mission in Iraq ‘a success,’ MSU president maintains
Problems remain; ‘This isn’t
What business does a university president have in Iraq, and what purpose
might this possibly serve for higher education? Quite a few people in
the Michigan State University community have brooded on these questions
since last April, when MSU President Peter McPherson was appointed to
oversee Iraq’s economic development as the financial coordinator
for the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
Monday, students, faculty, and area residents heard McPherson publicly
discuss his work in Iraq, and voiced concerns, support, or disapproval
in front of a large campus audience since his return in September.
Two hundred people gathered for the evening forum, held at the MSU Union.
The audience met a confident university president, who called his mission
in Iraq “a success,” although he said some concerns about
the stability of Iraq’s economy, political system and security
remained. “This isn’t Ohio,” McPherson said.
president had played a role in removing Saddam Hussein. His image, that
is. As financial coordinator, McPherson explained that he was responsible
for some hundred million dollars in cash, to be paid to government employees.
But since only Iraqi dinars had been available, and these were marked
with a picture of Hussein, McPherson had proposed printing new money
— without the dictator’s image. Today, there are six denominations
available. “Frankly, this is a success,” said McPherson.
The college president’s role in Iraq wasn’t limited to the
symbolic dismantling of Hussein, as Fortune magazine put it on June
23, McPherson was to make “Iraq safe for capitalism.” His
primary tasks were to manage Iraq’s oil revenue, administer its
central bank, and privatize Iraqi state-owned firms.
McPherson reported that he was able to open up Iraq’s economy
to private enterprises, so that its firms no longer depend on government
subsidies. His team laid out a plan to make Iraq’s economy more
open to free trade than any other country in the Middle East. McPherson
praised the marginal income tax system introduced by his team, with
the highest rate at 5 percent, tariffs at a flat rate of 5 percent,
and the legality of unlimited foreign investment.
McPherson said he knew that some people opposed his mission in Iraq.
“I think that’s just fine. One of the great things about
Michigan State is that we discuss things openly,” he said.
In an open question and answer session, Richard Peterson, a professor
of philosophy, wanted to know how significant economic changes imposed
by the United State could be legitimized, especially in the absence
of an elected government.
McPherson replied that the occupation law was ambiguous. He said that
while the French government thought they shouldn’t do anything,
he felt economic change shouldn’t wait until after the next election.
“I believe it’s irresponsible to be down there and not to
Rosina Hassoun, an adjunct professor of anthropology, expressed concerns
that rebuilding Iraq meant merely boosting U.S. companies without benefiting
Iraqi firms. “Will this money be given back to Iraqis?”
Due to its close alliance with the U.S. corporate sector, the Bush administration
has been criticized for occupying Iraq in order to win a piece of the
market and to be able to influence neoliberal economic reforms in the
Middle East. To give an example, the Kellogg Brown & Root unit of
Halliburton, an oil-services company formerly headed by Vice President
Dick Cheney (a close friend of McPherson), controls Iraq’s oilfields
under a controversial, no-bid contract from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Halliburton has been accused of price gouging on imported fuel.
McPherson argued that the huge contracts given to Halliburton and Bechtel
were essentially finished. He added that the new $87 billion budget
appropriated by Congress could by definition only be awarded to U.S.
firms. The MSU president said he believed the U.S. government should
make sure that it hires more Iraqis, and that it should push for more
Williamston resident Sam Hindi, who grew up in Baghdad, said he wonders
if McPherson plans to send a team of academic experts to rebuild the
McPherson said that he would “love to put my fingers in this,”
but another university, Texas A&M, had already been awarded the
contract for agricultural work in Iraq.
English professor Kenneth Harrow said many people were very unhappy
that MSU was involved in Iraq. Harrow suggested discussing some of the
issues “before we get into them” and reminded the audience
of MSU’s role in the war against Vietnam.
From 1955 to 1962 MSU provided academic cover to CIA agents in South
Vietnam, operating under a $25 million contract with the federal government
to bolster the dictatorial regime of puppet President Diem. MSU provided
police training and weapons to South Vietnamese police forces. The involvement
had led to a criticism questioning the role of institutions of higher
education in wartime politics.
McPherson, who as chief administrator for the U.S. Agency for International
Development took part in international projects in 70 countries during
the 1980s, said he didn’t see an immediate opportunity for the
university to commit itself to Iraq. If that question comes up, he said,
“I’m sure there will be an opportunity at time to talk about
Considering the strong public interest and potential critique surrounding
McPherson’s role in Iraq, the tame and bureaucratic tone of the
evening was surprising. Last summer, in a July 3 interview from Baghdad,
McPherson had reported: “It’s fun to put together a country’s
budget,” and had told The State News: “I think this must
be heaven […] A lot of people can adjust to not have running water
all the time.” Those remarks had provoked criticism from History
Department chairman Lewis Siegelbaum, who wrote in a letter to the editor
that, in light of the daily reports on the devastation in Iraq, such
a statement was grossly insensitive.
The Monday evening forum included no such exchanges. The talk revolved
mostly around finances. Upon leaving the auditorium, I heard one audience
member comment to her friend: “We really were too polite.”
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