Global Policy Forum

The Empire Strikes Again: Sex, Oil, Chaos and Corruption at the American University of Iraq


This story exposes the sordid history of the American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniya. Located in Kurdistan and first opened in 2007, AUI-S rapidly received accreditation and has since been beset by scandals and allegations of corruption. Students, former employees and other critics accuse the school of shoddy scholarship, ties to oil tycoons and political propagandizing. The story explores how AUI-S was founded primarily to promote oil and political interests, under the guise of an avant-garde teaching institution.

By Russ Baker and Kristina Borjesson

February 16, 2011

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 100 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 100 years ago. It began modestly, with one class of 16 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.

Mugged by reality -- again

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 the employee's genitals. Cargol's accuser made public the contents of an e-mail 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 Ph.D. 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 right-wing 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."

Former AUI-S faculty member Mark Grueter recalls Mitchell peppering his in-class exchanges with biblical quotations, although in an interview with WhoWhatWhy, Mitchell emphatically disputed this. "I am involved in mainline discussions in political science and with respect to what I'm doing here, I do no proselytizing. It does not affect my work. I'm a little surprised you're raising this and I would hope this is not something that becomes a central point in your story." [Grueter, internal correspondence shows, was fired over his criticism of the university's administration -- but points out that just a few weeks before his termination, he had been offered a two-year contract extension and a raise based on his teaching performance.]

To be sure, the stated mission of the American University of Iraq is secular -- and lofty. Its goal is to "promote the development and prosperity of Iraq through the careful study of modern commerce, economics, business and public administration, and to lead the transformation of Iraq into a free and democratic society, through an understanding of the ideals of liberty and democracy."

The devil, of course, is in the details. One student we spoke with expressed resentment at being force-fed a kind of colonialist pap via the principal textbook in his American history survey class. "This book talks about Indians not very friendly[sic], like a bad people." Seeking to recall the title and author, he went and pulled the book off his shelf, and read aloud: "The Last Best Hope," by William J. Bennett -- John Agresto's mentor and perhaps the leading theorist of the neoconservative cultural movement that seeks to defend traditional interpretations of the American adventure. Bennett himself characterized his book as an attempt to make Americans feel good about their history.

The student, a bright Kurd with moderate mastery of spoken English, noted: "When William J. Bennett talks about the Indians he talks about them that they were hostile, they didn't know anything, and all they learned how to live and how to behave was from the Europeans. This book is biased [toward] the Americans but that's what we study."

The student says that he was so troubled by the characterizations in the book that he turned to the Internet for other material. He said that many of his classmates, less motivated, did not read the book or seek out other material, but simply took notes on what the teacher -- a Bennett sympathizer -- said and then repeated it back for exams.

Someone seems to have considered this kind of work a high priority, for AUI-S got its academic accreditation in what is surely one of the fastest times on record. It usually takes years for a college to get up and running, and to graduate enough students to meet the criteria set by reputable accreditation institutions. For example, although the American University of Beirut has been registered and recognized by the New York State Education Department since 1863, it only received its accreditation in June 2004 -- following a lengthy process and more than a century after it had been established.

By comparison, according to its own website, the American University of Iraq received a five-year unconditional accreditation in June 2010, less than three years after opening its doors. Under even ideal circumstances, this would have been unusually fast. But AUI-S does not enjoy ideal circumstances. First of all, the university is still under construction. Eventually, administrators hope to enroll 5,000 students. For now, largely on account of interminable construction delays, the student population has hovered around 650-750.

Meanwhile, the faculty, numbering around 40 in the past year, are overwhelmingly from the West; the vast majority do not speak Arabic. The students are all Iraqis, with the great majority being non-Arab Kurds, a mix of the poor and the more privileged. Generally, they arrive on campus with an English comprehension so low that few could take college-level courses in English. The majority must therefore go through an English preparatory program, which can last several years. This means that it takes longer for the students to pass enough required courses to earn their degrees, which is another reason why the university's rapid accreditation seems odd.

The answer to the mystery seems to bear the name of Cheney. The body that gave AUI-S its seal of approval is the American Academy for Liberal Education, co-founded by Lynne Cheney, wife of the former vice president, during her tenure as humanities czar during George W. Bush's father's administration. The AALE specializes in accrediting conservative and religious colleges, and has received funding from the Olin Foundation, a leading supporter of the right-wing effort to reshape American educational and cultural institutions. That's the same Olin Foundation that funded chancellor Joshua Mitchell's work before he came to AUI-S.

AALE's own credibility has been questioned before, even during the Bush-Cheney presidency. According to a 2008 ruling by Margaret Spelling, George W. Bush's secretary of education, AALE had been "cited consistently since 2001 for either not having clear standards with respect to measuring student outcomes or not collecting and reviewing data on how institutions it accredits measure student outcomes."

"Evil, pure and simple"

As with the invasion itself, a gap seems to have existed between the lofty, shining rhetoric and a far more tawdry reality. In a July 2008 article for the conservative magazine National Review, Agresto compared Americans working in Iraq to Asahel Grant, the early 19th century Christian missionary and doctor who lived and died in Iraqi Kurdistan. "Like Asahel Grant," Agresto claimed, "none of them [people working in Iraq] is here for money or oil or politics or honor." John Dolan, a former AUI-S professor of English composition and literature, begs to differ. "We went to Iraq to make money," he says about his wife and himself, "and once we got to know our colleagues at AUI-S, we found that nearly all the faculty was there for the same reason ... to make money." Dolan describes one particularly incompetent history teacher who, after having received his first monthly paycheck, loudly announced, "Here I am walking along with $15,000 cash in my pocket!"

Other professors say they took jobs there thinking they'd be teaching at a well-run institution, only to find themselves pressured to push unprepared students into undergraduate programs by administrators worried about the university's credibility. Some faculty and students claim to be afraid to speak over the phone, even off the record. We heard of alleged attempts to prevent former staffers from leaving Iraq, and several said they feared that if they talked they would not receive their salaries for their final months of work.

A website created by a self-described whistle-blower and AUI-S employee inviting members of the AUI-S community to anonymously post their complaints reflects anger on all sides. "The school is being run by people with no experience running a successful school," writes one person on the site AUI-S Watch. "We raised awareness of discrimination of Iraqi employees," writes another. "Yes, we have embarked on a campaign to criticize administrative staff with the aim to expose what we think are questionable management practices. Yes, we have attacked the complete lack of transparency at AUI-S and injustice it harbors."

Agresto responded to the blog in a letter to AUI-S staff in which he described the reactions to AUI-S Watch that he had received from faculty members:

"One said he felt sick when he read it. Another called it 'twisted' and said 'It's evil, pure and simple.' Another wrote to Lara, Josh, and me to repeat the simple truth - 'the cowardly writer of the blog does not represent our views, nor does this person represent the vast majority of the faculty.' "

The hostility between the parties was palpable. Meanwhile, former AUI-S professor Dolan has provided a more detailed picture in an Alternet piece titled "I Was a Professor at the Horribly Corrupt American University of Iraq ... Until the Neocons Fired Me." (Dolan was fired in the summer of 2009 -- he says Agresto had discovered a satirical article Dolan had written years earlier, critical of neoconservative figures in American politics, many of whom are personal friends of Agresto.)

Dolan portrays an atmosphere of venality, misogyny, anti-Semitism and incompetence, with John Agresto and Joshua Mitchell at the center. He describes Mitchell running around with wads of "taxpayer cash" to pay expenses, including $5,000 each to incoming U.S. teachers "to help [us] settle in." Dolan writes about the faculty in withering terms:

"There was a clear, simple formula for success at AUI-S: be a Southern white male Republican with a talent for flattery, an undistinguished academic record and very little experience in university-level teaching. Some of the faculty were so dismally unqualified and shameless that even our students ... saw through them."

Dolan's charges become more serious when he describes Dean of Student Affairs Denise Natali's response to an ESL teacher being raped. "I see women walking around here in sleeveless t-shirts! Tank tops! What do you expect?" Natali herself received a death threat after expelling several students for missing too many classes. (Attempts to interview Natali, who left AUI-S around the end of 2010, were not successful.) Dolan also describes a male fundamentalist Christian professor calling a female colleague a "fucking whore" and AUI-S personnel director Lara Dizeyee telling new faculty members (presumably as a practical matter in a Muslim country), "If you're Jewish -- keep it to yourself." Dizeyee, who has also departed AUI-S, could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, AUI-S's website keeps up appearances. Press on the "In the News" prompt and one finds a Commentary magazine article written by neoconservative Abe Greenwald. In "An Extraordinary American Achievement," Greenwald enthuses about visiting the American University of Iraq with fellow neocon and ex-Middle East CIA specialist Reuel Gerecht. "It would be nice if the 'books not bombs' crowd took notice of the educational miracle birthed by Americans in the heart of the Muslim world," he writes. "Everyone should visit the university's website and look around. What you'll find is as well suited to the term 'shock and awe' as any bombing campaign, and even more determinative."

What's oil this about?

Certain Kurds share that zeal about the university. They're a particularly privileged group, who pushed heavily for the invasion in the first place and have done very well for themselves in the years since. They have a stake in a long-term U.S. presence in Kurdistan -- as a protective force both against their Sunni and Shiite fellow Iraqis to the South, and against the Iranians just next door. They also need a viable oil industry and the kind of workforce a university like AUI-S can potentially provide.

Kanan Makiya, a leading neocon and high-profile advocate of the 2003 invasion who sits on the AUI-S board, told WhoWhatWhy that the idea for the university began with Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan region, which is semi-autonomous from Baghdad. Salih, who is chairman of the AUI-S board of trustees, ran the Kurdish lobbying effort in Washington since shortly after the first Gulf War, and was, like Makiya, a key figure in pushing for the ouster of Saddam.

The Kurds associated with AUI-S seem to have huge amounts of money at their disposal. Salih raised $55 million for the university in 2009, purportedly through private sources, who have not been named. And Salih has promised an additional $100 million, mainly to fund the construction of the new campus. Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq, another AUI-S board member, reportedly personally donated $65 million (where that money came from is uncertain).

In this part of the world, when such sums are involved, oil is almost always in the picture. The same year AUI-S was founded, the Kurdistan regional government signed a $700 million contract dubbed "Kurdistan Gas City," with oil and gas affiliates Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum, both based in the United Arab Emirates. The oil contract the companies signed with Dr. Salih -- an oil engineer who became fabulously wealthy -- is, according to Crescent's website, "the largest private-sector investment currently being undertaken in Iraq."

In 2008, Crescent Petroleum paid for American University of Iraq representatives to attend the "GetEnergy" summit in London, whose sponsors include the British firm BP. As GetEnergy says in promotional materials:

We don't provide education or training ourselves, but we help find the best fit between organizations that do (universities and training providers), and companies looking for education and/or training programmes in the oil and gas industry.

Afterward, former AUI-S chancellor Owen Cargol talked about how he looked forward to working closely with Crescent to use the university as a research center for the oil and gas industry. After the event, the AUI-S chancellor noted:

We are grateful for the support of Crescent Petroleum. AUI-S will use this opportunity to forge fruitful joint institutional partnerships with universities from around the world and the various energy companies to make AUI-S a regional center of excellence in all research aspects of the oil and gas industry in Iraq and beyond.

In the fall of 2009, the university launched an entity it dubbed the Twin Rivers Institute. TRI is described as an "advanced studies center for science and technology which will provide modern solutions to the problems facing industries, government agencies, and others working in the region." With a division dedicated to Remote Sensing, a process used to detect oil, the Twin Rivers Institute embodies AUI-S's promise to become a center of excellence in research for the petroleum industry. (The university itself offers the following degrees: a master's in business administration and bachelor's in international relations; information systems and technology; and environmental science and engineering.)

Settling in

Whether because of the turmoil, or despite it (they say the latter), both Mitchell and Agresto resigned last year and have returned to the United States. But the institution and the objectives behind it continue. Evidence that AUI-S may be part of a larger geopolitical vision comes in the form of yet another American institution of higher learning, this one the American University of Afghanistan.

In 2005, CBS News covered Laura Bush making a "secret" trip to Afghanistan to announce a $40 million USAID-funded grant to support university-level education and combat illiteracy. Since then, the American University of Afghanistan has opened its doors under the leadership of Dr. C. Michael Smith. Previously, Smith was a founder and president of another little-known entity, the American University of Nigeria, which has the added credibility of such respected board members as South Africa's Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. So far, the American University of Afghanistan [AUAF] is expanding with no hint of the chaos and scandal that have shaken AUI-S. One intriguing note is one of the entities listed as partnering with AUAF: Goldman Sachs.

It's hard to know where all this is going, or the long-term implications. But at least where Iraq is concerned, Thomas Friedman's "Island of Decency" is no certainty. Were we seeing a proclivity to send the most inspiring educational figures -- and perhaps to a place not packed with oil -- we might have reason to be more hopeful.

Former AUI-S faculty member Mark Grueter, a doctoral candidate in history, provided research and reporting assistance.


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