Friday, June 13, 2008
Mugged By Reality: John Agresto's Views On Iraq
One of the most interesting and intelligent books ever written about post-invasion Iraq is Mugged By Reality by Dr. John Agresto, who spent nine months working in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority as senior advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
Agresto, one of the clearest American thinkers to ever venture into the dysfunctional maelstrom that was/is Iraq, received his PhD from Cornell University, taught American government and political philosophy at the University of Toronto, Duke, Kenyon, Wabash College, and the New School University; served for more than ten years as President of Santa Fe College in New Mexico, and was Acting Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Here are Agresto's thoughts -- gathered from his book, writings, and interviews -- on Iraq (a syncretistic culture replete with Islam, tribalism, and Arabic mores), Saddam, freedom versus safety, Iraqi Women, Iraq's Christians, American failures, the dark despotic ubersoul of the Iraqi populace, the looting, Iraq's education system, the Kurds, Iraq's Shia majority, Iran's victory, and Ayatollah Sistani... and much more. Let us begin...
The Women Were Liberated And Empowered In Saddam's Iraq
...the liberation and empowerment of women was widespread and deep-rooted in most parts of the country. Both of these -- the liberation of women and secularization of Iraqi society -- were things Saddam did. In part because of the loss of so many young Iraqi men in the long war with Iran, and no doubt in part because Saddam recognized their equal talent and usefulness, women, secular women, were in positions of authority in many sectors of Iraqi life. Unlike, say Afghanistan, women in Iraq were professors, doctors, lawyers, professionals of every sort.
The Situation for Women was better under Saddam
Sorry to say, I now think that the situation for the average woman has now become worse than it was under Saddam. Under Saddam, women were often raped and killed for political reasons or for the sexual satisfaction of men in power. Now the rapes, beatings, and killings are generally for sectarian rather than political reasons. I’m told by my Iraqi friends who are still there that, unlike just five years ago, today no prudent woman goes out without the veil, that classes are again segregated by sex, that the great inequalities of Islamic law are again being applied, that rapes are a tool of the sectarian militias, and open and innocent interactions between young men and women are hardly possible....
Thirty Years of Tyranny do Terrible Things to a People
If you're asking our view on the transfer of sovereignty, my answer is [exceedingly] pessimistic. Thirty years of tyranny do terrible things to a people. It breeds a culture of dependency it breaks the spirit of civic responsibility; it forces people to fall back upon tight-knit familial, ideological or sectarian groups for safety and support... Freedom, democracy, and rights are not magic words. They do not change a culture overnight, or in eight months. The transfer of sovereignty will bring about some form of "democracy." But a liberal democracy, with real notions of liberty, equality and open opportunity-- without strongmen or sectarian or sectional oppression-- well, I think that's doubtful.
The Problem of Assuming the Iraqis would Fight for their Freedom versus a Desire for Safety
...I heard and read otherwise sensible people in the Administration saying that, since 'all men' desire to be free, therefor Iraqis would fight for freedom as others did. In insisting that freedom is a common human desire, we overlooked the fact that, if there must be a choice, most people would first choose safety and security more readily than freedom. Indeed, without the safety and security of our persons and property, freedom is little more than a word. And, as we discovered even more to our chagrin, many others would choose being Islamic and submissive to Allah's word over being free any day. [...] If History teaches us anything about our natures it is that the desire for freedom is self-directed -- we all might wish for freedom for ourselves, but surely not all of us wish it for our neighbors. Especially when it comes to freedom regarding the most important things -- such as religious teachings and the construction of a culture that follows or rejects God's supposed will -- that is where a belief in the value of freedom universally applied is sorely tested.
Infantilized by Saddam, the Iraqis are like Children
Well, he infantiled a whole country, to be honest. I mean, you go there, and even the Iraqis that I love the most, and they’re very…some of them are very sweet people, are as children. I mean, they really will not stand on their hind legs, and they’re scared. It’s ingrained in them not to stick their necks out. You stick your neck out, it gets cut off, quite literally, not just figuratively. So that’s part of it, sure.
Operation Iraqi Freedom unleashed the dark and despotic underside of the Iraqi soul...
Finally, in almost all of the universities as of this writing, student religious fanatics rule the dormitories, the hallways, and the classrooms, sometimes backed up by local police forces now infiltrated and controlled by militias loyal to the Sistani/Hakim branch of 'moderate' Shiite ideology or attached to the even fiercer brand of zealotry of Sadr's black-shirted Mahdi army. Intimidations, beatings, and murder in the name of modesty, of orthodoxy of religious belief and interpretation, and of conformity to Islamic mores and customs are pervasive on today's university campuses. I know it's considered politically unhelpful to say it, but it is nonetheless true there is today considerably less everyday freedom on the campuses of most Iraqi universities than there were under Saddam. Operation Iraqi Freedom unleashed the dark and despotic underside of the Iraqi soul...
The Anarchy and Collapse of Order
I found what looked like general insouciant anarchy prevailing in the streets. Thousands of cars, no working stop lights, driving on sidewalks, no effective policing—just anarchy. But this was just the tip of what soon became terribly apparent—a near total collapse of all law and order. Saddam, remember, had emptied the prisons. Literally tens of thousands of rapists, thieves and murderers were now on the streets. And hardly a police force to speak of. For the criminal element, virtually every day was a feast day. And our military are warriors, not policemen.
What the Americans Goal should have been in Iraq
We should have been less ambitious... Our goal should have been to build a free, safe and a prosperous Iraq -- with the emphasis on safe. Democratic institutions could be developed over time. Instead, we keep talking about democratic elections. If you asked an ordinary Iraqi what they want, the first thing they would say wouldn't be democracy or elections, it would be safety. They want to be able to walk outside their homes at night.
The Pollyanish Americans Liberated Iraq and handed it over to Sistani's Shia
We liberated Iraq, and handed Iraq over to the Shia majority, and the leader of the Shia majority, Sistani, wouldn’t even meet with us. It was, and still at the same time, we kept making excuses for that. Well, it’s okay, we’ll talk to his intermediaries. No, he’s a difficult and different man. We’ll talk to his intermediaries. The handwriting was on the wall. We Americans live on hope all the time. We are the most Pollyannish people in the whole world. We are so quick to forgive, we forget immediately, and the rest of the world’s not like that...
On the Problems with Ayatolah al-Sistani's "Liberal" view of Iraq
I do not believe that parties that demand that all public legislation be based on Islamic law as interpreted by Shia imams as liberal. I do not believe that a religious leader who refused even once to meet with Ambassador Bremer or any American, but would gladly meet with every anti-American antagonist and criminal, from Muqtada al-Sadr to Ahmed Chalabi is a 'moderate.
The Intolerant Sistani
I do not believe that the same Sistani who condemned the Interim Iraqi Constitution because it protected the rights of the Kurds and secured property rights to Jews should be be thought of as being terribly tolerant. Indeed, the very first time I heard, in all my months there, an anti-Semitic diatribe was from the Grand Ayatollah. One word from Sistani might prevent the killing of journalists and Western civilians in Basra, stop the frightened exodus of Christians from all of Southern Iraq, and restrain the imposition of sectarian dogmatism now rolling over Iraqi's schools and universities. There is no such word.
The Americans were Naive about Sistani
"You Americans are so naive," Suhail, our Iraqi Christian translator said to me one morning over breakfast. We were talking about the elections and about how they would surely result in a Shiite majority government dominated by the partisans of Ayatolah Sistani. "You are so naive. When you Americans hear the word 'democracy' you see respect and rights and liberty and toleration. When he [Sistani] hears the word 'democracy' all he sees is power. And that's what you Americans are doing, giving power to a religious man who will put an end to all the freedoms you thought you were giving us, once he has the chance and the power."
Sistani the "Moderate"
We insisted that the Ayatollah Sistani was surely a 'moderate' and a friend to civil and religious liberty despite all the hard evidence to the contrary. Let me repeat my previous observations and predictions: The Ayatollah Sistani is an Islamist bent on establishing a theocracy not far removed from that found in Iran. He is an open anti-Semite and not too subtle anti-Christian. He threw his support behind democratic elections because they were the handy vehicles for imposing religious authority over all Iraqi. Nor is he the only one, or even the worst, only the most prominent.
Saddam had the Christians under his control
Christians, being a clear and easily crushable minority, made few waves. And Saddam often relied on them, knowing that he had them, as a group, under his control... Anyone who could either poison him or slit his throat had to be Christian; they were, it seems, the only ones besides his immediate family that he trusted. I often have thought that art of the killing of Christians and the bombing of churches these days stems not only from fanatical religious motives but also from political retribution.
Saddam and the Liberation of Women in Universities
Even though some fields had artificial quotas limiting the number of women to no more than 40 percent of any class, Saddam actually did much to encourage women to enter college. Thousands upon thousands of young men were lost in fighting Saddam's wars, and women were needed to take their place in the ranks of the various professions. But perhaps more importantly, Saddam dampened the roe of religion and religious fervor in the universities. Women were not segregated from men, head scarves -- the hijab -- were never mandated, and the universities were basically secular enclaves in a society that kept sectarianism, especially Shiite sectarianism, as much in the background as possible.
The Problem of adding more Troops
Well, not unless we had intentions of using them differently. Not unless we intended to enforce security, shoot looters, spread troops out along thousands of miles of borderland, and act as neighborhood policemen. Without a change of policy, more men would only have meant more targets and more casualties. And more troops killing more Iraqis and seizing and destroying more property would almost have certainly made all matters worse.
Ahmad Chalabi the Charlatan
Well, I think he...he was part of the problem from the beginning, and I know so many of our conservative friends thought he hung the Moon. The first time I met him, I realized I think this guy’s a charlatan. He’s, you know, he’s a convicted criminal in Jordan. I don’t know how many of my good Iraqi friends said hey, if we ever could take him to court, there’s any number of…every Iraqi family is owed money by this guy. He has great links to Iran. Every now and then, we find him in Tehran, coming from Iran back to Iraq. He…I watched him as he played both ends against the middle. I remember once when we had a fairly decent interim administrative law that was going to govern the country, and the Ayatollah Sistani immediately said he didn’t like it, he didn’t like it because he thought it gave the Jews back their property in Iran, and immediately, Chalabi changed his vote, and decided that no, now he was going to be on the side of the religious fanatics, not on the side of the secularists. He’s a man who you never know where he’s going to be at any particular time. And I think he serves no one but his own interests.
The State of Higher Education in Iraq when Agresto arrived in the country
This is too much to put in a sentence or two, but briefly, this is what I found: 20 universities, 46 or so vocational colleges; extreme specialization—no liberal education whatever; heavy emphasis on medicine, science and engineering; significant political intimidation and control over what was read and taught. On the plus side, integrated (men/women) classes, no religious intimidation, and a cadre of older teachers who had studied and gained their doctorates abroad. All younger professors, however, had received their higher degrees in the highly inbred atmosphere of Iraq and neighboring Arab states.
What Agresto himself hoped to accomplish within Iraq's Higher Education system
To stabilize the universities; strengthen their programs wherever possible; give them some exposure to liberal rather than simply specialized education; build connections and partnerships with European and American universities; and, through all this, to help with the opening, or re-opening, of the Iraqi mind.
What the Looting did
...the looting that followed the war destroyed virtually all public buildings; pillaged museums, schools, and universities; burned libraries to the ground, and so on. Ever so much was destroyed by marauding Iraqi thugs.
The Specific Effect Looting had on the Higher Educational System
Except for the three universities in the Kurdish region and a very few others, the universities were fundamentally stripped bare—no desks, chairs, equipment, computers, typewriters, copiers, lecterns, paper, pencils, blackboards, fans, wiring, plumbing, or books. And what couldn’t be stolen, like libraries, was generally burned.
Why the American High Hopes for Iraq faded away
Suffice it to say, first, that we terribly misjudged the strength of the Saddam and Ba’ath factions we thought we had defeated. We didn’t defeat them: they retreated, and came back as insurgents. We never killed them; they never surrendered. Yet, strangely, we proclaimed we had won.
Second, we failed as an occupying power to quell unrest, restore law and order, bring criminals to justice, and restore any semblance of peace and security to a people under attack. To say “Freedom is untidy,” as my friend Donald Rumsfeld said, is not only wrong, it made the Iraqis wonder what it was they had just bought into.
Third, we talked about all we were going to do—electricity, clean water, sewers, clinics, you name it. Yet little happened. Under perfect conditions America can build the best and finest systems. Under the conditions as they were in Iraq—with its arson and looting and without any real semblance of order—so much of what we promised or said we would do failed. As one of the finest and most pro-American of the Iraqi professors said to me, “We once thought you had the wand of Moses in your hands. Now we see you don’t.”
Fourth, (it gets worse) we talked all the time about freedom and democracy. Yet we had precious little knowledge of how to bring a stable, mild, moderate, middle-class, and above all free democracy to Iraq. We had, it seemed, scant idea as to what made our own democracy lasting and liberal. Other than holding elections and writing some kind of constitution, we had little idea as to what kind of civic institutions might precede democracy, what character a people might need to have to make democracy work, or what kind of political institutions were needed to make democracy just.
The Americans lack of understanding at the Attractiveness of Islamic Extremism to the Iraqis and the Futile Search for Islamic Moderates
...we simply had no notion not only of the horrors, but also the attraction, of Islamic extremism. We generally have a benign view of religion. We always insist that those who kill infidels or torture in God’s name have somehow “hijacked” their religion. We consistently failed to understand that not all religions have the same view as we do of peace, of brotherhood, or of justice. Islam in general, and parts of Islam in particular, are not post-Enlightenment faiths. But why would they be? We desperately kept looking for the supposed “moderates” among the clergy in Iraq. Moderate as compared to what? Just because we believe that God wants everyone to enjoy equal rights, or that killing Jews or stoning apostates is wrong, doesn’t mean that our beliefs are shared in other faiths.
We have so tamed and, in a sense, marginalized religion in the West that we consistently underestimate its ferocity and strength. Watch: we will continue to worry that Iran will extend its influence into Iraq. Fair enough. But it’s not Iran as Iran that will take over Iraq but the Shiite fanaticism that rules Iran. Soon there will be the rule of Shiite theocrats, under the guise of democratic forms and elections, ruling a large swath of the Middle East, from Iran through Iraq through south Lebanon.
The Christians and Professional Class fled; the Iranians won
Perhaps a third of Iraq’s professional class has already fled. Thousands upon thousands have been murdered. The ancient Christian communities in and around Basra and southern Iraq have been emptied. Virtually all the Iraqis I know pray to come here, but Homeland Security makes that impossible. And Europe for some is just as hard. Damascus? Beirut?! Amman? ... What is it about us that we have this overarching desire always to believe that things are getting better? The situation in Iraq is not getting better. Do I need to be blunt? The fact is, we fought and died in this war, and Iran has won it. It occupies the southern half of Iraq; supplies the insurgency with sophisticated IEDs that kill our men and women every day; it’s backing up the political parties that won the last election, including Sadr’s faction and Hezbollah that hold six ministries between them; and it supplies men, money and material to the murderous sectarian militias. While it expresses itself politically and militarily, its rule is religious. Its closest analogue is the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, though here it’s Shi’a not Sunni fanaticism.
Iraqis Only Look Out For Themselves
They don't know how to be a community... They put their individual interests first. They only look out for themselves.
Compared to the Kurds, the Arab Iraqis were more interested in their self interest
Yes, as contrasted with the Kurds, among the Arab Iraqis there was more of a culture of individual self-interest and less of a sense of serving a larger cause. They display a tendency to lie low and avoid danger. That’s why it’s been so difficult standing up an army and a responsible national guard....
Why Higher Education fared better in Kurdistan than Iraq
Education in Kurdistan is faring infinitely better than in the rest of Iraq. There are three universities in the area, the largest in Erbil with maybe 15,000 students. All three universities presidents came to me and Jerry Bremer after liberation and said, in effect, there is no political liberation without the liberation of the mind. Unless people think for themselves, they will always be led and never lead. Second, that there’s no intelligent democracy without intelligent citizens and no future democracy without intelligent statesmen. (As Dave Barry used to say, “I am not making this up.”) They were solidly Jeffersonian in their understanding that democracy needed intelligent citizens and educated, far-sighted leaders.
The US should not leave Iraq
We’re over there fighting two groups of very dangerous people. We’re trying to fight and contain the al Qaeda Sunni radical forces that are former Baathists that are there, former Saddam people, and with a new influx of Iranian power and material and men and intelligence there, aligned with the Shia, or some Shia fanatics, primarily Muqtada al Sadr and others. We…don’t ask me for what the solution is. I just know that the solution is not leaving. We have two big enemies there of America and the free world, and we have to do something to stymie them as best we can.
A Partitoned Iraq is not a good thing
You know, in the end, the partition may happen. But I do think it’s not a good thing, and not something we should want to see. We don’t…just partition, what would it mean? Who benefits from a partitioned Iraq? Sure, the Kurds will have their part, and they may even have some oil wealth, but they’ll be beleaguered by Turkey and by Syria, and to a degree, by Iran. What are we going to do with the rest of Iraq? We’re going to give the southern half of Iraq over to Iranian hegemony? What are we going to do with western Iraq? Will that become a satellite of Syria? I mean, why would we want to do that? Now I understand that what we would like to do is to have a unified Iraq in which the Kurds have an awful lot of good influence that could be moderate and non-fanatical, and I think we have to work towards that. But as I said, in the end, it may happen that it gets divided, but it’s not a good thing if it does. It’s certainly not in our interest if it does.
Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions
View From The Right
Washington Post.com (An Educator Learns the Hard Way - Rajiv Chandrasekaran) Monday, June 21, 2004; Page A01