Jacob's Jottings: The Case of Fouad Ajami

Five years after the start of the Iraq War, most of its early champions have yet to be held to account for its spectacular failures.

Fouad Ajami's most recent essay on Islam in the New York Times Book Review brings to mind again the question of accountability and partisanship in the "War on Terror." A highly decorated scholar of the Middle East, the author of several books on the region, including The Dream Palace of the Arabs, and a professor at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, Ajami, who was born into a Shi‘a family in southern Lebanon in 1945, has devoted his life to chronicling the Arab world. He has been an advisor to both vice president Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During the trial of Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, Ajami pleaded with President Bush in the Wall Street Journal to pardon him, hailing Libby as a "fallen soldier" in the war against terrorism-as though Libby had been battling on the front lines.

Ajami's praise for Libby should have come as no surprise. A contributor to magazines such as U.S. News and World Report and the New Republic, Ajami was one of the earliest and most fervent proponents of war in Iraq. Writing in the New Republic on February 23, 1998, Ajami berated the Clinton Administration for failing to take harsher military action to unseat Saddam Hussein. The standoff with Saddam, he said, was unacceptable, even "dreary"-a telling word, as it epitomizes his impatience with sober policy, which George Orwell diagnosed in the 1940s as a characteristic affliction of intellectuals. The criterion for Ajami, as for many other champions of war, was that they were plain bored with containing Saddam. Bolder action was needed. America needed to prove its mettle in facing down the Arab tyrant.

According to Ajami, "the Clinton administration will have to accept a burden dodged by those who waged Desert Storm: the remaking of the Iraqi state and the unseating of Saddam. We should be rid of the fears that paralyzed us in the past-the rise of the Shia, the fragmentation of Iraq. These are scarecrows." Nor was this all. The Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies assured his readers that "There is no likelihood that a regime as brutal as Saddam's would emerge out of the rubble of a military campaign. There is no iron law of Shia radicalism, and the belief that a post-Saddam rule would be a satrapy of Iran misreads Iraq's realities . . ."

The problem isn't simply that Ajami was wrong in every particular-the Shi‘a did rise, Iraq did fragment, and Iran has dramatically increased its influence and power-though that is bad enough. It is that he was dogmatically, arrogantly wrong, dismissing his skeptics as benighted fools. No less than the Soviet fellow-travelers of the 1930s who were entranced by the prospect of utopia abroad were Ajami and his ilk beguiled by the prospect of freedom blooming in the Iraqi desert. But unlike the fellow-travelers, who never exercised power and ended up as an intellectual curiousity, Ajami actually provided, or sought to provide, a fig-leaf of justification for going to war. It was, after all, Cheney who, in a fiery speech that led directly to the Iraq debacle, declared before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 2002:

As for the reaction of the Arab "street", the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are "sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans." Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.

Why is it worth recounting Ajami's prognostications? The main reason is that, as Anatol Lieven has perceptively pointed out, there has been almost no accountability among pundits and policymakers for the debacle in Iraq. Quite the contrary. Instead of honestly facing up to their mistakes, the prophets of war have glibly moved on. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of Professor Ajami's essay in this Sunday's New York Times, which is called "The Clash."

It is a revealing document not for what it says but for what it doesn't. In it, Ajami admits to what he believes, or, to put it another way, depicts, as his principal error-underestimating the depth of the collision between Islam and the West. Not a word about his failed record on Iraq. Rather, Ajami recounts that he questioned Samuel Huntington's thesis of a clash of civilizations in the 1990s, arguing at the time that Western modernization would co-opt the Third World. Now Ajami writes that "commerce has not delivered us out of history's passions, the World Wide Web has not cast aside blood and kin and faith." This is true. That commerce hasn't displaced warfare was and remains a truism of realist thought. Francis Fukuyama was roundly attacked in 1989 for making a similar argument in claiming that history had come, or was coming, to an end.

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