I took a class with Middle Eastern scholar Fouad Ajami in graduate school. At the time, over a decade ago, Ajami was already considered one of the nation’s leading experts in his field. His courses were typically oversubscribed, but I managed to secure a spot in a seminar on globalization he co-taught with another scholar.
Ajami didn’t disappoint. A small, balding man with unkempt salt-and-pepper beard, fleshy nose, and paunch, he was physically underwhelming, smaller than life. But he was an intellectual giant. Ajami could hold an audience enrapt with penetrating analysis punctuated with historical allusions, witty anecdotes, and the perfectly placed quotation recited verbatim. His co-instructor, no intellectual slouch himself, disappeared in the bright glare of his colleague’s luminosity.
Ajami’s political orientation defied easy categorization: neither right nor left, he was too intelligent to carelessly embrace political dogmas of any sort. He understood, unlike lesser minds, that the world was full of ambiguity. Such reasoned equanimity is the mark of a true scholar engaged in the proverbial quest for knowledge without prejudice as to where it may lead.
Although Ajami could speak on many topics, his expertise was the Middle East, the region of his birth. When class discussion gravitated towards that part of the world, my classmates and I gloried in his deep understanding of and passion for it. He pulled no punches: the Middle East was a fiefdom of brutality, a languishing backwater.
Yet for all of Ajami’s erudition, he was not infallible. He once surprised the class by offering up grudging praise to several despots for playing their hands well. His improbable list included Hosni Mubarak. One only had to look at Egypt’s runaway population growth to know that Ajami’s assessment was off the mark. A country so demographically unbound could be only superficially stable.
More problematic was Ajami’s ego, which combined overweening self-satisfaction with a surprisingly thin skin. He knew of his towering intellect, yet he was easily slighted. His frequent expressions of frustration with the Clinton administration for its failure to seek his counsel bore out his conspicuous fragility. The inattention grated. His fortunes soon changed, though.
George W. Bush came into office days into the spring term. Paul Wolfowitz, the former dean of my school and close confidant of Ajami, became Donald Rumsfeld’s adjunct, and other friends and admirers soon occupied a host of important positions. In due course, Condoleeza Rice regularly summoned him for consultations. Our professor finally got what he so desperately wanted: an audience with the good and great—and at a pivotal moment.
Ajami had spoken in class of the Middle East with world-weary resignation. He betrayed no hint of revolutionary fervor, of reckless grandiosity. But 9/11 apparently awoke dormant and far darker inclinations. The Middle East had transgressed. American frustration with the retrograde region that birthed and nurtured nihilistic terrorism justified in his mind a forceful response, first in Afghanistan and later Iraq.
Ajami’s endorsement of ousting Saddam lent critical legitimacy to a bold undertaking lacking clear justification. About the war’s nobility, he said, there could be “no doubt.” Dick Cheney cited our professor in an important speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the lead-up to the invasion: “As for the reaction of the Arab ‘street,’ the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are ‘sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.'”
That Ajami, a native of Lebanon, a country tragically riven by sectarianism, failed to anticipate that prying Iraq open might unleash similar demons testified to lousy judgment trumping shining intellect. Worse, when Iraq finally did succumb to vicious sectarian strife, he blamed Iraqis for not embracing the “foreigner’s gift”: their deliverance from tyranny (and the title of his book on the subject). He would later claim redemption, ironically, when Egyptians took to Tehrir Square to demand their freedom from a despot he once praised. “[George W. Bush] can definitely claim [the Arab revolutions’] paternity,” Ajami said of the alleged long-term impact of the former president’s coercive diplomacy that he endorsed.
Arabs may well disagree. But this is unlikely to bother Ajami. Undoubtedly of more concern to him is a different sort of ingratitude. With a new administration seated that does not seek out his advice, he is once again marooned in academia, unappreciated and ignored. A worse fate could not be imagined. It’s the thankless existence of an academic foreigner impatiently awaiting his gift.