It would be wrong to see in Ajami’s version of Iraq the same delusional thinking as in George W. Bush’s. The difference between them is the difference between a strategy and a fantasy. The President’s speech to the nation last Thursday, following the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, was perhaps the worst of his Presidency, misleading or outright false from beginning to end. But, as always with Bush, one felt that he believed every word of it: Iraq is a brave little country lighting the way to freedom in the Middle East, and freedom-loving people everywhere should rally to its side.
With Ajami, something else is at work. Of Lebanese Shiite origin, he has a deep knowledge of Middle Eastern politics (see his very good book “The Dream Palace of the Arabs”). According to Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial,” before the war Ajami was part of a group recruited on behalf of Paul Wolfowitz that provided an intellectual framework for the overthrow of Saddam. The group’s memo, which influenced the top figures in the Administration, declared that a transformation of the stagnant and malign Middle East should begin with war in Iraq—by now a familiar neoconservative idea but in 2001 quite audacious, even radical. Ajami repeated the argument in an article in Foreign Affairs just before the invasion, and nothing that has happened since has undermined his confidence in it. From the heights of his historical vision, a few hundred thousand corpses and a few million refugees barely register.
This isn’t a case of the normal heartlessness of abstract thought. The Journal piece, along with his recent work in The New Republic, make it clear that Ajami has taken sides in Iraq, and that his pleasure comes from his sense that his side is winning. His prewar writings and advice might have led the President to believe that the transformation of the Middle East would be a democratic one—and perhaps, a generation or two from now, it will be. But Ajami is already declaring victory, because it turns out that he has a different idea altogether: Shiite Arab power.