A Conversation with Fouad Ajami

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

LESLIE H. GELB: Good evening. Welcome to council members, welcome to Council on Foreign Relations guests, welcome to C-SPAN. The Council on Foreign Relations always enjoys having C-SPAN.

Tonight is very special to me. It’s the first, I guess, official discussion of the new book by Professor Fouad Ajami. And it puts me in mind of the old days, Sundays in New York in front of Zabar’s when there was a man always sitting out in front of the store hawking things. And one day he was holding up a newspaper and saying, “Last week’s New York Times Week in Review. Only a week old and already a classic.” (Laughter.)

Fouad’s book is minutes old from the press, and it is already a classic, and it deserves to be. It’s far and away the best book published on Iraq, about Iraq. Not America and Iraq, but Iraq. 

Tonight’s meeting is on the record. And Fouad and I, in theory, will be having a conversation. I’ve been lucky in any conversation we’ve ever had to get in two words edgewise. (Laughter.) We’re hoping for a revolution this evening. 

Fouad is a distinguished professor of the Middle East at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and a terrific columnist for the U.S. News & World Report, and often for the Wall Street Journal as well. And I’m adding a new title to Fouad tonight. He’s gone to a number of conferences in the Gulf, and he has title-envy as a result of it. (Laughter.) He’s found that he goes to these conferences and he sees people being introduced as head of the Albright group, or head of the Cohen group, or head of the Haass group. So tonight I also introduce Fouad as chairman and CEO of the Ajami group, his own group. (Laughter.)

The title of Fouad’s book is very provocative: “The Foreigner’s Gift” about Americans and Arabs in Iraq. And we’re going to be talking for about a half hour and try to cover three broad areas. First there’s a little background and history because Fouad has written in this field very importantly for more than two decades. And then I thought it would be interesting to give you a sense of the people, the Iraqis running Iraq. We only see the stories about our guys, our women. But who are they? Who are those guys—Iraqis—who we’re pinning such hopes on? And then, finally, we’ll get into some questions about how this all comes together for the future there. 

So again, welcome. And it’s a treat to do this with you, as always, Fouad.

FOUAD AJAMI: Thank you.

GELB: The first question which really has to be asked, given the books you’ve written in the field—“The Arab Predicament,” “The Vanishing Imam,” “The Dream Palace of the Arabs”—where you portray Arab society and politics as, even as you say in this book, extremely, overwhelmingly difficult, full of complications, even malignant, how do you come with 20 years of scholarship like that and now bring optimism to the present situation?

AJAMI: Well, there’s one unflattering explanation. I met Dick Cheney. But there are some—(laughter.) But there are some other explanations. (Laughter.)

First, I just want to—I want to start by—

GELB: Who is that unflattering to?

AJAMI: No, that’s exactly. (Laughter.)

I want to just thank Les, and I want to thank the staff of the council. I know their summer had begun, and bringing them back—Martina and her colleagues—I’m truly grateful. And I’m truly grateful that I could bring Les to participate in this effort. Les can do anything he wants with this book, but there’s one paragraph that I marked, I sensed, I built a fence around it, and it is with this one paragraph that Les cannot quarrel.

Fouad Ajami at the signing of his latest
book, The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans,
the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq

“On one of my six visits to Iraq, I traveled with the fearless Leslie Gelb, one of our country’s smartest and wisest foreign policy minds. To travel with him and to be sustained by his wisdom and his humor was an experience I shall always treasure.”

Those of you who know Les know that he had many, many medical challenges before that trip to Iraq. And his guts and his willingness to go to Iraq was remarkable. And I think it was my best time in Iraq. I rode in his sidecar. Anyway, if you go back and look at what happened in the month we were in Iraq, that visit we made to Iraq, it turns out to be one of the calmest months in Iraq. The fatalities were—American fatalities and Iraqi fatalities took a nose dive. And I think it has to do with the sight of Les in flak jacket and helmet—(laughter)—it so scared the insurgents, they were gone!

GELB: I couldn’t button the jacket! (Laughter.)

AJAMI: Yes, exactly, exactly. And watching Les come in and out of choppers—now that’s an experience I can talk to you off the record, as they say, on that one.

But at any rate, I am truly grateful to be here. There are many good people, many outstanding guests. And I’ll try to make it worthwhile for you.

I don’t really have an easy answer for you, Les. I really don’t. I knew you were going to ask this question. I had a sense you would ask this question. And all I can tell you is that I came to the study of Iraq and to this book on Iraq and to the American experience in Iraq informed by everything I had done before. And as I said, as a younger man I had written “The Arabic Predicament,” a study of the malignancy of Arab politics. I had written a book on the Sadr family. So when people now see Muqtada al-Sadr, you know, suddenly this great, new star, well, two decades ago I had written a book called “The Vanished Imam: Musa Al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon.” I had worked on the Sadr family. I had worked on one character in the Sadr family. But when the Sadrs emerged in Iraq, it was a familiar story to me.

And so I came to this work and I came to this American expedition in Iraq against this background. And I was informed and deeply, deeply shaken by 9/11, as we all were. So to me, and this is one of the controversies about this book, I view the Iraq war as one of the twin wars of 9/11. I view the Iraq war as embedded in 9/11. I use the word “embedded.” And after 9/11, I was sure—and you can check me on this one—I was sure after 9/11—and I coined an expression at the time. I said there is a highway; it begins in Kabul and it ends in Baghdad. 

And Les was with me. We were in Iraq and we met with our remarkable top commander in Iraq, General Casey. And General Casey—we were just trying to make small talk with this amazing general. And I thought we had met before. And he told me: You know, we met. We met. We met at the Pentagon when your former boss, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, brought you and Bernard Lewis to the Pentagon. I didn’t know you, but there you sat saying there’s a highway, it begins in Kabul and ends in Baghdad. I didn’t think you knew what you were talking about, and here I am in Baghdad, so I guess there is a highway, it begins in Kabul and ends in Baghdad. (Laughter.)

GELB: But you went through an intellectual highway too, Fouad.

AJAMI: Yes. 

GELB: And again, I think everybody who has read you really wants to figure out how at the end of this highway you see optimism and hope in a situation where you found it almost hopeless before.

AJAMI: Well, some of my peers in the Arab world, the ones who are still talking to me, all seven of them—(laughter)—in a meeting—

(Cell phone rings.)

GELB: Would you all turn off your cell phones, by the way.

AJAMI: In a meeting in Kuwait, a very, very decent Kuwaiti intellectual said: Look. Many, many years ago, when we were full of enthusiasm, you appeared to be the undertaker. You wrote something called “The End of Pan-Arabism,” “The Arab Predicament.” We were all intoxicated with Arab nationalism, and you were actually dampening our enthusiasm. Now all of a sudden we’re all despondent, and you come here full of hope. You think something noble and something good is being born in Iraq.

There is a quotation which I like. It was made by the mayor of Baghdad in late 2004, early 2005, on the eve of the so-called revolution of purple ink, when millions of Iraqis went to the polls and celebrated this very strange thing in an Arab society—democracy, voting, choosing your rulers. And this mayor said something which I think is quite remarkable. He said, “The people of the region are envious. The rulers in the region are nervous about Iraq.” 

So I don’t know where I got this optimism. I just, after 9/11—and this is really—I must return to this. I was actually working on a book on 9/11. I was working on a book that I had talked to you at great length about. I was working on Ayman Zawahiri, to begin with, because I was very interested in Ayman Zawahiri.

GELB: Right.

AJAMI: And he had been a young man—I had gotten his police record—and he was caught up in the dragnet following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. And I was happily working on 9/11 when the war in Iraq started. I was not—I repeat the word “not”—beating the drums of war. My attitude was my country, the United States, went to war in Iraq. I followed it to war. I was not—I never signed, you know, Projects of the New American Century, Committee to Liberate Iraq. And I didn’t think it was my business.

So when we went to Iraq, I thought, well, this journey must succeed. This is really the hope. 

Now, do I approach Iraq with the sense of caution? Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m not just out celebrating that everything is great there. But I can tell you that there is something in Iraq which is better than the autocracies of the region around it. And I will elaborate on that.

President Emeritus Leslie Gelb and Ajami discuss the book
and the political situation facing Iraq.

GELB: Well, let’s try to do this in terms of the people there. 

One of the astonishing things about Fouad’s book is that he went around and he met the Iraqi leadership. It’s a rare thing for Americans to do. We mostly go there, talk to each other in green zones for four hours and go home. Fouad spent an enormous amount of time there actually meeting the Iraqis, the Iraqi leadership across the board. 

So let’s explore for a while, Fouad, whether the hope you find for this country resides in this leadership, whether you think this leadership really can do the job.

And let’s start at the top of the country with the Hatfields and the McCoys—(laughter)—Barzani and Talabani, two people you really know quite well. Kurds.

AJAMI: Yes. I actually know Talabani much better. And therefore, of course, I like him more. No, seriously—

GELB: (Inaudible)—you.

AJAMI: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

Les is right. I mean, if you really want to do Arab politics—and I also include in that Kurdish politics—you really have to do biography. I mean, that’s really what it is. Talk about institutions, constitutions—forget about it. You are in the land where it’s really history is made by individuals. And one of the things I am very optimistic about Iraq and one of the things I like about Iraq is Jalal Talabani, the president of the country. And one of the things I admire about this Iraqi experiment is that you actually have a Kurd—a Kurd!—as a head of an Arab state. You know, the Arabs have an expression: (in Arabic)—which means, “Do you take me for a Kurd?” It’s not a flattering expression. (Light laughter.) There had been much cruelty heaped on the Kurds. And the fact that here is this man, Jalal Talabani, in his 70s, optimistic, buoyant, very, very—a great narrator, a great host, and a great believer in the unity of Iraq—I mean, the ideal was will the Kurds come into this Iraqi experiment and will they take to Iraq? And I think Jalal Talabani brought them to Iraq. The fact that he came from Sulimaniyah—because, as you know, there are these two turfs, one in Erbil and one in Sulimaniyah, and there are these two competing, shall we say, Kurdish leaders, the fact that Talabani himself made the journey from Sulimaniyah to Baghdad, the fact that he was—he became the Iraqi president is really quite remarkable.

GELB: But he is really a link between Kurdish nationalism and keeping Iraq whole. What’s his thinking?

AJAMI: Absolutely. Well, Les, actually, this was—I thought it was very interesting. In January, I think, January 2 ‘06 I went up to Kurdistan and I went up with President Talabani—he took a number of us with him. He’s a very gregarious man. My advice to you, if he offers you food, please take it, you know? Don’t say that you are—you can’t eat lamb, you’re not hungry. This is not—you know, doesn’t really—

GELB: Or does he actually feed you?

AJAMI: Exactly. Exactly. (Light laughter.) We went up with President Talabani, and there was a union, a merging of the two parts of Kurdistan: the Barzani part in Erbil and the Talabani part in Sulimaniyah. The Sulimaniyah culture is slightly more urban. So there is that difference between Barzani and Talabani, which the U.S.has observed, when you were there. And I think the ceremony, the symbolism of that ceremony, bringing these two parts of Kurdistan together, was quite interesting. Talabani, the president of Iraq, spoke in Arabic, fluent Arabic. 

By the way, he’s fluent in Arabic, he’s fluent in English, he’s fluent in Kurdish. And hold that thought—he’s also fluent in Farsi. He’s fluent in Farsi, and knows Iran very, very well. And when people tell you about the Iranian Shi’a link in Iraq, many, many Shi’a will tell you hey, look, I lived in Iran for 20 years, I speak not a word of Farsi. But one person who really speaks Farsi is Jalal Talabani. 

So, Talabani spoke in Arabic. Barzani spoke in Kurdish, because Barzani stays in the hills. He stays in the mountains. He stays in Kurdistan. His bet is on Kurdistan. But, of course, he has sent—people of Barzani’s own clan are part of this government. 

I mean, the Kurds have really bought this idea of Iraq. And I know Les and I have somewhat disagreed here and there on the margins about this. I think the Kurds are reconciled to the idea of Iraq. It’s not the first choice, but it’s the practical choice. And many, many Kurds will tell you that their sentimental choice is independence; they are actually reconciled to the idea that the best political life they could have is to be part of Iraqi nationalism. And on this one I think we may disagree, there are some other people here who will have different views, but I think the Kurds have understood that if they want to deal with the predator nations around them—with the Syrians, with the Iranians, with the Turks—it’s best to help Baghdad. It’s best to help Baghdad. And many of them will tell you, look, we like being in Baghdad. And some of the best of the Kurdish leaders, the youngest ones, are committed to this Iraqi project. I mention again a man we both know and like immensely: Barham Salih, a very, very talented young man, a Ph.D. from England. He is now deputy prime minister in charge of the economic portfolio. He does not want to be in the mountains in Kurdistan. He likes being in Baghdad. And people are talking about him conceivably one day becoming prime minister in Iraq. Hoshyar Zebari, a relative of Barzani, is the foreign minister. He doesn’t want to be a foreign minister of Kurdistan. He doesn’t mind being a foreign minister of Iraq. Again, he is part of this Iraqi life.

GELB: The Kurds compared to almost all the others have done very well.

AJAMI: Right.

GELB: The situation in Kurdistan is better than anywhere else in the country. Let’s go to the part of the country where it’s worse—in the center—and where I think all of us who try to follow this have hardest time figuring out the leadership situation, mainly the Sunni center. We talked about one guy being somewhat symbolic of the Sunni situation and the diversity in leadership, the vice president, Hashimi.

AJAMI: Right. Yeah. The Sunni—I mean, the Sunni Arabs, to just give you this kind of—this—I’m going to continue to refer to the trip I made with Les, because I rode in his side car. I was just simply a companion of Les Gelb. It was the best way to do Iraq. 

What has happened, Les, between the time when were there and then in the most recent turn of events is the Sunni Arabs are now represented by hard-liners. They are represented by people who are really Sunni Arabs. They come what so-called—what the Sunni Arabs call (in Arabic)—the noble resistance. So gone are the Sunni Arabs who were brought in by the Americans. And now you have a different breed of Sunni Arab: they came from the insurgency. 

And there is a leader in Iraq, I shall respect on deep background, who has said—who said some of these leaders, they do politics in the daytime and terrorism at night. That’s also true, by the way, of some of the Shi’a leaders. They do politics in the daytime and terrorism at night.

What has happened with the Sunni Arabs is—like someone like Tariq Hashimi—Tariq Hashimi is a former colonel, a Ba’athist. And he was described to me by one of my best sources as a false Islamist. Because many of the Ba’athists have reincarnated, ladies and gentlemen, into Islamists. And there is a very, very talented man, the former Defense minister of Iraq, who’s a Sunni Arab from one of the best tribes in Iraq, the Dulayms—he has been pushed aside now because he was much too hard on his own community.

What—you know, he described the Ba’ath territory as the Ba’ath-Islamic party. So here you have the irony of the Ba’ath Party, established by a Greek Orthodox boy from Damascus via the—(inaudible word)—in Paris, Michel Aflaq, now is becoming kind of an Islamic party because the Ba’athists can play—they can reincarnate and appear in many guises and disguises.

The Sunni Arabs now are represented by hard-core elements.

For example, a man who was speaker of Parliament—he has been here at the council, Hajem Hassani—he described himself to me and to Les Gelb as the Tip O’Neill of Iraq. You can imagine it. (Laughter.) That was years in Connecticut and California gave him the Tip O’Neill analogy. He has now been replaced by Mashhadani, a very different man.

The Defense Ministry, which is a preserve of the Sunni Arabs, now has a more of a hard-core, and so on and so on. Tariq Hashimi, as the vice president—again, to give you the names—I don’t want to confuse the issue with too many names. For example, there was an interim president who then became a vice president, Sheikh Ghazi Yawar. He did not come from the insurgency. He was a Sunni Arab. Now, Tariq Hashimi is a different kind of person.

There is a deputy prime minister now who’s a Sunni Arab, who’s a Sunni Arab, and this deputy prime minister is in the government, but is eternally sniping at the government and fighting with the government.

GELB: Two questions about these people you’ve just discussed.

One is, do they still have the master mentality that the Sunnis have had for 200 years in that country? Do they still think they are the bosses or destined to be the bosses, should be the bosses?

And secondly, are these Sunni leaders in Baghdad the real leaders of the Sunnis?

AJAMI: Well, I think if there is a term—which an Iraqi leader gave me, and I recommend it to you very, very deeply and very—and with real conviction—he called many of these people supremacists. There are Sunni Arabs in Iraq who believe that Iraq is their patrimony. That’s the way the historiography of Iraq was written. And this book, in many ways, explains the origins of that view.

So the Sunni Arabs believe that Iraq today—ruled, as they see it, by the Shi’a and the Kurds, that’s the way they see it—they believe it’s a stolen country. That’s really their conviction, that it’s a stolen country.

Then the Americans came in and upended this old order. And guess what—they would probably reconcile themselves to the logical thing had they not been surrounded by a large Sunni Arab world around them. So even though they’re a minority in Iraq itself, they’re a majority in the region. And as one of my witnesses in this book of mine I profiled, he said, “Though they are a minority, they have the majoritarian mindset. They have the majoritarian mindset.” For all these leaders in the government, the real leaders of the Sunni community, now, yes. If you take a look at the National Assembly and if you take a look at the government in 2006 as opposed to 2004 and 2005, the Sunni Arabs are represented by people who are truly hard-core and reflective of their sentiment.

Salah Muthlot (ph), again, an old Ba’athist, is president of the National Assembly, with something like 25 people, et cetera. Tariq Hashimi, the Iraqi Islamic Party. You now are beginning to have—brace yourselves—the good news from Iraq , you want good news—a balance of terror in the country, a balance of terror. The Sunni Arabs always believed—

GELB: I can’t imagine better news.

AJAMI: Yes, exactly. (Laughter.)

GELB: Exactly. Exactly.

AJAMI: When I told one source in Iraq—when I taught them the language of the nuclear age and said “mutual assured destruction,” he said, “I love that. I love that.” (Laughter.) That’s—he appreciated the thought of mutual assured destruction.

There is an old expression—and I will translate it for you because I don’t think there are many of you who are Arabic speakers—which goes something like this—in rhymes better in Arabic: “To us,” it says, meaning the Sunni Arabs—(says Arabic word)—ruling. “To you”—(says Arabic word)—self-flagellation. They’re speaking to the Shi’a. Guess what the Shi’a are saying. “We’re done with self-flagellation. We’ve got the Mahdi Army now. We got the Badr Brigade. We got the Interior Ministry.”

So you have this rough balance, where the Ministry of Defense is a preserve of the Sunnis, the Ministry of Interior is a preserve of the Shi’a. The army is professional, but the police is riddled with these sectarian militias, and the Shi’a have found a way into the police. So there is this interesting change in Iraq that the knock at the door—what we in Arabic would call “the visitors of dawn”—you have to know Third World politics to know the meaning of “the visitors of dawn.” Maurice (sp) is already smiling. Students of the Third World know the term. “The visitors of dawn.” Now the visitors of dawn are likely to be Shi’a, more likely to be Shi’a than to be Sunni. So there has been a change in the country.

GELB: Let’s go to the Shi’a. Because we read often about three people, in particular, three Shi’a leaders: Muqtada al-Sadr, who runs one of the most powerful militias; the new prime minister, Maliki, who Fouad knows, one of the few Americans who’s had real contact with him; and third and most importantly, Ali Sistani.

AJAMI: Right.

GELB: And here again, Fouad, I think you may be the only American to have seen him as far as I know. Tell us about the three—

AJAMI: Because the great figure of Shi’a Islam, the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, could stretch the meaning of American, see, because I’m also a Shi’a. So since I was born in Lebanon, I could come and see him. I think—it’s interesting. I mean, as far as—if you take a look at Shi’a politics, the fear of a Shi’a monolith in Iraq was always overdone. This was overdone. The Shi’a are divided. I mean, I suppose that’s good news if you want for the Sunni, I mean, because you want to talk about the Shi’a hijacking Iraq and running away with Iraq. The Shi’a are divided.

Now, to start with the great figure of Najaf, Ayatollah al-Sistani, I mean, the Iraqis are lucky. The Iraqis are lucky that the young man of Iranian birth came to Iraq in his 20s, came to Najaf and became custodian of this clerical tradition in Najaf. And the art of Sistani and the genius of Sistani and the dignity of Sistani is this enormous—(inaudible)—he carries without being overly involved in the details of politics. There’s a science to Sistani. Like if you go to see him, you will do the business of politics with his son, and then you’d come in to see the old man.

And it’s more like an experience to see the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. I didn’t really, quote, “interview” him. I just went in I was so overwhelmed by the occasion. And being such a pessimist, I always thought it wouldn’t work. So as we drove from Baghdad to Najaf, I just thought we will get—every time the phone rang in the car, I realized that maybe this is it, we’re not seeing Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

And I should say, because I don’t want to take so much credit, you should understand why I saw Sistani—is that I am a very good friend of one of the Shi’a contenders for power who’ve been here. His daughter, actually, was an intern at the council, and that’s Former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi. And given the fact that I’ve known Chalabi for many, many years, and given the fact that he is married to a woman from southern Lebanon, and it’s all, like, very—you know, it’s very Arab. He’s married to a woman from southern Lebanon where I was born. Her family is close to mine, et cetera, et cetera. Ahmed is about a year older than me. We’ve had the (traffic ?) of many of—of a very long time, and I think, you know, he just wanted to reward me. So he told me, “What are you doing on Tuesday?” I said, “X, Y and Z.” He said, “No, you’re not. You’re coming to see Sistani.” I thought, “Wow! I will see Sistani.” I think the Iraqis are lucky that Sistani was there.

There was one legislator, a Shi’a legislator—I will not identify it—who was very, very disappointed because this legislator said if only the (narja ?), the (Sayyed ?), if only—you know, there are many (Sayyeds ?) but there is one “The (Sayyed ?),” which is Sistani. If only he’d let us liquidate thousands of Ba’athists right in the aftermath of liberation, we would never have this insurgency. The aversion of Sistani to bloodshed, the aversion of Sistani to violence, the aversion of Sistani to hooliganism is remarkable. And it only could be the attribute of a great jurist.

He lived in Najaf for five years without leaving his home, literally, and when you go to his home, you arrive, you will not believe it’s in an alleyway; it’s a rented house. There’s a piece of batik separating his house and the street, and this is where the great figure of Shi’a Islam lives.

And I tell you the experience of meeting him and the agility of his mind—and actually I will tell you, I heard all these things. People say that he’s very frail and so on, but the striking looks of the man and the intellect of the man, I think, are remarkable. And it was the luck of the Iraqis that he was on the scene. It was the luck that reined in this. So that’s Sistani.

Sistani’s idea is—it’s the old idea of the jurist. The Shi’a jurists do not believe in having anything to do, or overly so, with politics. They believe in, quote, unquote, “commanding right and forbidding evil.” You don’t over—get over involved in politics. Indeed there’s one great Ayatollah in Iraq, Ayatollah Hussein Sadr, whom I met and chronicalled in this book. He got in trouble with his own community. Guess why? Because he met Colin Powell. And people said, “Who’s Colin Powell? Why should he meet with him? This is Ayatollah Hussein Sadr. He harks back to Imam Ali. And indeed, he gave me a book of his, and he said, “I am Said Hassan Sadr’s (sp) son, and Ishmail Sadr’s (sp) son”—and he went back to Imam Ali in the 7th century.

So people said, “Why should he meet with Colin Powell?” There is a kind of an aversion of Shi’a Islam to be overly involved with rulers and politics. That’s why Sistani never saw Bremer. That’s why Sistani never saw—you don’t see Sistani much.

GELB: But when he speaks on politics, do the others largely follow his will?

AJAMI: Well, he doesn’t—you know, there is a kind of—an art to Sistani. He doesn’t really speak—

GELB: When he whispers on politics.

AJAMI: Exactly. And there are also people who can come and say, “The (Sayyed ?) says so.” There’s also his son who is very, very politically—very politically agile. So there is a kind of a science to Sistani, and it is this moral guidance of this Iraqi polity. Think of it this way. Millions of people follow Sistani—you know, it’s called—the great jurists in Shi’a Islam are called sources of imitation. You imitate them. The believers imitate them. They follow them. So that’s Sistani. Millions of people follow him, but they’ve never seen him, they’ve never seen him.  They’ve never heard him. He has representatives in Karbala, representatives in Basra, representatives in Baghdad, people who carry his will and interpret his designs.

But I am, as you can tell—and in the book I sort of reproduced the experience—the sparse room in which he received us, the kind of elegant manners, the aversion to terrorism and to hooliganism that Sistani has. So it was quite an experience.

Now, on, you know, the new order, if you will, on Prime Minister Maliki, it’s a long story, and it begins with an aversion that President Bush took to former Prime Minister Ja’afari. I think that really is true, that he just—it didn’t work between Prime Minister Ja’afari and President Bush, and it didn’t work between Prime Minister Ja’afari and President Talabani, and it didn’t work—I mean, at some point, Ja’afari lost the mandate of heaven. I don’t know how you interpret the mandate of heaven. But he was a fighter. He comes from the same social class, by the way, as Maliki. These are—if you will, they come from the devout bourgeoisie; they are the devote middle classes of the Shi’a world. They come from the Shi’a “heartland” both of them; one comes from Karbala—Ja’afari; one comes from the middle between Karbala and a city called Hillah. These are middle class Shi’a who were quite active in a political project called the Da’wa party. And the Da’wa was established by a man named Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr from the Sadr family; the great jurist of Iraqi Shi’aism, who was executed, brutally murdered by Saddam and his regime, along with his sister, his own sister, in April of 1980. So this Da’wa party spawned people like Ja’afari and people like Maliki—

GELB: Does Maliki have the power, disposition and skill to make the government in Baghdad work, or is that beyond him or anybody else?

AJAMI: Well, I don’t—I mean, I honestly don’t know. I always—like, whenever I discuss Iraqi politics and policy, I always have this thing, I always say, “I leave policy to Les Gelb.” You know, I talk biography, history, et cetera. 

I think what happened is that the Ja’afari government underperformed, shall we say. Now, the government of Iyad Allawi, who was a CIA favorite, whom we liked, also underperformed. 

So the push was on to get Ja’afari out of the prime ministership. But Ja’afari was a fighting man, he was a fighting man. And I could tell you, it’s just too much inside baseball, the final game, if you will, when Ja’afari was pushed out, because what the Americans wanted, they wanted to anoint a man named Adel Abdul Mahdi.

He speaks English, he speaks French, he is part of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution. He’s a very worldly man. And the American regency, I think, looked kindly on Adel Abdul Mahdi, but he had lost out in the Shi’a caucus by one vote to Ibrahim Ja’afari. So the idea, how could you talk about, you know, pushing out Ibrahim Ja’afari and giving it to Adel Abdul Mahdi, who lost? I guess maybe they were counting chairs in the United Iraqi Alliance. (Laughter.)

So the question was, what then do you do? How do you break the stalemate? Ja’afari persisted and he was a fighter. And one of the things that was held against Ja’afari was that the Muqtada Sadr people supported him. And Ja’afari said to me, he said, “Listen, you know, what’s the solution? Muqtada al-Sadr is a force in this country. I can bring the Sadrists into the political process.”

So to make a long story short, Ja’afari could not form a cabinet, so the choice fell on someone from his own party, and that’s Maliki. They’re roughly the same age, 58 years of age to Ja’afari, 55 years of age to Maliki. They come from the same party, the Da’wa Party. They come from the same cultural orientation. 

But I think by all available evidence, there is now a kind of a center in the Cabinet, much more so than before. Like there is a good Interior minister, a very talented young man, Shi’a, of course, because that’s their ministry. There is a good Defense Ministry. There’s a good deputy prime minister, who is working very closely with Prime Minister Maliki, and that’s Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. 

And I think the Americans in the end had to declare the choice of Maliki as a victory for them. Whether they wanted Maliki or not, I can’t tell you. All I can tell you is, at some point when it was clear that Ja’afari had to go, people in Washington, in the inner bowels of—we will keep them protected—in the inner bowels of the national security system, were saying: Hey, there are two names being given to us. One is Maliki and one is (Adel Mahdi ?). But who are these people? We didn’t know. So it is now this Cabinet.

GELB: And very briefly, Muqtada Sadr.

AJAMI: Muqtada Sadr. What can you say? I mean, Muqtada Sadr is nobility. He’s a noble bandit. That’s very attractive. He is a force of nature. I mean the Sadrists—and what it is, I think, if you go to Sadr City, named for his father, or more appropriately, perhaps, named for the so-called the first Sadr, Muhammad Baqir Sadr, the big, legendary figure of Iraqi Shi’ism, what you see are these people who came from the southern part of the country. They are newly urbanized. And this is the Mahdi Army. These are the boys of Muqtada Sadr. 

So Muqtada Sadr’s father was killed by Saddam in 1999, and he has this nobility, the—(inaudible word)—of his father and the fact his two brothers were killed also during an Hussein attack on his father. He is an enormous power in the land and we can’t ignore him.

One footnote on this kind of turn to the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and the Shi’as and the role of Muqtada Sadr now is that actually the Ba’athists got what they wanted. They began to take these car bombs to Sadr City. This was not the case before. The attacks now happen on Sadr City. So now the boys of the Mahdi Army and the boys of Muqtada Sadr are more active than ever before.

GELB: Permit me one last question to Fouad before I open up the floor for general questioning.

President Bush visited Iraq a few weeks ago, and he exploded not a car bomb but a 747 bomb, that the press didn’t pay nearly as much attention to as you and I agree the press should have. Namely, Bush said, and he said it repeatedly over there: Now, when it comes down to it, this is going to be Iraq’s problem; it’s up to them to win or lose the war. 

Now, he’s said things like this before, but he made it kind of a centerpiece of his message to Iraqis and to others. Are we to take from this—I know you talk to people in the administration. You might have a glimmer of this answer. It’s critical. Are we to take from this that Bush is shifting strategy and that the redeployment plan we saw in the press from General Casey, similar to things Democrats have talked about, that this is all part of the strategy of bringing U.S. troops out of there as quickly as possible whether or not the Iraqis are ready, and telling—us telling them, whatever happens, it’s their responsibility, the Iraqis’ responsibility? Is that what we’re seeing going on?

AJAMI: Well, I wish I could answer that. I mean, I think the Iraqis, my understanding, didn’t—I mean, Bush said we’re committed to you but that you are responsible for your own future. I mean, my own way of describing this is Iraq passed from the rule of the tyrant to the rule of the foreigner. The Iraqis have not come into acquisition of their own country and responsibility for their own destiny. And I think that the president took that kind of message.

Now, did the Iraqis hear that message fully? I don’t think so. I think they believe that the Americans are committed to them. They believe that there is a kind of—you know, that the Americans, shall we say, either committed to them or they’re unable to leave or they’re unwilling to leave or they have to give them more time. I think the second part of the message was probably as missed in Baghdad as it was missed here in American shores.

GELB: What do you think?

AJAMI: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I think—well, there is nothing, you know, like I was given—I was one of four, five people who not so long ago went in to see the president. But, you know, you know how it is, whenever—those of you who have had a similar experience—presidents never have to tell you anything, they ask you questions, and you, of course, recite everything you know in the hope you will be invited again and make a good impression. (Laughter.) And what I got—it was only later that I understood that the president—when he went to Iraq, I understood what he said, “I don’t know Prime Minister Maliki. I want to look him in the eye” and so on. This kind of became very important. And then I said, “Wow, I missed that. You know he wants to look him in the eye.”

I think that—I don’t think we’re pulling the plug on the Iraqis. I think we know that they can’t do it on their own yet. That’s my guess.

GELB: Thank you so much, Fouad.

Time for your questions now. The usual drill. Wait till you’re recognized. Please stand, please identify yourselves—name and what you do. And make your comment or your question sharp, short and poetic—(laughter)—in the great council tradition.

AJAMI: As distinct from the answer! (Laughs.)

GELB: Please. The floor is open.

I’ll leave it up to you to find the people. I just wave. (Laughter.)

Over there. Go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Maurice Tempelsman. Thank you for a very enlightening review.

Can you take an inventory of Iraq’s neighbors, whether you do that geographically or whether you do that by Shi’a or Sunni division, take an inventory and share with us your views on how the neighbors of Iraq, who have to live in that area with Iraq no matter what happens in Iraq, how they would like to see the outcome, and maybe what is it can be done to encourage them or get their position?

AJAMI: That’s quite an interesting task. Ideally, in a perfect world, in a world where people are reasonable, you would think that they wish to see Iraq succeed, that that really would be the plan. And I think that it’s complicated for Iraq’s Arab neighbors because it’s made more complicated by the Sunni-Shi’a schism; that in fact that the Sunni Arabs have to understand now that there is a big new country called Iraq which is not really dominated by the Shi’a, they can’t dominate it, but it has a big Shi’a component in its political life. That is a very, very big issue. 

And we’ve heard from some of our allies in the region. There was, of course, the young kind of Jordan talking about a “Shi’a crescent” that comes from—starts in Iran, to Iraq, to Syria and Lebanon, and warning of the consequences of this crescent. To which I say—and you can, you know, please quote me on this one; feel free—but the crescent breaks because there are no Shi’a in Syria. Does that matter? Well, it doesn’t really matter. Well, if it gets in the way of a good image. There are no Shi’a in Syria. (Inaudible)—in Syria, but they are not Shi’a.

So I think the Jordanians have that kind of feeling about Iraq. And the Jordanian street is very hostile to Iraq and very hostile to the Shi’a in Iraq. Public opinion surveys would show that 60, 70 percent of the people in Jordan support the suicide bombings, and they stopped supporting them, or they had second thoughts about them when the suicide bombers came and struck the hotels in Amman on November—last November 9. So that’s one way—the Jordanians I think would like—they’re getting nervous about Iraq, and many Jordanians have found their way to Iraq as jihadists. And I think that’s one factor.

The president of Egypt has also weighed-in to say that the Shi’a are more loyal to Iran than they are to their own government. The president of Egypt is very, very worried about the success of Iraq, and I think his worry is that there will be a very successful country called Iraq, and that this successful country will make a go of it; that this successful country will have oil and will have resources, which is in contradistinction to Egypt itself. And this successful country will have this Cabinet that we’re talking about—Sunnis, Shi’as, Kurds, et cetera. So I think the Egyptians are extremely hostile—

GELB: But let me push you to the—this unfortunate term—the “bottom line.” And are the neighbors interested enough in seeing peace in that country that they’d actually be willing to help the United States achieve it?

AJAMI: No. They don’t want to help the United States. They are content—they don’t want—see, this is—you have to be—you have to really gauge the Arab mind. They don’t want to see America fail, because that’s devastating, particularly as many of them are reliant on American protection. But they don’t want to see us succeed in Iraq either. So in fact, the insurgency in Iraq bought them time, it bought them time. And we came into the region in 2003, remember, when we looked triumph, people said, “Are the Americans going to turn left and sack Damascus, or are they going to turn right and sack Tehran? And what will happen in the region?” And we came with this big democratic project, the Greater Middle East Initiative, and we trumpeted the cause of democracy. We’re going to change them, and Iraq would be the test case.

So I think they felt this way in 2003. They’re less nervous today, less than they were in 2003, because they think we did not succeed in Iraq. They believe we did not succeed. They still are puzzled and worried, and they also understand that we brought a millennial change into Iraq; that we emancipated the Shi’a. That they understand very, very well.

And I want to tell you something very, very much true to the Arab world, and don’t let anyone tell you a different story about it. Three Arab cities have changed hands in less than 35 years. That’s monumentally important. First, Damascus was lost to the Sunni bourgeoisie and fell to the (enemy ?) soldiers. Then Beirut was also changed to some extent; the Shi’a underclass came to Beirut and changed Beirut, and there was a rearguard action waged by Rafik Hariri to revive the Sunnis of Beirut. Then Baghdad in 2003. That torments them. It weighs heavily on their minds.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: My name is Khalid Azim.

A question I had, sir, is when do you think Iraq will be ready for Americans to come back to this country? What benchmarks would you look towards in Iraq for that to happen?

AJAMI: Well, I guess if I—if I worked for the State Department, I’d say it has to be conditions-based, you know. I don’t really know what that means.

I mean, I—look, at one point—at one point, President Clinton, who as you know is verbally very gifted and very fluid with the language, very flexible—he said our presence in Bosnia is indefinite but not infinite. Right? (Laughter.) It’s indefinite but not infinite. (Laughter.) It depends on the meaning of the word “indefinite,” of course. So it’s indefinite but not infinite.

I almost can say this—I mean, I think we are going to be in Iraq. How much, how many people, at what scale, how big will this Green Zone be, how big will this embassy be, I don’t know. I think the more the Iraqis succeed, the more we are willing and able to exit honorably, and I think—I’ve always learned something—Les has taught me one thing because we’ve talked about this very—at great length. And he said, don’t think about the conditions for viability of Iraq are the size of the army, because he gives the example of Vietnam.

(To Mr. Gelb.) Why am I talking? You can tell your own story. But you have to have a political center—a viable political center—because the South Vietnamese army was how large, did you tell me?

GELB: Million and a half.

AJAMI: A million and a half, and it collapsed.

Now, could a similar collapse, if you will, befall this Iraqi government? I tell you what, I honestly don’t think so, and that’s because of sectarianism. It’s an odd—it’s an odd way of being inoculated against collapse, but they’re invested in this government.

So I don’t know, three years, four years, five years, you know. Who knows?

QUESTIONER: John Tepispring (ph).

Fouad, I had the privilege of hearing you talk a bit last night, and your optimism expressed in your book seems to be based on the present leadership, which is really in the Green Zone.

AJAMI: Right.

QUESTIONER: I would welcome your personal assessment—your own personal assessment, having met so many Middle East leaders—of the quality of the leadership in Baghdad.

AJAMI: Right, the quality of the Iraqi leadership. I’ll tell you, it’s actually really quite—it measures up very, very well against any of the leaderships in the region. I mean, these are very, very talented and very able people.

Was that your impression?

GELB: Absolutely.

AJAMI: These are very—you know, very—tremendous—there is tremendous talent. There is great talent in Iraq, and you know, some of them—I mean, in the case, for example, of Prime Minister Maliki, you know, he seems truly devoted to rescuing his country.

For example, if you take a look at his travels recently, he just finished a tour of Egypt—I mean, sorry, of Saudi Arabia—he made sure that he visited Saudi Arabia first—and Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. He wanted to assure the Sunni Arabs outside Iraq and the Sunni Arabs within Iraq.

And if you take a look at people—I mean, in general, there is tremendous ability and tremendous talent. But you’re right; I mean, if they are hunkered down in the Green Zone and the country is in turmoil, it’s very hard. And as one Iraqi man once told me in 2003, he said, look, we’re in a race; we are building and they are destroying, and the destruction is easier. It’s easier. It’s really—I mean, we know that. So they have their work cut out for them.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

GELB: Fouad, here.

QUESTIONER: Professor Ajami—

GELB: Would you identify yourself, please?

QUESTIONER: My name’s Julia, Juila White. I lived in Bombay for three years before coming back last year.

My question is, you were saying that you don’t have to teach them balance of power in Iraq, and they know very well about the mutual assured destruction. And besides the culture—I mean, the difference in Sunni and Shi’ite, besides they’re both Iraqis and they are Muslim, what other common ground they can find to be able to work together?

Thank you.

AJAMI: That’s a—you know, Iraqis will—many Iraqis love this term, by the way, is “SuShi”—Sunnis and Shi’a. (Laughter.) The rate of intermarriage among the Sunnis and the Shi’ites is remarkable, and in the book I narrate some of these stories. I mean, the idea of these self-contained communities is a bit overdone. And they’ve had a shared political life for—whether—you know, maybe the Brits sinned; maybe the Brits erred when they created modern Iraq and put together these three Ottoman provinces. Nevertheless, the Iraqis have lived together for now well over 80 years, and they did not always define themselves by identity.

There’s a very talented young historian—Tamara Chalabi, actually, the daughter of Ahmed Chalabi—and she wrote something to that effect; that, look, there was an 80-year national experience in Iraq, and it wasn’t always defined by identity. One thing that happened in the last election, there was this quote I loved; it said, “There was no election in Iraq, there was a census.” All Iraqis voted with their own community.

GELB: But that suggests the opposite point.

AJAMI: Yes, exactly. I can handle opposite points if you (give ?) them at the same time. (Laughter.) You will find me (full of all that ?).

GELB: You should be an Iraqi.

AJAMI: Yes, exactly. (Laughter.)

Yes, I think—look, you know, there is something about—there is something about being Lebanese that’s prepared me for Iraq—(laughter)—because the Lebanese were capable of identifying themselves as Lebanese and then—(inaudible). Really, I’m a Maronite. What the hell do I care about the rest of the communities? People go in and out of these things.

GELB: But what’s happening now, Fouad, really suggests sharp sectarian divisions.

AJAMI: Yes. There is sharp sectarian division, and Iraqis said there is now euphoria that comes from killing the other—people from the other community. You know, it had—look, the Sunni Arabs, I mean, no one wanted them to make a big mea culpa. I suppose being a Ba’athist means you never have to say you’re sorry. (Laughter.) Nobody wanted from them a huge mea culpa. But you know, we send—you know, this is not exactly what you expected.

But it was remarkable, having witnessed the end of the regime, they turned around, began to kill the Shi’a. They launched their own campaign of terror, and many Sunni leaders will tell you behind closed doors, they said, we started this. You know, we started this, and the Shi’a have responded in kind.

So where is the hope, if you will? How do—where do I offer my mutually assured destruction theory, if you will? I offer it on this idea that basically the Sunnis have now understood the total (kill ?); that you can’t just open up the gates of Hell, you can’t just resort to violence and the other community will accept it. The Kurds now are heavily armed. They will never allow anyone—the peshmerga will not allow Arabs to cross a certain line—(inaudible).

GELB: And that’s the military force in Iraq.

AJAMI: Absolutely. And terrorize them as they did before, that’s gone. So you can’t—you can’t terrorize the Kurds. But also now, with the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, you can’t terrorize the Shi’a.

So roughly, through enormous amount of violence, this mutual assured destruction is settling upon Iraq. Is this good news? I don’t know. I leave it to you.

GELB: It’s a very good question.

Over here, please.

QUESTIONER: Fouad, excellent presentation as one would expect. My name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer.

Your optimism—and maybe you’ve just sort of answered it a moment ago—how do you see—that must imply some settlement of the insurgency as well as the sectarian violence. How do you see it ending? I was—I mean, I was—

AJAMI: That is quite interesting, but just a point on the optimism.

Look, we have been heavily invested in Egypt for like more than 30 years, and it begot us the enmity of the Egyptians. I mean, the Egyptians, when every Pew survey—you know, these surveys we always love to take: what do the rest of the world think of us? You know, you take a microphone to someone in Karachi and say, “Is it mostly America you hate or mostly Bush?” (Laughter.) It’s silly. It’s completely silly, you know? This is kind of silly. Who cares? Who cares? I mean, really, tell me about this. At any rate, so there is a kind of—you know, the Egyptians score always the highest on the levels of anti-Americanism, you know, because that’s—of course, it’s no surprise—because we help them. Because we give them huge aid. What have I done to you? You know, it’s like that’s the thing.

So, optimism. Optimism is like in the end, when we look at the condition of Arab society—and remember we had the scrutiny of the Arab world in 2001, 2002, 2003—I’m reminded of the wickedly brilliant Leon Whilsithere (ph). He said, on September 10, 2001, America had nine experts on the Arab world. On September 12, it has 36,000 experts on the Arab world. Everybody’s an expert on the Arab world now. I now don’t claim to be an expert on the Arab world. It’s too crowded, you know? (Laughter.)

So what’s the optimism? The optimism is that the Iraqis will eventually—civil wars end. I don’t know when they end. I don’t know what the tipping point is, if you will. But they end. And I think now the Sunni Arabs are coming to their senses.

Now, this is this turn toward violence. We’ve talked about this. But they are heavily represented in this government. They’re heavily represented in this National Assembly. And the ones who really were the leaders of the insurgency—political and religious—are now deeply into this government, one foot in, one foot out. So (now they’re in the frame ?). They can’t have Iraq solely as their own domain.

GELB: Just very quickly, Fouad, is the difference now in the Sunni leaders in this government of national unity, as opposed to the Sunni leaders who were quite well represented in previous governments of national unity?

AJAMI: Yes. These are more—the ones that were in the previous governments—I mean, you’re talking in the age of the Americans.

GELB: Yes.

AJAMI: Since 2003. Yes, we anointed many of them. Now, those new leaders now emerged on their own. Thank you very much, they were the ones—you know, in other words, like the speaker of the parliament now really comes from the hard-core. Tariq Hashimi, the vice president, comes from the hard-core, et cetera, et cetera. It’s not reflective of them, and in a way it’s—(inaudible).

GELB: To the last question, over here.

QUESTIONER: Bob Stroud (sp) of Delphi University.

Continuing the metaphor—thank you very much for this description of the landscape and occasional portraits on billboards—but returning to the source of the metaphor, why the idea of a highway from Afghanistan to Baghdad ? What’s its connection to 19 terrorists on 9/11—15 of whom came from Egypt? And what are the—

GELB: Saudi Arabia.


QUESTIONER: —or Saudi Arabia, I’m sorry. Saudi Arabia. And what are the signposts that we should be looking for? Because I don’t understand the metaphor, the source of the metaphor.

AJAMI: Well, I do not recommend—I mean, the metaphor was—if I tell you how—the meaning of this metaphor, it just came to me on September 11 and beyond September 11, that Afghanistan would not give us enough quote-unquote “satisfaction,” that it was not a target-rich environment, to use the metaphor. Indeed, Afghanistan was for the most part really rented by the jihadists, by the Arab jihadists. 

Thanks to a joint congressional committee that started this phenomenon, we know that basically that al Qaeda paid $20 million or so to the Taliban, and that was about it. Once we went into Afghanistan, I at the time believed that we would decapitate their regime, but that it would not end there.

Now, why I thought so, how I thought so—I think I just read the American mood. I read the American mood. And listen, if you go back and look at public opinion polls, the same public opinion polls will now tell you that the overwhelming majority of the American people have despaired of Iraq and don’t think the Iraq war could be won. Seventy-three percent of the American people surveyed on the eve of the war thought a war against Saddam Hussein was legitimate. There have been second thoughts since then. Buyer’s remorse has settled upon many people. But I think if you go back to the mood of the country in 2002, the country—our country sanctioned a war against Saddam Hussein. And then the support for the war began to peel off. And I never really—I don’t dwell so much, you know, like there are lots of (authors ?) we always say, “I supported this; I didn’t support this.” You know, Gibbon called the personal pronoun in writing the most disgusting of pronouns, right? I mean, the personal pronoun is not terribly important in this case. I mean, who cares what I think? You know, this wasn’t—it wasn’t important. It’s the people who prosecuted the war, who waged the war—that was the leadership in this country that believed this is the way to advance American security.

And Congress, which voted for the war, shares a great responsibility for the war. But to run around and say, “I voted against it before I voted for it; I voted for it before I voted against it,” I think that’s ridiculous. And that’s why I have many colleagues—I never waste my time discussing the Iraq war with them. They’ve spent—they’ve signed all these documents, Project For The New American Century; they were saying we should remove Saddam. And then all of a sudden, they said, “Ah, the war is much more difficult than I thought. It wasn’t quite the war I signed up for.”

I just don’t think this works.  I can’t—I can’t—I mean, I personally don’t function like that. I think what you do is you put your head down and you work and you wish our country success. You don’t wish our country failure. I mean, much as I disagreed with Les on several pieces of this Iraq story, we agreed on the importance, the sacred importance of America prevailing in Iraq because we are fighting under Arab eyes. This is watched. It’s—there are spectators watching what becomes of us in Iraq, and I just would prefer to see us succeed.

But this—you know, “I was for it, I was against it, I wrote this, I wrote that”—you know, the world is indifferent to that. You know that any soldier in Iraq is much more important, any private is much more important than any of the pundits and what they thought, what they wrote, and when did they change, and when did they not change—I find that completely kind of empty.

GELB: That was your last answer, Fouad. We’re opening up a whole new, more important series of questions, which we’ll save for when I hope the council invites you back.

The book is “The Foreigner’s Gift,” and it’s about Iraqis, the part of this war Americans know least about, and Professor Ajami knows what he’s talking about.

Good to have you with us tonight.

AJAMI: Thank you. Thank you very much. (Applause.)








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