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.

What Obama Left Behind in Iraq

‘The tide of war is receding, and the soul of Baghdad remains, the soul of Iraq remains,” Vice President Joe Biden said at Camp Victory, by the Baghdad airport, earlier this month, in the countdown to the official end of the Iraq war. In truth, the receding tide Mr. Biden glimpsed was that of American power and influence in Iraq and in the Greater Middle East.

This wasn’t something the people of that region pined for. These are lands that crave the protection of a dominant foreign power as they feign outrage at its exercise. Nor was it decreed by the objective facts of American power, for this country still possesses all the ingredients of influence and prestige. It was, rather, a decision made in the course of the Obama presidency—the ebb of our power has become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

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(photo credit: The U.S. Army)

Beware of Greeks Bearing Debt

“We are on a difficult course, on a new Odyssey for Greece,” former Prime Minister George Papandreou once observed of his country’s economic malady. “But we know the road to Ithaca and we have charted the waters.” The man could be forgiven for falling back on the iconic Odysseus—Greece has always looked on the Classical Age as a usable past.

But the metaphor of the Odyssey offers no guidance for Greece’s economic travails. For the Odyssey is about adventure and revenge and the yearning for home; profit rarely figures in the journey. And when it does, on one occasion in Phaeacia, it is used to taunt Odysseus to demonstrate his skill at feats of physical prowess. “Oh I knew it!” said a local mocking the traveler. “I never took you for someone skilled in games, not a chance. You are some skipper of profiteers roving the high seas in his scudding craft, reckoning up his freight with a keen eye out for home cargo, grabbing the gold he can!” Odysseus takes the bait—after all, honor and glory matter. He gives the games of Phaeacia a whirl.

The ancient Greeks did not have much praise for commerce. Plato denigrated it in the Republic, as did Aristotle. Commerce was not fit for men of the polis, and was best left, it was thought, for metics, resident foreigners. No solace could be found in that classical tradition Greece passionately claims as its own. The German bankers should not rest easy if Greeks come forth bearing the inspiration of the epics and heroes of ancient Greece.

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Egypt and the Fruits of the Pharaohs

Egyptian history plays tricks with its interpreters. This ancient society is known for the stability given it by the Nile, a well-mannered and orderly river, and by a pharaonic culture where the rulers were deities. But this timeless image is largely false. Egypt’s peasant society has been prone to violent upheavals. Order has often hung by a thread, as a proud people alternate between submission and rebellion.

We are now in the midst of one of these alternations. On Feb. 11, Egypt’s last pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, bent to the will of his people and relinquished power. What we are witnessing in Egypt today is not the consequence of democracy but rather a half-century of authoritarianism. The chaos and the lawlessness issue out of the lawlessness of the former regime. As crony capitalism had its way with the economy, the military elite, the officer corps, had to be given its share of the loot. Having turned away from war and military adventures abroad, they were rewarded with economic enterprises and privileges of their own—exclusive clubs, vacation homes, land grants, you name it.

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Why Are We Still Backing Hamid Karzai?

“The lion doesn’t like it if a foreigner intrudes into his house. The lion doesn’t like it if a stranger enters his house. The lion doesn’t want his children to be taken away by someone else in the night, the lion won’t let it happen.” Thus spoke Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday to the loya jirga, his country’s traditional council of elders and notables. He warmed up to the theme and the image. “They should not interfere in the lion’s house: just guard the four sides of the forest. They are training our police. Their assistance is good for Afghanistan.”

Dependence and hucksterism have rarely spoken with such confidence.

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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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