The author, Dr. John Agresto, is a self-described neoconservative who spent nine months working in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority to revitalize higher education. The title of this book has long been a popular headline - The Economist is using it this week (22 March 2007) to describe the situation in Iraq, and the Hoover Institution's Policy Review used the phrase in 1997 in an essay on the crime epidemic. Feminists and others have also claimed that they have been "mugged by reality," and it seems one of liberalism's frequent laments when confronting the wider, less liberal world. The title, while a recycled one, is accurate when considering Agresto's driving contention: "In this age, we are all, all of us, seduced by hope but mugged by reality. And the pre-eminent reality of the day is a religious fanaticism, self-assured, unafraid of death, unafraid of killing, medieval in its outlook yet armed with powerful modern weaponry, growing in its mass appeal and able to co-opt democratic forms and elections." Agresto's authority and experience qualify him to write this book, and despite his identification with neo-conservatism, this book is neither Right nor Left in any orthodox sense. There is plenty herein to upset assumptions on both sides of the aisle. His intellectual honesty is evident in that he has not claimed to have found the easy answers too many pundits rave about: he supported the war; he acknowledges it has gone badly; he does not attempt to justify mistakes with intentions. As he describes the cardinal error, it was "hope triumphant over rationality," and Iraq has become more a tragedy than a mistake.
Agresto is at his finest in making a credible connection between liberal education and liberal democracy, and the point is not a minor one. Democracy, or self-government, requires citizens capable of governing themselves, which they may acquire principally through liberal education. If democracy means only majority rule, Agresto, like others (Fareed Zakaria comes to mind), believes the consequences will be illiberal democracies with the potential for becoming the type of tyranny that was overthrown. Agresto details the difficulties of implementing liberal democracy in Iraq, such as the crippling effects of autocratic corruption and socialism, as well as the absence of anything like a liberal tradition in which to ground liberal democracy. Agresto is critical of the U.S. for its failure to secure Iraq after the invasion: porous borders, anarchic criminals, and looting not only made governing Iraq more difficult, but ensured that the Iraqi people would express a preference for security over liberty, and seek in religious fundamentalism what was unavailable through liberal education.
Incredibly, there have only been two professional reviews of the book: one in the Wall Street Journal, and the other in the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal review by Carter Malkasian was, I think, overly critical of Agresto's treatment of the average Iraqi character. Agresto's point about the Iraqi reluctance to take charge of their liberty is essentially that the people have been cowed and infantilized by tyranny and socialism, and are more afraid of the terrorists and the insurgents than Americans because they and their families are more susceptible to attack than are the Americans. Rajiv Chandrasekaran's piece in the Washington Post was startlingly revealing. Quoting a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, the professor said, "The politics of the occupation were so divisive, and the American academy felt so disempowered by the way things were happening, that when such political creatures like Agresto came asking for things, it was too difficult to put aside those politics." If the American academy felt `disempowered', can you imagine how the Iraqi students must have felt at not having textbooks, desks, or windows? Agresto's story is interesting because the reader witnesses all of the cheap political points that were being scored by American academics and international aid agencies, as well as the real-world consequences of this dastardly behavior on the ground in Iraq.
Despite containing so many prescient observations and reflections, there are problems with this book. It is generally poorly organized, and lacks focus. Too often Agresto tries to include an aside that runs long only to conclude with "this will be addressed in a future chapter." It could have been considerably tightened up, and preserved its greatest strength, which was the discussion about the relationship between liberal education and liberal democracy. Also, disappointing for a book coming from Encounter were the many editorial lapses. I won't bore the reader with these here, but if someone from Encounter happens to be reading this review, they may want to read through the following pages: 73, 75, 96, 106, 108, 125, 147, 149, 165, 168 - missing page number, 179, and 181. Finally, Agresto emphasizes repeatedly the import of culture throughout, only to say near the end that "the truth remains that blaming the culture is the coward's way out" (p.169). He is here referring to the American military's abuses at Abu Ghraib, so that it seems (though I cannot imagine Agresto actually believes this) that culture matters if we are talking about Iraq and Iraqis difficulty with democracy and liberalism, but that it's the "coward's way out" when we are talking about whether changes in American culture have had any pernicious effects on the character of the average military recruit.
Despite the fact that Agresto's book is often long on reflection, and short on explicit suggestions, it remains an important one. I believe it would appeal particularly to those involved at any level of education; and more broadly, to those Americans who are undecided, uncertain, or uneasy about the ongoing American involvement in Iraq.