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Remembering Fouad Ajami


Christopher Hitchens and Fouad Ajami are probably the two foremost once progressive intellectuals who turned right in their later years, and reaped rich career rewards for doing so. I was an acquaintance of Hitchens, who died in 2011. We participated on a couple of occasions in the same event and he publicly ridiculed me. I was appalled by his contemptuous dismissal of those who disagreed with him or whom he regarded as lesser beings, that is, not less than 99% of humanity. His informed brilliance made him always worth reading or listening to even if his views were dogmatically uncongenial, never more so than in his self-righteous championing of the Iraq War as a humanitarian rescue mission undertaken on behalf of the Iraqi people. When Hitchens died I was impressed by his brave struggle against cancer, but he was never a friend, and his death never tempted me to mourn.

Fouad Ajami was at one time a dear friend, a close colleague, and someone whose worldview I once shared. I had been partly responsible for bringing Fouad to Princeton where I was on the faculty, and was deeply impressed by his incisive mind, deep reading of difficult scholarly texts, and ethical/political engagement with the world that seemed to express intellectual independence. In this time of friendship we shared a critical outlook on the follies of the American imperial role and felt a deep sympathy for the Palestinian struggles for their place in the sun. I introduced Fouad to Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmad, believing them to be kindred spirits in a shared commitment to justice in all its manifestations with a focus on the deep processes of decolonization being pursued in the countries of the South. At first my social impulse was affirmed as there occurred a rapid bonding of these three extraordinary intellectuals, but before too long, Fouad’s unexpected welcoming of the 1982 Israeli attack on Lebanon, and then a more intense fight among three as to whether or not to attend a CIA-sponsored conference on the Middle East at Harvard led to an open break, with Fouad not only deciding to attend but to write a letter to Edward and Eqbal declaring that he wished no further contact with either of them.

In the process, without any such dramatic break, my friendship with Fouad lapsed without ever ending either formally or psychologically. I continued to read his journalistic and scholarly writing, admiring his stylistic gifts and literary sensibility despite my disappointment with the kind of beltway, Israeli-oriented sophisticated polemics he had cast his lot with in the manner of Naipaul, but worse because overtly political. He was warmly welcomed into the establishment, first by the Council on Foreign Relations, and then later an influential participant in the inner sanctum of neocon retreats, ending his career and life, as a senior scholar attached to the notorious Hoover Institution, where even Donald Rumsfeld found sanctuary after his disastrous tenure as Secretary of Defense.

In reacting to his death, commentators were sharply polarized as might be expected. In the Wall Street Journal Bret Stephens called Ajami “..the most honest and honorable and generous of American intellectuals,” [June 23, 2014] and went on to explain why. In contrast, Shakir Husain dismisses Ajami as an opportunistic fraud who will be mostly remembered for his enthusiastic and very public endorsement of the 2003 Iraq War and as a high profile apologist for the worst Israeli excesses, a classic example of Mahmood Mamdani’s ‘good Muslim.’ [Daily Sabah, July 8, 2014] Prior to the war Ajami had promised American on TV and his neocon friends, notably Paul Wolfowitz, that Iraqis would celebrate their liberation from the clutches of Saddam Hussein with flowers and dances, and should expect Iraqi crowds welcoming American troops and tanks in the streets of Baghdad and Basra. Ajami seemed so excited by the shock and awe aggression against Iraq that began the war ‘an amazing performance,’ an initial expression of his unflagging endorsement of the Bush-Cheney criminal foreign policy from which he never retreated. [CBS News, March 22, 2003] Adam Shatz constructed a devastating portrait of Ajami’s rightward swing, portraying him as a lethal combination of ‘native informant’ and ‘a cheerleader for American empire,’ dismissing his claim of ‘intellectual independence as a clever fiction.’ [The Nation, April 10, 2003]

Despite all this, Fouad was still in my mind and heart a friend with whom I had shared many intimate times, who had cared for my two sons while traveling abroad, who was both affectionate and stimulating, and who seemed to hold my views as to what it meant to be on ‘the right side of history.’ After his disturbing political ‘awakening’ to the realities of the world, we met one time by chance in the 1990s while walking on the streets of the nation’s capital; we stopped and had a friendly coffee together, almost avoiding politics while reminiscing mainly about common friends and his days at Princeton. I remember he was then worried by some comments critical of his role that Edward Said had apparently made to an Arab audience, Fouad telling me that such criticism amounted to ‘a death sentence’ given the high tide of emotions in the region. I can’t recall my response beyond expressing an opinion that Edward would never knowingly encourage violence toward someone with whose views he disagreed, however deeply. We never met again, although I saw Fouad from time to time on TV, and to my surprise, did not disagree with much of his early CNN commentary in seeming support of the Tahrir Square uprising against the Mubarak regime in late January 2011.

Reflecting now, I wonder if I can and should separate in my mind the man from his reactionary views and career choices, which will always remain an anathema for me. I wonder also if I was blinded by Fouad’s wit and brilliance and warmth, and failed to detect character flaws that surfaced politically later in his life. Or are political orientations inherently so subjective that what seemed to me an unforgivable ‘betrayal’ was for Fouad a genuine ‘epiphany,’ a swerve of conscience that just happened to land him in the gilded lap of the winners, that is, on the uppermost platforms of elite pampering? It is a whimsical moment that inhibits mourning such a loss, but not the sadness that always accompanies losing a once cherished and trusted friend. To be sure, thinking along these lines recalls Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ I firmly believe that I chose the better road, but it will take decades for history to decide.

For me Fouad Ajami’s legacy is that of ‘sleeping with the enemy.’ And it is an enemy that is politically, morally, and legally responsible for millions of deaths, displacements, and devastating losses. In a just world such a responsibility would lead to criminal accountability, but such a prospect is for now situated in what Derrida called the ‘democracy to come,’ a polity in which there would be no impunity for crimes against humanity.

 

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