In This Review

The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq
The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq
By Fouad Ajami
Free Press, 2006, 378 pp.

Fouad Ajami is inescapably part of the story of the American adventure in Iraq. In the run-up to the March 2003 invasion, he was one of the most influential intellectual proponents of war, frequently appearing on talk shows and writing in publications including The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, and Foreign Affairs. Vice President Dick Cheney even cited Ajami in his August 2002 speech to the annual meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. A few lines after proclaiming, 'Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,' the vice president announced :"As for the reaction of the Arab 'street,' the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are 'sure to erupt in joy the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.' Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991."

Now, with the U.S. stay in Iraq exceeding three years and approaching the total time of U.S. combat engagement in World War II, what does Ajami have to say about it all?

The Foreigner's Gift is not a "what went wrong" account, although Ajami does not skip over any of the major mishaps. Nor is it an "if we had known then what we know now" rendition. Rather, in his short introduction and conclusion, Ajami claims that the U.S. intervention in Iraq was the right thing to do -- a "foreigner's gift" to the Iraqis and the Arabs. "The Saddam regime," he writes, "would have lasted a thousand years, had the Americans not come in and decapitated it." And the despotic, sclerotic Arab regimes needed just such a jolt to pave the way for reform or even their replacement. Nor does Ajami argue that since that statue of Saddam was brought tumbling down (with American help), developments in Iraq and the region have not been as bleak as they have seemed or that the invasion will ultimately prove a success. On the very last page of the book, he offers an extraordinary judgment. Countering Bernard-Henri Lévy's assertion that the whole endeavor was "morally right and politically wrong," Ajami affirms, "It is a noble war ... and the outcome of it will determine whether it will be a noble success or a noble failure. Hard-headed realists might say that failure can never be noble ... but history surely has more ambiguity than that stark unsentimentalism."

The Foreigner's Gift is the work of a scholar committed to -- and to some extent embedded in -- the American enterprise in Iraq. That distinctive role, along with Ajami's status as one of a handful of recognized public intellectuals on matters Middle Eastern, ensures that the book will both inform and provoke.


In style and substance, this book is vintage Ajami. He crisply presents characters and anecdotes, using them as springboards for musings on larger issues before moving on to different details that in turn lead him to address other big issues. Bold historical and cross-cultural comparisons -- as well as a number of caustic asides -- are woven into the text. Two examples will suffice. "The Iraq war," Ajami writes, "seemed to present the odd spectacle -- a veritable reversal of intellectual galaxies -- of a conservative American president proclaiming the gospel of liberty with liberals falling back on a surly belief that liberty can't be spread to Muslim lands." (A more prudent writer would have deleted "surly.") Contrasting Kuwait, liberated by foreign armies soon after the 1990 Iraqi invasion, and Lebanon, long occupied by Syria, he wryly observes, "Pity the Lebanese: they had cedars, Kuwait had oil."

The Foreigner's Gift is the fruit of six trips to Iraq since 2003, interviews with the great and the not so great but representative (both American and Iraqi), and a scouring of available sources -- including the Arab media, so important for capturing contemporary history. But what Ajami presents is not so much a history of these years as it is a discursive text framed by a thesis: win or lose, the United States' invasion of Iraq was a noble cause.

Ajami's basic story line can be distilled into the following: After the horror of 9/11 and the rapid overthrow of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Bush administration came to realize that Saddam had to go. He was almost certainly on the road to producing weapons of mass destruction, his regime would never have been overthrown from within, and the United States was the only power able and disposed to take on the task. Removing Saddam could also set in motion healthy reforms -- or other regime changes -- throughout the region, an argument prefigured in Cheney's August 2002 speech. Although the Bush administration managed to get congressional approval for the war, the UN Security Council balked. So with only limited support from its allies (essentially just the United Kingdom), the United States attacked in March 2003, shattering and scattering the Baathist regime within a month.

Occupation began. The U.S. military proved to be dedicated and competent (the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison were tragic and damaging but not characteristic), the civil administration headed by L. Paul Bremer less so. In any case, it was perhaps, in Ajami's words, "too late in the annals of nations to pull off a foreign domination and have it accepted by a suspicious population with a difficult national history. Perhaps the world of Muslim Arabs was the wrong setting for an experiment in benevolent alien rule."

Iraq's Sunni minority and outside Arabs linked to al Qaeda put together a fearful mix of insurgency and suicide bombing. Even from within the ranks of the majority Shiites -- clearly the greatest beneficiaries of the overthrow of Saddam -- came trouble. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, despite occasionally giving Bremer fits from afar, was basically a positive force, but Muqtada al-Sadr, a young firebrand from a distinguished religious family, organized resistance to the occupation and challenged the Iraqi Shiite leadership. Meanwhile, Sunnis throughout the Arab world, wedded to the pan-Arab myth undergirding Sunni dominance, began to demonstrate more openly what had always been their concern about the U.S. occupation: it would bring about an "unnatural" increase in Shiite and Kurdish power in the region. The resulting violence and the failure of the occupation to provide basic security and development have lessened the potential demonstration effect that the overthrow of Saddam might have had on Arabs beyond Iraq's borders.

That, as Ajami sees it, is how things stand in 2006. Whether this "noble war" will end in "noble success" or "noble failure" remains to be seen.


This brief abstract scarcely does justice to the many insights and asides in Ajami's narrative. Itemizing just a few gives a hint of its range: a positive view of the role of the Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, including the arch observation that the Shiite Chalabi came to be labeled a carpetbagger while the Sunni Adnan Pachachi, equally long exiled, did not; his harsh appraisal of UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi; the comment that "monarchies in the Arab world had proven better and more merciful than the despotic regimes and national security states that had run down this unfortunate Arab political order"; and the poignant story of the Iraqi-Jew-turned-Israeli-scholar getting back in touch with an old friend, an Iraqi Kurd with whom he had once traveled in the same stimulating leftist and intellectual circles of Baghdad. Ajami also compares the present social and intellectual climate in the Arab world to that of Europe in 1848 -- a comparison that, although perhaps wide of the mark, does serve to tear down the "otherness" of Arabs that is so often implicit, if not explicit, in Western discourse.

Returning to the story line, however, there is a significant matter that is misrepresented or marginalized in Ajami's accounting: the question of why the United States invaded Iraq in the first place. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was not an obvious target following the horror of 9/11. We now know that a few individuals, inside and outside the U.S. government, who had long been pushing for regime change in Iraq won over an administration probably already so inclined in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. We also know that the Bush administration clearly misread and misused intelligence in making the case against Saddam. Ajami does not ignore these matters, but he presents them as peripheral. "There may have been," he writes, "no operational links between Iraq and Al Qaeda; Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker in the September 11 attacks, may or may not have met with an Iraqi intelligence operative in Prague; Al Qaeda may have been 'religious' whereas Baghdad was 'secular' in its ways. These distinctions did not matter: the connection had been made in American opinion."

Ajami also discounts the impact of those conventionally labeled "neoconservatives," scornfully maintaining that this was not Deputy Secretary of Defense "Paul Wolfowitz's war." (Of course it was not, but surely a handful of protagonists -- including Ajami -- played a not inconsiderable role in bringing about this war.) With equal scorn, he adds that of course the United States did not get the approval of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan or French President Jacques Chirac.

Telling the story in this way airbrushes out the strong case to be made that Congress was misled into authorizing the war and the even stronger case that invading Iraq was a war of choice, not a response to a clear and present danger. It ridicules the broader consideration that the United States, as a matter of sound statecraft, might be advised to work with others rather than opt for a go-it-alone role as the global hegemon. This latter policy choice was starkly set out in the Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy, and such thinking was very much part of the context in which the invasion of Iraq was launched.

Even so, in the history of the world's wars, many a good cause has been poorly sold (and many a bad one has been sold well). Ajami's good cause was to rid the Iraqi people and the world of a terrible regime and to kick-start an ambitious plan to bring peaceful and democratic ways to the Middle East. The first goal all can heartily applaud (and regret that the sins of Saddam are now obscured by complaints against the occupation). The second offers the prospect of continued intensive involvement, perhaps with more regimes to be changed.


It is obvious, but at times overlooked, that both planks of Ajami's good cause are essentially Arab and Middle Eastern, rather than American, in their focus. He speaks of Arab "rage" against the United States and of the need to "take the fight to the Arab world itself." But what, as foreign policy realists might ask, is Washington's interest in pursuing this assertive policy? The United States could have stuck to the unfinished work of tracking down al Qaeda, pressured all states to tighten up on terrorism, and continued to play an active role in Middle Eastern politics while stopping short of wars of choice and ambitious efforts to reorder the region.

Ajami's thesis is that more was required. "The foreigner's gift" amounts to an imperial mission (and he does not shy away from the word "imperial"). And only within the framework of an activist, interventionist, imperialist calling does Ajami's "noble war" make sense. It is the old -- with corrective updating -- "Western person's burden," and we will likely reap the "old reward": "The blame of those ye better / The hate of those ye guard."

Those who like the idea of this imperial mission will be heartened by Ajami's essentially benign account of U.S. policies these past few years, even if disturbed by his sobering appraisal that it may prove to have been only a "noble failure." Those who doubt the morality or the practicality of the undertaking may find it helpful to view the issue in these terms of imperialism redux.

Meanwhile, the United States soldiers on. "America," Ajami concludes, "now had to stick around in Eastern lands. It may not have wanted an imperial edifice in the Arab-Muslim world. But one has risen, or been acquired, and we now watch as the terms of engagement unfold before our eyes." These words are a distressing echo of Pericles' funeral oration to the downhearted Athenians during the Peloponnesian War.

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