- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Whether you agreed with him not, there’s no denying that Fouad Ajami will leave a void in the world of international relations.
Academic, author, Iraq War supporter, and contributor to Foreign Policy — Ajami died of cancer on Sunday, June 22, at the age of 68. A senior fellow at Stanford University, Ajami was an expert on Arab history and devoted much of his academic career to putting it into context. Although renowned as an academic, Ajami was perhaps best known for his appearances on TV news shows where he lent his credibility to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Born in Lebanon in 1945, Ajami arrived in the United States in 1963 shortly before his 18th birthday. He studied at Eastern Oregon University (then a college) and then at the University of Washington, where he wrote his doctorate on international relations and world government. Ajami then taught political science at Princeton University and later became the director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Writing about foreign policy and trying to put history in its contemporary context is no simple task. But Ajami shined in the public eye. He was never shy of courting controversy — Ajami always owned his views. He authored more than 400 articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as several books about the politics and history of the Middle East.
In tribute to Ajami’s intellect and prowess as a scholar, FP has put together a highlight reel of his most memorable arguments.
In his 1981 book, The Arab Predicament, Ajami demonstrated his prescient knowledge of the Arab world by writing about the unstable cocktail of extremism and authoritarianism in the region. Ajami touched on similar themes in his FP debut just months after the Iranian Revolution in "The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul":
"The fundamentalist call has resonance because it invites men to participate, an invitation that contrasts with the official political culture, which reduces citizens to spectators and asks them to leave everything to the rulers. At a time when people are confused and lost and the future is uncertain, Islamic fundamentalism connects them to a tradition that reduces their bewilderment. The Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition to Camp David was phrased in a familiar idiom: the struggle of the Prophet, the integrity of Islam, the need for sacrifice, the clash between the world of Islam and the Jews, who will "never abandon their belief that they are God’s chosen people." Sadat’s whole design, the Brotherhood said, was a false one. It accepts a "Middle Eastern order." and the Middle East is a repugnant concept to Muslim sensibilities, because it defines the Muslim world in relation to the West. One cannot negotiate with the intruder and surrender historical rights; some conflicts cannot be wished away. Egypt was invaded before and she must now again resort to resistance. All the rulers have to do is abandon their fancy palaces, their expensive cars, and their pretensions. Islam taught men to struggle and die for worthwhile causes and the believers must rediscover the will to persevere, the capacity for patience.
Muslim fundamentalism may never carry the day in Egypt. The society may have gone beyond the puritanism of the fundamentalists and reached the point of no return. But the importance and the power of Muslim fundamentalism may lie in its ability to destabilize a regime, to help bring it down by denying it the religious cover that remains an important source of political power. Here the 1952 Egyptian revolution is instructive. The Muslim Brotherhood helped topple the monarchy, but it soon became the victim and target of the new regime. Fundamentalism supplies the fervor, some of the committed manpower and the willingness to take the risks of political action. But other characters — more capable of making compromises and less likely to frighten modernized young people — inherit the post revolutionary world."
Ajami was a staunch defender of American power and believer in Western intervention, and his later career became defined by his proximity to President George W. Bush in the lead-up to and during the Iraq War. In 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney invoked Ajami’s writings, saying, "after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans."
In "The Falseness of Anti-Americanism," written in September 2003, Ajami makes his case for the necessity of American power in the world, while trying to put the recent invasion of Iraq into historical context:
"Today, the United States carries the disturbance of the modern to older places — to the east and to the intermediate zones in Europe. There is energy in the United States, and there is force. And there is resistance and resentment — and emulation — in older places affixed on the delicate balancing act of a younger United States not yet content to make its peace with traditional pains and limitations and tyrannies. That sensitive French interpreter of his country, Dominique Moïsi, recently told of a simple countryman of his who was wistful when Saddam Hussein’s statue fell on April 9 in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. France opposed this war, but this Frenchman expressed a sense of diminishment that his country had sat out this stirring story of political liberation. A society like France with a revolutionary history should have had a hand in toppling the tyranny in Baghdad, but it didn’t. Instead, a cable attached to a U.S. tank had pulled down the statue, to the delirium of the crowd. The new history being made was a distinctly American (and British) creation. It was soldiers from Burlington, Vermont, and Linden, New Jersey, and Bon Aqua, Tennessee — I single out those towns because they are the hometowns of three soldiers who were killed in the Iraq war — who raced through the desert making this new history and paying for it."
Ajami stayed true to his beliefs and continued to argue that the U.S.-led invasion would create long-term stability. In "What America Must Do: Steady as She Goes," written in 2007, Ajami argues for an internationally engaged United States:
"Nothing dramatically new needs to be done by the next American president in the realm of foreign affairs. He or she will be treated to the same laments about American power; the same opinion polls will come to the next president’s desk telling of erosion of support for the United States in Karachi and Cairo. Millions will lay siege to America’s borders, eager to come here, even as the surveys speak of anti-Americanism in foreign lands."