International Relations

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International Relations

Ajami, Fouad, The Foreigner's Gift

Fouad Ajami's The Foreigner's Gift is a notably welcome exception—and not only because of Ajami's guarded optimism about the eventual outcome in Iraq. A Lebanese-born scholar of the Middle East, Ajami, now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, lacks entirely the condescension of the typical in-the-know Western expert who blithely assures his American readers, often on the authority of little or no learning, of the irreducible alienness of Arab culture. Instead, the world that Ajami describes, once stripped of its veneer of religious pretense, is defined by many of the same impulses—honor, greed, self-interest—that guide dueling Mafia families, rival Christian televangelists, and (for that matter) many ordinary people hungry for power.

The fall of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime brought the first glimpse of freedom for Iraq and unleashed elation, resentment, and chaos. On the one hand, there is hope: the Iraqi people have their first chance at independence. On the other hand, there is despair: the country is exploding with violent sectarian and political power struggles. Through it all, Iraq has remained an enigma to much of the world. What is it about this country that makes for such a seemingly intractable situation? How did Iraq's particular history lead to its present circumstances? And what can we fear or hope for in the coming years?

Fouad Ajami, one of the world's foremost authorities on Middle Eastern politics, offers a brilliant, illuminating, and lyrical portrait of the ongoing struggle for Iraq and of the American encounter with that volatile Arab land. Ajami situates the current unrest within the context of Iraq's recent history of dictatorship and its rich, diverse cultural heritage. He applies his incisive political commentary, his broad and deep historical view, his mastery of the Arabic language and Arabic sources, and his lustrous prose to every aspect of his subject, wresting a coherent, fascinating, and textured picture from the media storm of fragmented information.

In the few years after the Iraq war began, Ajami made many trips to that country and met Iraqis of all ethnicities, religions, politics, and regions. Looking beneath the familiar media images of Iraq and the war, Ajami visits with individuals representing the breadth of Iraq's populace, from Sunni leaders and Shia clerics to Kurdish politicians and poets, Iraqi policemen, and ordinary people voting for the first time in their lives. He also hears from American soldiers on the ground, and ...
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