Ajami’s Sleight of Hand: Bush made Emancipator and Obama Smeared

The odd collection of con men, carpetbaggers, mercenaries, court jesters, and professional propagandists that gathered around W. the way pilot fish jostle about a great white shark has now scattered to more obscure reefs. Now, as Meyrav Wurmser admitted, they are thinking about how to make money. They seek perches in the “think tanks” of kooky rich old white men, on the airwaves of corporate media, in the halls of the more corrupt corners of academia, or on the opinion pages of the wackier capitalist tools.

So it is that we now have to listen to Fouad Ajami attacking Barack Obama as a coddler of dictators, in the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, whose editorial line brought us the current meltdown of the American economy and our ruinous foreign imbroglios. Ajami, from a southern, Lebanese Shiite background, has been for decades a trenchant critic of the pieties of Arab nationalism and a theorist of Neoconservatism.

Ajami appears not to recognize that in demanding that his adopted country, the United States, go about invading or bullying the Arab world and imposing American institutions on it, he is guilty of the same authoritarianism and lack of faith in the Arab little people as the dictators he professes to decry. Paul Bremer said as he arrived in Iraq, “We dominate the scene and we will continue to impose our will on this country,” and Ajami cheered him on, playing a swooning La Malinche to Bremer’s Hernan Cortes.

Ajami is so mesmerized by elite power that he even mistakenly attributes the success of Tom Paine’s ideas to British arms (yes; see below).

Ajami begins his essay by quoting a passage from Obama’s interview on al-Arabiya:

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” President Barack Obama said in his inaugural. But in truth, the new way forward is a return to realpolitik and business as usual in America’s encounter with that Greater Middle East. As the president told Al-Arabiya television Monday, he wants a return to “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.”

Ajami maintains that George W. Bush put “the autocracies” of the Middle East “on notice.” He toppled the Taliban and overthrew the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. He frightened Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, he writes, and helped drive Bashar al-Asad’s troops willy-nilly from Lebanon.

But Ajami’s narrative is selective and slanted. The original plan of the Bush administration for Iraq was to turn it over to corrupt financier Ahmad Chalabi as a soft strongman. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke before the invasion of installing “something like” democracy in Iraq. But democracy is like pregnancy, an all or nothing matter, and Rumsfeld’s hope that he could get Iraq a little bit pregnant predictably faltered on Iraqi popular mobilization and the fatwas of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who, along with the Sunni Arab insurgency, forced Bush to grant open elections.

That Bush’s panegyrists always invoke Libya is bizarre. Qaddafi clearly was maneuvered into coming in from the cold primarily by EU economic sanctions, and was also motivated by his own fear of a Muslim radicalism far more extreme than his own. As I noted five years ago,

‘One caveat: Qadhafi hasn’t offered to step down or become less dictatorial. This isn’t an advance for democracy. The Bush administration, despite its rhetoric of democratization, still has to choose in the Middle East between having malleable, known strongmen in power, or having unpredictable democracies that might elect radical Islamists or others odious to Washington. I wouldn’t bet a lot on the democratization policy. The US if anything has been urging countries like Tunisia and Yemen to be less democratic and less concerned about civil rights, in the cause of stamping out radical Islamism.’

So despite Ajami’s attempt at misdirection, Bush’s Libya policy involved coddling a dictator, and cannot be cited as an instance of steadfast commitment to democratization.

As for Lebanon, Bush did not force Syria out, the Lebanese people did. The first thing that happened to them once they chose Bush’s security umbrella in preference to that of Damascus was that Bush gave the green light to the Israelis to bomb the country back to 1975, wiping out a generation of economic recovery, degrading infrastructure, scaring off foreign investment, creating massive unemployment, and dropping a million cluster bombs on the farms of Ajami’s relatives in the south. Far from destroying Hizbullah, the Bush-Israeli program of what Ajami appears to think was tough love for his native land strengthened radical Shiism and paved the way for a national unity government in which Hizbullah has a virtual veto over government policy and has had its militia formally recognized as an arm of the Lebanese state. Syria’s domination of little Lebanon was wrong, but Bush and Ajami’s friends among the Neoconservatives were no friends of Beirut and were entirely willing to crush the Lebanese like cockroaches to attain their aims there. To laud Bush as a liberator of the land of the cedars after he actively lobbied against an Israeli ceasefire, prolonging the agony at least an extra month, is like lauding Boris Yeltsin as a liberator of Chechnya.

Ajami cites Samuel Huntington to argue that democracy does not well up from the people but is often “midwifed” by the “dominant power.” He says that of 30 democratic countries in 1970, about half had become democratic via foreign rule or made the transition to democracy “right after independence from foreign occupation.” But 30 is a very small N on which to generalize, and the Nazi conquest of much of Europe in addition to decolonization in the post-war period introduced profound ambiguities into the whole analysis. Dutch democracy was vital before the German conquest, but was restored by the Allied invasion; so do we count Holland’s democracy as being the result of American and British foreign power, or as a result of internal class and economic developments in Holland over centuries, which were briefly interrupted by the Nazis? And, I’ll bet you Ajami is counting India as such a case, even though the British ruled India autocratically and it was Indian social and political forces that opted for independent democracy, something Churchill would never have allowed.

Why Ajami wants to cite 40-year-old scholarship on democratization should be clear: because if we looked at The Economist’s ranking [pdf] of 167 contemporary countries, we would find that 82 or about half, are “full” or “flawed” democracies. And among those 82, vanishingly few underwent a successful democratic transition because of foreign conquest.

Moreover, Ajami is sidestepping the most important question in democratic transitions, which is not what kicks them off but why they fail or succeed. Adam Przeworski has found that a relatively high per capita income ($8000 a year or more) is highly correlated with successful democratic transitions, whereas very poor countries often fail. The literature on states that depend on income from a single pricey primary commodity (“rentier” states) finds that they seldom function as democracies (Norway is the major exception and it developed its political institutions well before it got oil).

So in today’s world, democracy is very seldom the result of foreign conquest, and successful democracy even less so. (The Economist is apparently not convinced that Patton’s invasion of Italy has yet borne firm fruit).

Ajami even dares say that “The appeal of the pamphlets of . . . Paine relied on the guns of Pax Britannica.”

Tom Paine? Did Ajami really say that? His appeal depended on George III’s guns? I mean, Ajami is supposed to be a historian. His topsy-turvey theory of democracy imposed from above has led him to erase the real Tom Paine from history and substitute a bizarro Tom Paine who, instead of hanging out with Jacobins in revolutionary Paris, goes out to vanquish tyranny with the Red Coats at his back! Ajami appears to have gotten Tom Paine mixed up with Benedict Arnold. It might be a telling error.

Some of us think we know exactly what Tom Paine would have thought of W.

Ajami argues that the image of Saddam Hussein flushed out of his spider hole has given hope to the Arab masses that tyrants can be overthrown. But I don’t know any Arabs who look at it that way. Most seem to see the humiliation of Saddam as a joint project of American imperialism and Iranian, Shiite plotting, and they see Saddam’s botched execution as a Shiite lynching. Ajami’s own Shiite background makes him so unsympathetic to Sunni Arab nationalism that he is a poor guide to mass sentiment outside the two Souths, of Lebanon and Iraq.

Ajami argues that W. was a “force for emancipation in Muslim lands,” whereas Obama was signaling in his speech that he would accept the established order. He calls on Obama to “recognize” Bush as having been a liberator!

But a US military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is not liberation, and nobody thinks it is, even the Iraqi Shiite political elite that Bush “midwifed” (he actually tried to forestall it by installing ex-Baathist strong man Ayad Allawi, but the Iraqi masses outfoxed him). If Ajami thinks that the basket case that is Afghanistan deserved flowery rhetoric and soaring figures of speech, he should compose an ode to Somalia while he is at it.

Ajami contrasts Obama, whom he configures as a Republican Realist in the Brent Scowcroft tradition, to emancipator Bush.

But note that it was Bush who backed Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan to the hilt against the masses and the politicians clamoring for a free judiciary and open parliamentary elections. And it was Barack Obama who congratulated Pakistanis on their return to civilian democracy. Ajami invents an imaginary democratic Bush and an imaginary Republican Obama.

Let us consider Bush’s actual relations with Middle Eastern states beyond Pakistan, which would in itself be enough to demonstrate the falsity of Ajami’s case. At what point did Bush pressure King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to turn himself into a constitutional monarch? When did Bush cut off the $2 billion a year his government bestowed on Hosni Mubarak’s soft military dictatorship in Egypt? Did he not accept Qaddafi back into the fold without putting any ‘democratic’ preconditions on the deal? What of Gaza and the West Bank? Does Israel run them as “democracies”? Did Bush give a rat’s ass?

Ajami the prestidigitator makes the elephant of Abu Ghraib, military occupation, the displacement of 4 million Iraqis from their homes, the excess deaths of a million, all disappear in favor of a shining Baghdadi democracy on a hill. The unstable and possibly violent confrontation of Arab and Kurd is celebrated as a tolerant binational state.

By focusing on this fantasy, of a stable democratic transition in places like Afghanistan (!), and by selectively ignoring all the dictatorial regimes Bush held hands with and kissed on both cheeks, Ajami sets up a false dichotomy that allows him to smear Obama.

Ajami descends to new lows in denying that the Palestinians have any legitimate grievances or that their resistance is grounded in those discontents, and blames Obama for acknowledging this obvious fact. (Readers should know that when the Israeli army expelled 100,000 Palestinians into south Lebanon in 1948, the Palestinian refugees found themselves competing for resources with Lebanese Shiites. While Shiite Islamists made common cause with the Palestinians, many traditional or secular Lebanese Shiites came to dislike them. They even garlanded Israeli soldiers who invaded Lebanon in 1982 to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose local leaders or za’ims had often assassinated or displaced Shiite notables in the south). Ajami’s hatred of the Palestinians has a local history, which he has not transcended, and he apparently still keeps garlands to give out to the enemy of his enemy.

Ajami makes a pitiful plea for Obama and the US to go back to imagining that Osama Bin Laden is ten feet tall and that we are still plunged into a fateful confrontation with a new Soviet Union-type threat. In fact, al-Qaeda was a small, clever terrorist organization that has been largely if not completely disrupted. Further bankrupting the country by exaggerating its importance makes no sense to anyone who doesn’t get millions of dollars in consulting fees as a “terrorism expert.” This is not to say that al-Qaeda or other groups of that sort are not dangerous or should not be fought. It is to say that they are not the end-all and be-all of American foreign policy, however much Ajami would like them to be.

Ajami keeps warning us against the return of the Clinton age, as though peace and prosperity were bad and we should be nostalgic for the cataclysmic Bush era.

Let the Middle East get to democracy as Brazil and the Czech Republic and Taiwan have. We live in the age of the Third Wave of demoratization, not in 1945. We know the paths by which advances are made in our own time. Ajami’s ways are those of another, darker era, and his aspirations, of playing comprador or dragoman to a friendly enlightened emperor, belong to an imperial epoch that is long past.

Ajami and his fellow travelers have gone a large way toward destroying everything good about the United States. If he wants to be a democratic revolutionary, let him emulate the real Tom Paine and go back to the Middle East and agitate for democracy there, instead of lolling about on the emoluments of the Hoover Institution in perilous Palo Alto. Tom Paine did not actually have the Empire’s armies marching alongside him, and neither should Ajami expect to. Even less should he expect the rest of us to go on frittering away billions that we do not even have on his fantastic project of making fourth-world countries into advanced democracies at the point of a bayonet.

One of the most delightful things about January 20 is that it marked the end of a long Dark Age in which persons with Ajami’s views had the ear of power in Washington.

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(H/t Taylor Marsh.)

End/ (Not continued.)

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