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Book Review

An Arab neo-con’s justification of the US’s policy in Iraq and the Middle East

Khalil Fadl

The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq by Fouad Ajami. Pub: Free Press, New York, 2006. Pp: 400. Hbk: $26.00.

Ideological blinders often lead ideologues to stumble into serious blunders. That US president George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure has gone awry has escaped no one but the warmongering neo-conservative cabal dominating the Bush White House and the stalwart intellectuals who blithely rationalized the irrational war. By affording their holders the opportunity to refuse to see reality as it is, or rather claiming not to see it, ideological blinders serve an important psychological purpose. They help ideologues to shake off the sense of guilt emerging from a feeling of responsibility for their actions.

Like an unrepentant sinner still on a bender, Fouad Ajami declares on the first page of his new book The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq that, when it comes to the war in Iraq, he is ideologically committed. “Let me be forthright about the view that runs through these pages,” says Ajami. “For me this was a legitimate and, at the beginning, a popular war that issued out of a deep American frustration with the ‘road rage’ of the Arab world and with the culture of terrorism that had put down roots in Arab lands” (p. xi). This is vintage Ajami: he is one of the most ardent intellectual advocates of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He tried in the run-up to the war to cultivate US public opinion for military action on US talk-shows and in the pages of influential pro-establishment American publications such as The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, and Foreign Affairs.

This book is the result of six visits that Ajami made to Iraq after the overthrow of the Ba’athist government in 2003. The author blends a hodge-podge of travelogue, history and political musings on imperial America, Iraq, the Arab world and the main sectarian divide within Islam, between Sunnism and Shi’ism. He recounts conversations with a wide array of interlocutors:US soldiers, ordinary Iraqis, government officials, intellectuals, tribal chiefs, businessmen and religious leaders, including the most prominent Shi’ah authority in Najaf, the reclusive Ayatullah al-Udhma Ali al-Sistani. As the reader proceeds from one anecdote to another, and from one political reflection to another, it becomes clear that the author, an academic at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, does not intend to provide a systematic or organized work of analysis that moves in a logical manner towards an ultimate, reasoned conclusion. Despite his engrossing, highly polished, and sometimes even poetical style, Ajami’s book reads more like a disorganized diary as the author leapfrogs across time and space in a rather inconsistent manner. The reader is at loss to figure out on which of Ajami’s six trips to Iraq certain encounters with some of his interlocutors took place. Nor can the reader discern a sense of chronological direction: one cannot tell how, at any moment, in what direction events are moving. Moreover, the figures he interviews and describes appear in a rather arbitrary manner amid the welter of vignettes and ideologically-inspired ruminations comprising the bulk of the book. People and events are introduced and fade away from the scene only to reappear again dozens of pages later, with additional information that could easily have been presented in the initial account. But Ajami’s multi-dimensional and variegated pastiche-like narrative can be distilled into an attempt to vindicate a latter-day version of Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden” – a theme that is aptly captured by the book’s main title, The Foreigner’s Gift.

Ajami is quite candid about the ultimate objective of the Iraq war. Throughout his book, he makes clear that the war was neither about bringing democracy to Iraq nor about Saddam’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. It was part and parcel of a wider imperial project whose scope extends beyond Iraq to encompass the entire Middle East. “One principal rationale for the war,” Ajami writes, “was the American desire to reform the Arab political condition, to take American power deeper into the affairs of the Arab world” (p. 51). Iraq was only the linchpin of an American imperial project that sought to reshape the region. In Ajami’s words, the Iraq war sought to secure “a base of American influence free of the toxic anti-Americanism at play in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and of the social and religious mores that weighed so heavily on the Saudi realm. In Iraq, American war planners and a powerful coalition of defense and policy thinkers saw an opportunity to end the American dependence on the old pillars of the American presence, and to construct a new American imperium in Araby” (p. 67).

But the project seems to have been misguided, foolhardy and born out of a gross ignorance of the situation in Iraq. As such, America’s dream palace of empire turned out to be a sandcastle and was doomed from the start. Instead of being greeted as liberators by Iraqis, as the neo-conservative proponents of war had predicted, “the Anglo-American forces had been greeted by a measure of reserve and silence as well, as they made their way from the southern part of the country to the capital. A brutalized people were unable to take on good faith that the Americans had come to decapitate the regime this time around” (p. 87).

What has happened since then is all too familiar. The country that Saddam held in fear and ruled through terror concealed societal cleavages and centrifugal forces percolating just beneath the surface of the Ba’ath Party’s edifice of tyranny. Thus the “foreign power coming into Iraq happened on a country riven with sectarian troubles” (p. 64) and the fall of Saddam released not democratic forces throughout the Middle East but rather demons of communal hatred that transformed the region into a sectarian and ethnic cauldron. “In the scheme of things, the Shia stood to emerge as the prime beneficiaries of the new order,” states Ajami. “America had rid them of the Sunni ascendancy, given them a chance at normalcy [sic.]” (p. 88). Despite this change in the distribution of power, distrust of the Americans continued to a play dominant role in shaping the political attitudes of senior Shi’ah authorities. At several places the author decries such anti-Americanism. For instance, he relates how Ayatullah Sistani’s representative in Karbala, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi Karbalai, “had objected to a visit that [former US proconsul in Iraq] Paul Bremer made to the city. ‘He is an infidel and an occupier and he has no right to visit Karbala,’ this cleric opined. Karbalai no doubt knew what had befallen Najaf and Karbala, and the men of the religious class, under the old despotism. The debt owed America by Karbalai and his community was huge indeed” (p. 127).

The subsequent insurgency fed on the sense of disenfranchisement that swept the Sunni Arab community, which played a disproportionate political role throughout the history of modernIraq, following the overthrow of Saddam. Among many Arab jihadists who flocked into Iraq to take part in the insurgency, this sense of victimization was wedded to visceral sectarian hatreds to produce a cult of suicide bombings targeting civilians. In the words of Ajami: “This proud sense of violation 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” (p. xiii).

Though the insurgency in Iraq has shattered America’s prestige, delusions of imperial grandeur and many of the pretexts of the Iraqi invasion, Ajami is trying to redeem, restore and re-accredit them. He also is at pains to redeem the honor of Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon’s favorite during the preparations for the war and the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam. Ajami showers praise on Chalabi, who spent the 1990s lobbying America to intervene in Iraq. He repeats at face value Chalabi’s trumped-up-charges defense in the Jordanian Petra Bank affair, over which a Jordanian court had sentenced him to twenty-two years’ imprisonment on charges of embezzlement and diversion of funds. Ajami accepts Chalabi’s position that the whole affair was concocted to intimidate and harass him, and driven by political motives. He avers that the Petra Bank case “was not a straightforward business endeavor. The inner details of the affair were the exclusive domain of the two rulers– Jordan’s monarch and Saddam Hussein” (p. 232). The author also defends Chalabi against American accusations, which came out following his falling out with the Bush administration in 2004, that he misled the US regarding Iraq’s supposed WMD arsenal and sold US secrets to Iran.

In sketching his portraits of controversial Iraqi politicians such as Chalabi, Ajami draws gullibly and uncritically on everything that they fed him in interviews. It is astonishing that he neither checks the information his interlocutors provide nor considers the possibility that their responses are cleverly tailored to polish their own images or tarnished reputations. Take, for example, the claim made by Muwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security advisor, who contends that he “had suffered imprisonment and torture under the Baath dictatorship” (p. 173). The same claim appears again on p. 204 when Ajami quotes Rubaie as saying: “I was in his [Saddam’s] torture chamber in 1979.”

Such a claim appears to be borne out of Rubaie’s penchant for extravagant overstatements, grotesque exaggeration and false heroics. Rubaie, a former senior member of the Islamic Da’awah Party, came to Britain in 1979. His claim to having been arrested and tortured by the Saddam regime before that date cannot be substantiated. One of his close Da’awah party associates at the time, someone who was active in the ranks of the party and who shared a residence with Rubaie for several months upon his arrival in Britain, told me that Rubaie “did not mention being arrested at that time. I am not aware of him being imprisoned.” If Rubaie had really been imprisoned and tortured before his arrival in Britain, then his alleged plight would have been mentioned at the time in his discussions with members of his party. In fact, telling the truth about his political career has always been a problematic and challenging business for Rubaie. In the 1980s, Rubaie was one of the few figures authorized to give public statements on behalf of the Da’awah party. But after the arrival of senior party leader Ibrahim Jaafari in London in 1991, Rubaie was asked to stop speaking in the name of the Da’awah. When Rubaie failed to abide by the instruction, he was expelled from the party. Yet he persisted in introducing himself as a Da’awah spokesperson until the party issued a public statement declaring that Rubaie does not speak on behalf of the group. With such a track record, it is always prudent to take Rubaie’s statements with a large pinch of salt.

If such carelessness or oversight on Ajami’s part can be excused, there is nothing to justify factual errors like getting the location of the city of Baquba wrong. “[W]e had come to westernIraq, and the thick groves of palm trees were like a sudden gift after the hard earth,” Ajami says before adding: “This was Baquba, in the Sunni Triangle, I was told” (p. 34). But Baquba is a city in the Diyala province, to the northeast of Baghdad, which abuts the Iranian border. For an academic expert on Middle Eastern affairs who had been on six trips to Iraq before writing the book, such an error is inexcusable. Another error can be found on p. 306, where Ajami states that the current Iraqi government’s spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh “had been a member in the American-appointed Governing Council” (p. 306). If ignorance of geography can explain the previous error then only glaring sloppiness in researching and sourcing facts can explain the latter error, as the list of the names of those who sat on the 25-member council is readily available and could easily have been checked. Like Rubaie, Dabbagh has apparently been blatantly making untrue claims about his political career. In a speech that he gave at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, on April 11, 2007, he was introduced as having served “as an advisor to the Iraqi Governing Council.” Nothing could be further than the truth: Dabbagh was not even in Iraq during the term of the Governing Council (2003-04). He was based in Dubai at the time, where he had taken to giving interviews to the Arab media, especially Arab satellite news television stations, in the previously-unheard-of capacity of an “expert on the affairs of the Shi’ah religious marja’iyyah” (khabir fi shu’un al-marja’iyyah al-diniyyah al-Shi’iyyah). He only returned to Iraq in 2005 after having been elected to the Iraqi National Assembly.

But even these errors pale in comparison with the mendacious quasi-millenarian neo-conservative optimism that animates Ajami’s book. He rightly bemoans the calamity of internal repression in the Arab world and criticizes the myriad intellectual maladies of the Arab intellectual class and intelligentsia. However, like a professional propagandist, he takes such elements of truth and packages them in a manner that ends up adding an intellectual sheen to a project that relies on raw power. Ajami, the personification par excellence of ascendant neo-conservatism in the US, appropriates the language of human rights and the rhetoric of democracy to the designs of a predatory American empire. While he bemoans localized tyranny, he not only fails to condemn global hegemony or domination but is at pains to promote it. Ultimately, the term “comprador intellectual” is a perfect description of Ajami, an immigrant from the southern Lebanese village of Arnoun who works in the service of a predatory colonial empire. Despite his keen interest in history, some of the most notable cardinal truths of history escape Ajami. Foremost among them is the historical truism that no empire lasts. If empires could last, the Arabs would be ruling the world today.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 5

Jumada' al-Akhirah 27, 14292008-07-01

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