Back to website


Tuesday, May 25, 2004

America's Incompetent Colonialism

Guest Editorial
by Keith Watenpaugh

America’s Incompetent Colonialism: The Failures of the US Administration of Iraq

A year ago, word began to filter out of Baghdad that in addition to the National Museum, the Iraqi National Library and Archive had also been looted, and burned, not once, but twice. Like the current scandal of systematic abuses of human rights by members of the US military, the CIA and its sub-contractors, the burning evoked a host of emotions most notably shame, revulsion and anger. The anger was primarily directed against the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense who failed to heed the near-unanimous warnings of the probability of post-war instability and the vulnerability of Iraq’s cultural heritage and take appropriate preventative measures. Their failure to fully grasp the reality of the situation in Iraq was among the earliest examples of continuing gross and criminal ineptitude of which the gruesome images from Abu Ghuraib are the most recent manifestations.

The destruction so enraged an international group of junior historians of the Arab Middle East, that we organized an assessment visit to the country last June to find out what had happened at Baghdad’s library and archives. What we also sought to do was record the needs of Iraq’s academic and intellectual community as it rebuilds itself in the face of a generation of brutish rule by Saddam Hussein, a decade of debilitating UN sanctions, a brief and humiliating war, and an open-ended American-led military occupation. All of us spoke Arabic, had lived in the region and conducted research in Iraq or in its neighboring countries before. The report of our findings is available for free download from the H-Net ( website. Downloaded several thousand times in the last year, our report is still among the only independent assessments of cultural and intellectual conditions in Iraq. Current status of the libraries and museums can be also be accessed from the following: IFLA-Blue Shield (, Iraq Crisis ( SAFE (

Conducting research for the report required us to meet with civilian and military administrators of the CPA in the Green Zone. Aside from discovering that when American men are overseas they all - including me - wear khaki slacks and blue button-down shirts, I experienced what could only be termed “de ja vue all over again.” My own area of expertise is the interwar Middle East when France and Britain controlled the several states of the Arab Eastern Mediterranean as League of Nation’s Mandates. And while the League imposed humanitarian requirements on both, the Mandates were merely colonialism in drag. Sitting across the table from CPA administrators I listened to the same language of democratization and development being employed as part of a broader, concerted plan to turn Iraq into a dependent and docile American client; and key features of Iraqi society, including higher education, media, culture, and the arts would be subordinated to that program.

What also struck me about those conversations - and the events of the intervening year have confirmed my suspicions - is that the CPA, and here I mean not just the American diplomats and bureaucrats seconded to the DOD and the token representatives of “Coalition Partners,” but also the vast array of civilian contractors and subcontractors, have been infected by the pathologies of colonialism. As I have discussed in an earlier essay for Middle East Report, (
the civilian and military administrators of Iraq have grown contemptuous of Iraq and Iraqis and have convinced themselves of their hosts’ essential incompetence. Blaming the victim has always proved an effective strategy in justifying colonialism.

The CPA’s colonial culture has limited its effectiveness on behalf of the Iraqi people and thus the US taxpayer is not getting a good value for its billions of dollars. And while unique elements of the CPA have made significant contributions to the rebuilding of Iraqi society, here I note especially the work of John Russell in the recovery of Iraq’s ancient heritage, those successes are not balanced by the abuses, corruption, cronyism and incompetence on the other side of the ledger. In part this has been caused by the exportation of domestic US politics to the Green Zone and the appointment of individuals whose sense of Iraqi, Arab, and Islamic cultures (if they have any at all) is shaped by a narrow partisan, cultural or religious agenda - and in some cases the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This was reinforced recently by the discovery that the CPA’s massive press/propaganda office is peopled primarily by Republican Party activists, lead by Dan Senor, himself a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) intern, as well.

An exemplary token of this phenomenon is the civilian contractor John Agresto, appointed last year as senior advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education. Senior advisors play a paternalistic role in the CPA akin to colonial administrators of the inter-war French and British Mandates and exert a tremendous amount of power over Iraqi institutions and agencies through the control of budgets, security and as gatekeepers to the upper echelons of the Department of Defense. Prior to going to Iraq, Agresto was briefly the president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, an institution known for its Eurocentric “Great Books” curriculum and he now runs his own educational consulting firm, Agresto Consultants. Agresto has no training in Middle Eastern society or culture and no experience in the region. He served briefly as interim chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to which he was appointed by Ronald Reagan. Along with William Bennett, and Lynne Cheney, the wife of the current Vice President Dick Cheney, Agresto was one of the leading right-wing figures in the “culture wars” of the 1980s.

More problematic for the future of higher education in Iraq, the ostensible reason he is there, is that his appointment signaled that the CPA was intent on peopling its bureaucracy with politically loyal agents, rather than those most objectively qualified to assist Iraq. The clearly political nature of Agresto’s position sent a chilling signal to those academic institutions interested in working in Iraq that their efforts - regardless of how disinterested, or how much they believe that they could change the system from within - would be part and parcel of the administration’s current policy objectives and cronyism. And in the short-term, while these programs have the potential to aid Iraqis as they rebuild their educational structures, in the long run they will tar all American educational initiatives and American academics with the same neo-colonialist brush. Being perceived as, or in fact being, allied to the military occupation of Iraq or as agents of American domination will hinder the creation of permanent, collegial and productive relations between the US and Iraqi academic communities as equals. The ultimate cost of failing to create viable and permanent relationships and of confusing what appears to be voluntary cooperation with a strategy to survive is that the core values of open exchange, freedom of inquiry, women’s participation in higher education and faculty self-management may all be dismissed as “American” values and moreover as anti-Muslim despite our assertion of their inherent universality.

While the CPA is supposed to go out of business on June 30, what elements of it will persist in the next iteration of the American role in the civil administration of Iraq is unclear. Dan Senor recently used the euphemistic construction “close partnership” to describe that relationship as he dismissed the possibility that an independent Iraqi government might ask us to leave. Fear of being asked to leave may be the leading factor in the administrations rejection of the technocratic solution suggested by the UN’s Lakhdar Brahimi. While US diplomats will in all likelihood occupy a role similar to that played by current administrators, what I suspect will also be the case is that a significant portion of American policy in Iraq will be implemented by contractors. At this juncture, Congress should exercise due diligence and mount an independent audit and investigation of the CPA; it should also introduce legislation that would hold contractors liable to US and Iraqi law and moreover give the FBI enforcement powers and responsibilities. In other words, US citizens should enjoy no extraterritorial rights in Iraq, nor should the contractors simply be allowed to police themselves.

As a rule historians should avoid the use of history to predicate the future. Yet, in an essay I wrote shortly before the war for">Logos, I opined that thinking about the exit strategies of the various interwar colonial powers could shed light on what the US would do in Iraq. At the time, I argued that the way the British left Iraq – install a loyal client leadership backed by a strong military, gain basing rights and oil concessions – would be repeated. I was convinced that the US would not leave Iraq like the British left Palestine in 1948: merely abandoning it to the UN and laying the groundwork for a half century of ongoing and unremitting war and suffering. I think I was wrong.

Keith Watenpaugh is Assistant Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern History at Le Moyne College; he also serves as the college’s Associate Director of Peace and Global Studies. In the Fall he will be a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is the third generation of his family to have lived and worked in the Middle East. He speaks and reads Arabic and Modern Turkish. Dr. Watenpaugh has written extensively on Arab intellectual history, the formation of the Baath and urban and communal violence. His book Being Modern in the Middle East: Colonialism, Modernity and the Middle Class will be published by Princeton University Press.

In June of 2003 he led a multinational team of Middle Eastern historians to Iraq to assess the conditions of Baghdad’s libraries, archives and universities * and more broadly observe the emergence of civil society and intellectual life in Iraq. The group’s findings are included in the report Opening the Doors: Intellectual Life and Academic Conditions in Post-war Iraq. Copies are available at The report is the first comprehensive account of Iraq’s intellectual and cultural scene after the war and provides the most detailed study of Iraq’s university system as it begins to rebuild in the wake of the war.

Dr. Watenpaugh has spoken on humanitarian issues confronting Iraq at Harvard, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas, the University of Utah, as well as the annual meetings of the American Historical Association, the Middle East Studies Association and the College Art Association. His work has been covered by The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Boston Globe, The Syracuse Post-Standard and National Public Radio.

Keith D. Watenpaugh
Associate Director
Peace and Global Studies

Assistant Professor
Eastern Mediterranean and Islamic History
Department of History
Le Moyne College
Syracuse NY 13214