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I Was a Professor at the Horribly Corrupt American University of Iraq... Until the Neocons Fired Me

Horror stories from the graft-ridden American University of Iraq campus in Kurdistan.

The hero of this story is the $100 bill -- or rather, the wad of $100 bills. My first meeting with those lovely $100 bills came at the end of my interview for a job teaching English at the American University of Iraq Sulaimaniya (AUIS). At the end of the interview, the Chancellor, Joshua Mitchell asked me what my travel expenses had been and pulled out a wad of $100 bills. He peeled off 11 of them -- the cost of my ticket -- and slapped them down on the table, snarling, “There, that’s how I do business!”

It certainly wasn’t the way most American academics do business. Most Americans are horrified by the sight of large amounts of cash, and American academics, an even more squeamish lot than most, would never have slapped that much money down on a table without asking for a receipt or any other formality. I was impressed; there’s something appealing about raw gangsterism popping up when you expected overcautious pedantry -- especially when that raw gangsterism is giving you cash.

Any scruples I might have had about joining the occupation vanished with the last of our cash. My wife Katherine and I had been truly poor in the preceding three years -- homeless, begging at food banks, the whole deal. I even published some helpful hints in AlterNet for those experiencing real poverty for the first time.

We went to Iraq to make money, not because we believed the neocon talk about training Iraq’s future leaders in the great ideals of the West.

And once we got to know our colleagues at AUIS, we found that nearly all the faculty was there for the same reason. Oh, they knew the talking points -- democracy, Great Books, transforming an authoritarian culture -- but they were in Iraq to make money. Well, to make money and to drink. In fact, when the talk got boozy, as it almost always did at faculty gatherings, the nonsense about bringing democracy disappeared and people started talking openly about SUVs and houses in the country.

AUIS bloomed in the Northern Iraqi desert, a very artificial growth sustained hydroponically with US tax dollars.  One night, at a very boozy faculty party, some veteran AUIS teachers told us the secret story of how the place was created .They claimed that AUIS was born when John Agresto, a right-wing academic and vassal of the Cheney clan, drove over the Turkish border with $500,000 cash taped to his body. There was something grotesque about this legend, because Agresto is a notably fat man, and once you’d heard the legend of his cash-strapped trip across the border, you couldn’t  help imagining him bulging with cash on top of his other bulges, like a wombat infested with botfly larvae.

Bizarre as that story sounds, it’s probably true. Stranger things, involving much bigger stashes of tax money, have happened throughout the US occupation of Iraq -- and Agresto certainly had the political connections to score that kind of cash. In the early stages of the US occupation after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Agresto was in charge of “reforming” the Iraqi education system on good Republican principles. To his credit, he wrote a reasonably honest book about the experience called Mugged by Reality. Unfortunately, the mugging didn’t take; Agresto has gone back to his right-wing roots, avoiding that disrespectful thug, Reality, as much as possible.

Agresto has a very typical right-wing biography, steeped in resentment and nourishing long, slow, vengeful designs on the academic profession which had humiliated him. He was a Reagan appointee to the National Endowment for the Humanities in the mid-1980s, joining his patron, Bill Bennett, in the project to de-fund the Left. But when he was nominated as Deputy head, a job that required congressional confirmation, Agresto was bitterly humiliated. He was criticized as a “mediocre political appointment” by the American Studies Association, with a dozen academic organizations joining up to issue a statement deploring his “decidedly partisan reputation.” There were also raised evebrows at the fact that a witness who testified for Agresto at his confirmation hearings had recently been given a large grant at Agresto’s behest. After these bruising revelations, his nomination was dropped.

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