Over the past twenty-three years, I have been involved in public policy matters in fifteen states and eight countries, both as an attorney and as an engineer. During the past ten years, practical considerations often caused me to choose clients and jobs that were outside the public policy arena. However, because my passion is the interests of communities, the government, and the private sector, I made the decision in 2005 to get involved in the biggest public policy program available—the Iraq reconstruction program. How I eventually landed the job is a longer story, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t easy.
Trip to Ramadi.
In February 2006, I closed my law practice and went to work for a U.S. contractor tasked with rebuilding local government in Iraq. This effort was under the direction of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is the U.S. agency responsible for improving economic situations and spreading democracy in foreign countries.
Democracy in Training
I arrived in Iraq on March 18, 2006. Within a few days, I was on a helicopter to Al Anbar Province with everything I would need to live in Iraq for my entire fifteen-month stay.
Author Brian Pinkowski at right, with
unnamed Iraqi engineer, who assisted
Specifically, my assignment was to help the Provincial Council members learn their roles in a democratic society. A province in Iraq is similar to a U.S. state, and the forty-two members of the Provincial Council can be compared to state legislators. The elected officials appeared eager to learn even basic skills they needed to perform their official duties. In additional to acting as a mentor, resource, and guide to the legislature, with the assistance of a translator, I also would provide specialized training on technical matters, such as government budgeting or production of long-range planning documents.
Adapting to the Unique Environment
I am not in the military and mine was not the typical military experience in Iraq. I saw no combat and dealt only with the elected officials in conference rooms or the occasional informal setting. My living conditions were reasonable. Occasionally, as I traveled around the country, I slept in 100-man tents. Typically, I lived in a trailer or a room with indoor plumbing, and I did not have to share the room. Soldiers frequently have shared spaces and shared toilet facilities (see photo on next page).
Working Amid Danger
When I began working in Al Anbar Province, the chairman of the Provincial Council recently had been assassinated. In fact, five Provincial Council members had been assassinated during the previous four months. The seat of government of the Provincial Council in Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar Province, faced attacks eight to ten times each day by hostile groups armed with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Commonly, the areas outside and between buildings were the focus of snipers.
Understanding that assassinations frequently would take place on the way to or from the office, Provincial Council members stopped meeting at the government center in Ramadi. Newly appointed Governor Ma’moon, however, traveled to the government offices almost every day. A contingent of U.S. Marines provided convoy protection for him, and a personal security detail protected his home. Notwithstanding this support, Governor Ma’moon was subject to numerous assassination attempts by snipers, vehicle bombs, and roadside bombs. He is alive at the time of this writing and continues to handle the business of his people and province.
Because of the dangerous situation during my first few weeks in Iraq, I worked only with U.S. Marines, assisting those who were mentoring city councils across the province. This assistance was primarily through e-mail and comprised explanations of the Iraqi Constitution and how it applied to the local councils. Eventually, I was able to locate the Provincial Council members. Apparently, they had moved their offices to Baghdad because the Anbar Government Center was too dangerous for them to conduct regular work. Once we were able to gather in one location, I began working with them on a weekly basis.
Attorney Contributions Abroad
Attorneys are trained to examine the law so as to recommend a constructive course of action. Attorneys also question and evaluate significant issues and facts. Frequently, this will take the form of a simple question, such as "How do you know that?" U.S. lawyers working in developing countries do not inherently understand the written law in those countries; therefore, they generally attempt to understand the existing legal environment and then advise and provide a source of guidance based on newly gained understanding.
There are significant opportunities for U.S. attorneys with public policy experience to contribute their expertise in Iraq. In fact, relatively few of the U.S. attorneys in Iraq have direct experience working with elected officials, law making, or public policy. There are political science graduates at the U.S. Embassy who do their best to assist; however, they are not adequate substitutes for experienced public policy attorneys. In my view, this leaves the current U.S. effort in Iraq short of several critical skill sets.
Training the Iraqis
As an attorney, my approach to working with the Iraqis was to treat them as clients. They greatly appreciated working with an American whose method was not simply to dictate what actions they should take. Initially, however, my method confused them.
"What is it that you want from us?" they would ask me.
"I want you to be strong and successful as you lead your people," was always my reply.
Attorneys in Iraq have a two-year degree beyond high school, which is the equivalent of an associate’s degree in the United States. Their experience is vastly different from that of attorneys in the United States. Thus, when working with Iraqi attorneys, I found them to be grateful that my participation contributed a broader type of education.
Reality of Life in Present-Day Iraq
Example of shared living quarters.
Without question, present-day Iraq is a dangerous place. On the day of my arrival, for example, I had my first experience of having to "hit the deck" because of incoming mortars. After this startling introduction to the country, I had few experiences that were of major concern, and I was fortunate never to have any pressing personal safety issues during my stay.
I observed Iraqis to be similar to Americans—they simply want to go to work, take care of their families, and watch their children grow. They are presented with daily challenges to their basic existence. The violent political struggle in their country is not something they believe in or want to see continue.
In addition to all of the political strife, the Iraqi people are dealing with the inability of the central government to provide infrastructural services as basic as electricity. For example, it is difficult to sleep because temperatures frequently exceed 100 degrees during the night. The availability of electricity is not sufficient for air conditioning at night.
Then there is the personal strife. Iraqis live in constant fear of family members being kidnapped, tortured, and ransomed.
Despite the difficult realities of their daily lives, I observed the Iraqi people to be congenial and hardworking, which made my job of training seem very worthwhile. The work also requires a great deal of patience with U.S. and Iraqi bureaucracies—military and otherwise. Overall, I found the work of helping the Iraqis rebuild their society to be personally fulfilling.
Personal Challenges to Working Abroad
Going to work in Iraq can bring challenges to a family’s dynamic. My wife, Michelle Pinkowski, is a trial attorney. We have a 13-year-old son who is active in extracurricular activities year-round. Sometimes, my wife and I would speak twice each day, and I was able to speak with my son several times each week. However, telephone conversations hardly take the place of participating with family in person. I am convinced that families make the biggest sacrifices of those working overseas on military or professional duty.
Respond to the Call
There are hardships and compromises to working abroad; however, the work that needs to be done is very important. Based on my experience, I recommend that more attorneys respond to the need for experienced legal professionals abroad and participate in U.S. efforts overseas. I have returned to the United States with a broader view of world events that I’m confident will prove helpful right here at home.