Fouad Ajami: A Courageous Scholar Who Was Friendly to Israel

If Fouad Ajami had been brought into U.S. public diplomacy, perhaps the Obama administration wouldn’t now be stumbling in its support for the right of the Arab world for liberty.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Fouad Ajami in N.Y., September 12, 2012.
Fouad Ajami in N.Y., September 12, 2012.Credit: Getty Images
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

The death of Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born American scholar of the Middle East, would be for all who knew him a sad day whenever it occurred. But his death — he succumbed Sunday to cancer at the age of 68 — is particularly tragic, because we have lost him just as America is engulfed in the kind of crisis where we are going to be in need of the wisdom he dispensed.

I didn’t know Ajami well, but we both wrote for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages across the same generation. Like scores of other editors and colleagues, I came to admire him enormously. This was not only for his great scholarship, his friendliness to Israel, and his adherence through all the travail of the Middle East to the ideals of freedom and democracy. I also admired his courage and his preparedness to take an unpopular stand.

In respect of Israel this was remarkable enough, as Ajami made clear when, in 2011, the Palestinian Arabs unilaterally went to the UN General Assembly for a vote on statehood. Ajami was among those who argued that the Palestinian Arabs had, as he put it in the Wall Street Journal, “misread” the vote in 1947. “True, the cause of Jewish statehood had been served by the vote on partition, but the Zionist project had already prevailed on the ground.”

“Jewish statehood was,” Ajami wrote, “a fait accompli perhaps a decade before that vote. All the ingredients had been secured by Labor Zionism.” Here was an Arab American intellectual prepared to acknowledge not only that there was “a military formation powerful enough to defeat the Arab armies,” but that there were “political institutions in place, and there were gifted leaders, David Ben-Gurion pre-eminent among them, who knew what can be had in the world of nations.”

Yet the clearest glimpse I had of Ajami’s preparedness to stand apart was his friendship with Ahmed Chalabi. He is the Iraqi exile, a Shia who, during the Baathist tyranny, played an outsized role in forming the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi also played an important role in winning passage in the United States Congress of the Iraq Liberation Act. The law, enacted in 1995 on an overwhelming and bipartisan vote, made it national policy to seek regime change in Iraq.

Chalabi, who once sat with First Lady Laura Bush at a State of the Union Address by President Bush, fell out of favor with the administration. He was a casualty of, among other things, the intramural wars in Washington. The State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency didn’t like Chalabi. He was the man the Left, in particular, loved to hate, although he had some distinguished enemies on the right. All the more admirable that Ajami stuck with him.

The last time I saw Ajami he was with Chalabi. It was in 2005, when Chalabi, then Iraq’s deputy prime minister, stopped by the newsroom of the Sun. We seated Chalabi under a portrait of the 19th century editor of the Sun, Charles Dana, who had given office space in his newsroom to Jose Marti, tribune of Cuba Libra and poet laureate of independence from Spain. We had embraced Chalabi in a similar spirit, and ran a photo of Chalabi seated under a portrait of Dana.

Ajami grasped the allusion immediately and enjoyed it. He understood what journalism could do, which no doubt is why he was producing it almost until the day he died. It was inspiring to see in person the degree to which he’d gone “all in” on the war. He made an enormous gamble on the Iraq war and President Bush and at a time when it can only have been costly for him to do so, creature of academia that he was.

In 2007 the Sun urged President Bush to bring in Ajami as under-state secretary for public diplomacy. This was after Karen Hughes, a Bush crony, left the job. Clifford May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy called Ajami’s candidacy the “Last Chance for Public Diplomacy.” History doesn’t disclose her alternatives, but we wonder what might have been the impact had the job gone to Ajami.

He was then predicting that only the outcome of the war “will determine whether it will be a noble success or a noble failure.” He had chastised the liberals for opposing the war out of “a surly belief that liberty can’t be spread to Muslim lands.”

He, himself, was living testament to the idea that it could. He had, we wrote at the time, “given over his whole idea to the proposition that the Muslim lands deserve freedom and can support it.”

Had he been nominated, we wrote, “America would be able to project a new and articulate voice into the debate over the Arab future.” I can’t help but doubt that the retreat now underway would be happening had Ajami been elevated to high office. He had that rare combination of knowledge, wisdom, and optimism. How we could use that now, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria presses its advance and Washington scrambles to find its footing.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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