Mike Wise ’88: Helping Iraq’s Transition to the Rule of Law
Mike Wise ’88 understands a lawyer’s obligations to give back. He obviously could have taken an easier route, but the 48-year-old Columbus attorney put his law practice on hold for a year to volunteer his services in Iraq.
As senior rule of law advisor, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, one part of Wise’s mission is to observe Iraq’s first provincial elections, which are scheduled for early 2009.
“The Anbaris never held a free election before,” said Wise, who is stationed in the country’s western province, Al-Anbar, which is larger than Ohio. “Most residents here are Sunni Muslims. The Sunnis boycotted the 2005 election, so this will be something new in their history.”
It was about a year ago when Wise was reading a weekend newspaper and saw an article relating how the U.S. State Department was asking for volunteers to serve in Iraq. After some consideration and approval from his wife, he said that the opportunity was a perfect fit.
“I thought that this was a great project to be involved in,” he said. “One doesn’t often get the chance to support a transition to the rule of law for an entire society.”
Wise and about 20 other volunteers met in the Washington, D.C., area over the summer and spent three weeks in intensive diplomatic training. Once they arrived in Baghdad, the same group underwent an additional week of preparation before being spread throughout the country.
He said that he has many responsibilities, all of which are in advisory roles. He has helped to train courts and police, in techniques ranging from courthouse security to civil rights and forensic evidence collection.
“We are definitely standing down and the Iraqis are standing up here,” he said. “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job. We help them when they ask us for advice, but they are the ones who are running the show.”
Wise is the head of the legal section for his team, which is one of several “provincial reconstruction teams.” Others involved include experts in agriculture, engineering, and governance. Wise, who is embedded with U.S. Marines, said that the Sunnis have done an about-face from the early days of the insurgency and now welcome an American presence.
“The Marines that I am with have been doing a fantastic job, and I say that because the people of this province have joined with the Marines to build a more stable future. The desert is starting to bloom here. Fields that were barren are being irrigated, schools and libraries have been built, and books have been put into those schools and libraries. There is room for civilians like me to assist with projects like this because of the work our armed services have done.”
Wise is no stranger to international volunteerism. Following an unsuccessful run for Columbus City Council in the late 1990s, Hungarian officials asked him to visit their country to consult with them on adding civil rights to their constitution.
“I spent most of 1997 in Budapest, helping write a new constitution,” he said. “I taught law at Eastern Europe’s oldest university and gave lots of speeches across the country. I can’t speak Hungarian, but a startling number of Hungarians spoke excellent English.”
Wise, who also graduated from Ohio State with a bachelor’s degree in English, said this and his other international trips are a long way from the general legal practice that he runs in downtown Columbus.
In 2006, Wise crisscrossed China on business while trying to learn the language. One of his most memorable stories from the trip he said continues to open his eyes to how fortunate he is to be an American.
Seeing a book that pictured the Statue of Liberty on its cover, Wise asked his translator what the Chinese characters beneath it meant. She said the title of the book was “The United States.” He asked which character meant, “United” and which meant, “States”. Slightly embarrassed, she admitted the characters actually translated to, “The Free and Beautiful Country.” He asked, “Well, how do you say, ‘The United States?’” And she replied, “We don’t call your country that name. We call it, ‘The Free and Beautiful Country.’” Wise said he often thinks of her comment while working in Iraq.