Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fouad Ajami’s Flawed Argument For The Iraq War

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, and a long time commentator on Iraq. For the last several years he has argued that the Middle East’s autocrats gave rise to Islamist terrorists, and that was what led to 9/11. Because Saddam Hussein was a perfect example of that type of dictatorial rule he advocated that he be deposed to stop future terrorism. This was an idea based upon changing the entire Middle East and North Africa, not necessarily taking on those that were directly responsible for attacking America. Ajami shared many ideas with the neoconservatives, and helped provide an ideological justification for the war in Iraq. Recently, he wrote an article claiming that Iraq was a good fight, but the American public and President Obama gave up on it. His own writings provide one example of why that happened. His argument for transforming the Arab world through the use of force was not how the invasion was sold to the public, and has not found many adherents either in the U.S. of the Middle East.

Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institute argued that Arab dictators were what caused 9/11 and therefore Saddam Hussein was a legitimate target for the United States (Hoover Institute)

In March 2013, Fouad Ajami had an oped in the Wall Street Journal on the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion to re-iterate his main points about the war. He wrote that Iraq was the right response to 9/11, because the terrorists that struck that day were not Afghans, but Arabs. They were a result of the despots that ruled the Middle East, supported by imams and financiers in the Arab world. He went on to claim that terrorism is terrorism, and therefore there was no difference between secular and religious groups that practiced it. That was why he didn’t see any difference between Iraq and Al Qaeda. He then lamented that there were few war supporters like him left when the invasion was popular when it first began. The Congress voted to allow Bush to use force against Saddam, and over 70% of those polled in the United States on 3/19/03 supported the overthrow of Saddam as well. He then admitted to the fact that the failure to find WMD led to a drop in support. President Bush then turned to building a democracy in Iraq as the rationale for the war. Ajami claimed that Iraqis could not free themselves from Saddam, so the war was just, and Americans were hypocrites for failing to maintain their support for it. Those people that turned against the war helped get President Obama elected to office, and the result was that the new administration did not care about Iraq. He finished by saying that the White House’s neglect has led Baghdad to become a close ally of Iran, and the U.S. has thrown away all of its hard work and lost lives in Iraq. These are the same ideas that Ajami has been making for quite some time, and that he presented to the Bush administration before the 2003 invasion. He has written extensively on how he believed that Saddam Hussein was a perfect example of the type of Arab dictator that caused terrorism, and kept the Middle East behind the times. Ajami believed that the U.S. offered an alternative future for the region, which was modernity. This was very similar to ideas held by neoconservatives such as Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. There are several problems with Ajami’s view. First, Iraq had not supported any anti-American terrorism since the 1990s. His argument therefore was not about directly responding to 9/11 or any threats to the U.S., but rather what he saw as the root cause of instability and stagnation in the region, Arab dictators. This would not have won over many supporters as the proper response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, and was not how the Bush administration posed the invasion of Iraq either. Yet, he is now disappointed that so few Americans today support his view. Second, Iraq has not been held up in the region as a model for change, but rather as an example of what not to do such as rushing a constitution, sectarianism, etc. It has therefore failed to be a transformative event in the way Ajami envisioned it. Third, claiming that Iraq had fallen under the sway of Iran, and blaming it on Obama reads like partisanship and sour grapes by a person that lost the war of ideas over the war, and actually contradicts his earlier writing. In 2010 for example, Ajami had an articlewhere he argued that Iran would never control Iraq, because it was wearier of Tehran’s influence than any other country since it was right next door, and that Shiites were Arabs first. Now Ajami has suddenly changed his opinion because there is a different president in office, as if that would make Iraqis view their neighbor differently.

There is no problem with wanting change and democracy in the Middle East as Fouad Ajami has advocated for. The argument that kind of transformation can only be done through force, because Arabs are incapable of doing it themselves however, seems to be contradicted by the Arab Spring, and the current fighting in Syria. It also begs the question of why Arabs would accept having their country invaded by the U.S., and then occupied for several years as it did in Iraq as an acceptable model for change. Finally, Ajami’s claim that the U.S. needed to go to war with Arab autocrats, and not the actual terrorists that attacked America would not have won over much political or public support in 2001. Saddam Hussein, and his wars with Iran and Kuwait seemed to be a driving force for people like Ajami, rather than Iraq being a direct threat to the U.S. Like President Bush and others within the administration, Ajami was caught up in the past when arguing for a new future in the Arab world.


Ajami, Fouad, “Another Step Forward for Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, 3/2/10
- “Back to the Future,” U.S. News & World Repot, 12/4/06
- “A Decent Outcome for Iraq,” U.S. News & World Report, 10/5/07
- “Fouad Ajami: Ten Years Ago, an Honorable War Began With Wide Support,” Wall Street Journal, 3/18/13
- “Iraq and the Arabs’ Future,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2003
- “What Obama Left Behind in Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, 12/17/11

Battle, Joyce, “The Iraq War – PART I: The U.S. Prepares for Conflict, 2001, Timeline,” National Security Archive, 9/22/10

Benjamin, Daniel and Simon, Steven, The Next Attack, New York: Times Books, 2005

Clarke, Richard, “’Against All Enemies,’” New York Times, 3/28/04

Elliott, Michael and Carney, James, “First Stop, Iraq,” Time, 3/31/03

Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate, America In Iraq, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005


Unknown said...

Good arguments Joel.
I can't help feeling that Ajamy is carrying a sectarian chip over his shoulder.

Joel Wing said...

He definitely has a partisan one being pro-Republican. As for sect, after the invasion he did write a lot about how empowering the Shiites in Iraq was the kind of revolutionary change that the U.S. could bring to the Middle East as Shiites had always been treated as a minority in the region. Of course, that was after he wrote before the war that Iraqi Shia were all secular. He's basically been moving the goal posts over the years to maintain his argument.