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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

John Agresto’s hard look at Iraq from the perspective of a civilian working there to rebuild.

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HH: Joined this hour by an old friend of mine, John Agresto. Dr. Agresto, formerly the president of St. John’s college for a decade in New Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Before that, a long serving high official in the Reagan administration in a number of posts. But most recently, he was part of the Coalition Provisional Authority as the senior advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. He has written a memoir of his time in Baghdad, Mugged By Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions. John Agresto, welcome to the program.

JA: I’m so glad to be with you again, Hugh.

HH: Now John, you’re not going to make a lot of friends with this book.

JA: No, I don’t think so. No, I think you’re right.

HH: It says many, many hard, sober things, but I want to start at the beginning. You are not for withdrawing from Iraq.

JA: No, I think that would be a disaster for us and the Iraqis.

HH: And why?

JA: We’re over there fighting two groups of very dangerous people. We’re trying to fight and contain the al Qaeda Sunni radical forces that are former Baathists that are there, former Saddam people, and with a new influx of Iranian power and material and men and intelligence there, aligned with the Shia, or some Shia fanatics, primarily Muqtada al Sadr and others. We…don’t ask me for what the solution is. I just know that the solution is not leaving. We have two big enemies there of America and the free world, and we have to do something to stymie them as best we can.

HH: Of the many themes in the book, Mugged By Reality, the one is we failed to see what was in front of our nose, in some instances. I want to read one paragraph which I posted on the blog, and there’s a link to the book at at, America. It’s Mugged By Reality, John Agresto. “One final word on religion. After so many suicide bombings and so many beheadings, I think we now have begun to understand the fundamental otherness of radicalized Islam. On one side, we have to recognize that the shrill voices on the right that see all of Islam as medieval, intolerant and bent on worldwide domination by any means and all means are thankfully wrong. There is a part of the Muslim world that is secular, progressive, and tries to be tolerant. Still, as the religious passions unleashed by the printing of the Danish cartoons made clear, or as the fear directed against the poor convert from Islam to Christianity in liberated Afghanistan made it even clearer, his liberality is hard to uncover these days.” You really got an up close personal look at the savagery within radical Islam.

JA: Yeah, I really did.

HH: Was it…does the United States appreciate the menace yet?

JA: No, no, I don’t think so. I think there are some people who do. I think there are some people who have, actually, for a long time, both in the academy and…but fewer in political life, I must say. And it’s clouded by the fact that there are so many good Muslims and Iraqis there in Iraq. There are so many Christian Iraqis, many fewer now than there were at the beginning of the war, and there are the Kurds, who are, to be honest, Sunni Muslims, but 100% on our side. As far as I could see, no problem there. But there’s a group of, and it probably is a growing group, and it’s a young group, which is a real problem, really the problem of radicalized Muslims who see what we stand for in this country, or in the world, as the antithesis of all that they stand for in their religion.

HH: Now today, one of the savage caucus blew up a soccer game and killed 18 children in Baghdad.

JA: Yeah.

HH: I don’t even know how to comprehend the intentional slaughter of children. Are you surprised by that? Is that another level of depravity that no one anticipated?

JA: No, I mean, we have certain categories here in the West, and I think they’re Judao-Christian categories, and I think they’re philosophic categories from the enlightenment, however you want to find the roots of it, where we say…I think of how casually, Hugh, we say you know, the ends don’t justify the means.

HH: Right.

JA: I’m not sure if everybody in the world believes that. In fact, I know there are millions of people in the world who would say that’s silly. If the means are good, if the ends are good, any means are good. Any means are useful for a good end. And so if killing of children is useful for the success of the Islamic revolution, then it’s willed. We should do it.

HH: Wow. Now I also have posted at a segment where you write about something I just was taken aback by. Let me read this. “We insisted that the Ayatollah Sistani was surely a moderate, and a friend of civil and religious liberty despite all the hard evidence to the contrary. Let me repeat my previous observations and predictions. The Ayatollah Sistani is an Islamist bent on establishing a theocracy not far removed from that found in Iran. He is an open anti-Semite, and a not too subtle anti-Christian. He threw his support behind democratic elections, because they were handy vehicles for imposing religious authority over all of Iraq. Nor is he the only one, or even the worst, only the most prominent. Yet while I believe the evidence is as clear here as it was in the case of Chalabi, we only see what we want to see, not what’s visible. In our religious lives, hope may well be a virtue, but in foreign policy, it is more often a sin, a temptation to willful blindness.” How did that happen?

JA: Hugh, it was phenomenal. I was over there with Jerry Bremer, who is a great American, he really is. And Jerry wanted to see the Ayatollah Sistani, and he was told no, he would not meet with Ambassador Bremer. Whether because he was an American, or more likely because he was an American Christian, he wouldn’t meet with him. But that didn’t open up our eyes. We still kept saying oh, this guy, Sistani, he’s a moderate. But Sistani would meet with al Sadr, Sistani would meet with every radical, every criminal that he could, so long as he was a Shia Muslim. We liberated Iraq, and handed Iraq over to the Shia majority, and the leader of the Shia majority, Sistani, wouldn’t even meet with us. It was, and still at the same time, we kept making excuses for that. Well, it’s okay, we’ll talk to his intermediaries. No, he’s a difficult and different man. We’ll talk to his intermediaries. The handwriting was on the wall. We Americans live on hope all the time. We are the most Pollyannish people in the whole world. We are so quick to forgive, we forget immediately, and the rest of the world’s not like that, Hugh.

HH: Now what about the American public’s information system? I imagine you must react poorly watching analysts talking from studios about Baghdad.

JA: Well, the problem with the media is that they do report from Baghdad. And the truth is, they’re not lying. What’s going on in Baghdad is going on. It really is hell on Earth in Baghdad. But CNN never seems to make it up to Irbil or Dokuk or Sulaymaniyah, up to the Kurdish areas. What’s going on in Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar Province, and even, I must say, what’s going on in Basra under the Brits is really not very nice. But…

HH: I was referring, though, to your condemnation of people who are calling for a partition blithely.

JA: Oh, oh, oh. You know, in the end, the partition may happen. But I do think it’s not a good thing, and not something we should want to see. We don’t…just partition, what would it mean? Who benefits from a partitioned Iraq? Sure, the Kurds will have their part, and they may even have some oil wealth, but they’ll be beleaguered by Turkey and by Syria, and to a degree, by Iran. What are we going to do with the rest of Iraq? We’re going to give the southern half of Iraq over to Iranian hegemony? What are we going to do with western Iraq? Will that become a satellite of Syria? I mean, why would we want to do that? Now I understand that what we would like to do is to have a unified Iraq in which the Kurds have an awful lot of good influence that could be moderate and non-fanatical, and I think we have to work towards that. But as I said, in the end, it may happen that it gets divided, but it’s not a good thing if it does. It’s certainly not in our interest if it does.

HH: Now when you first got there, was there optimism among the Baghdad elite, the educational elite with whom you were working?

JA: Oh, absolutely. It was, it really was phenomenal. I had dealings mostly with the universities, and so I dealt with middle class professionals, many of whom, most of whom, almost all of whom spoke English, who are extremely happy at liberation. I mean, this was weights lifted off their shoulders. They could not have been happier. But the Iraqis are a hard clientele, I have to say. They really did expect that America would do everything for them. They…35 years of socialist tyranny, they were both expecting that people would take care of them, and second, terrified that if they made a mistake, they know what happened to people who made mistakes in the past. They were terrified to make mistakes. They were very difficult people to make, to help be free. They didn’t know how to manage freedom. And so yeah, there was a lot of hope at the beginning, but even then, we should have seen that we were, this wasn’t like the liberation of Eastern Europe. This was different. This was dealing with people, and the more religious they were, the more they decided better not to think for themselves. They were not prepared to be free, I think, Hugh.

– – – –

HH: Very few civilians, in fact, I think, John Agresto, is yours the only book not by a journalist or Ambassador Bremer, or a military guy to have been written about the American occupation?

JA: I think so, yeah. I think that’s right so far.

HH: And so, are you getting a lot of interest from the media?

JA: No. Not hardly…I was with your friend, Martha Zoller, this morning in Atlanta, and now you now. That’s about the extent of media interest.

HH: Why do you think that is? No one’s been there except journalists, and I don’t know that the journalists…I mean, you’ve got tales here of dead-heading around Baghdad with no seat belt, because if you wear a seat belt, people will kill you, right?

JA: Right. Well, they know you’re an American if you wear a seat belt.

HH: I think that’s one of the most telling details. So the traffic’s pretty bad, because people don’t want to hang around and get blown up?

JA: Yeah, right.

HH: That’s just amazing to me. So why do you suspect the American media is not knocking at your door saying come talk to us about what you know?

JA: Well, I don’t know. Although I am supposed to be on 60 Minutes in a couple of weeks from now, but talking about something totally different, talking about opening up our borders to have more Iraqis come to America. Right now, I think we take about 200 a year, which is really a disgrace. There have been so many good Iraqis who work with the military who were translators for the Army, who were drivers for people like me, who put their lives on the line every day for us Americans, and we’ve really let them down.

HH: Now the professors and the presidents and the university elites that you detail in this book, they’re not an admirable group. I mean, this was a…Saddam destroyed a lot. He destroyed any idea of higher education effectively, didn’t he?

JA: They…yeah, a lot of them were educated in Europe or in England or in America. But all of those people were nearing retirement. Saddam had really blocked them from traveling, and there were no books. I mean, I went into one…the library, the law library in Basra was getting, I think what I heard was a grand total of eight new books a year. There were old journals that they kept under lock and key in glass cases…

HH: Yeah.

JA: …in the University of Baghdad. And they were journals from the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s. That was the most current thing they had in medicine, were journals from the 40’s and 50’s.

HH: Now how do you reinvent a country like that? I mean, they’ve got a lot of money, and we’ve poured a lot of money into it.

JA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: So what…you know, you’re the czar. What do you do?

JA: Well, what you try to do…you see, it was always a game of trying to stay one step ahead of either the insurgents, or sometimes just the Iraqis themselves. I mean, look at this picture, Hugh. I got there and what we knew was that Saddam had freed probably no fewer than 35,000, maybe as many as 45,000 real criminals. I mean, rapists, robbers, murderers, muggers, from Abu Ghraib prison, and armed them in preparation for the American invasion. So we get there, and there are 35,000 real filthy criminals on the street, and at best, there were 700 policemen left in Baghdad. Those criminals, combined with sort of youth gangs and so on, basically destroyed the country on our arrival. We talked about looting, but you’ve been to South Central L.A. I’ve never been there.

HH: I was there during the riots, yeah.

JA: Yeah, I’m sure the whole country, that was what the whole country looked like. The military, our military, took out military facilities, political facilities, communication facilities, and then the criminals and the youth gangs burned everything else of any value to the ground. I mean, the buildings were destroyed. So what we were trying to do, and what the Army was trying to do, was to get small businesses back up. I was just trying to get desks in classrooms. I couldn’t get…for all the billions we were spending in Iraq, we…to do little things like that, we couldn’t do.

HH: Where did the money go?

JA: Oh, most of the money went to areas such as electricity, oil, defense, interior and so on. The administration had a bizarre notion that higher education, primary and secondary education, sports, culture, museums, that we could all rely on the international community to support us, since obviously France and Germany and the others aren’t going to give money to support the war effort, but they might give money to support the Baghdad museum, or some universities, that are not true.

HH: Now John, you have studied history for as long as anyone I know, and you know the history of the Arab world, and we know that whether it’s the Alexandrian Library, whether it’s current Egypt, there are Arab cultures which function with a civil society. Jordan comes to mind. And Turkey is not an Arab country, but it’s a Muslim country. Why can’t that be there? What is it…is it the brutalization that Saddam inflicted? That is one theory I’ve heard from Robert Kaplan, that we simply had no idea what he had done to this country. Is that your view?

JA: Well, he infantiled a whole country, to be honest. I mean, you go there, and even the Iraqis that I love the most, and they’re very…some of them are very sweet people, are as children. I mean, they really will not stand on their hind legs, and they’re scared. It’s ingrained in them not to stick their necks out. You stick your neck out, it gets cut off, quite literally, not just figuratively. So that’s part of it, sure. But they did have, under Saddam, I mean, they were a functioning country. I have to say, you go there, and you, at least at the beginning, the roads were as good a roads as you’d find anywhere, better than you find in some places back in the northeast, because Saddam wanted good roads. He needed good roads to fight the war with Iran. Medical care wasn’t the worst. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the worst. But what do we have now? We have people who are booby-trapping ambulances so they can get through the gate at the clinic and then explode the ambulance and blow up the hospital.

HH: Now you tell a story in Mugged By Reality, again, the link is at, of the eight miles between the Green Zone and the airport, and the initial American decision not to take that road and secure it, because it would have meant clearing enemies from homes away from both sides of the road, creating bad problems…that is one lesson that keeps coming back to me by Mugged By Reality, is it’s cruel to be kind, to quote the old 50’s song.

JA: Right, although I must say they have now secured the road. They finally learned the lesson, and they have cleaned out I don’t know how many hundreds of yards on both sides of the road, finally. But it took them, you know, two years to wake up to that. No, we were always saying you know, this is their place, we’re just here for a short period, and therefore, we have to be careful of their sensibilities. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. I mean, when we wouldn’t close down the park next to the Green Zone that they were lobbing rockets and mortars from into the Green Zone, because you know, between the daytime, women and children go to the park. That was crazy. Of course, you close down the park.

HH: Yup.

JA: I’m sorry. You just close it down.

HH: Yup.

JA: And then you say you’re sorry, but you do it.

– – – –

HH: Ahmad Chalabi is back in the news. He’s resuming a greater role. You’re not a big fan of him. Explain why not.

JA: Well, I think he…he was part of the problem from the beginning, and I know so many of our conservative friends thought he hung the Moon. The first time I met him, I realized I think this guy’s a charlatan. He’s, you know, he’s a convicted criminal in Jordan. I don’t know how many of my good Iraqi friends said hey, if we ever could take him to court, there’s any number of…every Iraqi family is owed money by this guy. He has great links to Iran. Every now and then, we find him in Tehran, coming from Iran back to Iraq. He…I watched him as he played both ends against the middle. I remember once when we had a fairly decent interim administrative law that was going to govern the country, and the Ayatollah Sistani immediately said he didn’t like it, he didn’t like it because he thought it gave the Jews back their property in Iran, and immediately, Chalabi changed his vote, and decided that no, now he was going to be on the side of the religious fanatics, not on the side of the secularists. He’s a man who you never know where he’s going to be at any particular time. And I think he serves no one but his own interests.

HH: Now are there any great leaders that you met in the course of this time, and following, since your return to the United States, that you would say yeah, now there’s someone you can bank on, they’ve got a Washington, they’ve got a Sadat, someone?

JA: Yeah, yeah. The person to watch is actually a Kurd. He’s the deputy prime minister, a guy named Bahram Salih, a beautifully well-spoken, bald-headed guy from the town of Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan. And as I said, he’s the deputy prime minister. He’s the person who just engineered the new oil law, which actually, I don’t know all the details of it, but I think it’s going to go a long way to solve some problems. The problem is he’s a Kurd, and he’s not an Arab, so the chances of him or his ever becoming the head of Iraq are, I think, very slim. The others are secular, both Sunni and Shia, although they tend to be secular Shia. I thought the Alawi government, and I thought Iyad Alawi himself, educated at the Jesuit prep school there in Baghdad, back in the 50’s, very…knows what to do, knows how to make the country stand on its feet, knows how to make the government secure the people from marauders and thugs. Problem? He’s very secular, doesn’t…clearly is a Shia who doesn’t pray, and therefore, Sistani has him outside the fold. Another secular Shia, a guy named Mithal al Alousi, wonderful, wonderful person, he was the person at the very beginning, right after we got rid of Saddam, who with his two sons, went to a conference on terrorism in Jerusalem that the Israelis were holding. He came back, because he went to a conference in Israel, his car was attacked, they were shot up, he lost his two sons, he escaped with his life, but…and he’s in the parliament right now. He’s in the assembly. But the secularists and the Kurds have only a limited following, and it’s getting more and more limited all the time, as the middle class and the professional class and the secularists are leaving Iraq as best they can.

HH: Mike in Sacramento, you’re on with John Agresto, author of Mugged By Reality. Go ahead, Mike.

Mike: I wonder if I’m one of these starry-eyed Americans he’s talking about. Don’t we dwell too much on Wahabism, and doesn’t the Suffi tradition within the Sunni offer us some hope? And if so, shouldn’t we promote it vigorously and do all we can to segregate, drown out and down Wahabism as much as possible?

HH: John Agresto?

JA: Yeah, I think whatever we can do to raise up the quietistic, the thoughtful, the more liberal, or at least non-tyrannical and expansionist element in both Shia and Sunni Islam. We should do…the trouble is maybe you know how to do it. There are very few Americans who know how to do that. This…I thought this was the thing we had to do more than anything else in our stay in Iraq, was to support the moderate middle class Muslim element there.

– – – –

HH: Brad in Paradise, Arizona, hi Brad, you’re on with Hugh Hewitt and John Agresto.

Brad: Hi, I was just curious if he think it’s salvageable. I mean, he’s painting a pretty glum picture. Is it salvageable?

HH: John Agresto, is it salvageable?

JA: Well, I’m kind of a glum guy by nature.

HH: No, you’re not. I’ve known you a long time. You’re not glum.

JA: Well, that makes my glumness even more serious, I guess, Hugh.

HH: I guess it does.

JA: But yeah, it’s salvageable, but the problem is we’re now stuck with a government for another three years over there, of pretty much our own making, or at least our own allowance, we helped put it together, that is not in any significant way on our side, what doesn’t see the problem the way we see it, and doesn’t want to solve the problem the way we think it needs to be solved. They really are fierce sectarians that own that government right now, and that makes any kind of solution, any kind of moderation of the problem, very difficult.

HH: Now a couple of the arguments are that even a jihadist gets tired of getting blown up, and afraid to go out at night, and that this, like Lebanon eventually exhausted itself in chaos. Do you see that happening?

JA: I don’t know. I hear that, too, and I guess it’s possible. But don’t forget the fury of people who blow themselves up. I mean, these are people who really think that this life isn’t the real life, the next life is the real life. And I don’t know if there’s an inexhaustible supply of such people, Hugh, but there are a lot more of them than we thought. I mean, they’re not naiveté. Think back when we used to say oh, if they’re flying on the airplane with their luggage, everything is safe. Not so. There are people who actually think that God wills not only the death of others, but martyrdom for them, and there’s lots of those people there.

HH: Now what about the American military with whom you worked? What was your impression of them?

JA: Some of the…I think, although I loved the civilians I worked with, I thought they were extraordinary, but Jerry Bremer on down, I have to say that the military were either better than we were, or worse than we were. I mean, I saw some people over there in the military, I remember talking to one guy, a Colonel Barbee, who was setting up fishing tournaments in the Tigris for teenage Iraqi guys, kids, boys. And I said Logan, this is crazy. You’re going to get yourself killed. And his answer to me was I didn’t come here to save my life. I came here to help them save theirs. That’s spectacular. That a guy could even think like that is simply spectacular. I saw military doctors who would risk their own lives in order to save Iraqi lives. On the other hand, we all know what happened at Abu Ghraib. We all…and those were military reservists, and they were animals, to be honest, Hugh. And they did us more damage by their sexual sadism, and their glee at it, than almost anything we could have done.

HH: I agree with that. Now I have also spent a lot of time with Captain Ronnie, two tours there, Marine officer, light armored vehicle guy, and he tells a story, out of Baghdad, of the affection and progress of the Iraqi people when you get out of Baghdad. Now did you get to get out of Baghdad a lot?

JA: Oh, yeah, I got out of Baghdad quite a bit, mostly north…I never went to Fallujah, although some of my people did go to Fallujah. One guy, who ultimately got killed, went there, tried to go there once a week. But even inside of Baghdad, the affection for the Americans really was great. I mean, especially among the professional classes and the educated classes, but even among others, they knew we were there to help. Now sometimes, we acted badly, and I’ve got to tell you, lots of times, military guys just clear a path for themselves as they go somewhere, and they will say very nasty things to people, and people know what they’re saying, and it doesn’t help. But there really was, especially at the beginning, incredible affection for us when we got there. That’s not to say they would help us help them, they really always had their hand out. They really were like children.

HH: Bill in Littleton, Colorado, you’re on with John Agresto, author of Mugged By Reality. Go ahead, Bill.

Bill: Yes, hello, Hugh, and hi, Doctor.

JA: Hi.

Bill: And Hugh, I apologize I’m not following your show as closely as I should be lately, especially today, but I’m wondering what happened with Muqtada al Sadr, and why he has been able to breathe good air for such a long time.

HH: Go ahead, John Agresto, why is he…

JA: Why he’s been able to breathe good air for such a long time?

HH: Yeah, why is he allowed to run around?

JA: You know, a couple of things. First, the damn guy, he gives every talk in the Mosque dressed in his funeral shroud. I don’t know we don’t give him a chance to use it. I don’t understand that. But the truth is, to go back to the military, we in August of ’03, just before I got there, there was a warrant for his arrest by an Iraqi judge. He was supposed to be arrested in Najaf. Our military was supposed to, in fact, our Marines were supposed to capture him and hand him over to the Iraqis, and our Marines refused. And they refused with the permission and the winking of both State and the Pentagon, and the administration. We have fooled ourselves into thinking oh, he’s just a youngster, or oh, he doesn’t really have a following, or he’s just a loud mouth. We always want to not look at the reality. He is a…he killed another ayatollah. We know that. I mean, he’s a brutal fanatic disgrace, and yet…

HH: Who should be removed…

JA: Who should be removed. Oh, he should have been removed three years ago, four years ago, but we let him go.

– – – –

HH: John Agresto, thanks for spending an hour with me. The book, Mugged By Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions, available everywhere. Here’s the million dollar question from history, John. Could it have been any other way, given who we are and who they are? We had to get Saddam, I’m never going to make an apology for doing that, given who he was and what he had, and what his intentions were. And geopolitically, I think we’re still much better off. But could the occupation have gone any other way, given how Americans do things?

JA: Yeah, it could have. I think it could have. I think it had to. I mean, even at the very end, take the last thing, you talked about Saddam, we didn’t have to hand him over. He was an ace in the hole for us. I hate to be so Machiavellian about this, but if we’re having trouble with radical Shia, what we have to do is say you don’t talk to us? You don’t listen to us? We’ve got somebody in custody who just might. I mean, that may be over the wall…

HH: Whoa, was that over the top.

JA: But I think, you know, why do we always play the good guy? Why, Hugh? I mean, why…I mean…

HH: Because that’s who we are.

JA: Well, yeah, let me put good in quotes then. Why, when…I had Iraqis come to me, and they said you know, we know where some people are that Saddam let out of prison, they’re the guys they let out of Abu Ghraib with the guns, the murderers. We know where they are. Can you go and arrest them? And I was told I had to say I’m sorry, those people were pardoned by a legitimate authority. Saddam was the legitimate authority. Anyone pardoned by the legitimate authority under U.N. regulations is legitimately pardoned. No, we will not go and arrest them.

HH: Wow.

JA: And I would say this is what we mean by the rule of law. And then the Iraqis would say, well then, the law’s an ass.

HH: Well, they should.

JA: Yeah. I mean, we did stuff like that all the time. I mean, in setting up the Iraqi governing council, we had no idea how to set up, we forgot how to set up a democracy like ours. We thought that in setting up a democracy, you want multi parties, you want to get all the radical factions. Well, just think about….we talked about Sadr. I mean, how many times did I hear if we could only get Sadr to join the political process…

HH: Yup.

JA: That’s idiocy.

HH: And is it gone now? Has it been wrung out by experience in the American forces?

JA: Now what do you mean? What’s gone?

HH: The naiveté?

JA: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s gone. I mean, I still think we have a Pollyannaish view that you know, I’m all in favor of the surge, only because we have to be doing something, and this has a 50/50 chance of succeeding in part. But you know, I think we still say well, you know, we have to stand by this government. I’m sorry, I would do anything in my power that I could to undermine this government and find a better one. But I’m not allowed to say that, because this is a democratically, legitimately elected government.

HH: Interesting. John, we are out of time. Fascinating book, thank you for spending…good luck, I hope Americans listening tell their local news and the networks, they’ve got to go talk to you, because it is a different perspective, and one informed by experience and great learning. Mugged By Reality by John Agresto, thank you, John.

End of interview.


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