Somewhere in his book, Fouad Ajami describes the war in Iraq as “an orphan in the court of public opinion.” The reason is that these days even some of those who had campaigned in favour of the war now sound apologetic or even critical. In January 2003 the war was enjoyed the support of 77 per cent of Americans and received enthusiastic endorsement in the US Congress and media. Today, that support is down to 29 per cent with both the Congress and the media tempted by a growingly critical posture.
Ajami, however, has no doubt that the war was both just and necessary, and says so with the help of detailed arguments based on facts and backed by his deep understanding of the complex politics of the Middle East. As an American academic of Arab origin, Ajami is in a position to see and, more importantly understand, both sides of the issue. He understands American anxieties about continued violence in parts of Iraq and regards it as inevitable that these be exploited by for partisan purposes in the United States. At the same time, he appreciates the dilemma that most Iraqis face when they try to reconcile their dislike of having foreign troops on their soil with the joy that liberation has brought. As for the gratitude that most Iraqis feel for the US and its allies, Ajami notes that it would take a long time for it to come to the surface.
Ajami, who has travelled to Iraq on numerous occasions since the war, has also had the opportunity to interview almost anybody who is somebody in new Iraq’s political life. As the book’s title indicates, Ajami sees the fall of Saddam Hussein as a gift from the US and its allies to the people of Iraq. He notes that it would have been better had the Iraqis liberated themselves. That, however, would not have been possible, at least in the near future, because the Ba’athist regime had developed an almost natural instinct for crushing domestic opposition.
The book makes at least two important points.
The first is that the Iraq Project has achieved its principal objective, that is to say regime change in Baghdad. The timetable for democratisation, first worked out in some detail in August 2003, has been respected on the dot.
The second point is that regime change in Iraq has released democratic energies in a number of Arab countries. Ajami believes that these genies will not return to the bottle and that, given time and American tenacity, will be able to reshape the Middle East.
Ajami’s book, however, is not a dry academic study. His colourful, at times almost poetical, prose, his reporter’s eye for details- for example he notes the type of carpets that furnish Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s modest home in Najaf- and his talent for telling a good story make Ajami’s book an easy and enjoyable read for the general interested reader.
Having talked to scores of Iraqis from many occupations and in all regions, Ajami reports that most Iraqis are beginning to feel that the fight to protect their newly won freedom and build a new system is their fight.
He also argues that the wish for liberty is taking hold among Arabs far beyond Iraq and that the current struggle between new Iraq and its Ba’athist and Islamist enemies is, in fact, about the future of all Arab nations. Thus, those who side with new Iraq in this struggle will also be helping all Arabs who are dream of a different future.
The book is full of nuggets of information that shed much light on the reality of Iraq beyond the car bombs and suicide attacks sown on television almost every evening. For example, we learn that the massive influx of pilgrims has generated a real estate boom in the Shi’ite cities, especially Karbala. Ajami estimates the number of pilgrims coming to Karbala at around four million a year. We also see how interpreters and translators, most of whom were part of the former regime, have played a role in misleading foreigners, including media people, coming to Iraq by often twisting what Iraqis say and write. You may also be surprised to find out that both Nuri Said, the pasha who dominated Iraqi politics before the 1958 coup d’etat, and the late General Abdul-Karim Kassem, the man who toppled the monarchy in that year, have achieved a new measure of popularity among those Iraqis desperately seeking for a nostalgic wall against which to lean in these times of uncertainty.
Reviewing the attitude of the Arab media towards new Iraq, Ajami is highly critical of the Egyptian press and the Qatari Al Jazeera television. But he has high praise for Asharq Alawsat and its former editor-in-chief and star columnist Abdul-Rahman Al-Rashed.
The reader will also gain much insight into the complexities of Shi’ism in Iraq and its internecine feuds that at times ate back to centuries. Ajami’s description of the late Muhammad Baqer Sadr as a great philosopher may well be over the top but the way the late ayatollah’s story is told here cannot but inspire much sympathy for one of the best-known victims of Saddam Hussein. Ajami shows that while it was Saddam who ordered Sadr’s execution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini must share the blame for the tragedy. Months before his arrest and execution, Sadr wrote to Khomeini, then in power in Tehran, asking for political asylum in Iran. Khomeini wrote back rejecting Sadr’s demand and asking him to remain in Najaf, although his life was clearly in danger there.
Part of the book deals with the policies pursued by Arab governments vis-à-vis recent changes in Iraq. Ajami is especially critical of both King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. He believes that both Amman and Cairo are actively trying to undermine the new Iraqi regime. But leaving aside the hostile attitude of the government-controlled media in Jordan and Egypt, Ajami offers little evidence that Amman or Cairo really wish to encourage the insurgency in Iraq. In fact, President Mubarak sent a strong signal when he upgraded the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad after terrorists kidnapped and murdered its highest-ranking diplomat.
The book also deals with the position adopted by the Lebanese Shi’ite community towards new Iraq. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority are happy to see the end of Saddam who had persecuted their fellow Shi’ites for decades. Nevertheless, the Lebanese Shi’ite community’s two principal political organisations, Hezballah and Amal, have largely sided with former Ba’atists and pro- Al Qaeda groups in claiming that new Iraq is an American contraption. Ajami is especially angry at Muhammad Hussein Fadhlallah, generally regarded as the spiritual leader of the Lebanese branch of Hezballah, for his hostile posture towards new Iraq.
To Ajami, all that is an indication of fissures within the broader Shi’ite community. The fact, however, is that such positioning has little to do with religious matters, Hezballah and Amal echo the policies of the Islamic Republic and Syria on new Iraq while Fadhallah, who as born and educated in Najaf, is primarily a political figure rather than a theologian.
Ajami reminds his readers that the Iraq war was not a covert operation hatched by former Pentagon number-two Paul Wolfowitz and that it was authorised by a massive majority in both houses of the US Congress.
While Ajami clearly admires Wolfowitz for his intellectual qualities, the personality who receives most praise in this book is Ahmad Chalabi. Once attacked by his foes as a Pentagon favourite, Chalabi was at one point regarded as the natural successor to Saddam. No one did more than Chalabi to persuade the US to intervene Iraq. And, yet, just months after liberation he had become the target of a campaign by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority that, at one point, even accused Chalabi of selling secrets to Iran.
Professor Ajami’s admiration for Chalabi leads him into what this reviewer regards as one of the few weaknesses of an excellent book: denigrating other leading Iraqi political figures, both Shi’ite and Sunni, to enhance Chalabi’s reputation. For example, Ajami claims that listening to Abdul-Aziz Hakim, head of the largest Shiite party in Iraq, he could detect “a Persian cadence” in his Arabic intonations. This echoes claims by supporters of the former regime that Hakim is “Tehran’s man”. This is even more surprising because Ajami proves convincingly that claims that Iran is exercising a major influence on Iraqi politics are wildly exaggerated.
Other Iraqi leaders who get the negative brush from Ajami include Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi who is presented as someone ” from the street” in contrast with Chalabi who is portrayed as heir to Iraq’s most important family. The truth is that Abdul-Mahdi, too, comes from a wealthy and distinguished family some of whose members held high offices during the monarchy. Ajami’s dismissal of Iyad Allawi as ” The CIA man” is also bizarre especially when he critcises those who attacked Chalabi as “Pentagon’s man”. As for Adnan Pachachi no one would believe that he was motivated by anything other than a sense of duty towards his nation.
What matters is that the new Iraqi leadership, despite its many shortcomings and regardless of whatever dark spot than one might find in its past, still represents a vast improvement when compared with the Ba’athist ancient regime.
At a time that the atmosphere of the debate on Iraq is affected by the toxic fumes of partisan politics, Ajami’s book comes as a breath of fresh air. Don’t miss it!