BEIRUT: Fouad Ajami, the controversial Lebanese-American author and academic who said the Arab world would “erupt in joy” when the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein, died Sunday aged 68 after a battle with cancer.
A Shiite born in the south Lebanon village of Arnoun whose family originated in Iran, Ajami moved to Beirut when he was 4 years old before emigrating to the U.S. in 1963. He won the MacArthur genius award in 1982, becoming a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and later the director of Johns Hopkins University’s Middle East Studies program.
Ajami was a staple of American television news networks and penned numerous essays and op-eds for outlets including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs.
But it was Ajami’s support for the Iraq War, his elevation among the ranks of Bush administration advisers and backing of Israel in the latter decades of his life that aroused the most ire among his Arab critics.
In a speech in August 2002, then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney cited Ajami in an effort to reassure Americans that their military would be received with jubilation in Iraq if they overthrew Saddam Hussein.
“As for the reaction of the Arab street, the Middle East expert professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation in Basra and Baghdad, the streets are sure to erupt in joy,” Cheney said.
In his book, “The Foreigner’s Gift,” written three years after the Iraq War, Ajami also condemned the Arab world for harboring what he described as a “culture of terrorism” that provoked the U.S. into launching what he said was, in essence, a noble war.
Despite initial apprehension of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, Ajami became increasingly interventionist in the years after the first Gulf War. In a July 2003 article for Foreign Affairs, he said American hegemony in the Middle East must persist.
“No large-scale retreat from those zones of American primacy can be contemplated,” he said. “American hegemony is sure to hold and so, too, the resistance to it, the uneasy mix in those lands of the need for the foreigners order, and the urge to lash out against it, to use it and rail against it all the same.”
Ajami had also criticized the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 as misguided and aimed at intimidating the Palestinian people.
“The invading army that came into Lebanon with such devastating force came with a great delusion: that if you could pound men and women hard enough, if you could bring them to their knees, you could make peace with them,” he said.
But he would later say, in a U.S. News and World Report op-ed at the time of the Madrid peace talks that it was “too late to introduce a new nation between Israel and Jordan.”
Ajami’s growing interventionism and sweeping characterizations of Middle Eastern societies earned him opprobrium.
Adam Shatz, a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, described Ajami in a critical 2003 profile as the “native informant,” whose Arab roots gave him a perceived authority in critiquing Arab society and culture.
Shatz also quotes instances in which Ajami praised Israeli leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu.
“A leftist in the 1970s, a Shiite nationalist in the 1980s, an apologist for the Saudis in the 1990s, a critic-turned-lover of Israel, a skeptic-turned-enthusiast of American empire, he has observed no consistent principle in his career other than deference to power,” Shatz said.
Ajami advised U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and was a friend of Paul Wolfowitz, a senior Pentagon official and key architect of the Iraq War.
“The death of Fouad Ajami this weekend ... deprived this country and the world of a uniquely powerful voice – one that is at the same time both Arab and American – that could have helped guide us, as he has in the past, through the hazards and complications of his native Middle East,” Wolfowitz said in an obituary published on the website of the American Enterprise Institute.
Ajami was a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, which described him in a press release as “truly one of the most brilliant Middle East scholars of our time.”
Ajami authored a series of books about the Middle East, including “The Arab Predicament,” “The Dream Palace of the Arabs,” and “The Vanished Imam,” an account of Imam Musa Sadr, the founder of the Amal Movement.
His writings also include some 400 essays on Arab and Islamic politics, U.S. foreign policy and contemporary international history.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Ajami had taught at the American University of Beirut. The Daily Star apologizes for the error.