The Iraqi Predicament

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Reviewed by R. Stephen Humphreys
Sunday, August 6, 2006

THE FOREIGNER'S GIFT

The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq

By Fouad Ajami

Free Press. 378 pp. $26

Fouad Ajami has given us a complex, sometimes puzzling book, marked by both certitude and ambivalence. On the one hand, The Foreigner's Gift is a hawk's apologia, albeit a hedged one, for the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. (From beginning to end, Ajami stresses "the nobility of the effort," though he concedes that good intentions may not suffice, for "an innately optimistic America had struck into a land steeped in a history of sorrow.") On the other hand, the author probes the almost insuperable obstacles to success there. When it comes to Iraq and the Middle East, there is certainly nothing wrong with ambivalence; the problem is usually an excess of certitude. Still, mixed emotions complicate things for anyone seeking some guidance about where to go from here.

Ajami is a professor at Johns Hopkins University, but his writing is anything but academic. His style is lyrical and occasionally rhapsodic. At certain points (as in his descriptions of American soldiers, whose character and intentions he deeply admires, although not always their knowledge of Iraq), it verges on the sentimental. This is a book of carefully chosen anecdotes, brief interviews and observations, not one of theory and evidence. Ajami is eloquent and sometimes moving, but his struggle to convey the complexities of Iraq heightens the sense of ambivalence that infuses his book.

Ajami is an important voice in the Iraq debate but far from a typical one. He is an alienated Arab intellectual -- a man with a deep feeling for the grand causes and passions that have driven Arab politics for the last six decades, who shared those enthusiasms as a young man and still feels some nostalgia for them but who has long since decisively rejected them in favor of Western political values -- and often those with a conservative slant. He is either famous or notorious, depending on whom you ask, for his advice to the Bush White House about the region of his youth.

Ajami was born in 1945 to a Shiite family in south Lebanon. He grew up and came of age in a tumultuous era: the heyday of Gamel Abdel Nasser, the great Egyptian leader who called for the creation of a single great pan-Arab state, and Nasserism's abrupt collapse after the stinging Arab loss in the Six-Day War of 1967; the rise of Palestinian nationalism and the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization's "state within a state" in Ajami's native Lebanon; Lebanon's own inexorable slide into sectarian civil war over 15 bloody years from 1975-90; the slow emergence of Lebanon's Shiites from rural poverty and the political margins to extraordinary influence; and finally, the meteoric rise of radical Islam after Nasser's death, a movement that was (and remains) a kaleidoscope of charitable works, political activism and jihadist terrorism. Pervading almost every aspect of life was the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the background lay the most critical phase of the Cold War, when the United States ceased to be a bit player in Middle Eastern politics and became instead the central fact of life for every government and movement in the region.

Ajami's thinking is grounded in these events. For him, the long-gone, left-leaning, secular nationalism of the 1940s and early '50s still represents a moment of hope, a brief glimpse of a better future in which an inclusive form of Arab nationalism might replace the region's more traditional loyalties to sect and ethnicity, in which democracy might supplant the corrupt, foreign-dominated monarchies of the day, in which a cultural and intellectual renaissance propelled by Kurds and Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews was bubbling up in the bookshops and salons of Baghdad, Cairo and Beirut. Many sketches of such artists and writers are scattered throughout the book. The most heartfelt portrait is that of Buland Haidari, a Kurdish poet "of luminous gifts" who wrote almost entirely in Arabic. Haidari had close ties to intellectuals in Baghdad's Jewish community before its 1951 exodus and thus symbolizes what Iraq ought to have been and might have become.

For Ajami, all these precious but fragile hopes were submerged in the revolutionary turmoil unleashed by Nasser and other self-styled revolutionaries in the 1960s, then betrayed in the '70s by an unholy alliance of thuggish police states and brutal Islamists. In a very real sense, all his writing since his brilliant first book, The Arab Predicament (1981), has been a lament for the lost hopes of his youth and a struggle to discover how they might even now be reclaimed.

It is through this lens that he views the United States: as a potential deliverer from tyranny and cultural stagnation. By Sept. 11, 2001, the Arabs were locked into their shibboleths and resentments, detesting the cruel regimes that controlled their lives but powerless to do anything about them. Only some tremendous external force could jar loose such rigidities. Only American power could open the worst of the Arab prisons, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and thereby create the conditions in which a post-9/11 regional struggle for democracy, personal liberty and cultural renewal might be possible. Ajami is not terribly interested in the motives and purposes that drove America into Iraq; the key point for him is that democratization is a core element of President Bush's program. That fact by itself legitimizes the whole enterprise.

He does concede, albeit reluctantly, that the United States is an ironic choice to play the role of liberator. First, America's Middle East policy for the last half-century has rested firmly on authoritarian regimes -- most notably the puritanical monarchy of the House of Saud and the Egyptian dictatorship headed by Hosni Mubarak, for whom Ajami reserves a special loathing. Since the United States is not about to divorce itself from its old allies, America does not come with clean hands as a bringer of democracy. Second, Ajami says little about the severe hardships suffered by most Iraqis under the long U.N. sanctions from the end of the 1991 Gulf War to the 2003 invasion, though every Middle Easterner is acutely aware of them. (Saddam Hussein cynically manipulated the sanctions, of course, but for ordinary Iraqis the suffering was real enough.)

Finally, Ajami constantly alludes to the endemic anti-Americanism of the Arabs. Among Arab intellectuals and on the Arab street, the notion that the U.S. presence in Iraq might offer inspiring opportunities seems absurd on its face. Ajami's treatment of anti-Americanism is strikingly dismissive; he sees it as a kind of pathology, the perverse irrationalism of a perverse people who cannot recognize that the foreigner has offered a real gift. Anti-Americanism is a complex phenomenon, but it does not rise out of nothing, and it surely merits a more searching treatment than it receives here.

In spite of the hopes Ajami has invested in the U.S. intervention, he fully recognizes the immense obstacles that it faces. Here the author is his own toughest adversary; if his analysis is sound, the United States has taken on a task quite beyond its resources and understanding. The core problem, he argues, is Iraq's failure to build an inclusive form of national identity that could subsume the country's traditional sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties. Since Iraq's formation following World War I, the Sunni Arabs have dominated its political life; other groups, most notably the majority Shiites, have been marginalized or violently suppressed. The Sunni-dominated Baathist dictatorship that ruled Baghdad from 1968 to 2003 intensified and embittered traditional rivalries to the point that many Iraqis can hardly imagine a true national life.

Throughout, Ajami emphasizes the way that his fellow Shiites (in Iraq in particular and the Arab world in general) are seen by Sunni Arabs -- as a foreign, unassimilated element in Arab society and culture. They are not real Arabs but quasi-Iranians, Persian stalking horses characterized by dissimulation, un-Islamic heresies and emotional religiosity. They are regarded with condescension and contempt but also with fear and sometimes (as among Sunni jihadists like the murderously anti-Shiite Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) virulent hatred. For Ajami, the Sunni-dominated insurgency is simply a Sunni refusal to accept the inevitable democratic consequences of empowering Iraq's Shiite majority. On a very important level, Ajami's book aims to be a vindication of the rights of the Shiites of the Arab world, especially those of Iraq. He wants to give the Shiites their place in the sun, to insist that they are an integral part of Iraqi and Arab society.

The Foreigner's Gift inevitably raises many questions that it leaves unanswered. Readers irredeemably hostile to America's intervention in Iraq will no doubt find much to offend them. But this important book represents the well-informed and deeply personal reflections of a major Arab-American intellectual -- certainly the one most carefully listened to by the Bush administration. It thus seems right to close by letting Ajami speak in his own words. Much of his book is summed up in his comparison -- an especially poignant one now that yet another Middle East war has been raging through Lebanon -- of Iraq's current trials with those of his native Beirut two decades ago: "A city that had once had big horizons became a place-name for banditry and ruin. The despots all around then pointed to that city as an example of what befalls those who would dream that there was something for Arab and Muslim peoples beyond the writ and the whip of the rulers." ยท

R. Stephen Humphreys is a professor of Middle Eastern history and Islamic studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of "Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age."


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