A review of The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq, by Fouad Ajami

In Somerset Maugham’s story “The Outstation,” an administrator in colonial Malay named Warburton enjoys a gin and bitters on his veranda, every afternoon, at six o’clock on the dot. He then puts on a boiled shirt and high collar under a white dinner jacket and heads to his meal, which is served at a table set with orchids and silver. British imperial rule, to believe Maugham, seemed so easy, so harmonious with its subjects, so dignified, even just. Fouad Ajami reminds us in The Foreigner’s Gift that the British also tried their imperial hand in Iraq, from 1921 to 1932. “When we have made Mesopotamia a model state,” a colonial official remarked at the time, “there is not an Arab of Syria and Palestine who wouldn’t want to be part of it.”

By the time U.S. forces arrived in Mesopotamia, one monarchy, two wars, three coups, and roughly fourscore years later, there were few places an Arab of Syria and Palestine wanted less to be part of. A ruined Iraq, March 2003, is where Ajami’s tale begins, and there is no one more qualified to tell it. What distinguishes this book from the late sandstorm of volumes on Iraq is that Ajami is at once a graceful writer and a man steeped in the ways of the Arab world. Raised in Beirut, he speaks Arabic as his native tongue. As professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies, he is on intimate terms with Arabic journalism and scholarship. The Foreigner’s Gift, a mixture of travel memoir, history, and political reflection, is a thoughtful and occasionally vivid tour d’horizon of post-invasion Iraq, written after the author’s six trips there beginning in October 2003.

We accompany Ajami as he travels around the country in convoys and helicopters, through palm groves and hot airless deserts; we see him eat and converse in fragrant gardens, under starlit skies, or in rocky Kurdish highlands dusted with snow. The book is largely based on Ajami’s personal contacts with an impressive variety of Iraqi holy men, government ministers, poets, tribal leaders, and businessmen, as well as American military and political figures. He is on friendly terms with key players, from Ahmad Chalabi and Jalal Talabani to Paul Wolfowitz and General David Petraeus, nearly all of whom come across as able, intelligent, and well-intentioned. The dramatis personae include lesser figures like young Marines or exiled ex-Baathists, of whom Ajami offers quick, shrewd sketches, many of them poignant. The most fascinating encounter is with the powerful Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who Ajami finds to be moderate, subtle, half-mystical, and solicitous of his country’s well-being.

Ajami announces on his first page that he wishes to be “forthright” about his views. To him the war in Iraq is a “noble” war that emerged from a “deep American frustration” with the Arab world’s “dominant culture and malignancies.” He means the culture that glories in the 9/11 attacks while denying responsibility for them; the extremism that characterizes not a fringe, but most of the political and intellectual firmament; the crackling rage that, in response to a cartoon or a suspect sentence in a speech, will draw hysterical, fist-shaking mobs into the street, ready to burn flags, cars, embassies, churches, and human beings; the unbroken chain of tyranny that stretches from the Gulf to Libya; the fact that each year the entire Arab world translates fewer books than Greece; the self-pitying, pathological obsession with Israel. To all this add Baathism under the swaggering tribalist Saddam Hussein, and you had, in Iraq, the worst of the worst.

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The war, initially, was not about democracy; it was about “something more limited but important and achievable in its own way: a state less lethal to its own people and to the lands and peoples around it.” Ajami is not concerned that Iraq had no WMDs; nor is he agitated over whether Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda. Americans believed these things and we are where we are. As time went on the war increasingly became an attempt to rebuild Iraq from the ground up; if nothing else, to undo Baathism’s damage, to permit new oxygen in, to allow the possibility of something better—and to shake up the region. In undertaking this, he says, “America rolled history’s dice.” He has not given up on this “leap of faith.” It is, he thinks, a necessary gamble.

That doesn’t mean he’s confident it will pay off. For such a stalwart, influential supporter of the war effort, his portrait of Iraq is astonishingly pessimistic. The violence grows ever worse; the people are riven by sectarianism; the government bled by corruption; the ministries and police forces infiltrated by insurgent sympathizers, who convey the whereabouts of officials to deadly effect. Iraqis who yearn for order are no match for the Baathists and al-Qaedists, who hack away at this basic human dream. As measures of the mayhem, he observes that Iraqi soldiers wear masks to hide their identities, and cabinet ministers, fearing for their lives, spend months hiding in foreign hotels.

The book brims with colorful anecdotes, and Ajami hails the positive developments that he claims now ripple through the region as if from a “stone thrown into the pond”—the Lebanese defiance of Syria, for example, or Libya’s decision to disband its weapons program. Unlike most new books on Iraq, this one is refreshingly free from scandal and recrimination. But none of this relieves the book’s gloom. After a few bleak chapters, one longs to turn the page to find, “A Sunni, a Shia, and a Kurd walk into a bar….” But the closest Ajami comes to the upbeat is a kind of portentous, mystical equivocation that is woven through the book: “There is light in Iraq, and there is darkness.” 

With such an engrossing story to tell, it is a pity the volume is so poorly organized. It does not proceed chronologically, or with much sense of forward motion. Instead it reads like a pastiche of mostly undated vignettes and reflections, as if the pages of a diary had come loose and been carelessly reshuffled. His interlocutors are introduced, disappear, and re-emerge a hundred pages later, in the same context, with information that could have been felicitously introduced earlier. It is often unclear on which trip an observation was made, which can make it hard for the reader to discern what he most desires to know: are things in Iraq getting better or worse?

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Nonetheless, the dark trend is clear. Ajami writes of the “exhilaration” after the fall of Saddam’s statue on April 9, 2003. By the time of the elections in January 2005, “fewer and fewer Americans liked what they saw of Iraq and Iraqis; there were even conservatives now, former supporters of the war, writing off the surly, violent country they saw on their television screens.” Ajami gives no indication that he thinks the decline in support has slowed. The grievous violence is one cause of American disenchantment. But, worse, Americans have seen their troops topple a dictator, fix potholes, pave highways, build sewage plants, fill libraries with books, open universities, administer millions of vaccinations, sponsor a flourishing free press, midwife a consensual republic, unstintingly give their lives—and yet there is scarcely a murmur of gratitude for their “foreigner’s gift.” 

“There was gratitude for the Americans,” a Kurdish leader assures him, “but there was not enough honesty to admit it.” Iraqis are a proud people and they have their needs, too. Ajami writes of them with keen sympathy, not overlooking their tribalism, phobias, and truculence. He insists that you cannot expect habits of liberty from a nation that has swung suddenly from Baathism to the wildest anarchy. The literary and political elites with whom he consorts, by contrast, appear wise and gracious. They dearly wish to redeem Iraq, but the country is so lawless and ungovernable that they may never get the chance. He reflects on the thanklessness of their task: “No Iraqi poet was likely to sit down to write stirring poetry celebrating the transfer of sovereignty from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.” 

Ajami’s preoccupation with Iraq’s governing class arises from his interest in the nature of rule itself, his great theme. His reflections on this are the book’s most interesting contribution to the literature of post-invasion Iraq. He discusses at length the character of Baathist rule, various forms of Arab rule, American rule, and imperial rule generally. In his telling, everything hinges on the rulers—a clique of Baathists ruined the country, and a clique of embattled Iraqi democrats must save it now. He also contrasts American sovereignty in Iraq with that over Japan in the 1940s. Japan surrendered; the Baathists and their Sunni sympathizers never did. The Kurds and Shia never felt responsible for the regime in the first place. Japan was not surrounded by two dozen other ethnic Japanese states urging it to resist the invaders. Nor does he believe America is the place it was at mid-century. Back then it was free from the “doubts of a more modern world, its cultural relativism, its embarrassment with outright alien rule.”

A part of Ajami’s forthrightness, his candor, is to write unblushingly of American “dominion” in Iraq. The war’s “architects,” as he puts it, saw Iraq as a chance to “construct a new American imperium in Araby.” He certainly regards the American imperium as benign; but what really sets him apart from most commentators is that he thinks in terms of ruling and being ruled at all. He cites an Iraqi diplomat who observes that “it is proper to speak of an American Iraq as one does of a Sumerian, a Babylonian, an Abbasid, an Ottoman, and then a British Iraq. The time of the Americans…is destined to be exceedingly short but of great impact.” 

When British tenure in Iraq began, the empire’s colonial secretary was none other than Winston Churchill. It was he who installed the first Hashemite king. “I am deeply concerned about Iraq,” he wrote in 1922. “There is scarcely a single newspaper—Tory, Liberal, or Labour—which is not consistently hostile to our remaining in this country…. At present we are paying eight million a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano.” Fouad Ajami seems to look at America’s venture in Iraq much as Churchill looked at Britain’s 84 years ago. This is not to say he is disillusioned with the war, for he never had any illusions to begin with. He always knew that Mesopotamia might never become a model state. But he still insists that “there can be no doubting the nobility of the effort” to make it one.