Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Book Excerpt: 'The Foreigner's Gift'

'The Foreigner's Gift'


Those nineteen young Arabs who assaulted America on the morning of 9/11 had come into their own after the disappointments of modern Arab history. They were not exactly traditional men: they were the issue, the children, of disappointment and of the tearing asunder of modern Arab history. They were city people, newly urbanized, half educated. They had filled the faith with their anxieties and a belligerent piety. They hated the West but were drawn to its magnetic force and felt the power of its attraction; they sharpened their "tradition," but it could no longer contain their lives or truly answer their needs. I had set out to write a long narrative of these pitiless young men -- and the culture that had given rise to them. But the Iraq war, "embedded" in this cruel history, was to overtake the writing I was doing.

A war fated and "written," maktoob, as the Arabs would say, this Iraq war turned out to be. For the full length of a decade, in the 1990s, the anti-American subversion -- and the incitement feeding it -- knew no respite. Appeasement had not worked. The "moderns," with Bill Clinton as their standard-bearer, had been sure we would be delivered by the marketplace and the spread of the World Wide Web. History had mocked them, and us all. In Kabul, and then in Baghdad, America had taken up sword against these troubles.

"The justice of a cause is not a promise of its success," Leon Wieseltier wrote in the pages of The New Republic, in a reassessment of the Iraq war. For growing numbers of Americans, the prospects for "success" in Iraq look uncertain at best. Before success, though, some words about the justice of this war. Let me be forthright about the view that runs through these pages. For me this was a legitimate and, at the beginning, a popular war that issued out of a deep American frustration with the "road rage" of the Arab world and with the culture of terrorism that had put down roots in Arab lands. It was not an isolated band of misguided young men who came America's way on 9/11. They emerged out of the Arab world's dominant culture and malignancies. There were the financiers who subsidized the terrorism. There were the intellectuals who winked at the terrorism and justified it. There were the preachers -- from Arabia to Amsterdam and Finsbury Park -- who gave it religious sanction and cover. And there were the Arab rulers whose authoritarian orders produced the terrorism and who looked away from it so long as it targeted foreign shores.

Afghanistan was the setting for the first battle against Arab radicalism. That desperate, impoverished land had been hijacked, rented if you will, by the Arab jihadists and their masters and financiers. Iraq followed: America wanted to get closer to the source of the troubles in the Arab world. It wasn't democracy that was at stake in Iraq. It was 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. Iraq's political culture had been poisoned by a crude theory of race and a racialist Arabism that had wrecked and unsettled Arab and Muslim life in the 1980s and 1990s. The Tikriti rulers had ignited a Sunni-Shia war within and over Islam. They had given Arabs a cruel view of history -- iron and fire and bigotry. They had, for all practical purposes, cut off the Arab world from the possibility of a decent, modern life.

It is easy to say that the expedition in Iraq is the product of American innocence. And it is easy to see that the American regent, L. Paul Bremer, didn't find his way to the deep recesses of Iraqi culture. Sure enough, it has proven virtually impossible to convince the people of Fallujah to take to more peaceful ways. It is painfully obvious that at the Abu Ghraib prison some of America's soldiers and military police and reservists broke the codes of war and of military justice. But there can be no doubting the nobility of the effort, for Abu Ghraib isn't the U.S. war. With support for the war hanging in the balance, Abu Ghraib has been an unmitigated disaster. But for all the terribleness of Abu Ghraib and its stain, this war has not been some "rogue operation" willed by the White House and by the Department of Defense. It isn't Paul Wolfowitz's war. It has been a war waged with congressional authorization and fought in the shadow of a terrible calamity visited upon America on 9/11. Sure enough, the United States didn't have the support of Kofi Annan or of Jacques Chirac. But Americans can be forgiven a touch of raw pride: the American rescue of Bosnia, in 1995, didn't have the approval of Boutros Boutros-Ghali (or of the head of his peacekeeping operations at the time, the same Kofi Annan) or of François Mitterrand either.

My sense of Iraq, and of the U.S. expedition, is indelibly marked by the images and thoughts that came to me on six trips that I made to that country in the aftermath of the destruction of the regime of Saddam Hussein. A sense of America's power alternated with thoughts of its solitude and isolation in an alien world. The armies and machines -- and earnestness -- of a great foreign power against the background of a big, impenetrable region: America could awe the people of the Arab-Muslim world, and that region could outwit and outwait American power. The foreign power could repair the infrastructure of Iraq, and the insurgents could wreck it. America could "stand up" and train civil defense and police units, and they could disappear just when needed. In its desire to redeem its work, America could entertain for Iraqis hopes of a decent political culture, and the enemies of this project could fall back on a bigotry sharpened for combat and intolerance. Beyond the prison of the old despotism, the Iraqis have found the hazards and uncertainties -- and promise -- of freedom. An old order of dominion and primacy was shattered in Iraq. The rage against this American war, in Iraq itself and in the wider Arab world, was the anger of a culture that America had given power to the Shia stepchildren of the Arab world -- and to the Kurds. This proud sense of violation stretched from the embittered towns of the Sunni Triangle in western Iraq to the chat rooms of Arabia and to jihadists as far away from Iraq as North Africa and the Muslim enclaves of Western Europe.

In the way of people familiar with modern canons of expression -- of things that can and cannot be said -- the Arab elites were not about to own up in public to the real source of their animus toward this American project. The great Arab silence that greeted the terrors inflicted on Iraq by the brigades of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi gave away the wider Arab unease with the rise of the Shia in Iraq. For nearly three years, that Jordanian-born terrorist brought death and ruin to Iraq. There was barely concealed admiration for him in his native land and in Arab countries beyond. Jordan, in particular, showed remarkable sympathy for deeds of terror masquerading as Islamic acts. In one Pew survey, in the summer of 2005, 57 percent of Jordanians expressed support for suicide bombings and attacks on civilians. It was only when the chickens came home to roost and Zarqawi's pitiless warriors struck three hotels in Amman on November 9, 2005, killing sixty people, that Jordanians drew back in horror. In one survey, conducted a week after these attacks by a public opinion firm, Ipsos Jordan, 94 percent of the people surveyed now said that Al Qaeda's activities were detrimental to the interests of Arabs and Muslims; nearly three out of four Jordanians said that they had not expected "at all" such terrorist attacks in Jordan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's own tribe now disowned him and broke ties with him. He had "shamed" them at home and placed in jeopardy their access to the state and its patronage. But even as they mourned their loss, the old habits persisted. "Zionist terror in Palestine = American terror in Iraq = Terror in Amman," read a banner held aloft by the leaders of the Engineers' Syndicate of Jordan who had come together to protest the hotel bombings. A country with this kind of political culture is in need of repair; the bureaucratic-military elite who run this realm have their work cut out for them. The Iraqi Shia were staking a claim to their country in the face of a stubborn Arab refusal to admit the sectarian bias at the heart of modern Arab life.

It would have been heady and right had Iraqis brought about their own liberty, had they demolished the prisons and the statues on their own. And it would have been easier and more comforting had America not redeemed their liberty with such heartbreaking American losses. There might have been greater American support for the war had the Iraqis not been too proud to admit that they needed the stranger's gift and had the United States come to a decent relationship with them. But the harvest of the war has been what it has been. In Kurdistan, Anglo-American power has provided protection to a people who have made good use of this new order. There is no excessive or contrived religious zeal in Kurdistan, and the nationalism that blows there seems free of chauvinism and delirium. There's a fight for the city of Kirkuk, where the Kurds will have to show greater restraint in the face of competing claims by the Turkomans, and by the Arabs who were pushed into Kirkuk by the old regime. But on balance Kurdistan shows that terrible histories can be remade. In the rest of the country, America rolled history's dice. There is a view that sees Shia theocracy stalking this new Iraq, but this view, as these pages will make clear, is not mine. Iraq may not provide the Pax Americana with a base of power in the Persian Gulf that some architects and proponents of the war hoped for. America can live without that strategic gain. It is the Iraqis who will need the saving graces of moderate politics.

I am keenly aware that for many Baghdad was not the right return address for a war against terror. But the Iraq war inexorably unfolded out of the American reading of the Arab-Muslim world in the aftermath of 9/11. Three years after these attacks, there would settle upon America doubts about the wisdom and the urgency of the war. In the autumn of 2004, the chief U.S. arms inspector for Iraq, Charles A. Duelfer, came forth with a definitive report that confirmed that Saddam Hussein had possessed no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and no active weapons programs. In January 2005, Duelfer's Iraq Survey Group officially folded up its work. The pursuit of a menacing dictator had shifted: Saddam was now a pathetic figure, a delusional man idling his time away writing bad novels and reading Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. But this was hindsight and bore no resemblance to the fears that played upon Americans when the decision to go to war had been made.

Much has been said about the "Bush Doctrine" of preemptive war. But after Iraq, caution will be the animating principle of American conduct abroad. Iraq put on display the things that military power can and cannot do. The expedition unnerved Syria and Iran, to be sure. But the Pax Americana now shared borders with these two regimes, as it were. The dictators in the Arab-Muslim world could now rest easier. The Syrian dictator was not about to be chased into a spider hole, deep into the Alawite strongholds in the mountains. And the Iranian theocracy was not going to be sacked by soldiers from West Virginia and Indiana and Vermont. The Iranians would have to secure their own liberty; Americans now knew better than to provide it to strangers sure to second-guess on the morning after.

An officer in the Marine Corps, Colonel Stephen Ganyard (a former student of mine), trying to speak to my anxieties about this war, offered a soldier's consolation -- the clarifying power of time and of patience. "Tell me in twenty years," he wrote, "how this war will have turned out, for it will take that long for it to reveal its full harvest." We judge quicker. Without the soldiers' mission, without their poise, we ride the roller coaster of a war whose justice and heartbreak alternate in endless succession. Nowadays you dread the Department of Defense releases of the mounting number of those predominantly young men lost in the "Iraq theater of operations." Nowadays you look away in hurt from the crawl at the bottom of the TV screen bringing news of another roadside bomb and another American fatality. There was a stirring Iraqi election on December 15, 2005 -- the third in eleven months -- and eleven million Iraqis cast their ballots. But on that day the Department of Defense's tally of American service members killed in Iraq reached 2,142. It hasn't been easy and it hasn't been cheap, this new military campaign brought about by the coming apart of an Arab-Muslim world unwilling to deal with its despotisms and purveyors of terrorism. It would be a consolation were we to think that, after Kabul and Baghdad, there would be repose and an end to vigilance. But we should know the burning grounds of the Arab-Muslim world better by now. And one can be forgiven the premonition that this isn't the end of the matter.

In a work of penetrating insight, al-Iraq al-Amriki (American Iraq), a highly respected Iraqi intellectual and diplomat, Hassan al-Alawi, 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, he notes, is destined to be exceedingly short but of great impact. Where British Iraq was Sunni, American Iraq can be said to be Shia. During the time of British primacy, the Sunnis were shrewd and accepted the logic of power, and of defeat; they got a homeland, a political kingdom, embassies, and official positions, while the Shia were left with the legend of the resistance to British rule and the "rusty, old rifles" of the Marsh Arabs. Iraq could have done better for itself, Alawi writes, had it accepted American power, had it turned away from violence and from rebellion. The Shia have not been as brilliant and cunning in the time of the Americans as the Sunnis were under British rule and tutelage, he adds. But a beginning has been made, and the old order has been shattered for good.

Alawi -- himself a Shia, and a "soft" Baathist who broke away from the regime in 1979 to join the opposition to Saddam's rule -- sees this American era as a time of transition. There is an "explosion of freedoms" in today's Iraq, the pent-up energy of a people long repressed. It is too early to see in this time of transition genuine political parties and adherence to the law. That kind of transformation will require a confident middle class that will carry the banner of freedom under the law. It will not be easy, Alawi says, to bring about this kind of historical shift, and it will be immensely important for the Shia to go beyond the memory of those "martyred" by the old regime, beyond the partisanship of the established Shia movements keen to consolidate their hold on power. These Shia movements bear the burden of their birth outside the soil of Iraq: they were formed in exile and have functioned away from the land of Iraq for more than a quarter-century. "I am a Shia," he forthrightly says, "and the Shia state that forms political parties is Iran and I will never be with Iran." A new Iraq would draw on the rich Shia heritage, but that heritage itself will have to come to terms with both the specificity of Iraq and its pluralism.

The future of this Iraq will have to be "federal and democratic," for no force can bring back the old order. For their part, the Sunni Arabs, with the skills of authority and administration given them by a long history of rule, will have to break with the Sunni jihadists from Arab lands who have come to Iraq armed with a warrant to kill the Shia "apostates." In a clever turn of phrase, Alawi writes that the Sunni jihadists, Zarqawi among them, have their gaze fixed on the "green fields of paradise," while the Sunni leaders of Iraq are focused on the Green Zone, the headquarters of the American regency. The Shia could help bring about the break of Iraq's Sunni Arabs from the wider currents of Arab jihadism were they to accept a role for the Sunnis of Iraq disproportionate to their numbers. This is a bow to the logic of necessity and of realism.

A federal, democratic Iraq will have to accept the uniqueness of Kurdistan and the historical conditions that have forced the Kurds into a country they did not want in the first place. No one would have wanted the Kurds in Iraq had they been Shia, Alawi writes. They were pressed into this country to balance the demographic weight of the Shia. The Arabs of Iraq will have to concede that the Kurds, though Muslims, have never been Arabized. A prudent country would do its best to understand why the Kurds have never taken to the Iraqi flag; a prudent country would add to its flag the yellow color of Kurdistan. And a country keen to succeed would not expect the Kurds to accept a nation that slights their rights and their history. In the cruel play of the region's history, the Kurds have been the sacrificial lamb at the altar of Kemalist Turkey, Pahlavi Iran, and the Iraq of the monarchy. Now the Kurds are done with that history of subjugation, and the attempt to Arabize their region has resulted in failure. There are "extremists" among the Kurds, Alawi warns, and their map will have to yield to the logic of things, for American power -- which sheltered the Kurds -- is sure to distance itself from a bid for a Greater Kurdistan. This new world can't bear "frightening maps," and a reasonable Iraqi polity that comes to terms with these realities will have America as a "guarantor" of its place in the region against the ambitions of Turkey, and of Iran.

Hassan al-Alawi has given his country the gift of clarity. He has given the American project in his country its due. He is wistful, but resigned, that his country has not followed the lead of Germany and Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War -- accepting America's stewardship and making the best of it. And he is unerringly accurate that the Americans are not in Iraq for the long haul. Three years after America struck into Iraq, there would be new limits on the scale of the American commitment. The budget request for fiscal 2007 included no new reconstruction funds for Iraq. The three-year $18.4 billion U.S. rebuilding effort had a mixed record: there had been corruption, contractor overcharges, and the burden of a virtually impossible security situation. And an audit of contracts that the United States had undertaken with $5.8 billion of Iraqi money was to expose a pattern of widespread waste and unfinished work. The accent now was on Iraq's ability to fend for itself. Fatigue and disillusionment with the corruption rampant in Iraq and with the virulence of the insurgency had done their damage. And over the horizon loomed new limits on the size of the American force in Iraq. The Iraqis would have to secure their own defense; no one had intended for this American expedition to "own" and claim Iraq.

As March 2006 came, the Iraq war acquired another marker, its third anniversary. It was hard to recall, amid the retrospects, that this war, now practically an orphan in the court of public opinion, was once a popular war. Seventy-seven percent of Americans surveyed in January 2003 had favored military action to remove Saddam Hussein. Now a minority of just 29 percent thought the war in Iraq was worth the cost. Revisionism had taken hold, as people abandoned what they had once written and advocated.

This wasn't the war they had signed up for, some of the new opponents of the war asserted. Recent American military interventions had been forgiving. There had been those interventions in the Persian Gulf in 1991, Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, and there had been that swift campaign against the Taliban launched in the shadow of 9/11. These were virtual wars, affairs of technological mastery. (A lone suicide bomber, a boy in a Mercedes truck loaded with TNT, in Beirut, had inflicted more fatalities upon American forces on October 23, 1983, when he attacked the marine barracks on the outskirts of that city than had the army of Saddam Hussein in 1991.) This new campaign in Iraq was different. It was the war after the war that was to frustrate American will. And it was not just the insurgency and the combat. A foreign power good at releasing communities from the burden of the past, and from the limits and confines of narrow identity, found itself deep in the thicket of a culture defined by sectarian loyalties. An innately optimistic America had struck into a land steeped in a history of sorrow. In Baghdad, a thoughtful man of the Iraqi political class, Zuhair Chalabi, the minister of human rights -- and a Sunni Arab from Mosul at that -- assured me some weeks before this somber third anniversary that his country felt deep appreciation for this American war, but he cautioned that it would take time for this gratitude to come to the surface. The time left for this expedition would be determined the only way it could be in a democratic society -- by popular tolerance and support. The custodians of American power were under great pressure to force history's pace.

Excerpted from The Foreigner's Gift Copyright © 2006 by Fouad Ajami.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Fouad Ajami