|Baghdad 2003, erupting. Photo by Robert Gauthier/AP.|
Fouad Ajami, the scholar of Middle Eastern studies who explained Arabs and Muslims to the Bush administration, famously informing Vice President Cheney in 2002 that if American troops were to liberate Iraq from the rule of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad and Basra would "erupt in joy", died yesterday after a battle with cancer, at 68.
He quickly realized after the invasion that something was not quite right: Iraqis, he was saying in November 2003, were just too contradictory, longing for modernization and rejecting it at the same time:
To come bearing modernism to those who want it but who rail against it at the same time, to represent and embody so much of what the world yearns for and fears -- that is the American burden. The United States lends itself to contradictory interpretations.In May 2004 he was faulting Saddam Hussein, for dishonestly suggesting that he had succeeded in secularizing the Iraqi population, leading the Bush administration—as well as the well-meaning scholar he referred to as "I myself"—to expect a welcome that didn't come:
We had struggled against radical Shiism in Iran and Lebanon in recent decades, but we expected a fairly secular society in Iraq (I myself wrote in that vein at the time). Yet it turned out that the radical faith — among the Sunnis as well as the Shiites — rose to fill the void left by the collapse of the old despotism.In August 2006, launching his new book The Foreigner's Gift, he spread the blame around pretty liberally, to the other Arab governments, religious authorities, and intellectuals, and their "prejudices" and ingratitude for the proffered American gift:
The Arab world was prejudiced against the Shia Muslims who were poised to lead Iraq, and it was prejudiced against the Americans who confidently expected to help them do it.... that gift was supposed to be liberty for Iraq and a new political order for the Arab world.... the disaster came when Arab governments, Muslim imams, even Western-leaning intellectuals, rejected that giftand to "subversive anti-Americans" within Iraq who treacherously refused to notice that they were supposed to have been conquered in 1991:
A war fated and "written," maktoob, as the Arabs would say, this Iraq war turned out to be. For the full length of a decade, in the 1990s, the anti-American subversion — and the incitement feeding it — knew no respite.and not least to President Bill Clinton, who mistakenly believed Iraq was ready and eager for modernity:
The "moderns," with Bill Clinton as their standard-bearer, had been sure we would be delivered by the marketplace and the spread of the World Wide Web. History had mocked them, and us all.Oh, those scare-quoted moderns, and didn't they include Dr. Ajami only a few paragraphs back?
By 2007, it turned out the enemy was just time: everything would be fine, but you'd have to be willing to wait, which the Iraqis certainly would, though researchers with a less deep knowledge of the Iraqis than Dr. Ajami seemed strangely unable to find the evidence:
Ignore the pollsters who tell you that Iraqis have had their fill of the American presence. There is a realism that comes to men and women who know calamities, and this realism teaches Iraqis that this American project is their country's chance for a way out of a history of grief and terror.And sure enough, in 2011, the story had a happy ending, as even that rascally realist Robert Gates was forced to admit:
Is Gates right about both the progress in Iraq and the U.S. future in the country? In short, yes. The Iraqis needn’t trumpet the obvious fact in broad daylight, but the balance of power in the Persian Gulf would be altered for the better by a security arrangement between the United States and the government in Baghdad.... If the past is any guide, Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki has fought and won a major battle with the Sadrists; he crushed them on the battlefield but made room for them in his coalition government, giving them access to spoils and patronage, but on his terms.And the past is always a guide, right? Otherwise why would you want to study history?
Though he couldn't quite let it go. In 2013 he had advanced to blaming none other than George W. Bush, for going to war with the wrong rationale, so that the rationale had to be changed in the middle of the war, annoying those dangerous liberals:
Yet the "architects" of the war could not pull the plug on it. They soldiered on, offering a new aim: the reform and freedom of Iraq, and the example of a decent Iraq in the "heart of the Arab world."... There were very few takers for the new rationale. In the oddest of twists, American liberalism now mocked the very idea that liberty could put down roots in an Arab-Muslim setting.Some of those scare-quoted architects being, if I'm not entirely mistaken, Professor Ajami, and the beneficiaries (Wolfowitz, Rice, Cheney) of his wisdom. I'd like to pause to note that I, for one, never mocked the idea that liberty could put down roots in an Arab-Muslim setting; that would be Professor Ajami, in two or three of the incarnations we've been surveying here. All I thought was that there were much better ways of preparing the ground than by bombing it into a moonscape. (I'll go further: I think that democracy is slowly rooting itself in the Persian-Muslim setting of Iran, thanks in great part to our government's unexpected ability to resist bombing it.)
And then just a week or so ago, when it became impossible to go on saying that the war was over, Ajami was out there blaming Obama, and the very Prime Minister Maliki whose victoriousness he'd been applauding so hard just three years ago:
I'm sorry he's dead, but don't have much else to say about it. Wonder who he would have blamed next, though.