Fouad Ajami

Fouad Ajami

Fouad Ajami is a professor and director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His areas of expertise include the Middle East, OPEC, international relations, and Islamic religion, culture, and law. He has been awarded a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, a Bradley Prize for Outstanding Achievement, and a National Humanities Medal. He is a member of Hoover’s Islamism and the International Order Task Force.

Syria and the Decline of the West


“Obama is a coward,” said Shifa, 29 years of age, in a government-held suburb of Damascus.  She saw through the American leader: he hadn’t wanted to launch a military campaign to begin with and had taken the exit offered him by Vladimir Putin.  “The Russians are great and very smart,” she said.

Not since the calamities of 1978-79 – the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini, the storming of our embassy in Tehran – has American policy abroad been so rudderless.  Syria has put on cruel display all the inadequacies of the Obama administration.  Mr. Obama averted his gaze from thirty months of slaughter.  Then he put his fate in the hands of Bashar al-Assad by drawing a “red line” he had not really meant to enforce.  He will strike, he will not, he will take the case to Congress but seeks a delay of that vote, he had wearied of the Russians, he will turn to them for help – all this under the eyes of the world.  This was no war leader with an air of command: the scent of irresolution exceeded the worst of what Jimmy Carter had conveyed in his time of crisis.

The Caravan had taken up the matter of Syria in early 2012, when so many good options were possible.  We return at a time of American uncertainty and drift, with Syria in ruins, when all the good options have been exhausted.  There will be contributions from Charles Hill, Russell Berman, Itamar Rabinovich, Tunku Varadarajan, Reuel Marc Gerecht, and Asli Aydintasbas. As usual, we will post our contributions every two days.  There is, admittedly, a risk of writing amid the political and diplomatic confusion.  But we have faith in our team, and in their ability to make their way through the fog.

–Fouad Ajami

Senior Fellow, Co-chairman of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order

Barack Houdini: Making Syria Disappear

The online publication, Politico, put it well: Barack Obama tripped over Syria and fell on Iran.  That remarkable Obama luck, the luck that saw him through his bid for the United States Senate, the obtuseness of the Hillary Clinton campaign that had her win practically all the primaries that matter only to lose the nomination, to a rival who had gamed the system by prevailing in caucuses in Montana and Idaho, the financial hurricane that erupted in September 2008 and doomed the candidacy of Senator McCain – that luck was there for him in the matter of Syria as well.

President Obama made a mockery of his authority, and of much of America’s reputation abroad, when he threatened dire consequences for the Syrian dictatorship over the use of chemical weapons only to pull back and propose a congressional vote on the use of force in Syria.  Luck again intruded: Right in the nick of time, when it was clear that he would be rebuffed by the Congress, deliverance materialized in the shape of a Russian proposal put forth by Vladimir Putin that held out the promise of ridding the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons.  The Russian proposal was defective.  The only guarantee in it was a break for the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  The dictator was suddenly off the hook.  The war crimes of three years were forgotten, it was the crimes of a single day, August 21, when Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in an attack on a Damascus suburb, that became the focus of the Russian-American diplomacy.  The Syrian ruler, a monster who had brutalized his own population and laid waste to ancient, proud cities, was turned into a key diplomatic player.  He was needed now to account for the chemical stockpiles and to make good on turning them over to international inspectors.  The Syrian rebellion had been waiting for mercy and help; its leaders, if only for a moment, believed that the cavalry – the American cavalry – was on its way.  These hopes were shattered, Mr. Obama had not changed his ways.  He had done his best to ignore the ordeal of Syria, and his policy had not altered.  He was grateful for the exit given him by the master of the Kremlin.

It was amid this confusion, and this display of American irresolution that Hassan Rouhani descended on the United Nations.  The Iranian had been dispatched by the Supreme Leader, and the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, to strike a deal with an American president in need of a diplomatic breakthrough – or what could be passed off as a foreign policy achievement.  The Iranian theocracy was possessed of clarity: It wanted the economic sanctions imposed on it lifted, as it held onto its nuclear quest.  Rouhani, and the Supreme Leader who had given the agile politician his mission, believed that they were in a seller’s market.  The eagerness with which Barack Obama pursued Hassan Rouhani was destined to favor the Iranian theocrats.  They had given nothing concrete away.  They had helped Bashar al-Assad turn the tide of war in his favor but were now promised a role in the international diplomacy over Syria.  They had been steadfast in support of their client in Damascus, while the democracies had abandoned and left defenseless the forces of the opposition.  No wonder Hassan Rouhani could speak of Syria as a “civilizational jewel” as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah were raining death and destruction on what remains of that tormented country.

Grant Barack Obama the advantage of his guile.  He was sure he could run out the clock on the Syrian rebellion, he had paid no heed to the devastating consequences of the Syrian war on Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey.  He had bet that there would be no pressing demand at home for a mission of rescue in Syria.  He had presented the American people with a false choice: abdication or boots on the ground.  He reminded them, again and again, how weary they were of the exertions of war.

Then came the tsunami: the government shutdown.  No one recalled the name of that country by the Mediterranean where a war had been raging for nearly three years.  Hail Barack Obama, the Houdini of his time.  He had made the accumulated American influence of decades vanish before a distracted audience.

The Great Schism


Grant Egypt its redeeming consolations: it is neither Algeria, nor Syria.  The terror that came to Algeria in the 1990s, a scorched earth war between Le Pouvoir (The Power Structure) and the Islamists which took a toll of no less than 200,000 lives is unlikely to be visited on Egypt.  It had been a cruel decade in Algeria – the “eradicationists” of the regime pitted against unyielding Islamists who had prevailed at the ballot box only to see the generals bring to an end the whole specter of elections and constitutionalism.  And no fevered imagination could see the sectarianism and the horrors of Syria play out in Egypt.  It is not pretty in Egypt, some fifty supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were killed in a confrontation with the army on July 8, but there is no Homs in Egypt, and the Air Force had not inflicted death and ruin on Alexandria akin to what the Syrian MIGs had done to Aleppo.  The stereotype of an orderly country on the banks of the Nile where the army is made up of sons of the land of Egypt is not without its merit.  General Abdul Fattah el-Sissi, the coup maker who upended the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, bears no resemblance to the faceless generals of Algeria, or the Alawi commanders in Syria fighting a brutal religious war.

But consolations can betray.  There is a great schism in Egypt, and the national mood is foul.  For all its vaunted stability – the hydraulic society on the banks of a life-saving river – Egypt has been perennially prone to violent shifts of mood and opinion.  In the three decades between the declaration of its independence in 1923 and the coup d’état that overthrew the monarchy in 1952, the place was a playground for all kinds of ideological movements.  Constitutionalists, genuine Fascists inspired by the examples of Italy and Germany, devoted Communists, and the Muslim Brotherhood did battle over power and the country’s direction.  Pick up the work of the great Cairene, the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, and you are treated to an unsparing portrait of a country in distress.  The crisis of modern Egypt can be seen in the Mahfouzian characters struggling for order and meaning, in the opportunists who proclaim lofty principles only to betray them.  A struggle rages in that unique rendition of the struggle between the idealism of those who want to repair the burdened country and the nemesis that sinks those hopes again and again.

It has taken an irreverent young physician and satirist, Bassem Youssef (Egypt’s Jon Stewart, he has been dubbed), to tell his country of the depth of the animus between its secular forces and the Islamists.  In a piece published on July 19, Bassem Youssef mocked the secularists’ fantasy of a “normal state” of “good looking people” without veils and beards.  The liberals of Egypt, he said, are on a “victory high”, their media outlets full of “discrimination and inciting rhetoric.”  The satirist cut to the heart of things: the liberal secularists averting their gaze from the transgressions of the army and the police are no different from the “Islamists who think that their enemies’ disappearance off this planet would be a victory for the rebellion of God.”  The army had broken the stalemate between the secularists and the Brotherhood, but the rancor of politics had not ended.  “We have replaced the enemies of Islam with the enemies of the state.”  The army and the police can rout the Brotherhood, overturn the verdict of the ballot, but there can be no total victory over the Brotherhood: “These people are never going to disappear…They will return to their home full of hatred, frustration, and disappointment which will augment in the South of Egypt and neglected Delta area; and they will return with more violence and determination in store.”

In their eagerness to overlook their defeat at the polls, the secularists are fierce in their conviction that it was a “revolution” that swept Mohamed Morsi aside.  One figure of the Old Regime, Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Secretary General of the Arab League, insists that Morsi had been brought down by “popular impeachment.”  Thus has June 30, the time of the big street protests that led to the coup d’état, been enshrined as a seminal event in Egypt’s political calendar – on par with July 23, 1952, and with January 25, 2011, which marks the agitation that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.  For now, there is infatuation with the army and its commander; there is even revisionism about the police, once the stuff of nightmares for the secularists.  Egypt needs no more revolutionary dates.  What its condition calls for is a recognition of the schism that has brought its political life, once again, into a historical stalemate, and the rule of the army.

Fouad Ajami is the Herbert and Jane Dwight Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co chair of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order


Crowds gather in Tahrir Square in support of 'Second Revolution'

There was an Egyptian coup d’état this July, and there was another one, on July 23, 1952.  The earlier one begot a military regime that remained in the saddle for six decades.  It came in the “nick of time,” a renowned historian of Egypt, the late Harvard scholar Nadav Safran, wrote in his seminal Egypt in Search of Political Community (1961).  There was political chaos in the land, a feeble and corrupt monarchy, extremist political parties bereft of wisdom and practicality.  In the wings there stood the Muslim Brotherhood ready to inherit the chaos.  In January of that year, the mobs set torch to much of modern Cairo.  The army stepped in, sent the monarch into exile, and in time smashed the Brotherhood.  The young officers who of course promised to return to the barracks appropriated all power onto themselves.

Early this July, the army borrowed from the book of the coup of Gamal Abdul Nasser and his cabal.  The declaration, read by a hitherto unknown officer, Abdul Fattah el-Sissi, announced the bringing to a close of a turbulent year in the life of the burdened country.  The “democratic” experiment that had issued in a presidency for a functionary of the Muslim Brotherhood turned out to be a brief interregnum between two periods of rule by the military.  The ballot had not resolved the contradictions of a deeply divided society.

In this roundup, The Caravan considers the military coup.  We will post the contributions of our members every two days.  We begin with Professor Charles Hill and his rendition of the place of Egypt in the Western imagination.  After that will come contributions from Russell Berman, Itamar Rabinovich, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Samuel Tadros, Tunku Varadarajan, and with me bringing up the rear.

– Fouad Ajami


In this time of generalized peace, there have been six military campaigns of rescue, waged by the United States.  All had taken place in an extended arc of Islamic geography – the first Gulf war of 1990-1991, the Bosnian campaign in 1995, the deliverance of Kosovo four years later, the destruction of the Taliban emirate in Kabul in 2001, the return to Iraq in 2003, and the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi’s despotism in 2011.  The expedition against the Taliban aside, these wars of rescue were all hotly debated and argued over.  There had been no rush to arms, no eagerness to take on imperial burdens abroad.  If this be an American empire, reluctance has been one of its most discernable attributes.  The sword was drawn more out of moral embarrassment than out of hankering for power.

We might have come to the end of that trail.  Admittedly, I write as Syria unravels before our eyes – before the eyes of the steward of American power.  By a mix of omission and commission, we have let Homs and Aleppo be, we have offered “non-lethal” aid in the most lethal of brutal wars.  Our principal alibi was the uncertainty of what would unfold in that country were the despot to fall.  In our commander-in-chief, in his “cosmopolitan” biography, in his lawyerly search for the fine line between just and unjust wars, we found adequate shelter from moral claims and responsibility.  We have been here before, it must be conceded.  Bosnia and Sarajevo were subjected to a veritable genocide, in the early 1990s.  Two of our presidents, George Bush the elder, and Bill Clinton, had done their best to keep Bosnia at bay.  Bill Clinton hid behind the phantom of “Balkan ghosts,” and ancient millennial feuds that no campaign of military  rescue could ameliorate.  But still, after the horror of Srebrenica, the American cavalry turned up.  Richard Holbrooke, that “unquiet American,” took us into that conflict.  Our sense of shame and guilt swayed the matter.  We have been rid of that guilt.  Click to read more.

 Oath of Horatii2

In his epic offering to the glory of Rome, Virgil set the Romans different from the “others:”  Those others “could plead their cases better,” he wrote, “chart with their rods the stars, draw from the block of marble features thick with life.”  The Roman arts differed, the Roman had to put his “stamp on the works and ways of peace/to spare the defeated, break the proud in war.”

The American president is not Augustus, our military is not the Roman Legions.  We can let Rome be as precedent, we can settle for more proximate history:  the burden and the power assumed by Pax Britannica, and the baton being passed, within the Anglo-Saxon family, as it were, to Pax Americana.  Nowadays, that “imperial” idea is in retreat, and the custodians of American power are reluctant to accept the burden that comes with maintaining and defending the international order.  Our colleague Charles Hill has written and brooded over this for years: he had been a public servant and a diplomat of a larger and more confident America.  If this is imperial sunset, Hill can chart as precious few others can the American trajectory in recent years.  The inspiration for this, our fifth Caravan expedition, comes from him.

The Caravan’s writers will be rolled out in the next two weeks.  A new essay will be posted every two days.  We start with Charlie Hill and Russell Berman.

– Fouad Ajami

(Photo Credit: The Oath of Horatii, 1784, by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), oil on canvas, 330×425 cm/ Getty Images)

Obama Redux – Groundhog Day


President Obama, it would be sheer arrogance to offer some thoughts to you about an overall strategy for the Greater Middle East.  You had skillfully demonstrated in your first term that a policy of appeasement and isolationism is palatable to the narrow majority who voted for you for a second term.  The “progressives” who lead your brigades are isolationists, theirs is the second coming of George McGovern’s “Come Home America.”  Liberalism has been untethered from the internationalism that had been the bedrock of bipartisan foreign policy from Truman to George W. Bush.  You had let delirious crowds abroad (more so in Paris and Berlin, it should be emphasized, than in Islamic lands) read into you what they wished, the isolationism at the core of your worldview was covered up by an exotic name and by a pretension to cosmopolitanism.

Our country was worn-out by the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the burdens of a seemingly endless, twilight war against Islamic radicalism, and you capitalize on that disenchantment.  You liquidated the war in Iraq and our strategic gains there without a second thought.  Iran was its own example of your knack for soaring oratory and embarrassing accommodations with tyrants.  The summer of 2009 had put on display your unease with political freedom.  A rebellion had broken out against the theocracy; by the appearance of things, it was a decent movement which wanted a better country.  The least our country could have done was to speak, through you, on behalf of reform and political freedom.  You opted for silence, more remarkably still, you implied that there was a negligible difference between the regime and the opposition: they are all Persians after all.  In Iran and beyond, the forces of reform and change took notice, you were a man of the status quo.

Click to read more.

The Bedu have a fitting reminder: free advice is worth a camel, but no one takes it.  Here at the Caravan, we are optimists. We have come forth with free advice for a re-elected President Obama as to how to deal with the Greater Middle East.

American presidents invariably find themselves High Commissioners for the affairs of the Middle East.  The imperial age is gone, but that region is forever in search of an outside arbiter.  President Obama was in the Far East, in Myanmar and Cambodia, and with him was his secretary of state.  This was the “pivot” toward Asia that was billed as the centerpiece of the Obama diplomacy in his second term.  But the Middle East had refused to follow the script, a small war broke out between Israel and the Hamas rulers of Gaza as the President and his secretary of state were visiting Buddhist pagodas in Cambodia.  Secretary Clinton rushed to Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank to put out the fire.  Benign neglect had not worked, and the obvious erosion of American power and authority had emboldened the anti-American axis of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.  Things deferred in Mr. Obama’s first term have not gone away.

To this effect, the Caravan has enlisted a wide range of strategic thinkers.  We asked of them a memo to the re-elected president, or a set of reflections, as to the way forward in the Greater Middle East. We know the surprises that history throws at policy prescriptions, but we are certain that our contributors have identified and mapped out the maladies and dilemmas that will press upon us in the phase to come.  From Truman to Obama, the Middle East has tempted, tugged at, and frustrated American presidents; Mr. Obama’s second term is fated to know its share of upheaval. President Obama is famously “cool” and cerebral, but America’s enemies in that region have their own cunning, they are methodical and relentless under the sound and fury. Over the next several days we will be rolling out our contributors one day at a time.


Contributors to this Caravan  –

Russell Berman, senior fellow at The Hoover Institution; Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and Chief Negotiator with Syria; Professor Charles Hill, senior fellow at The Hoover Institution; Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy with seminal studies of Islamic fundamentalism and the Hashemite kingdom; Asli Aydintasbas, columnist at the Turkish daily MilliyetHabib C. Malik, Associate Professor of History at the Byblos campus of the Lebanese American University; Reuel Marc Gerecht, former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of The New Republic; Tammy Frisby, Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution; Abbas Milani, the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; Fouad Ajami, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-chair of the Herb and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution.


These Islamists favored by the ballot box are not the Islamists of yore, hunted down by the mukhabarat (secret police).  This is not the Muslim Brotherhood of the 1940s and 50s – conspirators pledged to the destruction of the ruling order.  The new men may quote the legendary Sayyid Qutb who emerged out of the hothouse of that period, only to be sent to the gallows in 1966, but they are made of different material.  Nor are we confronted here by the jihadists of Al Qaeda.  There is no Ayman Zawahiri here, forged by torture and disappointment, leaving the Cairene world he knew for the caves and safe houses in the AfPak wilderness – let alone the killer Abu  Musab Zarqawi, a half educated prison bully hunting down the Shia and the American infidels.

The new breed is a worldly lot, they had seen the wages of violence and had recoiled from it.  They had wearied of being on the margins of political experience.  They disdained the Arab rulers, but worked the small political space that the rulers had left unfilled, and pushed at its limits.  They were no match for the officers and kings who dominated the Arab world.  After all, men of the Muslim Brotherhood had sat in domesticated parliaments that the rulers rigged, displayed a hunger for acceptance and official favor.

Click to read more.