Out of One, Many

Published: July 30, 2006

"Critics of American policy in Iraq since 2003 have sometimes charged that the United States created the sectarian divisions in the country by treating Iraqis as Shiites, Sunnis or Kurds, rather than simply as Iraqis. But the opposite has in fact been the case. Under the influence of exiles like Ahmad Chalabi, administration officials anachronistically insisted that Iraq was cosmopolitan and postethnic. The most serious intellectual deficit that has plagued the American presence in Iraq — and a crucial reason for our repeated failure to predict Iraqis’ behavior — has been insufficient awareness of the conflicting perspectives of Iraqis from different backgrounds and communities."

 

THE FOREIGNER’S GIFT

The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq.

By Fouad Ajami.

378 pp. Free Press. $26.

 

THE END OF IRAQ

How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.

By Peter W. Galbraith.

260 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.

 

"Two new books set out to improve our understanding, each providing a window into particular aspects of the current situation in Iraq. Both authors are fascinating, indeed idiosyncratic figures, and each has played a role in the events of the last three years: Fouad Ajami, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has been a regular White House visitor as an unofficial adviser to the Bush administration. Peter W. Galbraith, a former Senate staff member and ambassador to Croatia, has been a constitutional adviser and political counselor to the Kurdish leadership in Iraq.

Few other Americans have Ajami’s distinctive qualifications for reflecting on the Iraq war. Born to a Shiite family in Lebanon, he has written several important books about Middle Eastern political culture, including a recognized classic on the Lebanese Shiites, “The Vanished Imam.” He supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, and his extraordinary level of access in Washington is reflected in “The Foreigner’s Gift,” which recounts many conversations he had in Iraq while shadowing American officials or traveling with close American allies like Chalabi. Respected by politicians who disdain most academics, and excoriated by antiwar academics who detest the present government, Ajami richly deserves the attention of both camps.

His core argument is that the trouble we are seeing in Iraq results from the profound unwillingness of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and elsewhere to accept the rise to power of Shiites in what is, after all, their own country. Shiite Arabs have long been second-class citizens, repressed and kept from political power even where, as in Iraq, they are a numerical majority. “For us — rule; and for you — wailing,” runs the adage Ajami cites to capture Sunni attitudes to Shiites. Though he does not say so, the second clause has at least two meanings. The Shiites are meant to bemoan their subservient state; at the same time, they are being stereotyped on the basis of the annual rites of mourning and self-flagellation Shiites practice in memory of the 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

For Ajami, the foreigner’s gift is, in the first instance, the removal of dictatorial rule and the opportunity for self-government. But Iraqi Sunnis have refused to accept their transformation from rulers of the country to a minority within a democracy. The local insurgency was born of this denial, and has been augmented and transformed by an infusion of support from elsewhere in the Sunni world. This support, according to Ajami, comes not just from the jihadis crossing borders but from the mainstream (Sunni) Arab news media, which have depicted the United States as an Israel-like occupier rather than as a force liberating Shiites from Sunni oppression and all Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.

Meanwhile, Ajami suggests, Shiite leaders have begun fitfully to come to terms with what it means to exercise secular political power in the name of a group that is, after all, a religious denomination. He describes a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — one of the first such accounts to appear in English — and is impressed by the leader’s light touch when it comes to politics. Ajami is sophisticated enough to realize he is present by virtue of Shiite birth, not American citizenship (in fact Sistani regularly refused to see non-Shiite Americans). In one of the most self-revealing passages of the book, he confides his discomfort at the possibility that he will be asked to perform prayers whose rituals he does not know. It is easy to feel sympathy for the cosmopolitan immigrant-expatriate in this moment, especially one whose very name, Ajami, means “foreigner.” Viewed as a credentialed native Arab informant by the Bush administration and as an American traitor by the Arab press, he is a proud Shiite. Yet face to face with the most beloved Shiite religious leader alive, he senses his own alienation from the very tradition that has gotten him in the door.

Ajami’s American sensibilities come through most powerfully in his discussions of the American soldiers he meets in Iraq, from generals like David Petraeus to anonymous enlisted men. Ajami honors and respects their dedication, their optimism and their genuine desire to improve Iraq, and he quotes whole pages from their e-mail messages. But his world-weary take on Sunni irredentism ultimately makes the Americans seem naïve and out of place. As the violence increases and Iraqi deaths mount, the foreigner’s gift assumes the terrible ironic meaning of destabilization and terror. Ajami maintains that it is too soon to know whether the war will be considered heroic or tragic, and so, formally at least, he does not despair of a positive outcome. But one is left wondering how someone so cynical about the dysfunctionality of Arab political patterns could have been so optimistic about the “Baghdad spring” in the first place.

Noah Feldman is a professor of law at New York University and a senior adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.