A quick survey of the attendees, however, would lead you to understand this was something much more than your average commencement. Photo by Sartip Othman/Rudaw
SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region – On Saturday, 150 students graduated from the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), in the third commencement ceremony since the university opened in 2007.
In many ways the event was indistinguishable from that of an US liberal arts institution. Shrewd family members arrived early to claim seats in the shade. Graduates processed in robes and square mortar-board caps to the “Pomp and Circumstance March.” University President Dawn Dekle assured the eager faces before her that “graduation is the beginning, not the end. It is your golden ticket to the world.”
A quick survey of the attendees, however, would lead you to understand this was something much more than your average commencement. Kurdistan’s political and business elite were well represented, and the American Consul General drove from Erbil to attend. If the graduates are the region’s future, the audience offered insight into the complex political realities of the region’s past and present.
Flashback to 2007, when three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman wrote:
“Imagine for a moment if one outcome of the US invasion of Iraq had been the creation of an American University of Iraq. Imagine if we had triggered a flood of new investment into Iraq that had gone into new hotels, a big new convention center, office buildings, Internet cafes, two new international airports and Iraqi malls. Imagine if we had paved the way for an explosion of newspapers, even a local Human Rights Watch chapter, and new schools. Imagine if we had created an island of decency in Iraq, with public parks, where women could walk unveiled and not a single American soldier was ever killed — where Americans in fact were popular — and where Islam was practiced in its most tolerant and open manner. Imagine ...Well, stop imagining. It’s all happening in Kurdistan, the northern Iraqi region, home to four million Kurds.”
This was published in an opinion column in The New York Times a month before the university opened its doors. Nearly seven years later, the superstar journalist returned to Kurdistan to check back in on the university and deliver the keynote speech -- a coup for the young school which is still trying to achieve accreditation.
On the day of his speech, he published another article in the Times, once again referring to Kurdistan as an “island of decency,” this time in the broader context of a Sunni-Shiite war stretching from Iran across Iraq to Lebanon and Syria. For Friedman, the Kurdish university is not just a success story in the context of Iraq -- two other American universities planned for the south weren’t feasible for security reasons -- it’s an exemplar of progress in a region increasingly marked by disintegration and chaos.
AUIS has never just been a university. It was born out of the ambition to create a (economically and socially) liberal Iraq, the vision reflected in Mr. Friedman’s 2007 article. This vision unified the interests of US “liberators” and a segment of the Western-oriented Kurdish political class, best represented in the person of Barham Salih, former Iraqi deputy prime minister (2006-2009) and Kurdish prime minister (2009-2012).
Salih founded the university in 2006 while still PM. At the time he was also heading the International Compact, an initiative with the United Nations to secure funding for the country in return for investment-friendly economic and political reforms.
He chaired a committee responsible for amending a national hydrocarbons law, inviting US diplomats to participate. At the first meeting of the International Compact in Abu Dhabi, Salih emphasized that “Iraq needs to send a strong signal to the international community about investment in oil… We need to push liberalization and open our markets.” He publically offered his support for production sharing contracts (the most lucrative model for oil companies) and international arbitration clauses to enforce them. The State Department marveled at his energy and political prowess. The US coordinator for economic transition, Tim Carney, said “Everybody knows he’s America’s man.”
It follows that Americans were instrumental in establishing AUIS. Salih immediately brought in John Agresto as Interim provost and chancellor. Agresto, who served as Coalition Provisional Authority advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education, is a longtime friend of Donald Rumsfeld. The university is committed to spreading democracy and engendering free-market principles, the same mission that underwrote the International Compact years ago. No wonder American diplomats, Ministry of Natural Resource officials and the head of Iraq’s biggest brokerage house were there to applaud the third cohort of BA and MBA graduates.
After a string of scandals during Agresto’s controversial tenure, it seems that the university is finding its footing. It has a reputation of producing some of the finest graduates in the country, and promises to be one of the region’s best academic institutions. Looking at the posh new campus, Friedman’s 2007 words ring true: “America’s invasion midwifed something really impressive in Kurdistan… we created the opening and the Kurds did the rest.”
The launch may have been a little messy, but ultimately it’s the caliber of the students that will determine the university’s reputation.
It helps to have talented Barham Salih steering the ship. Enormously popular with the students, he could scarcely move for hours after the ceremony as students swarmed around him in hope of a photo. In a glowing paean to her boss, Dekle called Salih her “mentor,” and likened him to US President Theodore Roosevelt. She certainly wasn’t the only one to notice how presidential Salih looked, as Kurdish Parties search for a successor to Jalal Talabani.