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[casi] American policy in Iraq: educational imperialism?

American policy in Iraq: educational imperialism?
Academic watchdog advises caution on Washington's plans for post-war

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
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
"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
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
"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:

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