UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2004
Ambassador of Hope
Bring Peace, Religious Freedom and Education to the Middle East
by Julene Snyder

It’s a June evening in Baghdad, Iraq, and the temperature still hovers near 130 degrees. Thankfully, it’s considerably cooler inside one of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s palaces, where Joseph Ghougassian (M.A. ‘77, J.D. ‘80) is settled in for the night, responding to e-mails and catching up on correspondence. When asked to describe his surroundings, he pauses, thinking.”Well, the palace is huge, four blocks long,” he says. “It’s much bigger than the White House. Of course the complex is fortified by high walls of cement blocks, we’re barricaded by the U.S. Marines, the Army, you name it.”

But it seems that security is only one reason the palace makes such an attractive home base; equally important in such extreme heat is the fact that it’s air-conditioned.

“This whole area used to be one of the primary sites where Saddam Hussein, his family and his friends lived a very good life,” Ghougassian says with characteristic understatement. Now, of course, things are very different. “Every day we see a couple of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, but we have come to live with it. Thank God, so far none of us have been hurt inside the compound.”

But Ghougassian has little time to dwell on the dangers. He’s a man on a mission. Appointed in 2003 as a deputy senior adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority – the U.S.-led organization charged with running Iraq until power shifted to an Iraqi-led transitional government – Ghougassian’s job is to consult with the country’s Higher Education Ministry and figure out how to normalize higher education in the region.

It’s a prospect many would find daunting. Not Ghougassian.

He’s accustomed to negotiating in tough circumstances, and he’s one of those rare souls who lives to serve. After 15 months in Iraq, you’d expect him to be at least a little burnt out, but at the end of every tough day he remains passionate, articulate and excited to make a real impact in the future of Iraqi higher education.

At the end of this particular day, he’s still going strong.

“Most of the e-mails I deal with have to do with the faculty development program that I’m the director of,” he says. “Some have to do with the Fulbright Scholarship; others are from any number of institutions asking, ‘In what way can I help the Iraqi higher (education) institutions?’ ”

Rest assured, Ghougassian will find a way to enlist all of them into his quest to rebuild the Iraqi educational system. He’s already completed much of the work toward one of his major goals – restoring Iraq’s Fulbright Program, which brings students and scholars from abroad to study in the United States.

Two dozen Iraqi scholars selected by two bi-national committees are studying for their master’s degrees, and some have been accepted at schools like Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Dartmouth.

And now, as the sun slips below the horizon, he’s on the phone with me, eager to share news of his many accomplishments with fellow USD alums. Of course, I’m not the only journalist on his roster this particular evening: “I did a CNN interview a couple of hours ago, because a young man who was my protégée – a 22-year-old – got hurt and was medically evacuated to the United States,” he says. “Thank God, he is going to live.”

His voice brightens as he continues.

“Oh yes, and I talked to a judge who’d like to sponsor a couple of Iraqi law students to come to visit in New Orleans.”

That’s the kind of give-and-take Ghougassian lives for. And why not? He’s very, very good at it.

Man With a Mission

Shifting gears quickly and with great finesse is second nature to Joseph Ghougassian. During his 20 years as a professor of philosophy at USD – from 1966 to 1986 – he found time to serve as director of the Peace Corps in the Yemen Arab Republic, to consult with top Washington officials in the Departments of State, Justice and Health and Human Services, and to lecture on subjects ranging from the global economy to diplomacy to law.

The reputation he built reached the highest levels of government, and last year the retired Ghougassian received a call from Jim O’Beirne, special assistant to Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

“I was given a mission,” he says. “Our job was go to Kirkuk, look into the property disputes between the Turks, the Kurds, the Arabs and the Christians, and to calm down the situation.”

Given the long and difficult history of the northern Iraqi city – one of the centers of Kurdish identity and the hub of the Iraqi oil industry – the task was daunting, but Ghougassian was up to the challenge. He was expected to come up with recommendations about handling Kurdish property confiscated by Saddam Hussein and given to Arabs as part of Hussein’s ethnic cleansing policies. Once Hussein’s regime was toppled, Kurds and Turks began returning to reclaim their property, which was not always a peaceful proposition. Despite scattered violence, the mission ultimately succeeded, in large part because of Ghougassian’s background.

“We at CPA have instituted a property claims court,” Ghougassian says. “My ability to speak fluent Arabic was a great tool that won me the Arab tribal sheiks’ confidence; my Armenian ethnicity won me the friendship and confidence of the Kurds and my Christian religion put the people at ease, because Christians in Iraq are viewed as fair-minded and honest people.”

Although O’Beirne originally tapped Ghougassian to work with the Iraqi Ministry of Religious Affairs, Coalition Provisional Authority leaders eventually decided not to staff that ministry, and instead appointed him to work with the Ministry of Education and completely reorganize the Iraqi university system. After years of neglect and fear under Hussein, the system is a mess – obsolete textbooks, unprepared professors, crumbling facilities and little to no concept of free academic discourse.

Ghougassian started from scratch. He first recruited American professors to bring their Iraqi counterparts up to speed on the past 15 years of research and development, and set up three-week faculty development seminars for Iraqi college professors slotted for this July. As many as 450 Iraqi professors will attend the courses, designed to break the cycle of educational obsolescence. Planning for the seminars started months ago.

“I went to every single campus in Iraq, from the University of Basra in the south all the way up north, and I met with the deans, the heads of departments and the faculty,” Ghougassian says. “I asked them to identify the one discipline they felt their faculties needed most, and within this discipline to identify only one course.”

The resultant curriculum is custom-made to best serve the Iraqi attendees.

“In agriculture, the course that was requested was agribusiness,” explains Ghougassian. “In biology, the course that was requested was molecular biology. In nursing, it was the study of clinical teaching of nursing. In archaeology, it was forensic archaeology.”

Ghougassian had to remain sensitive to cultural issues when selecting teachers, and he insisted on finding qualified Iraqi-American university professors to run the seminars. His reasoning was simple.

“I wanted to use this project not only for educational purposes, but for political and public diplomacy. I wanted those Iraqis – 90 percent of whom haven’t traveled for the last 15 to 20 years – to see how their brothers, sisters and cousins were making it big in the United States, and how they were now coming back, bringing both cultures with them.”

The courses will take place at the Kurdish University of Suleimaniyah, where security is better than in most other places. But there’s another component to the location that Ghougassian found equally useful.

“I wanted to have it in the Kurdish area so Iraqi Arabs would get involved with the Kurds, their brothers, and start the reconciliation process,” he says. “Under Saddam Hussein the Kurds were oppressed, were gassed. And I thought, if I could, I would use (the location) as another avenue of reconciliation.”

Iraqi Ministry of Education leaders enthusiastically supported the idea. By the time the next academic year begins in September 2004, the Iraqi professors should be up to speed with 21st century scientific information, and able to transmit this new knowledge to their students.

The way Ghougassian sees it, it’s all about bringing people together. His ability to see how small gestures add up to great good will is one of those indefinable qualities that makes him so successful as a diplomat and education advocate.

“The last time I talked to him, he had a teacher training program organized in Kurdistan,” says reporter Christina Asquith, who covers the United States’ post-war efforts in Iraq for The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and other publications. “This is a real feat. While others were making plans to get out of Baghdad, Joe had his knuckles to the ground creating a real program that would give real training to the people in the classroom – and done in an affordable way that could be a model for the future.”

The Path to Diplomacy

Ghougassian seemed destined for his role on the international stage. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he was an early bloomer in academics, receiving his first two degrees (a B.A. and an M.A. in philosophy) from the Gregorian University in Rome, Italy, in 1964 and 1965. He garnered a doctorate in philosophy from Louvain University in Belgium by the age of 22, and was brought to the United States by a job offer: teaching philosophy and psychology at USD. He subsequently received a bachelor of science degree in family studies from Louvain University in 1974. Obviously, we’re talking about a multi-tasking dynamo: As he taught, wrote and raised a family, he earned both a master’s degree in international relations and a law degree from USD, attending school at night.

Upon passing the bar exam, Ghougassian was recruited by the White House and became a senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan in the Department of Domestic Policy. Besides working to develop the administration’s immigration and refugee policy, he consulted with the Department of Justice to propose reforms in the Immigration and Naturalization Service, developed policy papers on the peace process for the Department of State’s work on the Camp David Accords, and became director of the Peace Corps in the Yemen Arab Republic.

After a three-year stint in Yemen – where his duties centered on reversing the negative trend in U.S.-Yemen relations – Ghougassian was named U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar, a tiny country in the Persian Gulf that shares a border with Saudi Arabia. He was the first naturalized U.S. Ambassador from the Middle East, and in the job he honed his skills in bringing disparate, antagonistic peoples together, realizing such skills could change the world.

Given his background and his lifelong love of academia, it’s not surprising that one of Ghougassian’s first efforts in the country, in the mid-1980s, was to found the first accredited American international school. The school – which still exists today – provides education to more than 1,600 students. He wrote the bylaws, negotiated with the government, identified the members of the board of trustees and wrote the curriculum.

It’s the latter effort Ghougassian takes the most pleasure in, given his own antipathy toward the typical standards at such schools. Because many non-American students attend, he took pains to design a curriculum that would serve all students, not just Americans.

“All (the other international schools) have a colonial spirit,” he says with regret. “I wrote into the curriculum that non-American students had to be given an education in the Arabic language, grammar, history, religion and literature, in addition to rigorously following the American curriculum.”

That’s something he knows about first-hand, since he himself attended a French international school as a child in Egypt, and the impact of French colonialism on his own education still resonates for him.

All of that hard work has paid off for Qatar. “Lots of American corporations are willing today to do business in Qatar,” he says, “because they know there is an American school there where they can send their families, fully accredited by Eastern schools and colleges of the United States of America.”

While he’s justifiably proud of his work in Qatar’s educational system, there is a greater legacy that Ghougassian can take credit for: bringing about the end of Christian persecution in the country.

“A young British priest came to me and wanted me to intervene, since up until then, anyone not Muslim who was caught worshipping would be arrested,” he explains. “He asked me to intervene with religious leaders, so I brought him together with the Iman, the highest religious authority in the country.”

At the end of that meeting, a 14-century ban on the public practice of any religion other than that of Islam was lifted, and Christians in Qatar could publicly congregate and worship without fear. Word quickly reached Rome, an invitation from Pope John Paul II was extended, and Ghougassian was subsequently knighted by the Pope in the Order of St. Gregory the Great. It’s an honor that – decades later – has the power to move Ghougassian to the core.

“Today, if you go to Qatar, you’ll see Christians worshipping in public,” he says. “I’m grateful and humble to have been used as an instrument of peace and religious freedom.”

Making the Impossible Possible

His career is filled with jaw-dropping challenges, stunning successes and richly deserved kudos, but Ghougassian sees each step of his path as an opportunity for even more service to the greater good. As he works to rebuild higher education in the Middle East, his latest coup – restoring the Fulbright Program to Iraq – is just one more achievement that others thought impossible.

When L. Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced the reestablishment of the Fulbright program in Iraq, some would have simply gone through the motions, given the tight deadlines set down by the State Department. Not so Ghougassian.

“That’s not the way I work,” he says emphatically of the program that so far has brought 23 students and two scholars to the United States to study in master’s programs or conduct research. “The Iraqis have been deprived of fairness. I needed to make this scholarship available to every single Iraqi, all over the country, regardless of his or her origin, ethnicity or religion.”

Ghougassian got the word out nationwide via newspaper advertisements that the scholarships would be available and what the requirements would be. Even though he’d been told by Washington that he’d be lucky to have 150 applicants show up, he nonetheless told them that he wanted enough packets for 500. When the day came for the exams, there were more people than exams. In the end, the top 25 candidates were submitted to the State Department, and of those, all but one was approved for the scholarship.

Ghougassian accompanied the scholars to Washington, D.C., where they were received at the State Department by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and subsequently, by President George W. Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The latter was a meeting that had been originally scheduled to last 20 minutes, but Bush ended up moving the group to the Oval Office so he could be photographed with each of the Fulbright recipients.

“He said, ‘I believe that one day, one of you will be President of Iraq,’” Ghougassian says. “It was very gratifying, very fulfilling, I’m glad to have been used as an instrument to bring sunshine to Iraqi students.”

And the people of Iraq appreciate all his efforts. “In certain parts of the country, I’m known as ‘Uncle Joe,’” he laughs. “Because my name had been associated with the Fulbrights, and also because I get thousands of e-mails, and I answer each and every one of them.”

Although Ghougassian plans to be back in his Escondido, Calif., home by August, and is looking forward to a much-deserved vacation, he’ll no doubt resume his “retirement,” which includes working as a journalist, writing articles on diplomatic and international affairs for newspapers and television. He’ll also likely continue to lecture about foreign affairs and diplomacy. And if the phone rings again with an urgent request for him to drop everything and come save the world, will he pack his bags?

It seems likely.

“I feel I have done a few good things for my fellow Iraqi university colleagues,” he says modestly. “I hope some of these projects will be judged by my Iraqi friends as Joe’s little legacy in Iraq.”