New Directions in Reading after 11 September 2001

I was home sick on 11 September 2001, and my sister called to tell me to turn on the TV. It took me a longish while to absorb what was happening and to begin reprocessing the events of the decades leading up to that day. My background reading began to expand in new directions, starting with a book that my historian brother had received in the mail just before I arrived for a visit. The book was The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism, by Simon Reeve (Northeastern, 1999), a well-told account of the first attack on the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Bojinka plot in 1994–1995.

The next three books I bought for myself were:

  • Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid (Yale, 2000);
  • Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran, by Elaine Sciolino (Touchstone, 2000); and
  • The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey, by Fouad Ajami (Vintage Books, 1998).

Each presented perspectives that were fresh and thought-provoking for me. Ajami, in particular, offered an eloquent requiem for so many dreams that turned to dust during the last half of the 20th century. Now I see he has a new book out, The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq and it sounds as if it contains a provisional requiem for another set of dreams that may be turning to dust. The following passage is from a review by Victor Davis Hanson (via Laurence Jarvik Online).

In general, according to Ajami, the pathologies of today’s Middle East originate with the mostly Sunni autocracies that threaten, cajole, and flatter Western governments even as they exploit terrorists to deflect popular discontent away from their own failures onto the United States and Israel. Precisely because we have ushered in a long-overdue correction that threatens not only the old order of Saddam’s clique but surrounding governments from Jordan to Saudi Arabia, we can expect more violence in Iraq. What then to do? Ajami counsels us to ignore the cries of victimhood from yesterday’s victimizers, always to keep in mind the ghosts of Saddam’s genocidal regime, to be sensitive to the loss of native pride entailed in accepting our “foreigner’s gift,” and to let the Iraqis follow their own path as we eventually recede into the shadows.

Along with this advice, he offers a series of first-hand portraits, often brilliantly subtle, of some fascinating players in contemporary Iraq. His meeting in Najaf with Ali al-Sistani discloses a Gandhi-like figure who urges: “Do everything you can to bring our Sunni Arab brothers into the fold.” General David Petraeus, the man charged with rebuilding Iraq’s security forces, lives up to his reputation as part diplomat, part drillmaster, and part sage as he conducts Ajami on one of his dangerous tours of the city of Mosul. On a C-130 transport plane, Ajami is so impressed by the bookish earnestness of a nineteen-year-old American soldier that he hands over his personal copy of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (“I had always loved a passage in it about American innocence roaming the world like a leper without a bell, meaning no harm”).

“Like a leper without a bell, meaning no harm” describes so well not just American innocence, but the entire edifice of UN efforts around the globe. When the working partner of willful innocence is cynical manipulation, malignant results are sure to follow. Especially when the willfully innocent couple their self-professed moral purity with a steady stream of jeremiads against the enemies of their manipulative partners.

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