Soft Power and the Case of Iraq

Against the Current, No. 176, May/June 2015

Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons

FOLLOWING THE U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, pundits have touted the desirability of pursuing “soft power” as a supplement to military action in Iraq and other parts of the Muslim world. The term “soft power” is often attributed to Joseph S. Nye Jr, who explains it as “getting others to want the outcomes that you want” by coopting people rather than coercing them.(1)

For Nye, soft power ideally moves beyond simple persuasion to also encompass desire, having the “ability to entice and attract” people in other countries to embrace U.S. values, thus functioning as the ideological arm of the national-security state.

Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security, advises of the necessity of such a strategy to combat Islamist extremism and urges that the United States must “offer the alternative ideals of liberty and democracy.” “In other words,” he elaborates, “as during the Cold War, the situation must be seen as a war against an ideology, and a battle for the allegiance of men and women around the world.”(2)

Soft power operates partly through what is called “public diplomacy” by projecting what are deemed “American values” abroad through media channels, cultural exports, and the creation of institutional exchanges with other countries.

In relation to Iraq, educational initiatives occupy a prominent place in the policy discourse of soft power and public diplomacy in the highly visible creation of programs for Iraqi scholars to study abroad.

While Iraqi government officials couch such initiatives as a form of intellectual reconstruction in which Iraqi scholars will gain the expertise abroad necessary to rebuild the educational infrastructure at home, American university officials unabashedly invoke the language of diplomacy to describe these programs and to claim that exposure to university culture will inculcate Iraqi scholars with American ideals and ultimately contribute to the spread of democracy in Iraq.

Both characterizations contain significant gaps pertaining to the context of these programs: Absent are references to the strength of Iraq’s pre-invasion education, the complete degradation of Iraq’s infrastructure in the 1990s resulting from U.S. airstrikes and United Nations sanctions, and rampant sectarianism that has made life tenuous for many Iraqi academics.

The Pretext of Rescue

Within the larger ideological justification for the U.S. invasion, policy formulations about education occur within the context of humanitarianism and the rescue mission, the belief that Iraqis required saving from a tyrannical dictator. Discussions of soft power and education, as a result, largely obscure U.S. and UN culpability in degrading Iraq’s physical and intellectual infrastructure, causing conditions of such extreme deprivation as to make learning nearly impossible over the past two decades.

In these accounts, the current status of Iraq’s education system is attributed to policies of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party, with no acknowledgment of the role of the international community in its devastation. Despite its horrific human rights record, the regime had done much to modernize Iraq, implementing free education, building up the electrical grid, increasing agricultural production, and creating a healthcare system that served about 93% of the population.(3)

Established in 1921, Iraq’s educational system consisted of six years of primary education, followed by three years of intermediary and three years of secondary, university preparatory education. The secondary level encompassed an academic track — comprised of humanities and scientific study — and a vocational track.(4)

Building on this structure, the Iraqi government in 1975 and 1976 expanded education through three initiatives that included making primary schooling compulsory, establishing the right to free education from primary school through the university level, and launching a national campaign to eradicate illiteracy.(5)

This considerable investment in education, according to the United Nations Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, resulted in “one of the best education systems in the Arab world” with nearly 100% enrollment at the primary level, an 80% literacy rate, and scientific and technological institutions that met international standards.(6)

The substantial gains the Iraqi education system had achieved by the late 1980s quickly evaporated in the ’90s. When the United States commenced its bombing campaign against Iraq in 1991, it deliberately targeted the country’s water, sanitation and electricity infrastructure to augment the effects of the UN economic sanctions, which were levied against Iraq in August 1990.(7)

The net effect was a humanitarian catastrophe, particularly for children whose mortality rates from malnutrition and preventable water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery skyrocketed.(8) The sanctions had a calamitous effect on every aspect of daily life: preventing the rebuilding of the country’s physical infrastructure, contributing to higher unemployment, creating a health care emergency, and straining the social fabric, leading, in the words of Agustin Velloso de Santisteban, to a “state of permanent crisis.”(9)

Under the cumulative effects of sustained deprivation, the Iraqi education system devolved. In addition to a student population afflicted with malnutrition, severe shortages of teachers, textbooks, classroom furniture, computers and even writing implements made instruction almost impossible.

These conditions are reflected in the precipitous declines in school attendance, increased dropout rates at the intermediary and preparatory levels; and an alarming fall in the literacy rate, which the CIA estimated at 79% in 2015.(10) Moreover, no major curriculum revision was undertaken from 1991-2003.(11)

The Legacy of Destruction

In discourses of soft power, the destruction of Iraq’s education system is presented with no historical explanation, thereby implying that Iraqis themselves are solely responsible. Consider for example this 2004 description from the United States Agency for International Development of its work in rebuilding Iraq, even as the United States was waging war in the country:

“USAID has committed $20.7 million to five partnerships that support Iraqi universities as they emerge after years of isolation from developments in teaching methodologies, research and curricula, and decades of diminishing resources and infrastructure damage.”(12)

The lack of acknowledgement of U.S. responsibility in the destruction of Iraq’s educational system is compounded by glossing over the extreme violence in the lives of students, teachers, professors and research academics, who have been subject to kidnapping and assassination.

During the Ba’athist period, some teachers and professors, like other civil servants, joined the Ba’ath Party under pressure from the government in a pragmatic collaboration with the regime; others used party membership to advance their status in educational institutions. After the 2003 invasion, the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority instituted a de-Ba’athification program.

Although this policy was officially rescinded a year later, the Iraqi Interim Government and later the Parliament hounded suspected Ba’athists out of government positions, largely on a sectarian basis by targeting Sunni professionals for dismissal and sometimes for violence.

As of 2012, the Brussels Tribunal reports that 471 Iraqi academics have been murdered, presumably because of their Sunni identity.(13) Most troubling are rumors that the Ministry of Higher Education, under the leadership of the Minister Ali Al-Adeeb, has sponsored death squads to eliminate Sunni academics.

In his capacity as minister, Al-Adeeb ordered the sacking of 300 Sunni lecturers from Tikrit University alone, and about 1200 academics from other institutions during his tenure. Given the fragility of their employment status and uncertainties over their safety, small wonder that over 20,000 Iraqi academics have fled the country since 2003.

In this context of continued sectarianism and decades of educational decline, the Iraqi government has given revitalization of its education system a central place in reconstruction efforts. In 2008, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki asked the Iraqi Parliament to appropriate the equivalent of $1 billion annually for five years to rebuild the educational infrastructure of the country.

The “Iraqi Educational Initiative” (IEI) was officially launched one year later. The initiative focuses on all levels of education, from building thousands of elementary and secondary schools, to substantially increasing the budgets of Iraqi universities, and boosting the number of Iraqi students studying abroad annually from a few hundred to a projected 10,000 a year over a five-year period.(14)

To roll out the educational exchange portion of the initiative, the Higher Committee for Education in Iraq invited, with expenses paid by the Maliki government, representatives from 27 English-speaking universities and colleges to its first educational fair in Baghdad in January 2009.(15)

Speaking to educators in Washington DC in July 2009 about his plan to send ultimately 50,000 Iraqis abroad to study in universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and English-speaking programs in the Netherlands, Maliki further articulated his understanding of education as a form of soft power: “Instead of armies and war and killing and occupation we’re moving to something more meaningful, namely economic development, education, and exchanges of students and professors.”(16)

Critics of the IEI have focused in particular on the study abroad portion, arguing that the program is rife with sectarianism and that money is being sent out of Iraq rather than used within the country to rebuild its educational institutions.

The Higher Committee for Education in Iraq under the Maliki government launched the IEI to great fanfare, and the current regime supports its aims, but it is difficult to find much information on the sources for the $1 billion of funding for the initiative, although the Iraqi government does require oil companies operating in the country to contribute to educational funds and training programs for its citizens.(17)

In 2014, the Iraqi government claimed to substantially increase its appropriations for international study programs to $450 million; however, the Higher Committee for Education does not regularly report the numbers of students studying abroad under the IEI. According to Al-Monitor, by the beginning of 2014, five years after the initiative began, only 8,500 students had been sent to study at foreign universities, far short of the projected 50,000 student goal.(18)

Moreover, in 2013 the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education decided to discontinue support for those in the humanities and instead to exclusively put its financial assistance behind those in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.(19)

Other portions of the IEI have been similarly controversial. While the United States applauded the stated anti-sectarian stance of the Iraqi Minister of Higher Education Ali al-Adeeb, who started in early 2014 a campaign against curricula based on religion, his efforts, like his mass firings of lecturers and use of death squads as we previously referenced, have been largely aimed at purging Sunnis from educational institutions.

Benefiting U.S. Universities

If universities in Iraq can be refurbished by sending students abroad to study primarily STEM subjects in English-speaking schools, in other words to facilitate technological transfer, the IEI represents another kind of educational opportunity for American universities that participate in the program.

As public universities have faced sharp reductions in state funding from the 1990s on, they are under increasing pressure to pay for more of their own operating costs through tuition. Yet if tuition for the state’s residents gets too high, public universities can be charged with limiting access to higher education for their own citizens.

In such an environment, increasing the numbers of non-resident students who must pay out-of-state tuition has been one way to generate more revenue from tuition.

It has also made the recruitment of international students a top priority for many universities. As Vladislav Likholetov, Director of International Partnerships and Initiatives for the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri, explains, American universities gain diversity and revenue by recruiting Iraqi students:

“We are genuinely interested in making our student body more diverse, because we want our students to be exposed to all sorts of people and cultures so they’re ready for the global world they will be living in… [The Iraqi students] are also fully paid. It’s an additional plus not to have to think about funding for them.”(20)

One private firm that helps universities recruit students from China, India and other countries more baldly suggests on its website that the IEI gives universities access to a previously unavailable and now lucrative market: “Iraq may demand more legwork than some of the region’s primary markets, but with the higher education sector retrenching and recovering, generous scholarships available, and students eager to study abroad, the potential rewards there are numerous.”(21)

Such programs focused on bringing Iraqis to the United States for higher education are expressions of two related trends: the corporatization of American universities and their internationalization. As universities have embraced business models of management, so too have they more readily and explicitly adopted hierarchies of knowledge and value based on market considerations.

The beefing up of law and business schools, the elimination of general education requirements, and the professionalization of area studies through the proliferation of new schools for International Studies have meant declining enrollments in the humanities and social sciences. The presence of Iraqi and other international students helps universities bolster their credentials by providing American students with opportunities for cultural enrichment that enhance the academic reputation of these institutions.

“We are thrilled to welcome these talented students to our campus to receive a world-class education here at [University of Iowa],” Associate Provost and Dean of International Programs Downing Thomas explains, “This also provides a wonderful opportunity for UI domestic and other international students to learn more about Iraq firsthand instead of through news reports from wire services. This truly will contribute to long-term diplomacy and peace.”(22)

The Image and the Reality

By linking scholarly exchange to diplomacy, such programs aim to cast American students as enlightened civic subjects. We have nothing against enlightened civic subjects, whom we rather like. However, an exchange program that is unidirectional protects students from confronting the devastation wrought by U.S. actions in Iraq. (Increasingly, many universities do not send students abroad to study in “restricted regions” such as Iraq.)

This devastated landscape, in turn, provides the United States with the opportunity to present itself as an agent of humanitarianism. For example, in his announcement of a Memorandum of Understanding between Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and the Higher Committee of Education in Iraq, Matt Baughman, the Interim Director of SIU’s Public Policy Institute, captures the sublimely circular logic of such humanitarianism.

Baughman opines that the IEI is “also particularly special because [of] the significant sacrifices [that] the United States — especially our military — has given to create a brighter future for the Iraqis… Hopefully SIU and the institute can play a meaningful role in fostering positive, long-term changes to Iraq’s democracy by educating and befriending its young people.”23

In place of this benevolent updating of the rhetoric of the civilizing mission, we might ask how the role of American universities in the IEI could be reimagined in the service of mutual transformations, not just in the lives of individual young people but also of educational structures.

American universities could learn a few lessons from the history of education in pre- and post-invasion Iraq: the effectiveness of national literacy campaigns; the importance of universal free education from primary through the university levels; the balance of emphasizing both humanities and science instruction; and finally, the establishment of an alternative funding structure for education that would tax corporations, particularly oil companies, in order to provide what should be a fundamental right for all people to free and universal education.


  1. Joseph S. Nye Jr., (2008). “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power.” American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616 (March), 94-109. [quotation from 95].
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  2. Michel Chertoff, (2008). “Preventing Terrorism: A Case for Soft Power.” Harvard International Review. Vol. 30, No. 2 (SUMMER), 14-17. [quotation from 15].
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  3. Joy Gordon, “Cool War: Economic Sanctions as a Weapon of Mass Destruction,” Harper’s Magazine. November 2002.
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  4. Agustin Velloso de Santisteban, (2005). International Review of Education. Vol. 51, No.1 (January) 59-71. [quotation from 62].
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  5. By the late ’80s, the government was investing about 6.4% of its total budget to education, with the bulk of this money, 47%, allocated to primary education, 27% to secondary education, and 20% to university education. See Santisteban, 62-63.
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  6. Qtd. by Santisteban, 63. For information on the decline of the Iraqi education system see 63-65.
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  7. See Gordon for chilling quotations by Pentagon officials about the intentional destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure as a means to hasten the effects of economic sanctions.
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  8. By 1999, UNICEF had estimated that 500,000 children under the age of five had perished as a result of preventable diseases and widespread malnutrition. See UNICEF’s “Results of the 1999 Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Surveys.”
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  9. Santisteban, 66.
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  10. CIA. The World Factbook: Iraq. 10 April 2015.
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  11. Santisteban, 63-65.
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  12. USAID, “Promoting Higher Education in Iraq.” (June 2004).
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  13. The Brussels Tribunal, “List of Assassinated Iraqi Academics,” See also Andrew Rubin, “The Slaughter of Iraq’s Intellectuals,” New Statesman. 6 September 2004.
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  14. Elizabeth Redden, “Thousands More Iraqi Students Abroad?” Inside Higher Education. 2 June 2008.
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  15. Dirk Adriaensens, “Iraq: Massive Fraud and Corruption in Higher Education.” Counter Currents. 17 September 2009.
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  16. Qtd. by Adriaensens.
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  17. Aamer Madhani, “Iraq Seeks to Educate More Students in the US.” USA Today. 22 February 2012.
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  18. Ali Mamouri, “Iraqi Higher Education Continues to Decline.” Al-Monitor. 23 May 2014.
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  19. Mamouri.
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  20. Qtd. by Madhanai.
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  21. ICEF Monitor, “$200 Million in International Scholarships Makes Iraq a Viable Emerging Market.” 5 March 2013.
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  22. Lois Gray, “Scott King on the Iraq Education Initiative.” 20 August 2010.
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  23. Pete Rosenberry, “SIUC May Benefit from Iraq Education Initiative.” 16 January 2009.
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May/June 2015, ATC 176