Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born scholar and commentator who illuminated modern Arab history for audiences in the United States, and who later played a part in that history as an advocate for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, died Sunday at his home in Maine. He was 68.
The cause was cancer, according to an announcement by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, with which he was most recently associated. From 1980 to 2011, he was director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington.
Born in a village in southern Lebanon and raised in urban Beirut, Ajami straddled different worlds from a young age. He settled in the 1960s in the United States, where he pursued a career in academia, became a U.S. citizen and, in an era of extreme division between Western and Arab societies, became a chief, if controversial, interpreter of the Middle East.
His books, articles and frequent commentaries often had an elegiac quality to them. He lamented dictatorial Arab governments and became widely known for his views on Iraq, where he welcomed intervention by the United States.
As an analyst, he was particularly in demand during the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s. Little more than a decade later, Ajami acted as a kind of unofficial adviser to the administration of President George W. Bush during the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
The Nation magazine, which wrote critically of Ajami’s involvement, described him at the time as “the most politically influential Arab intellectual of his generation in the United States.”
Ajami reportedly advised Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz, among other leaders in Washington, and met with Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. He also was received in Iraq by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the powerful Shiite leader.
Ajami was among those who believed before the war that Iraqis, long oppressed by dictator Saddam Hussein, would receive the United States as their liberator. “We shall be greeted, I think, in Baghdad and Basra with kites and boom boxes,” Ajami predicted.
As the occupation of Iraq proved more difficult than he had expected, Ajami maintained a tempered hopefulness. In 2007, he published the book The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq.
Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, praised the late Fouad Ajami as “a great friend, courageous advocate and brilliant analyst. The passing yesterday of Dr. Ajami is a profound loss on many levels. I, like many others, was privileged to benefit from his insight and wisdom. He was a friend of Israel and the American Jewish community. The clarity and depth of his understanding of events, particularly regarding the Middle East, enabled him to anticipate developments and to offer sound policy recommendations. He often went against conventional and politically correct thinking and ably stood his ground against detractors. His voice will be sorely missed by all who knew him [and] read his analyses, and those who value truth and integrity. We extend condolences to his family and myriad friends.”
Shortly before he died, Ajami described, in a Wall Street Journal column, the current situation in Iraq as a “sad state of affairs.”
“Someone asked me for my ultimate summation of the war,” he had said in a 2007 appearance on CNN. “Occasionally, we will come to a point where we might say, look, this was a noble war.”
The question, he added, was, “Is it a noble success or a noble failure?”