Coincidentally, I was reading Fouad Ajami’s new book, “The Foreigner’s Gift: the Americans, the Arabs and the Iraqis in Iraq, at the very moment when Iraq seemed to be turning a corner: from an American enterprise characterized by righteous audacity–planting a democracy in the heart of the Arab world–it had turned into an unfathomable mess from which Washington sought rapid but orderly separation. Ajami’s book revolves around a central thesis that will remain worth pondering for years to come. The Unites States went into Iraq with the well-intentioned aim of breaking the tradition of Arab tyranny, by removing the region’s worst despot and replacing him with a pluralistic democracy that would infect the entire Middle East.
This was America’s “gift to Iraq and to all Arabs–the chance to live in freedom, democracy and real constitutionalism. Once in Iraq, however, the US realized that it was a foreigner that did not understand the land or its people.
It had a weak grip on the traditions of modern Arab political history, tribalism, religion and ethnicity that simultaneously engulfed Iraq after the Baathist police state of Saddam Hussein had been removed. The American “expedition to Iraq, Ajami notes, made Iraq “the battleground between Arab authoritarianism and participatory politics . [F]or the first time in a very long stretch of history, Iraq was at the center of Arab political life.
It was a statement on the political sterility of other Arab lands that an election held under the protection of a foreign power, right alongside a raging insurgency, had come to be viewed as the herald of a new Arab political way . [A] new Iraq held out great attraction to the American imperium and its architects.
The promise of Iraq was that of a new beginning–a base of American influence free of the toxic anti-Americanism at play in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The adventure has misfired, probably because it responded more immediately to American than to Arab needs. Ajami is among the few American public figures to support the Iraq war and who is honest enough to admit to the calamity there that now threatens Arabs more than it does Americans.
Despite the Americans and Iraqis he profiles in brief, admiring vignettes, often in the context of what he sees as a noble, earnest, even heroic endeavor, Ajami also accepts that “the foreignness of the effort, and of the men and women doing the work, was impossible to shake off . America could awe the people of the Arab-Muslim world, and that region could outwit and outwait American power. He dismisses with a sentence the original war rationale of rooting out weapons of mass destruction, and also admits that “it wasn’t democracy that was at stake in Iraq. It was something more limited but important and achievable in its own way: a state less lethal to it own people and to the lands and peoples around it. Ajami is highly controversial and is widely disliked in the Arab world, especially in his land of origin, which he calls “my ancestral Lebanon. I have always made it a point to read his writings and hear him out when the opportunity arises–along with others who share his views, including neoconservatives–for several good reasons. I do a better job as a journalist and analyst when I hear all views on a topic, especially ones I disagree with, rather than absorb the wisdom of only those whose opinions I share. Ajami is a man who moves in powerful circles in America, in and out of the White House and other places of power, where often amateurish policies are made and pursued, sometimes recklessly and destructively–occasionally flirting with moral or actual criminality.
His thoughts, therefore, provide important insights into, and sometimes even help shape, the worldview of those who rule America and have directed its bloody little imperial adventure in the Middle East since 1991.
Ajami’s analysis of the modern Arab condition is often brilliantly insightful, not to mention written with much grace, regardless of the fact that his prescriptions on what the US should do in the Middle East is often wrong, and easy to challenge. Separating the successful professor from the misguided policy-maker is often a useful exercise. The ultimate lesson of the American mission to Iraq, Ajami hints, is that neither the rule of native despots nor of foreign armies is going to bring about “the possibility of a decent, modern life in the Arab world. “America rolled history’s dice in most of Iraq, he writes, and he correctly notes that the experience of Kurdish areas shows that “terrible histories can be remade.
The balance sheet of Iraq will be clarified by history yet to come, and Ajami provides a useful outline of some of the key issues that will be weighed in reaching a verdict: Western armies who come and go with some regularity; local Arab despots who hang around for decades at a time and pass on power to their sons; the decency of ordinary Arabs seeking a normal life; the mesh of indigenous identities rooted in religion, ethnicity, tribe and sect; Arab regimes and ordinary men and women who accept Washington’s assistance while winking at terrorists who attack it; and, ultimately, the heavy weight of this legacy on the possibility of change in Arab societies, power and governance. “The foreign power that blew into Baghdad happened onto a tangled and pained history, Ajami concludes. Yet he never fully accepts that much of the mess was the consequence of other episodes, in other times when other Western armies also “rolled the dice and “blew into Baghdad.
He seems not to appreciate fully the indignant view of those successive generations of ordinary Arabs who never tool kindly, or quietly, to seeing their countries treated like a game board by foreigners. The role of Israel and Western powers in generating the freak show of modern Arab political culture, with its plethora of security states, is nowhere to be seen in Ajami’s tale. Nor does he sufficiently differentiate between the sick ways of the military rulers and the persistent decent humanity of ordinary Arabs.
Bitterness against the Sunni-dominated Arab order of the past half-century permeates his book, sometimes in exaggerated ways, but always providing bountiful food for thought.
Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR