STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The confrontation with Iran intensifies at a moment when the U.S. is still at war just across Iran's border. One American supporter of that war in Iraq has been exploring why the conflict has proven so difficult.
Fouad Ajami is a noted writer on the Arab world from which he came. He charges that the Arab world was prejudiced against the Shia Muslims who were poised to lead Iraq, and against the Americans who confidently expected to help them do it.
Mr. FOUAD AJAMI (Author, The Foreigner's Gift): This was a world that could whittle down, even devour, a big American victory. It was a difficult, perhaps impossible, landscape. There were countless escapes available to that Arab world. It could reject the message of reform by dwelling on the sins of the American messenger. It could call up the fury of the Israeli/Palestinian violence and use as an alibi for yet more self-pity and rage. A foreign power bearing reform and dreaming of it had its work cut out for it.
INSKEEP: The man who wrote those lines was born in Lebanon to a Shiite Muslim family. Today as an American journalist and academic, he has advised the White House on Iraq. Fouad Ajami traveled to Iraq several times while writing a book called The Foreigner's Gift. To Ajami, that gift was supposed to be liberty for Iraq and a new political order for the Arab world.
He says the disaster came when Arab governments, Muslim imams, even Western-leaning intellectuals rejected that gift.
Mr. AJAMI: It's not so much just the climate within which this war has played out. It's also the fact that the Arab world dispatched into Iraq, dumped in Iraq, its jihadists, its castaways, rejects, its angry children. So if you were upset with the order in Saudi Arabia, if you were an enemy of the king of Jordan, if you're an enemy of the autocrat in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, and you couldn't take on these regimes in Arabia or in Egypt or in Jordan, you made your way to Iraq, and Iraq became this battleground. So it did matter.
INSKEEP: An opponent of the war in Iraq can say, well, obviously the Arab world turned against this war. Civilians were being killed. It was an American invasion; it was uninvited. Do you believe those were the reasons?
Mr. AJAMI: No I don't think so. I think the reasons are very different. The Arabs are very shrewd and cunning people. I say this as an Arab, and I think in a way they would never let us in under reasons for the opposition to this Iraq war.
We ended up now in Iraq three years or so into the American invasion of Iraq with a Shia prime minister in Iraq. That's new. We ended up with a Kurdish president in Iraq. That's new. We ended up with a Kurdish foreign minister. So when the league of Arab state meets in Cairo or in Tunisia or wherever it meets, there is a young Kurdish man there representing a big Arab state.
The Arabs were not ready for this. They did not want the emancipation of the Shia and of the Kurds, and they were never going to let us in on the secret of their opposition.
INSKEEP: So are you arguing that the war in Iraq would've worked out fine or at least better had it not been for this widespread sectarian animosity throughout the Arab world against it?
Mr. AJAMI: There's a word which our listeners who will have seen the great movie, Sir David Leans' movie, Lawrence of Arabia, may remember it; it's a word called maktoub(ph): fated, written. I think it was fated and written, as the Arabs would say, that this war would be difficult. It was fated and written that we were going into a country we did not know in a region that we can't really fully comprehend.
Now was it fated and written it would be this difficult? Did we judge the Sunni Arabs would completely turn away from this new war and reject the gifts it brought with it? I think that's where the surprises of the war lay.
INSKEEP: Why do you think that American officials first denied and then downplayed the sectarian differences?
Mr. AJAMI: I think we just - this country, the United States, is not alert to sectarianism. It doesn't understand sectarian differences. When you try to explain to people the differences between the Sunnis and Shia, when you try to tell them that there are no linguistic differences, that the two speak the same language - Arabic in the main, in the Arab world - that there are no ethnic differences, there are no difference of pigmentation.
But that here are these two clashing histories. Here are these two memories, if you will, these two ideas of Islam: the Islam of the Shia, which is the Islam of opposition, and the Islam of the Sunnis, which is the Islam of the cities, of the merchants, of the rulers.
You try to explain it this way and I think it's very hard.
INSKEEP: Did you get a chance as a prominent writer and academic to advise American officials about their course in this war?
Mr. AJAMI: I think that when you are brought in, you're not really brought in to really tell people what to do. You're brought in to tell them what you know, to report on what you've seen.
So, yes, I've talked to Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. I've seen the president once, really, basically for one sustained conversation about Iraq.
You know, people bring you in if they sense a basic sympathy that you have, and I have this basic sympathy for this project - this American project.
INSKEEP: Vice President Cheney, as I'm sure you know quite well, quoted you...
Mr. AJAMI: Yes.
INSKEEP: ...in the run-up to the war...
Mr. AJAMI: Sure.
INSKEEP: ...to say the war would not be so hard. He said that, according to you, the streets of Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt the same way that the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans. Was that your advice?
Mr. AJAMI: Well, I'll tell you the origins of this. Now, I have no problem, by the way, with these remarks that the vice president made. People have asked me.
The origins lie in a piece I wrote for The New York Times Book Review. I was reviewing a book on Iraq and I said: If we pick up where we left off a decade ago and head to Baghdad - that means, the reference, as you know...
INSKEEP: To the Gulf War.
Mr. AJAMI: ...to Gulf War I and head to Baghdad - the crowd, if only for a moment, may forgive us the multitude of our sins and may believe in this project.
So, you know, I think that, did the crowd believe in this war? Absolutely. Did people welcome the American forces as liberators in Iraq? Absolutely. Did the Sunni Arabs? No. Did the Shia? Yes. Did the Kurds? You should see the pro-Americanism in Kurdistan. So I stand behind this.
INSKEEP: Interesting that you say the original quote, you said that the crowd would support an American invasion for a moment...
Mr. AJAMI: Yes.
INSKEEP: ...or if only for a moment, a qualification that was stripped away by the administration in the same way that all the qualifications about the intelligence information were stripped away. Do you think...
Mr. AJAMI: No, there's no problem. I have absolutely no problem with the way I was quoted. You know, people quote you, and people quote you in ways that they like. And had I had any problem, I would have objected because I've had fairly steady access, particularly to the vice president, over the last several years. And I think he quoted me in a way that I meant, in the way I read Iraq and the way I read how the people of Iraq would respond to the coming of the Americans.
INSKEEP: So you don't think that policy-makers oversimplify or cherry-pick the ideas of intellectuals?
Mr. AJAMI: Yeah, they do. I mean I think they do but I think they do because it's inevitable.
INSKEEP: So when you consider the sectarian divisions and when you see sectarian objections to the war in Iraq...
Mr. AJAMI: Yes.
INSKEEP: ...is there some level on which you're saying, you know, I'm an American, we're Americans here, and those darn Arabs just will not think the way that we wish they would think?
Mr. AJAMI: Well, I can't think this way because, you know, as you might suspect, I know a little too much for that because of my own background both, you know, steeped in the life and the culture of the Arab world and steeped in the life and the culture of my generation of Arabs, which was, by the way, a secular generation, the baby-boomers, if you will, who came into their own in the '50s and the '60s.
That's not the case I make. And I wish the Iraqis well. I think we've given them this chance to construct a new life. Will they take it? It's hard to know. It wasn't a war I was a cheerleader for. It was a war I believed in. That's a big difference.
INSKEEP: Fouad Ajami is the author of The Foreigner's Gift. Thanks very much for speaking with us.
Mr. AJAMI: Thank you. I'm really delighted to have had the chance to talk with you and your audience.
INSKEEP: And our audience can hear more of the interview and read an excerpt from The Foreigner's Gift by going to npr.org.