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Afoot in Iraq: Harvard Sets Sights on Stable Middle East

Affiliates work to rebuild economy, hatch constitution

By Kevin Zhou, Crimson Staff Writer

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christopher Foote found himself working in the Republican Palace in Baghdad—Saddam Hussein’s former office. Just a year before, he had been teaching an economics course in Emerson Hall.

Foote, a lecturer in economics, served in Iraq as an economic adviser during the reconstruction phase of the war. Working in the office of Melville P. McPherson, the financial coordinator for the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, Foote was asked to help create an effective economic strategy, even though there was little statistical data available from Saddam’s regime.

And despite the country’s instability and weak infrastructure, Foote traveled throughout Baghdad, hoping to learn anything he could to improve the country’s decrepit conditions.

“I found myself with an opportunity to go and I felt that it was something I could make a contribution to,” Foote says.

Foote is one of several individuals from Harvard who have played an instrumental role in shaping policy throughout the war in Iraq—spanning from the period preceding the invasion to the post-invasion fallout.

Working both at home in Cambridge and in Baghdad, these professors, lecturers, and tutors have contributed to various aspects of the reconstruction effort, from helping build the country’s media market, to working to hatch the country’s constitution, to lobbying in Washington for policy changes.

THE GREEN ZONE

For those working in Baghdad, security concerns limited movement and made it difficult to talk to Iraqis outside of a small circle of military personnel and business executives.

At about the same time that Foote was working in Iraq, Noah R. Feldman ’92, who will be joining the Law School faculty this fall, arrived in Baghdad to serve as a senior adviser to the writers of the country’s constitution.

Though the coalition had managed to secure large parts of the “green zone”—the heavily fortified area in Baghdad—in the aftermath of the invasion, such security was not assured outside of the protected region.

When Feldman traveled across the country in full battle gear to speak with Iraqi leaders and politicians about the country’s new constitution, the military convoy frequently attracted insurgents gunfire.

“It taught me the lesson that I was safer if I went out on my own rather than with anyone on the military,” Feldman says.

Though Foote spoke with and briefed many prominent Iraqi business owners and key political figures in the Coalition Provisional Authority—including L. Paul Bremer III—the threat of violence prevented him from traveling to unsecured areas outside of the green zone, making it difficult to talk to small business owners and other Iraqi civilians.

Foote says he wishes that he had been able to learn what people thought the relationship between state- and private-owned enterprises should be, noting that it was difficult to learn this simply by talking to business executives.

“All the time I wish I could have gone around,” Foote says of the security concerns. “We weren’t in a complete bubble, but the potential for those contacts was limited.”

‘A COMPARATIVE ADVANTAGE’

Foote, who worked as a senior staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers in Washington in 2002, left after a year because he said he wanted to influence policy in Iraq.

Arriving in Baghdad about two months after the invasion, Foote had to confront a wave of economic setbacks, visible in the widespread looting and street violence.

Foote says his role as an economic adviser during the reconstruction process was complicated by the lack of sufficient data on the economic conditions of the country.

He regularly traveled around the area to speak with business and tribal leaders in order to gather data and gain a better feel for the country’s economic conditions.

Working alongside McPherson, Foote argued that the country’s different currencies could be brought together into one, and in October 2003, the Provisional Authority introduced a new national, unified currency—the Iraqi dinar.

In one of his most significant recommendations, Foote advised the Provisional Authority to adopt an open trading system, an idea he says generated significant opposition at the time.

Foote says many within Iraq expressed skepticism about the system since they had been closed off from trade for so long, and feared that the country would not be able to compete in industries other than oil.

“What we try to do as economists is explain that Iraq will have a comparative advantage in some industries, and that the benefits of trade don’t accrue to the countries that make everything better than everyone,” Foote says. “It would be the same arguments you’d make in Ec 10.”

SPEAKING FREELY

With the country’s economy in shambles after the invasion, significant questions remained about what direction Iraq’s governance should take, and outside advisers were called in to contribute to the policy-making.

After arriving in Baghdad, Feldman played a critical role in the writing of Iraq’s new constitution. Feldman says that while most of the advisers argued for a secular constitution, he contended that such an approach would not be realistic.

Instead, Feldman proposed that the constitution should include a clause that acknowledged the role that Islam should play in the country along with the role of democracy.

“In the final constitution, the language is unique because it specifies that no law can contradict Islam, but in the same sentence, it says that no law can contradict democracy,” Feldman says.

As one of the only Democrats in a sea of Republican advisors, Feldman notes that he was given the opportunity to “speak freely” despite the fact that he did not have any partisan allies among his colleagues.

‘BATTLING THE INSURGENT PROPAGANDA’

Unlike Foote and Feldman whose primary responsibilities were policy recommendations, Lt. Seth W. Moulton ’01, a Quincy House tutor who was deployed to Baghdad in 2003, focused more on changes on the ground.

Just days after arriving, Moulton says he learned from his battalion commander he would be helping to establish a free media system. Besides teaching Iraqi civilians and aspiring journalists the principles of a free press, Moulton helped develop a newspaper, radio station, and television show.

The television show, which provided news about developments in Iraq and reached a vast audience in Baghdad, became a hit with its viewers.

“We’d travel all over the province reporting on stories and we became minor celebrities,” Moulton recalls. “I’d get fan mail and sign autographs, and people would refuse our money at local businesses.”

But Moulton says that unlike some of his superiors, he understood it was important to present both sides of the story on his television show.

After complaints surfaced that the reports were too one-sided, the show launched a series of critical reports that examined such issues as the electricity outages throughout the country.

“The other way I looked at it was that if you are an American who really believes in a democratic free Iraq, then you’ve got to believe in what we’re doing,” Moulton says. “You should be interested in battling the insurgent propaganda, not by controlling the media, but by getting the truth out.”

Moulton says this was the first time that most Iraqis had seen Western television.

But despite the show’s popularity, it was taken off the air just three months after it premiered. According to Moulton, high-ranking members from the Provisional Authority decided to pull the show because they felt that it was casting too negative of a light on the provisional government.

Representatives from the United States Defense Department, which oversaw the Provisional Authority, did not return requests for comment.

THE HOMEFRONT

But not all the policy recommendations took place in the Middle East.

Back in Cambridge, Linda J. Bilmes ’80, a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government, published a study calling for a restructuring of the health benefits’ system for veterans.

With a backlog of pending claims of more than 400,000 and a deficiency in mental healthcare facilities, veterans are not receiving the healthcare that they deserved, Bilmes says.

“You have this entire system which puts the entire burden on the veteran,” she says.

Having testified before Congress twice already and briefed presidential candidate John Edwards on this issue, Bilmes has played an integral role in fighting for veteran care.

Bilmes says there are 18 congressional bills on the floor related to her recommendations and that she is optimistic that her recommendations will eventually materialize into legislation.

And Bilmes is not the only Harvard academic with the ear of Washington lawmakers.

Joseph S. Nye Jr., former dean of the Kennedy School and currently the Sultan of Oman professor of international relations, says he has spoken with several prominent Democratic senators, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) during the 2004 presidential campaign about Iraq policy, advising the politicians to find a way out.

—Staff writer Kevin Zhou can be reached at kzhou@fas.harvard.edu.

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