By Russ Baker and Kristina Borjesson
Editor: Jonathan Rowe
Co-published on

Students at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniya – photo by Chris De Bruyn

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 one hundred 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 one hundred years ago. It began modestly, with one class of sixteen 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.


John Agresto – photo by Lindsay France, Cornell University

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 his genitals. Cargol’s accuser made public the contents of an email 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 PhD 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 rightwing political and academic projects, who endowed a chair for him at the Fund for American Studies, an ideologically conservative educational institute.

Main Building, American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniya. The school received a five-year unconditional accreditation in June 2010, less than three years after opening its doors

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.”

Continue to Page 2 of 4

40 responses to “Sex, Oil, Chaos & Corruption at American U. of Iraq”

  1. T says:

    I don’t understand what the controversy is about. He met the requirements of a promotion. He demonstrated his ability to be the worst possible candidate for the job. It’s how they roll. Quit yer whining and embrace the moral deterioration of society at the hands of those shaping the minds of the future. It’s right up their alley.

  2. mustafa karate says:

    Sex,chaos,oil,corporation and cia spies

    Dear russ baker i really thank for this article about the real side of auis but something is very necessary to know also auis is a place for sex,oil,chaos and …… is a good place for CIA spies.and they try to use the students as a spy.i was a student the and they asked for do something for them out side university.they told me to follow a person step by step and later give them a report about his conduct.after i did they told me it was a simple testing and they will call me about the real business wich i must do for them, and they talk me don’t tell anyone about it,so we can say cia is another secret of AUIS.

  3. Man on the street says:

    US fundamentalism is not Christianity; it is simply 1- no abortion, 2- support the Zionists, 3- support our military wars of aggression.

  4. Guest says:

    I love how the US is the only one who has ever invaded another country for their resources and not left until they’ve sucked every last penny they could out of it… Oh, wait! They’re not, every major power has done it at some point or another, France, the UK, Spain, Germany, need I go on? In fact I wish I could remember where American came from… Oh yeah! Britain joining in on the massive wave of people trying to colonize the new world. The only difference is now people have the internet to whine and moan about on instead of doing something or thinking about whether or not they can do anything about it. Also, fun fact,Britain started losing it’s dozens of colonies after America won a few battles and started getting help from France, Spain, and Holland. Britain has always had a ton, stupid tea drinkers…

    • Guest says:

      But, for the record, I still don’t really approve of what they are doing, I was just saying they aren’t some brand new demonic force that the world has never seen the likes of…

  5. FratDawg23 says:

    Iraq had one of the best university systems in the MidEast: free tuition was underwritten by the Iraqi oil revenues; Shia and Sunni mixed peacefully in a secular and professional environment. Political dissent was forbidden of course, but otherwise highly regarded. The sanctions starting in 1991 post-Gulf War took a big toll over the years. Then first thing genius Paul Bremer did was to fire all the administrators and also not provide security for the facilities – the books and supplies were looted thoroughly and many buildings burned. The Bush/Cheney neocon-artists were sociopaths to say the least.

  6. Begeology says:

    You sure have it in for President Bush. Get over it. By the way, Ray Hunt obtained his 2 blocks without the help of Bush. I was in charge of the evaluating all of the infrastructure of Iraq, to include the oil and gas reserves. In my instructions, I was ordered not to favor any American company. These orders came from the Whiter House. This fact was published the last two years in newspapers in the US. when the memo was declassified. Get your facts straight and stop spreading lies.

    • Larry says:

      Yea and I have a bridge in NYC I’d like to sell you.  Truth from a Bushie?  Lies were the underpinnings the Cheney/Bush thieves, liers, and war criminals

    • Sfjhf says:

      oh, so it didn’t really matter which company. you needn’t favour any american company, as long as you could be the conduit for (stealing and) distributing the wealth and resources of others in a way that maximised the profits for the bush administration and co. how nice of the whiter house to be so impartial: hmm, yet when it came to killing and genocide they would happily go along with fabricating lies of WMDs? you talk like the catholic nun turned adultress yet concerned about the use of condoms. if someone who writes as cohesively and rationally as you do is in charge of the infrastructure of iraq then all humanity should be concerned.

  7. AUIS Professor DWM says:

    As a faculty member at AUI-S, I find this article laughably out of date.  We have a new administration, have moved into our admittedly still incomplete campus, and are preparing to graduate our first class.  Like many of my colleagues, I am here because I believe in the liberal arts mission of this institution, not for the paycheck.  There has been a huge amount of misinformation, and perhaps deliberate misinformation, regarding our salaries.  They are generous, but in line with expat salaries elsewhere in the Middle East.  Sadly, it seems those who lament so much spent on guns are even less happy when butter enters the menu.  The publication date for the article is February 2011, and it is now late October of the same year.  If the author wants to be taken seriously, he should consider updating both his information and his perspective.  This is a slanted hit-piece, plain and simple.

    • Mark Grueter says:

      Aside from the fact that you don’t seem to know how to use a comma and cannot be one of the English professors, I predict you’ll be disillusioned with AUI-S within the next couple months. It happens to everyone: first you experience euphoria for a couple months, then disgust kicks in after you realize how corrupt and insane that operation is. You may choose to bite your tongue in order to keep the good salary flowing, but that only lasts so long. How else to explain the extreme turnover rate at AUIS? Teachers hate it there, and the only thing keeping that place propped up is oil money: they want petroleum engineers, not liberal arts students.

    • LeedsUK says:

      liberal arts? are you serious? what a paradox! ‘liberal’ arts under ‘occupation’?! you people have comitted genocide, killed millions (see UK based Lancet report), stolen the natural resources, you destroyed the infrastructure of a sovereign country, you replace the previous regime with a much worse regime, the country is worse off than it ever was, you enact attrocities like abu gharib (not one off either), you’re responsible for the death of women and children in falluja among other places, you used white phospherous against civilians, the people are still fighting your occupation, and yet you comfortably sit in your green zones and use the word ‘liberal’??? wake up! the only arts you are therefore is your barbarian arts in the guise of libration. talk about being delusional!

  8. Anodyne says:

    A minor note to correct the generalization: U of C‘s political science department, from which Joshua Mitchell received his PhD is a different, and not infrequently antagonistic, animal than the famously free market, ‘neo-con‘ oriented Business School. But, it is worth noting that the Department had a period  (Strauss, Bloom) noted for turning from the Department‘s traditional empiricist roots in social research to pursue ‘truth‘ in the classics, great books and in classical, antiquarian political theory (maybe comparable to the great books curriculum of St. John‘s in New Mexico). That group does have a legacy of having enabled those with a conservative bent, and sounds as if Mitchell is from that end of things. Members of that persuasion continue to exist, but by and large they are found on the separate Committee on Social Thought -a completely separate interdisciplinary program. The politics and intellectual biases of the faculty of the Department these days are very diverse, with prominent Realists, Marxists and various stripes of comparativists being influential and well represented -in fact, chairing the department. In other words, these days the work of professors there is a good place to look for very conscientious alternatives to the neo-liberal nostrums. To be fair.

    This article was a solid and informative piece.

  9. Raiskhan says:

    U.S.fundamentalism is really frightening. God save the world from U.S.

  10. Reband kurdy says:

    Rzgar, thats all true and the bad thing is the politac leaders are participating in this corruption, and its shame on them they are trying to corrupt the education sector as well….!!!!! 

  11. Iconoclastes says:

    Christian Pod People

  12. B.B. says:

    U.S. Christian fundamentalism, is in fact, the single greatest threat to global peace and security. This we can see right here with the U.S. involvement in Iraq, which has resulted in mass-destruction and murder.  G.W. Bush regarded himself as “born again” which is a de-facto admission of his Christian fundamentalism.

    Beware of U.S. Christian fundamentalism!

    Why Christian fundamentalists support Israel

    Why Christian fundamentalists are so greedy

  13. shablon says:

    Just like one of these political appointees said, they were all there to make money and to proselytize on the side. There is nothing as immoral as to occupy the people and then imbibe them with your own sick, corrupt ideology of money and greed, and try to convert them into the faith, you yourself do not know or believe in, except as a tool for making MONEY.

  14. None of our damn business anyway. Let them all go to hell! Israel included.

  15. guest says:

    Yet another typical example of American style colonialism in the Middle East – an over-funded project full of incompetent idiots for employees who couldn’t get or keep a job in the states, but were networked in with the good ole boys neocon/Bushonian crowd and so got an overpaid position for something they weren’t qualified for.  It’s the scholastic version of  a KBR construction sub-contracting project.  Instead of faulty wiring and plumbing, you have faulty teachers.

  16. guest says:

    Yet another typical example of American style colonialism in the Middle East – an over-funded project full of incompetent idiots for employees who couldn’t get or keep a job in the states, but were networked in with the good ole boys neocon/Bushonian crowd and so got an overpaid position for something they weren’t qualified for.  It’s the scholastic version of  a KBR construction sub-contracting project.  Instead of faulty wiring and plumbing, you have faulty teachers.

  17. The Entity says:

    I am currently at AUI-S (although heading back home after a very illuminating year inKurdistan). I can’t comment on all that’s been written in this piece and in the remarkss below since many of them predate my time here in Suli.  What I can say, though, is that little ofthis squares with my own experience. I watched the bizarre “interview” R. Baker did and can only say that it was among the more amateurish performances I’ve witnessed on the tube in awhile. The facts that seemed so suggestive to Baker are really quite straightforward: the school was founded in 2007 with seed money from the US with the remainder of the school’s funding coming from private sources in Kurdistan. Baker suggested that somehow this represents some unholy alliance between US oil interests and those who lured us into Iraq. Not quite. Yes, students at AUIS can major in business and engineering – why wouldn’t they? They’re in Iraq!!! What do you want them to major in to get their country back on its feet – post-colonial studies? Be reasonable, or at least rational, please. They have oil and want business to invest in Iraq. Seems pretty logical to me. We don’t have to imagine some sinister plot to account for this.

    As for sex scandals, there were none that occurred at AUIS and to suggest otherwise is simply engaging in the kind of skewed journalism supposedly held in contempt by this site. This is a classic case of trying to assign guilt by association and is reprehensible.

    The sources for this article have themselves not been properly researched by Mr. Baker. In his rush to judgment he accepted as fact the word of two teachers who got the sack. Why they got the sack, I couldn’t say. But I do know that such sources are usually handled with some caution by real journalists. In Mark’s case I communicated with him awhile back over John Dolan’s charge that the faculty are here only for the money. I told him that I wasn’t – that I have a good job waiting for me in the States when I’m done here, and that I knew many others who were in similar situations. Mark told me I was naive and I’d find out. Well, it’s a whole academic year later and I think I was right afterall. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect Mark may just be full of shit.

    My favorite moment in the TV interview that sums up for me how ill-informed and amateurish this whole “investigation” is was when the young woman interviewing Baker took a stab at a big picture conclusion by noting that there were all these shady American campuses out there subverting the world – AUIS, the American University of Nigeria, the American University of Afghanistan and the Ameircan University of Beirut. Beirut! Really? The AUB founded in 1866? That one? One of the premier institutions of higher education in the Middle East? That one? The one staffed almost entirely by pre-eminent Arab scholars? Does anyone involved with this nonsense even have a clue?

    AUI-S is hardly a perfect institution. There is some substance to some of the more sensible criticisms of the joint offered in this article. But from my own experience most of what has been written here by Baker, et al. is irresponsible. If Baker would like to redo and resubmit I would be happy to talk with him and give him another perspective from which to understand the institution. He might even want to actually visit AUI-S and see for himself so that he will no longer be guily of the worstof  journalistic sins – laziness.

    • Markgrueter says:

      I don’t remember you, but I do remember telling many people that most of the teachers who go there do so for the money. That is the primary motivator. I just don’t see how anyone can deny this; and I obviously don’t appreciate being accused of being ‘full of shit’ by someone who solicited my opinion through email. You may be an exception, and I’m sure there are a few other exceptions. I know a few who went for reasons related to furthering their career ambitions – such as Ryan Bubalo and Jerry Weinberger. And me, to some extent. If not money, what was your motive? 

    • Iconoclastes says:

      Russ Baker writes copiously footnoted books with solid scholarship.
      Your “comment” reeks of a right wing think tank piece of steaming shidisinformation.
      Looking at it you can see that it’s been written and rewritten and vetted and then burnished with a little folksiness.

  18. Discogem says:

    This is an excellent article.  Having worked at AUIS until recently I can tell you that one of the many problems with the John Agresto/Josh Mitchell reign was that they both support – and particpated – in antisemitism.  Here are a few examples — former HR Director, Lara Dizeyee made it clear to all that if anyone were Jewish they should ‘keep it to themselves’ and with her abrasive and threatening tone – it was clear that she disliked Jews and they were not welcome.    This could’ve first been conceived as only her opinion, until it was noted that both Agresto and Mitchell were at the meeting when this was discussed and both were actively knodding their heads in support and agreement of Ms. Dizeyee.  Also, both Agresto & Mitchell routinely bragged to the staff and faculty about their ‘head bashing’ meetings with, Rosalind Warfield, the only female – and Jewish – Director level on the staff.  They would make fun or her behind her back with others — claim she was incompetent, continually threaten her with the fear of being fired etc. and worst of all they would reduce her to tears until she admitted she was the cause of ALL the problems at AUIS.  She was the punching bag as we all knew.    This was different support compared to the tolerance of  Jew-hating Ms. Dizeyee – who routinely was invited to dinners with Agresto/Mitchell along with Darrin Vandertoorn and Denise Natali who were in the Mitchell/Agresto fan club.   People like Mark Grueter and John Dolan who pushed back against this horrible practices were fired under some ridculous made up reasons – and they were reminded by a gleeful Josh Mitchell that “American laws don’t apply in Iraq – we can treat people anyway we want.’  They were right.

    • guest says:

      I wonder how Darrin Vandertoorn got his job?  He had no academic background, but he was the head of an academic department!

    • Guesterello says:

      Well, I believe there were reports, even photos, of Big D and Agresto going away on “antiquing” trips…

    • Guesterello says:

      And incidentally, Vandertoorn is also Canadian… figure that one out

    • Kurdblogger says:

      Discogem I am trying to gather information about AUIS and some of its staff. Sometime ago I was able to access the blog but I can no longer do that. Can you assist me in accessing the information on that blog or invite me to it? Thanks

  19. karen00 says:

    This is how government works, and specifically how the inane US empire works. Give jobs to your friends, on other people’s money. Results? Outputs? Rigor? Market forces? Never mind. Force ’em to be “free.”

Subscribe to the Daily WhoWhatWhy

Relevant, in-depth journalism delivered to you.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.