fattah, Edouard Metenier (Universite de Provence) doesn't think privatization is a pertinent issue now simply because so few students are able to pay fees. "Suffice it to say," he says, "that there are cultural and material reasons to believe that privatization is not a real issue for the moment." "Iraqi academics themselves are very much opposed to the notion of university privatization," says Watenpaugh. "The preferred solution, in terms of reconciling an American model to the Iraqi experience, would be to link state funding for higher education to oil revenues as we see presently in Texas and Alaska." Whether privatization is on the immediate agenda or not, the fact is that Iraqis did not design the "bedrock principles" as a formula for reform. They derive from a plan drawn up in Washington before the occupation. The USAID contracts to be rewarded to US universities to help rebuild the Iraqi system are not a response to Iraqi initiatives but based on remote assessments by state department officials in consultation with representatives of the Iraqi exile community. The IO regarded Erdmann's assessment of the Iraqi academic community "unable to identify initiatives, plan strategies for reform, or budget" as an unfair generalization, that "infantilizes Iraqis and justifies a heavy-handed American intervention in the Iraqi academic scene." Since the publication of the IO report Andrew Erdmann has left his post as adviser to the Higher Education Ministry to join the National Security Council a job for which he is perhaps better equipped. Unconfirmed reports say his replacement, scheduled to arrive in Baghdad in a week, will be John Agresto, a rather different figure. With a BA in Political Science/History and a doctorate in government from Cornell University, Agresto is the author of several books including The Humanist as Citizen: Essays on the Uses of the Humanities. Agresto is president of an organization dedicated to educational reform and President Emeritus of St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which has been praised as one of the best liberal arts colleges in the US. He has been a leading advocate of liberal arts education. Before assuming his position at St. John's, Agresto was president of the Madison Center in DC and for seven years acted as Assistant Chairman, Deputy Chairman, and Acting Chairman to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Though Agresto seems a friendlier and perhaps more competent face than Erdmann's, such personnel-swapping itself does nothing to address the structural realities of America's occupation of Iraq, nor does it detract from the IO assessment. Though critical of US policy in Iraq, Watenpaugh acknowledges the difference between imperialist intentions and the difficulties of implementing them. "The Iraqis are very resilient and will, in the end, shape their own destiny," he says. "The question is will the US and other occupying forces play a constructive, supportive and non-imperialist role in that destiny." Opening Doors can be accessed on the web at: www.h-net.org/about/press/opening_doors _______________________________________________ Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To unsubscribe, visit http://lists.casi.org.uk/mailman/listinfo/casi-discuss To contact the list manager, email firstname.lastname@example.org All postings are archived on CASI's website: http://www.casi.org.uk