Free at Last

by Victor Davis Hanson

Commentary Magazine

A review of The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraqby Fouad Ajami (Free Press, 400 pp)

The last year or so has seen several insider histories of the American experience in Iraq. Written by generals (Bernard Trainor’s Cobra II, with Michael Wood), reporters (George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate), or bureaucrats (Paul Bremer’s My Year in Iraq), each undertakes to explain how our enterprise in that country has, allegedly, gone astray; who is to blame for the failure; and why the author is right to have withdrawn, or at least to question, his earlier support for the project.

Fouad Ajami’s The Foreigner’s Gift is a notably welcome exception — and not only because of Ajami’s guarded optimism about the eventual outcome in Iraq. A Lebanese-born scholar of the Middle East, Ajami, now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, lacks entirely the condescension of the typical in-the-know Western expert who blithely assures his American readers, often on the authority of little or no learning, of the irreducible alienness of Arab culture. Instead, the world that Ajami describes, once stripped of its veneer of religious pretense, is defined by many of the same impulses — honor, greed, self-interest — that guide dueling Mafia families, rival Christian televangelists, and (for that matter) many ordinary people hungry for power.

As an Arabic-speaker and native Middle Easterner, Ajami has enjoyed singular access to both Sunni and Shiite grandees, and makes effective use here of what they tell him. He also draws on a variety of contemporary written texts, mostly unknown by or inaccessible to Western authors, to explicate why many of the most backward forces in the Arab world are not in the least unhappy at the havoc wrought by the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The result, based on six extended visits to Iraq and a lifetime of travel and experience, is the best and certainly the most idiosyncratic recent treatment of the American presence there.

Ajami’s thesis is straightforward. What brought George W. Bush to Iraq, he writes, was a belief in the ability of America to do something about a longstanding evil, along with a post-9/11 determination to stop appeasing terror-sponsoring regimes. That the United States knew very little about the bloodthirsty undercurrents of Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish sectarianism, for years cloaked by Saddam’s barbaric rule — the dictator “had given the Arabs a cruel view of history,” one saturated in “iron and fire and bigotry” — did not necessarily doom the effort to failure. The idealism and skill of American soldiers, and the enormous power and capital that stood behind them, counted, and still count, for a great deal. More importantly, the threats and cries for vengeance issued by various Arab spokesmen have often been disingenuous, serving to obfuscate the genuine desire of Arab peoples for consensual government (albeit on their own terms).

In short, Ajami assures us, the war has been a “noble” effort, and will remain so whether in the end it “proves to be a noble success or a noble failure.” Aside from the obvious reasons he adduces for this judgment — we have taken no oil, we have stayed to birth democracy, and we are now fighting terrorist enemies of civilization — there is also the fact that we have stumbled into, and are now critically influencing, the great political struggle of the modern Middle East.

The real problem in that region, Ajami stresses, remains Sunni extremism, which is bent on undermining the very idea of consensual government — the “foreigner’s gift” of his title. Having introduced the concept of one person/one vote in a federated Iraq, America has not only empowered the perennially maltreated Kurds but given the once-despised Iraqi Shiites a historic chance at equality. Hence the “rage against this American war, in Iraq itself and in the wider Arab world.” No wonder, Ajami comments, that a “proud sense of violation [has] stretched from the embittered towns of the Sunni Triangle in western Iraq to the chat rooms of Arabia and to jihadists as far away from Iraq as North Africa and the Muslim enclaves of Western Europe.” Sunni, often Wahhabi, terrorists have murdered many moderate Shiite clerics, taken a terrible toll of Shiites on the street, and, with the clandestine aid of the rich Gulf sheikdoms, hope to prevail through the growing American weariness at the loss in blood and treasure.

The worst part of the story, in Ajami’s estimation, is that the intensity of the Sunni resistance has fooled some Americans into thinking that we cannot work with the Shiites — or that our continuing to do so will result in empowering the Khomeinists in nearby Iran or its Hizballah ganglia in Lebanon. Ajami has little use for this notion. He dismisses the view that, within Iraq, a single volatile figure like Moqtadar al-Sadr is capable of sabotaging the new democracy (“a Shia community groping for a way out would not give itself over to this kind of radicalism”). Much less does he see Iraq’s Shiites as the religious henchmen of Iran, or consider Iraqi holy men like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani or Sheikh Humam Hamoudi to be intent on establishing a theocracy. In common with the now demonized Ahmad Chalabi, Ajami is convinced that Iraqi Shiites will not slavishly follow their Khomeinist brethren but instead may actually subvert them by creating a loud democracy on their doorstep.

In general, according to Ajami, the pathologies of today’s Middle East originate with the mostly Sunni autocracies that threaten, cajole, and flatter Western governments even as they exploit terrorists to deflect popular discontent away from their own failures onto the United States and Israel. Precisely because we have ushered in a long-overdue correction that threatens not only the old order of Saddam’s clique but surrounding governments from Jordan to Saudi Arabia, we can expect more violence in Iraq. What then to do? Ajami counsels us to ignore the cries of victimhood from yesterday’s victimizers, always to keep in mind the ghosts of Saddam’s genocidal regime, to be sensitive to the loss of native pride entailed in accepting our “foreigner’s gift,” and to let the Iraqis follow their own path as we eventually recede into the shadows.

Along with this advice, he offers a series of first-hand portraits, often brilliantly subtle, of some fascinating players in contemporary Iraq. His meeting in Najaf with Ali al-Sistani discloses a Gandhi-like figure who urges: “Do everything you can to bring our Sunni Arab brothers into the fold.” General David Petraeus, the man charged with rebuilding Iraq’s security forces, lives up to his reputation as part diplomat, part drillmaster, and part sage as he conducts Ajami on one of his dangerous tours of the city of Mosul. On a C-130 transport plane, Ajami is so impressed by the bookish earnestness of a nineteen-year-old American soldier that he hands over his personal copy of Graham Greene’sThe Quiet American (“I had always loved a passage in it about American innocence roaming the world like a leper without a bell, meaning no harm”).

There are plenty of tragic stories in this book. Ajami recounts the bleak genesis of the Baath party in Iraq and Syria, the brainchild of Sorbonne-educated intellectuals like Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar who thought they might unite the old tribal orders under some radical anti-Western secular doctrine. Other satellite figures include Taleb Shabib, a Shiite Baathist who, like legions of other Arab intellectuals, drifted from Communism, Baathism, and pan-Arabism into oblivion, his hopes for a Western-style solution dashed by dictatorship, theocracy, or both. Ajami bumps into dozens of these sorry men, whose fate has been to end up murdered or exiled by the very people they once sought to champion.

There are much worse types in Ajami’s gallery. He provides a vividly repugnant glimpse of the awful al-Ghamdi tribe of Saudi Arabia. One of their number, Ahmad, crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11; another, Hamza, helped to take down Flight 93. A second Ahmad was the suicide bomber who in December 2004 blew up eighteen Americans in Mosul. And then there is Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the native Egyptian and resident of Qatar who in August 2004 issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill American civilians in Iraq. Why not kill them in Westernized Qatar, where they were far more plentiful? Perhaps because they were profitable to, and protected by, the same government that protected Qaradawi himself. Apparently, like virtue, evil too needs to be buttressed by hypocrisy.

The Foreigner’s Gift is not an organized work of analysis, its arguments leading in logical progression to a solidly reasoned conclusion. Instead, it is a series of highly readable vignettes drawn from Ajami’s serial travels and reflections. Which is hardly to say that it lacks a point, or that its point is uncontroversial — far from it. Critics will surely cite Ajami’s own Shiite background as the catalyst for his professed confidence in the emergence of Iraq’s Shiites as the stewards of Iraqi democracy. But any such suggestion of a hidden agenda, or alternatively of naiveté, would be very wide of the mark.

What most characterizes Ajami is not his religious faith (if he has any in the traditional sense) but his unequalled appreciation of historical irony — the irony entailed, for example, in the fact that by taking out the single figure of Saddam Hussein we unleashed an unforeseen moral reckoning among the Arabs at large; the irony that the very vehemence of Iraq’s insurgency may in the end undo and humiliate it on its own turf, and might already have begun to do so; the irony that Shiite Iran may rue the day when its Shiite cousins in Iraq were freed by the Americans.

When it comes to ironies, Ajami is clearly bemused that an American oilman, himself the son of a President who in 1991 called for the Iraqi Shiites to rise up and overthrow a wounded Saddam Hussein, only to stand by as they were slaughtered, should have been brought to exclaim in September 2003: “Iraq as a dictatorship had great power to destabilize the Middle East. Iraq as a democracy will have great power to inspire the Middle East.” Ajami himself is not yet prepared to say that Iraq will do so — only that, with our help, it just might. He needs to be listened to very closely.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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