The Native Informant
by Adam Shatz
[from the April 28, 2003 issue]
Late last August, at a reunion of Korean War veterans in San Antonio, Texas, Dick Cheney tried to assuage concerns that a unilateral, pre-emptive war against Iraq might “cause even greater troubles in that part of the world.” He cited a well-known Arab authority: “As for the reaction of the Arab street, the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation in Basra and Baghdad, the streets are sure to erupt in joy.” As the bombs fell over Baghdad, just before American troops began to encounter fierce Iraqi resistance, Ajami could scarcely conceal his glee. “We are now coming into acquisition of Iraq,” he announced on CBS News the morning of March 22. “It’s an amazing performance.”
If Hollywood ever makes a film about Gulf War II, a supporting role should be reserved for Ajami, the director of Middle East Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. His is a classic American success story. Born in 1945 to Shiite parents in the remote southern Lebanese village of Arnoun and now a proud naturalized American, Ajami has become the most politically influential Arab intellectual of his generation in the United States. Condoleezza Rice often summons him to the White House for advice, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a friend and former colleague, has paid tribute to him in several recent speeches on Iraq. Although he has produced little scholarly work of value, Ajami is a regular guest on CBS News, Charlie Rose and the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, and a frequent contributor to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. His ideas are also widely recycled by acolytes like Thomas Friedman and Judith Miller of the Times.
Ajami’s unique role in American political life has been to unpack the unfathomable mysteries of the Arab and Muslim world and to help sell America’s wars in the region. A diminutive, balding man with a dramatic beard, stylish clothes and a charming, almost flirtatious manner, he has played his part brilliantly. On television, he radiates above-the-frayness, speaking with the wry, jaded authority that men in power admire, especially in men who have risen from humble roots. Unlike the other Arabs, he appears to have no ax to grind. He is one of us; he is the good Arab.
Ajami’s admirers paint him as a courageous gadfly who has risen above the tribal hatreds of the Arabs, a Middle Eastern Spinoza whose honesty has earned him the scorn of his brethren. Commentary editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz, one of his many right-wing American Jewish fans, writes that Ajami “has been virtually alone in telling the truth about the attitude toward Israel of the people from whom he stems.” The people from whom Ajami “stems” are, of course, the Arabs, and Ajami’s ethnicity is not incidental to his celebrity. It lends him an air of authority not enjoyed by non-Arab polemicists like Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes.
But Ajami is no gadfly. He is, in fact, entirely a creature of the American establishment. His once-luminous writing, increasingly a blend of Naipaulean clichés about Muslim pathologies and Churchillian rhetoric about the burdens of empire, is saturated with hostility toward Sunni Arabs in general (save for pro-Western Gulf Arabs, toward whom he is notably indulgent), and to Palestinians in particular. He invites comparison with Henry Kissinger, another émigré intellectual to achieve extraordinary prominence as a champion of American empire. Like Kissinger, Ajami has a suave television demeanor, a gravitas-lending accent, an instinctive solicitude for the imperatives of power and a cool disdain for the weak. And just as Kissinger cozied up to Nelson Rockefeller and Nixon, so has Ajami attached himself to such powerful patrons as Laurence Tisch, former chairman of CBS; Mort Zuckerman, the owner of US News & World Report; Martin Peretz, a co-owner of The New Republic; and Leslie Gelb, head of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Despite his training in political science, Ajami often sounds like a pop psychologist in his writing about the Arab world or, as he variously calls it, “the world of Araby,” “that Arab world” and “those Arab lands.” According to Ajami, that world is “gripped in a poisonous rage” and “wedded to a worldview of victimology,” bad habits reinforced by its leaders, “megalomaniacs who never tell their people what can and cannot be had in the world of nations.” There is, to be sure, a grain of truth in Ajami’s grim assessment. Progressive Arab thinkers from Sadeq al-Azm to Adonis have issued equally bleak indictments of Arab political culture, lambasting the dearth of self-criticism and the constant search for external scapegoats. Unlike these writers, however, Ajami has little sympathy for the people of the region, unless they happen to live within the borders of “rogue states” like Iraq, in which case they must be “liberated” by American force. The corrupt regimes that rule the Arab world, he has suggested, are more or less faithful reflections of the “Arab psyche”: “Despots always work with a culture’s yearnings…. After all, a hadith, a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, maintains ‘You will get the rulers you deserve.’” His own taste in regimes runs to monarchies like Kuwait. The Jews of Israel, it seems, are not just the only people in the region who enjoy the fruits of democracy; they are the only ones who deserve them.
Once upon a time, Ajami was an articulate and judicious critic both of Arab society and of the West, a defender of Palestinian rights and an advocate of decent government in the Arab world. Though he remains a shrewd guide to the hypocrisies of Arab leaders, his views on foreign policy now scarcely diverge from those of pro-Israel hawks in the Bush Administration. “Since the Gulf War, Fouad has taken leave of his analytic perspective to play to his elite constituency,” said Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East scholar at Boston University. “It’s very unfortunate because he could have made an astonishingly important contribution.”
Seeking to understand the causes of Ajami’s transformation, I spoke to more than two dozen of his friends and acquaintances over the past several months. (Ajami did not return my phone calls or e-mails.) These men and women depicted a man at once ambitious and insecure, torn between his irascible intellectual independence and his even stronger desire to belong to something larger than himself. On the one hand, he is an intellectual dandy who, as Sayres Rudy, a former student, puts it, “doesn’t like groups and thinks people who join them are mediocre.” On the other, as a Shiite among Sunnis, and as an émigré in America, he has always felt the outsider’s anxiety to please, and has adjusted his convictions to fit his surroundings. As a young man eager to assimilate into the urbane Sunni world of Muslim Beirut, he embraced pan-Arabism. Received with open arms by the American Jewish establishment in New York and Washington, he became an ardent Zionist. An informal adviser to both Bush administrations, he is now a cheerleader for the American empire.
The man from Arnoun appears to be living the American dream. He has a prestigious job and the ear of the President. Yet the price of power has been higher in his case than in Kissinger’s. Kissinger, after all, is a figure of renown among the self-appointed leaders of “the people from whom he stems” and a frequent speaker at Jewish charity galas, whereas Ajami is a man almost entirely deserted by his people, a pariah at what should be his hour of triumph. In Arnoun, a family friend told me, “Fouad is a black sheep because of his staunch support for the Israelis.” Although he frequently travels to Tel Aviv and the Persian Gulf, he almost never goes to Lebanon. In becoming an American, he has become, as he himself has confessed, “a stranger in the Arab world.”
Up From Lebanon
This is an immigrant’s tale.
It begins in Arnoun, a rocky hamlet in the south of Lebanon where Fouad al-Ajami was born on September 19, 1945. A prosperous tobacco-growing Shiite family, the Ajamis had come to Arnoun from Iran in the 1850s. (Their name, Arabic for “Persian,” gave away their origins.)
When Ajami was 4, he moved with his family to Beirut, settling in the largely Armenian northeastern quarter, a neighborhood thick with orange orchards, pine trees and strawberry fields. As members of the rural Shiite minority, the country’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” the Ajamis stood apart from the city’s dominant groups, the Sunni Muslims and the Maronite Christians. “We were strangers to Beirut,” he has written. “We wanted to pass undetected in the modern world of Beirut, to partake of its ways.” For the young “Shia assimilé,” as he has described himself, “anything Persian, anything Shia, was anathema…. speaking Persianized Arabic was a threat to something unresolved in my identity.” He tried desperately, but with little success, to pass among his Sunni peers. In the predominantly Sunni schools he attended, “Fouad was taunted for being a Shiite, and for being short,” one friend told me. “That left him with a lasting sense of bitterness toward the Sunnis.”
In the 1950s, Arab nationalism appeared to hold out the promise of transcending the schisms between Sunnis and Shiites, and the confessional divisions separating Muslims and Christians. Like his classmates, Ajami fell under the spell of Arab nationalism’s charismatic spokesman, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the same time, he was falling under the spell of American culture, which offered relief from the “ancestral prohibitions and phobias” of his “cramped land.” Watching John Wayne films, he “picked up American slang and a romance for the distant power casting its shadow across us.” On July 15, 1958, the day after the bloody overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy by nationalist army officers, Ajami’s two loves had their first of many clashes, when President Eisenhower sent the US Marines to Beirut to contain the spread of radical Arab nationalism. In their initial confrontation, Ajami chose Egypt’s leader, defying his parents and hopping on a Damascus-bound bus for one of Nasser’s mass rallies.
Ajami arrived in the United States in the fall of 1963, just before he turned 18. He did his graduate work at the University of Washington, where he wrote his dissertation on international relations and world government. At the University of Washington, Ajami gravitated toward progressive Arab circles. Like his Arab peers, he was shaken by the humiliating defeat of the Arab countries in the 1967 war with Israel, and he was heartened by the emergence of the PLO. While steering clear of radicalism, he often expressed horror at Israel’s brutal reprisal attacks against southern Lebanese villages in response to PLO raids.
In 1973 Ajami joined Princeton’s political science department, commuting to work from his apartment in New York. He made a name for himself there as a vocal supporter of Palestinian self-determination. One friend remembers him as “a fairly typical advocate of Third World positions.” Yet he was also acutely aware of the failings of Third World states, which he unsparingly diagnosed in “The Fate of Nonalignment,” a brilliant 1980/81 essay in Foreign Affairs. In 1980, when Johns Hopkins offered him a position as director of Middle East Studies at SAIS, a Washington-based graduate program, he took it.
A year after arriving at SAIS, Ajami published his first and still best book, The Arab Predicament. An anatomy of the intellectual and political crisis that swept the Arab world following its defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, it is one of the most probing and subtle books ever written in English on the region. Ranging gracefully across political theory, literature and poetry, Ajami draws an elegant, often moving portrait of Arab intellectuals in their anguished efforts to put together a world that had come apart at the seams. The book did not offer a bold or original argument; like Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers, it provided an interpretive survey–respectful even when critical–of other people’s ideas. It was the book of a man who had grown disillusioned with Nasser, whose millenarian dream of restoring the “Arab nation” had run up against the hard fact that the “divisions of the Arab world were real, not contrived points on a map or a colonial trick.” But pan-Arabism was not the only temptation to which the intellectuals had succumbed. There was radical socialism, and the Guevarist fantasies of the Palestinian revolution. There was Islamic fundamentalism, with its romance of authenticity and its embittered rejection of the West. And then there was the search for Western patronage, the way of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, who forgot his own world and ended up being devoured by it.
Ajami’s ambivalent chapter on Sadat makes for especially fascinating reading today. He praised Sadat for breaking with Nasserism and making peace with Israel, and perhaps saw something of himself in the “self-defined peasant from the dusty small village” who had “traveled far beyond the bounds of his world.” But he also saw in Sadat’s story the tragic parable of a man who had become more comfortable with Western admirers than with his own people. When Sadat spoke nostalgically of his village–as Ajami now speaks of Arnoun–he was pandering to the West. Arabs, a people of the cities, would not be “taken in by the myth of the village.” Sadat’s “American connection,” Ajami suggested, gave him “a sense of psychological mobility,” lifting some of the burdens imposed by his cramped world. And as his dependence on his American patrons deepened, “he became indifferent to the sensibilities of his own world.”
Sadat was one example of the trap of seeking the West’s approval, and losing touch with one’s roots; V.S. Naipaul was another. Naipaul, Ajami suggested in an incisive 1981 New York Times review of Among the Believers, exemplified the “dilemma of a gifted author led by his obsessive feelings regarding the people he is writing about to a difficult intellectual and moral bind.” Third World exiles like Naipaul, Ajami wrote, “have a tendency to…look at their own countries and similar ones with a critical eye,” yet “these same men usually approach the civilization of the West with awe and leave it unexamined.” Ajami preferred the humane, nonjudgmental work of Polish travel writer Ryszard Kapucinski: “His eye for human folly is as sharp as V.S. Naipaul. His sympathy and sorrow, however, are far deeper.”
The Arab Predicament was infused with sympathy and sorrow, but these qualities were ignored by the book’s Arab critics in the West, who–displaying the ideological rigidity that is an unfortunate hallmark of exile politics–accused him of papering over the injustices of imperialism and “blaming the victim.” To an extent, this was a fair criticism. Ajami paid little attention to imperialism, and even less to Israel’s provocative role in the region. What is more, his argument that “the wounds that mattered were self-inflicted” endeared him to those who wanted to distract attention from Palestine. Doors flew open. On the recommendation of Bernard Lewis, the distinguished British Orientalist at Princeton and a strong supporter of Israel, Ajami became the first Arab to win the MacArthur “genius” prize in 1982, and in 1983 he became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The New Republic began to publish lengthy essays by Ajami, models of the form that offer a tantalizing glimpse of the career he might have had in a less polarized intellectual climate. Pro-Israel intellectual circles groomed him as a rival to Edward Said, holding up his book as a corrective to Orientalism, Said’s classic study of how the West imagined the East in the age of empire.
In fact, Ajami shared some of Said’s anger about the Middle East. The Israelis, he wrote in an eloquent New York Times op-ed after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, “came with a great delusion: that if you could pound men and women hard enough, if you could bring them to their knees, you could make peace with them.” He urged the United States to withdraw from Lebanon in 1984, and he advised it to open talks with the Iranian government. Throughout the 1980s, Ajami maintained a critical attitude toward America’s interventions in the Middle East, stressing the limits of America’s ability to influence or shape a “tormented world” it scarcely understood. “Our arguments dovetailed,” says Said. “There was an unspoken assumption that we shared the same kind of politics.”
But just below the surface there were profound differences of opinion. Hisham Milhem, a Lebanese journalist who knows both men well, explained their differences to me by contrasting their views on Joseph Conrad. “Edward and Fouad are both crazy about Conrad, but they see in him very different things. Edward sees the critic of empire, especially in Heart of Darkness. Fouad, on the other hand, admires the Polish exile in Western Europe who made a conscious break with the old country.”
Yet the old world had as much of a grip on Ajami as it did on Said. In southern Lebanon, Palestinian guerrillas had set up a state within a state. They often behaved thuggishly toward the Shiites, alienating their natural allies and recklessly exposing them to Israel’s merciless reprisals. By the time Israeli tanks rolled into Lebanon in 1982, relations between the two communities had so deteriorated that some Shiites greeted the invaders with rice and flowers. Like many Shiites, Ajami was fed up with the Palestinians, whose revolution had brought ruin to Lebanon. Arnoun itself had not been unscathed: A nearby Crusader castle, the majestic Beaufort, was now the scene of intense fighting.
In late May 1985, Ajami–now identifying himself as a Shiite from southern Lebanon–sparred with Said on the MacNeil Lehrer Report over the war between the PLO and Shiite Amal militia, then raging in Beirut’s refugee camps. A few months later, they came to verbal blows again, when Ajami was invited to speak at a Harvard conference on Islam and Muslim politics organized by Israeli-American academic Nadav Safran. After the Harvard Crimson revealed that the conference had been partly funded by the CIA, Ajami, at the urging of Said and the late Pakistani writer Eqbal Ahmad, joined a wave of speakers who were withdrawing from the conference. But Ajami, who was a protégé and friend of Safran, immediately regretted his decision. He wrote a blistering letter to Said and Ahmad a few weeks later, accusing them of “bringing the conflicts of the Middle East to this country” while “I have tried to go beyond them…. Therefore, my friends, this is the parting of ways. I hope never to encounter you again, and we must cease communication. Yours sincerely, Fouad Ajami.”
The Tribal Turn
By now, the “Shia assimilé” had fervently embraced his Shiite identity. Like Sadat, he began to rhapsodize about his “dusty village” in wistful tones. The Vanished Imam, his 1986 encomium to Musa al-Sadr, the Iranian cleric who led the Amal militia before mysteriously disappearing on a 1978 visit to Libya, offers important clues into Ajami’s thinking of the time. A work of lyrical nationalist mythology, The Vanished Imam also provides a thinly veiled political memoir, recounting Ajami’s disillusionment with Palestinians, Arabs and the left, and his conversion to old-fashioned tribal politics.
The marginalized Shiites had found a home in Amal, and a spiritual leader in Sadr, a “big man” who is explicitly compared to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and credited with a far larger role than he actually played in Shiite politics. Writing of Sadr, Ajami might have been describing himself. Sadr is an Ajam–a Persian–with “an outsider’s eagerness to please.” He is “suspicious of grand schemes,” blessed with “a strong sense of pragmatism, of things that can and cannot be,” thanks to which virtue he “came to be seen as an enemy of everything ‘progressive.’” “Tired of the polemics,” he alone is courageous enough to stand up to the Palestinians, warning them not to “seek a ‘substitute homeland,’ watan badil, in Lebanon.” Unlike the Palestinians, Ajami tells us repeatedly, the Shiites are realists, not dreamers; reformers, not revolutionaries. Throughout the book, a stark dichotomy is also drawn between Shiite and Arab nationalism, although, as one of his Shiite critics pointed out in a caustic review in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, “allegiance to Arab nationalist ideals…was paramount” in Sadr’s circles. The Shiites of Ajami’s imagination seem fundamentally different from other Arabs: a community that shares America’s aversion to the Palestinians, a “model minority” worthy of the West’s sympathy.
The Shiite critic of the Palestinians cut an especially attractive profile in the eyes of the American media. Most American viewers of CBS News, which made him a high-paid consultant in 1985, had no idea that he was almost completely out of step with the community for which he claimed to speak. By the time The Vanished Imam appeared, the Shiites, under the leadership of a new group, Hezbollah, had launched a battle to liberate Lebanon from Israeli control. Israeli soldiers were now greeted with grenades and explosives, rather than rice and flowers, and Arnoun became a hotbed of Hezbollah support. Yet Ajami displayed little enthusiasm for this Shiite struggle. He was also oddly silent about the behavior of the Israelis, who, from the 1982 invasion onward, had killed far more Shiites than either Arafat (“the Flying Dutchman of the Palestinian movement”) or Hafez al-Assad (Syria’s “cruel enforcer”). The Shiites, he suggested, were “beneficiaries of Israel’s Lebanon war.”
In the Promised Land
By the mid-1980s, the Middle Eastern country closest to Ajami’s heart was not Lebanon but Israel. He returned from his trips to the Jewish state boasting of traveling to the occupied territories under the guard of the Israel Defense Forces and of being received at the home of Teddy Kollek, then Jerusalem’s mayor. The Israelis earned his admiration because they had something the Palestinians notably lacked: power. They were also tough-minded realists, who understood “what can and cannot be had in the world of nations.” The Palestinians, by contrast, were romantics who imagined themselves to be “exempt from the historical laws of gravity.”
In 1986, Ajami had praised Musa al-Sadr as a realist for telling the Palestinians to fight Israel in the occupied territories, rather than in Lebanon. But when the Palestinians did exactly that, in the first intifada of 1987-93, it no longer seemed realistic to Ajami, who then advised them to swallow the bitter pill of defeat and pay for their bad choices. While Israeli troops shot down children armed only with stones, Ajami told the Palestinians they should give up on the idea of a sovereign state (“a phantom”), even in the West Bank and Gaza. When the PLO announced its support for a two-state solution at a 1988 conference in Algiers, Ajami called the declaration “hollow,” its concessions to Israel inadequate. On the eve of the Madrid talks in the fall of 1991 he wrote, “It is far too late to introduce a new nation between Israel and Jordan.” Nor should the American government embark on the “fool’s errand” of pressuring Israel to make peace. Under Ajami’s direction, the Middle East program of SAIS became a bastion of pro-Israel opinion. An increasing number of Israeli and pro-Israel academics, many of them New Republic contributors, were invited as guest lecturers. “Rabbi Ajami,” as many people around SAIS referred to him, was also receiving significant support from a Jewish family foundation in Baltimore, which picked up the tab for the trips his students took to the Middle East every summer. Back in Lebanon, Ajami’s growing reputation as an apologist for Israel reportedly placed considerable strains on family members in Arnoun.
‘The Saudi Way’
Ajami also developed close ties during the 1980s to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which made him–as he often and proudly pointed out–the only Arab who traveled both to the Persian Gulf countries and to Israel. In 1985 he became an external examiner in the political science department at Kuwait University; he said “the place seemed vibrant and open to me.” His major patrons, however, were Saudi. He has traveled to Riyadh many times to raise money for his program, sometimes taking along friends like Martin Peretz; he has also vacationed in Prince Bandar’s home in Aspen. Saudi hospitality–and Saudi Arabia’s lavish support for SAIS–bred gratitude. At one meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ajami told a group that, as one participant recalls, “the Saudi system was a lot stronger than we thought, that it was a system worth defending, and that it had nothing to apologize for.” Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he faithfully echoed the Saudi line. “Rage against the West does not come naturally to the gulf Arabs,” he wrote in 1990. “No great tales of betrayal are told by the Arabs of the desert. These are Palestinian, Lebanese and North African tales.”
This may explain why Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 aroused greater outrage in Ajami than any act of aggression in the recent history of the Middle East. Neither Israel’s invasion of Lebanon nor the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre had caused him comparable consternation. Nor, for that matter, had Saddam’s slaughter of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. This is understandable, of course; we all react more emotionally when the victims are friends. But we don’t all become publicists for war, as Ajami did that fateful summer, consummating his conversion to Pax Americana. What was remarkable was not only his fervent advocacy; it was his cavalier disregard for truth, his lurid rhetoric and his religious embrace of American power. In Foreign Affairs, Ajami, who knew better, described Iraq, the cradle of Mesopotamian civilization, a major publisher of Arabic literature and a center of the plastic arts, as “a brittle land…with little claim to culture and books and grand ideas.” It was, in other words, a wasteland, led by a man who “conjures up Adolf Hitler.”
Months before the war began, the Shiite from Arnoun, now writing as an American, in the royal “we,” declared that US troops “will have to stay in the Gulf and on a much larger scale,” since “we have tangible interests in that land. We stand sentry there in blazing clear daylight.” After the Gulf War, Ajami’s cachet soared. In the early 1990s Harvard offered him a chair (“he turned it down because we expected him to be around and to work very hard,” a professor told me), and the Council on Foreign Relations added him to its prestigious board of advisers last year. “The Gulf War was the crucible of change,” says Augustus Richard Norton. “This immigrant from Arnoun, this man nobody had heard of from a place no one had heard of, had reached the peak of power. This was a true immigrant success story, one of those moments that make an immigrant grateful for America. And I think it implanted a deep sense of patriotism that wasn’t present before.”
And, as Ajami once wrote of Sadat, “outside approval gave him the courage to defy” the Arabs, especially when it came to Israel. On June 3, 1992, hardly a year after Gulf War I, Ajami spoke at a pro-Israel fundraiser. Kissinger, the keynote speaker, described Arabs as congenital liars. Ajami chimed in, expressing his doubts that democracy would ever work in the Arab world, and recounting a visit to a Bedouin village where he “insisted on only one thing: that I be spared the ceremony of eating with a Bedouin.”
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Ajami has been a consistent critic of the peace process–from the right. He sang the praises of each of Israel’s leaders, from the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, with his “filial devotion [to] the land he had agreed to relinquish,” to Labor leader Ehud Barak, “an exemplary soldier.” The Palestinians, he wrote, should be grateful to such men for “rescuing” them from defeat, and to Zionism for generously offering them “the possibility of their own national political revival.” (True to form, the Palestinians showed “no gratitude.”) A year before the destruction of Jenin, he proclaimed that “Israel is existentially through with the siege that had defined its history.” Ajami’s Likudnik conversion was sealed by telling revisions of arguments he had made earlier in his career. Where he had once argued that the 1982 invasion of Lebanon aimed to “undermine those in the Arab world who want some form of compromise,” he now called it a response to “the challenge of Palestinian terror.”
Did Ajami really believe all this? In a stray but revealing comment on Sadat in The New Republic, he left room for doubt. Sadat, he said, was “a son of the soil, who had the fellah’s ability to look into the soul of powerful outsiders, to divine how he could get around them even as he gave them what they desired.” Writing on politics, the man from Arnoun gave them what they desired. Writing on literature and poetry, he gave expression to the aesthete, the soulful elegist, even, at times, to the Arab. In his 1998 book, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, one senses, for the first time in years, Ajami’s sympathy for the world he left behind, although there is something furtive, something ghostly about his affection, as if he were writing about a lover he has taught himself to spurn. On rare occasions, Ajami revealed this side of himself to his students, whisking them into his office. Once the door was firmly shut, he would recite the poetry of Nizar Qabbani and Adonis in Arabic, caressing each and every line. As he read, Sayres Rudy told me, “I could swear his heart was breaking.”
September 11 exposed a major intelligence failure on Ajami’s part. With his obsessive focus on the menace of Saddam and the treachery of Arafat, he had missed the big story. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers hailed from what he had repeatedly called the “benign political order” of Saudi Arabia; the “Saudi way” he had praised had come undone. Yet the few criticisms that Ajami directed at his patrons in the weeks and months after September 11 were curiously muted, particularly in contrast to the rage of most American commentators. Ajami’s venues in the American media, however, were willing to forgive his softness toward the Saudis. America was going to war with Muslims, and a trusted native informant was needed.
Other forces were working in Ajami’s favor. For George W. Bush and the hawks in his entourage, Afghanistan was merely a prelude to the war they really wanted to fight–the war against Saddam that Ajami had been spoiling for since the end of Gulf War I. As a publicist for Gulf War II, Ajami has abandoned his longstanding emphasis on the limits of American influence in that “tormented region.” The war is being sold as the first step in an American plan to effect democratic regime change across the region, and Ajami has stayed on message. We now find him writing in Foreign Affairs that “the driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world.” The opinion of the Arab street, where Iraq is recruiting thousands of new jihadists, is of no concern to him. “We have to live with this anti-Americanism,” he sighed recently on CBS. “It’s the congenital condition of the Arab world, and we have to discount a good deal of it as we press on with the task of liberating the Iraqis.”
In fairness, Ajami has not completely discarded his wariness about American intervention. For there remains one country where American pressure will come to naught, and that is Israel, where it would “be hubris” to ask anything more of the Israelis, victims of “Arafat’s war.” To those who suggest that the Iraq campaign is doomed without an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, he says, “We can’t hold our war hostage to Arafat’s campaign of terror.”
Fortunately, George W. Bush understands this. Ajami has commended Bush for staking out the “high moral ground” and for “putting Iran on notice” in his Axis of Evil speech. Above all, the President should not allow himself to be deterred by multilateralists like Secretary of State Colin Powell, “an unhappy, reluctant soldier, at heart a pessimist about American power.” Unilateralism, Ajami says, is nothing to be ashamed of. It may make us hated in the “hostile landscape” of the Arab world, but, as he recently explained on the NewsHour, “it’s the fate of a great power to stand sentry in that kind of a world.”
It is no accident that the “sentry’s solitude” has become the idée fixe of Ajami’s writing in recent years. For it is a theme that resonates powerfully in his own life. Like the empire he serves, Ajami is more influential, and more isolated, than he has ever been. In recent years he has felt a need to defend this choice in heroic terms. “All a man can betray is his conscience,” he solemnly writes in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, citing a passage from Conrad. “The solitude Conrad chose is loathed by politicized men and women.”
It is a breathtakingly disingenuous remark. Ajami may be “a stranger in the Arab world,” but he can hardly claim to be a stranger to its politics. That is why he is quoted, and courted, by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. What Ajami abhors in “politicized men and women” is conviction itself. A leftist in the 1970s, a Shiite nationalist in the 1980s, an apologist for the Saudis in the 1990s, a critic-turned-lover of Israel, a skeptic-turned-enthusiast of American empire, he has observed no consistent principle in his career other than deference to power. His vaunted intellectual independence is a clever fiction. The only thing that makes him worth reading is his prose style, and even that has suffered of late. As Ajami observed of Naipaul more than twenty years ago, “he has become more and more predictable, too, with serious cost to his great gift as a writer,” blinded by the “assumption that only men who live in remote, dark places are ‘denied a clear vision of the world.’” Like Naipaul, Ajami has forgotten that “darkness is not only there but here as well.”