State - Kalamazoo WMU professor teaches democratic reform in Iraq Mingus took a leave from university for yearlong assignment

By Paula M. Davis

Kalamazoo Gazette

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) -- There were times during the past year when Western Michigan University professor Matthew Mingus did his work wearing body armor.

The professor of governance was on a yearlong assignment in Iraq for the U.S. State Department as a specialist in democratic reform.

Mingus took a leave from WMU in February 2009 to be part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team, embedded with the U.S. Army. Protective gear was a precaution for whenever he left the base.

Mingus' role was counseling Iraq government officials in several local communities north of Baghdad on ways to operate more democratically. He also advised the State Department on how to aid that process.

"A lot of my research is on international issues and Democratic reform and so for me this was a chance to dive into both," said Mingus, who returned this past February. "Only not in an academic sense but really to get your hands dirty and get in there."

The 43-year-old has been a faculty member at WMU since 1998. He is currently a finalist to be dean of the Lee Honors College.

Prior to taking the unpaid leave to serve in Iraq, Mingus directed Western's school of public affairs and administration.

Some of his experience in Democratic reform involves consulting work for the U.S. State Department as a Fulbright research chair in Canada.

While in Iraq, Mingus was based about 25 miles north of Baghdad at Camp Taji. He was assigned to nearby communities that he said were the equivalent of townships and counties in the United States.

"Those aren't new in their system but them having any kind of real power and responsibility is new," he said. "It's still very limited but their own laws now call for it growing quite rapidly at the local level."

Decentralization is part of the ongoing government reform in Iraq as the nation remakes itself following the Saddam Hussein era and also recovers from the height of the U.S.-led invasion. "Focusing on those ways in which democracy could take root is a lot of what I did with the councils," Mingus said.

He said he witnessed incremental successes.

The professor recalled one town in which a councilman who hailed from the dominant local tribe was vying to be the council's lead officer. The man was elected with more than 75 percent of his colleagues' votes in a contest with someone from a less influential tribe. But it was the first time in council history that a member of the dominant tribe didn't get unanimous support.

"It looks like a small thing but I think that it was a significant step forward. These people voted for someone else and lived to talk about it," Mingus said. "These people saw the value in dissenting."

When Mingus took the assignment, he expected to be in Iraq to help manage and monitor national, provincial and local elections.

But, because of delays and postponements, none of those elections occurred during his time there. Most of what he did, then, was at the grassroots level of reform.

"I worked with (local officials) a lot to help them see that democracy is more than elections. There were lots of things they could do to be more democratic now," he said.

For instance, he cited as examples the need to run town councils as decision-making bodies versus operating as though all power should rest with the council chairperson, and the necessity to track municipal projects such as the construction of new schools or irrigation systems. It took months to gain trust and build relationships with officials. Part of that trust building meant losing the protective gear during meetings.

Wearing the gear at times was "not a good message to convey when you're helping them build their own government," he said.

During his time in Iraq, Mingus said he almost always felt safe. But there were two scary experiences.

Though reluctant to share details, he said that twice a group he was with came under attack -- once while in a helicopter and another time in a short ground convoy.

"In those situations I walked away from them with nothing but respect for how well the Army was responding to those kinds of threats," he said.

Mingus said he was careful about respecting the Iraqis ideas about leading their communities and refrained from holding up the U.S. system as a faultless example of governance.

"One of the things the U.S. does a lot is proselytize," he said. "It does a lot of damage when you're doing this kind of work. You've got some very educated people there and they understand what isn't working in our system. They understand the flaws in our system."

He said one must consider the aspects of how one country's governance model fits in another's, given a nation's culture, history, geography and other attributes.

"It's very important to approach this kind of democratic development in other countries, not just in Iraq, with a realistic understanding of what our own system is like and what does and doesn't work and how ... different our system is from most systems in the world.

"There are a lot of different ways of doing democracy," he said.

Published: Thu, May 27, 2010