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.

Ahmad, a man from Aleppo, on hearing of Moammar Gadhafi’s end, posted a note on Al Jazeera’s blog: Congratulations, he said, to the Libyan people, may the same thing happen in Syria.

The end of despots is always odd—exhilarating to those who suffered their tyrannies, and to those who hold despotism in contempt, and anti-climatic at the same time, the discovery that these tyrants were petty, frightened men after all. We are told that Gadhafi cried, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” when his pursuers caught up with him.

This was from the script of Saddam Hussein, who had strutted on the world stage, visited death and destruction on his people and others beyond, but had come out of a spider hole telling his captors that he was the president of Iraq and that he wanted to negotiate. Dictatorship is a swindle to the bitter end, the bravado of the tyrants mere pretense and bluff.

He had risen out of poverty, Moammar Gadhafi, a semi-literate desert boy who had made his way to the military academy. He had come into power, in 1969, against the background of the time—an era when the Arab world still believed that rough men from the military would dispense justice, upend the old order of kings and notables, and bring about a “revolutionary” society. Libya had had a benevolent monarch, King Idris, an ascetic, a reluctant ruler. But the crowd wanted a different order of things. “Better the devil than Idris” was the slogan of the time. The crowd could not have known how the heavens would oblige.

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(photo credit: the_calife)


Betrayal at Turtle Bay

If the Syrian people needed illumination about the cruel ways of the world, the United Nations Security Council provided it, when a toothless resolution condemning the violence of their rulers was turned back on October 4.  The double veto of Russia and China was no surprise.  The two big autocracies are invested in tyranny, their bet is that the Damascus regime will ride out the protests.  On the narrowest of grounds, the Russians have the Chechens in mind, China is thinking of Tibet.  Tyranny is indivisible, popular sovereignty is a menace to all these two autocracies embody and hold dear.  This is not a brilliant moment for liberty, our country, the pre-eminent standard-bearer of political freedom in the order of nations, is in retreat, and a “freedom recession” has given Russia and China greater confidence and sway.

The sordid vote at the Security Council was an indictment of the three “emerging” powers that abstained on so simple a proposition – India, Brazil, and South Africa.  If these powers were making a bid for a more prominent role in the world, if their conduct was a bid for a permanent role on the Security Council, their moral abdication was proof that they are not ready to shoulder the burden of maintaining a decent international order.  The shame of India, the world’s largest democracy, is all its own.  India is forever thinking of Kashmir, the principle of unfettered national sovereignty must be maintained at all cost.  There is not much to say about Brazil and South Africa, their exalted view of themselves is preening and illusion.  Brazil is said to have bought the Syrian regime’s claim that its survival is a shield for the Christians in that country.  South Africa came into this affair with a dishonorable performance in the Libyan saga behind it.  The tyranny of Moamar Ghaddafi never troubled Pretoria, the “king of kings of Africa” had squandered plenty of his people’s treasure buying off the consent and approval of so many African states.

It is all but impossible to foretell where Syria’s ordeal ends.  On the face of it, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is now bereft of all legitimacy.  The assertion of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that it is a “matter of time” before the Syrian regime is pushed into its grave is a reasonable call.  A government that relies on blind official terror is one that has lost its right to rule.  Syria is not Russia and China, it is not even Iran, its regional ally and protector.  Bashar and the ruling cabal around him lack the wealth and the weight needed to sustain a tyranny that runs afoul of the norms of decent conduct.  There is no treasure to cushion the dictatorship; oil exports provided the regime with a third of its income, and now these exports are subjected to effective sanctions.  Bashar, like his father before him, had secured the support of the business classes and the merchants in Damascus and Aleppo with a political economy of favoritism and bureaucratic preferences – crony capitalism in its purest form.  Now the beneficiaries of this regime have begun to worry whether the edifice will stand.  There are reports that the monied classes – big Sunni and Christian interests – have begun to hedge their bet and to invest in the rebellion.  The confidence of the ruling cabal has cracked.  On September 22, a decision was made to suspend imports of goods that have over 5% customs duties – effectively most of the country’s imports that matter. The economy was brought to a standstill, and the business class that had averted its gaze from the repression came out in full against this ban.  Twelve days later, the government gave in.  Gone was the bravado that the ban on imports would help Syria overcome the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.  Thus the pressure is on to be done with the rebellion, to subdue the population before the economic collapse sets in.  Even the dreaded shabiha, the regime’s vigilantes, who do its killings and barbarisms, have to be paid.  Of late, their excesses have mounted as they have been unleashed on ordinary Syrians to extort from them what the regime itself can no longer provide.

A case of “Libya envy” has come to grip Syria’s tormented people.  The Libyans conquered their fear, rose in rebellion, and then it was their luck that there was a favorable alignment in the universe.  Unexpectedly, the League of Arab States that never stood up to a dictator from its ranks gave a warrant for a Western military mission to protect Libya’s civilian population.  Power, and a sense of responsibility, tugged at Britain and France, and a reluctant Obama administration was pulled into Libya by the horror held out for the rebellious city of Benghazi by the deranged strongman.  Six months later, the Libyans were to see a new dawn.  The Libyans hadn’t stood on ceremony, they took the help and were quite vocal in expressing their gratitude for those who came to their rescue.  There were six million of them, in a peripheral country that was not corrupted by its own legends.  By contrast, the Syrians have been hampered by their pride, not that NATO forces were on their way to Damascus, awaiting a green light from the Syrian opposition.

The modern political history of Syria is the history of Arab nationalism – its stirring call in the final years of the Ottoman empire, the usages it served as it knit together a nation-state of diverse and often feuding communities, the weapon it was against the French mandatory power in the inter-war years, and the ideology that has both propelled and frustrated Syrian political life since independence.  For nearly six decades, the Syrian rulers lived on the legends of Arab nationalism, they suffocated their people as they sold them on the false myth of Syria as the keeper of a pan-Arab flame against the West, and against Israel.  Old man Assad had perfected that game: he had an easy choice, he could either be a tyrant from a minority sect, the Alawites, who had risen to power through the gun, or a pan-Arab hero who stayed true to the cause when other Arab powers had given in.  There were takers for that myth, and forgive Bashar his illusion that there was a Syrian “exceptionalism” to the spirit of revolt that animated this Arab Spring.

From the vantage point of the regime, Syria is favored with its borders – Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Iraq.  This is not Libya facing the Mediterraneans with “benign” Egypt and Tunisia on its eastern and western flanks.  In the Syrian case, the immediate neighborhood is a tinderbox, and even a firecracker could spell trouble.  But the Syrians have come to a wisdom of their own.  The opposition has begun to come together.  A national council has been formed, drawing on the tapestry of this checkered country – Kurds, Christians, the Liberals, the Muslim Brotherhood, oppositionists still within Syria, and exiles eager to reclaim their country from its long nightmare.  Increasingly, the regime has come to fall back on its final line of defense: the Alawi community from which it hails.  Now and then, the oppositionists are given to hopes that the Alawis themselves will break free from the dreaded rulers before it is too late for them and for their sect.  But the evidence of that reckoning is, alas, still a matter of wishful thinking.

Instinctively, the Syrians, a population schooled in history’s bottomless lessons and surprises, must have understood the cruel choice that awaited them.  It was either the tyranny they knew or the terror that they have been treated to.  It is no wonder why they hesitated, no wonder why they waited on Tunisia and Egypt and Bahrain and Yemen and Libya before they launched their own rebellion.  So they fight alone, and perhaps they knew that all along as well.

(photo credit: Owen and Aki)

Pakistan and America

In the summer of 2010, two revelations, of unequal importance and magnitude, illuminated the American-Pakistani relationship and its complications: a public opinion survey released by the Pew Research Center, on July 29, that delved into the attitudes of the Pakistani public on a wide range of issues (their opinion of the United States, their view of the war next door in Afghanistan, their attitude toward extremist groups, their outlook on the prospects of their country). The bigger story was the unprecedented document-dump by Wikileaks of 92,000 reports and documents on the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan spanning two administrations, from January 2004 through December 2009. The role of Pakistan, and its powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (the isi), was in the eye of that storm.

The Pew survey first: There was something of a surprise in the findings. Some 2,000 adults, disproportionately urban, were polled. The needle had not moved; Pakistani opinion had not been swayed by the change in Washington from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. America’s overall image, the survey found out, remained quite negative in Pakistan. Along with Turks and Egyptians, the Pakistanis gave the U.S. its lowest ratings among the 22 nations included in the Pew Global Attitudes survey. In all three big and important Muslim countries, only seventeen percent had a favorable view of the United States. Six in ten Pakistanis described the U.S. as an enemy, and only eleven percent described the U.S. as a partner. Against prior expectations, only eight percent of Pakistanis expressed confidence in President Obama and in his ability to do the right thing in world affairs; this was his lowest rating among the 22 nations. There was little support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan; nearly two-thirds of those surveyed wanted U.S. and nato troops out of Afghanistan. A mere 25 percent of Pakistanis thought that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be bad for Pakistan itself. Such is the material, and sentiments, within Pakistan that the Americans, and Pakistan’s leaders, have to work with. Substantial American resources and aid have been committed to Pakistan, but 48 percent of those surveyed thought the U.S. gave little or no assistance. The anti-Americanism ran deep here, and was instinctive and unexamined.

Continue reading Fouad Ajami’s article in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review

“U.N. 194" is the slogan of the campaign to grant the Palestinians a seat at the United Nations, to recognize their authority as the 194th nation in that world body. This is the Palestinians’ second chance, for there was the session of the General Assembly in 1947 that addressed the question of Palestine, and the struggle between Arabs and Jews over that contested land.

A vote took place on the partition resolution that November and provided for two states to live side by side. It was a close affair. It required a two-thirds majority, and the final tally was 33 states in favor, 13 opposed, 10 abstentions, and one recorded absence. Israel would become the 58th member state. The Palestinians refused the 59th seat.

Arab diplomacy had sought the defeat of the resolution, and the Palestinians had waited for deliverance at the hands of their would-be Arab backers. The threat of war offered the Palestinians a false promise; there was no felt need for compromise. The influential secretary-general of the Arab League, the Egyptian Azzam Pasha (by an exquisite twist of fate a maternal grandfather of al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri), was to tell a talented, young Zionist diplomat, Abba Eban, that the Arab world was not in a compromising mood. "The Arab world regards the Jews as invaders. It is going to fight you," he said. "War is absolutely inevitable."

For the Zionists, the vote was tantamount to a basic title to independence. But the Jewish community in Palestine had won the race for independence where it truly mattered—on the ground. Still, theirs was a fragile enterprise.

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The Ways of American Memory

The most amazing thing about remembering 9/11 was that there was hardly anything said about the assailants.  We recalled the horror, but generously.  Perhaps now and then, I thought, too generously.  The American capacity to forgive and forget is without parallel. A source of pride and strength, but perhaps on occasion for worry as well.

Nothing was said on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 of Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, of the 19 Arabs who assaulted America on that day of grief. Nothing was said of the radical Islamist preachers who had filled the air with sedition and bigotry in the decade prior to 9/11. And those financiers and “charities” who had sustained the jihad were entirely forgotten. The regimes that had winked at the terror – the enablers the peerless Charles Hill called them – were given a pass as well.  The grief was remembered in the manner akin to recalling a natural disaster. Tragedy was the word most invoked as we called back that day.

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The Road to 9/11

“When those planes flew into those buildings, the luck of America ran out,” the essayist Leon Wieseltier wrote in the aftermath of our day of grief. We hadn’t been prepared for what, and who, came our way on that day. For a good long decade, we had been mesmerized by the financial markets, by Nasdaq and the high-tech bubble. The gurus of the 1990s had announced the end of ideology, the triumph of the market, the end of history itself. Amid that triumphalism, a self-styled Saudi jihadist of Yemeni ancestry by the name of Osama bin Laden declared war against the United States, called on every Muslim “by God’s will to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can.” On October 12, 2000, two followers of that man struck the USS Cole as it docked in Aden to refuel. Witnesses say that the assailants, who perished with seventeen of our sailors, were standing erect in their skiff at the time of the blast, as if in some kind of salute.

Now it could be said that we should have taken notice of that “declaration of war,” of the attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tunisia in the summer of 1998, of the two men in their skiff and of a long trail of anti-American terror. But in our time of hubris, during that long bull run, we had waived it all off. Had we seen the glee ashore in Aden when that skiff had struck our mighty ship, had we been reading the tracts of a new breed of Islamist, had we half-understood the fight between the pro-American autocrats and their disaffected, militant children, we might have readied ourselves for that war. We might have refrained from downgrading our intelligence and military capabilities.

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From 9/11 to the Arab Spring

The Arabic word shamata has its own power. The closest approximation to it is the German schadenfreude—glee at another’s misfortune. And when the Twin Towers fell 10 years ago this week, there was plenty of glee in Arab lands—a sense of wonder, bordering on pride, that a band of young Arabs had brought soot and ruin onto American soil.

The symbols of this mighty American republic—the commercial empire in New York, the military power embodied by the Pentagon—had been hit. Sweets were handed out in East Jerusalem, there were no tears shed in Cairo for the Americans, more than three decades of U.S. aid notwithstanding. Everywhere in that Arab world—among the Western-educated elite as among the Islamists—there was unmistakable satisfaction that the Americans had gotten their comeuppance.

There were sympathetic vigils in Iran—America’s most determined enemy in the region—and anti-American belligerence in the Arab countries most closely allied with the United States. This occasioned the observation of the noted historian Bernard Lewis that there were pro-American regimes with anti-American populations, and anti-American regimes with pro-American populations.

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From Baghdad to Tripoli

On the face of it, the similarities of the undoing of the terrible regimes of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi are striking. The spectacles of joy in Tripoli today recall the delirious scenes in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003—the statues pulled down, the palaces of faux grandeur and kitsch ransacked by people awakening to their own sense of violation and power, the man at the helm who had been full of might and bravado making a run for it, exposed as a paranoid and pretender, living in fear of his day of reckoning.

In neither case had the people of these two tormented societies secured their liberty on their own. In Baghdad, the Baathist reign of terror would have lasted indefinitely had George W. Bush not pushed it into its grave. There had been no sign of organized resistance in that terrified land, not since the end of the 1991 Gulf War and the slaughter that quelled the Shiite uprising.

Libya offered its own mix of native resistance and foreign help. A people who had been in the grip of a long nightmare saw the Arab Spring blossom around them. On their western border, the Tunisian kleptocracy had fallen and the rapacious ruler and his children and in-laws had scurried out of the country. Ruler and ruled in Libya saw themselves in the Tunisian struggle, for Gadhafi had been an ally of the Tunisian strongman.

But it was Egypt, the big country on Libya’s eastern frontier, that shook the Libyan tyranny. In February, after a popular insurrection that held the Arab world enthralled, Hosni Mubarak bent to his people’s will and relinquished power. Six days later a spark caught fire in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. A reluctant American president was pulled into the fight. Gadhafi’s fate was sealed—NATO would function as the air force of the rebellion.

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(photo credit: The U.S. Army)


A Thrilling Spectacle in Tripoli

Who, today, does not thrill to the spectacle of freedom in Tripoli? A brave people, civilians in the main, exiles who returned to their devastated country, students with no military skills—all headed to the front in their pickup trucks to reclaim their homeland from a tyrant who had turned it into a laboratory for his mix of megalomania and derangement. These are the people who have made this rebellion.

It was not perfect, that campaign that upended the kleptocracy in Tripoli. NATO did not always perform brilliantly. The Obama administration didn’t have its heart in that fight. We second-guessed the rebels in Benghazi and their intentions at every turn. We would not release to them sequestered Libyan funds that could have leveled the killing field and brought the fighting to a close a good deal sooner. A new doctrine was spun to justify American passivity: "Leading from behind," it was called.

But all this can be taken up at another time. Suffice it to see the brigades of freedom make their entry into Tripoli. How can those of us in lands of freedom resist a giddy sense of satisfaction that the tyrant’s favorite son, Seif al-Islam, is now in captivity? It makes for poor governance in our world to label your own people "rats" and "traitors." After years of fear and submission, the people had gone out in an assertion of their dignity.

Continue reading Fouad Ajami…