Fouad Ajami — Iranian by heritage, Lebanese by birth, American by choice — was an assistant professor of politics at Princeton in the late 1970s, and I took his International Relations course freshman year. He didn’t get tenure there — bad call, Princeton — and left in 1980 to become director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins, where he thrived for 30 years.
He was a bit of an imp at Princeton, and I mean that in a nice way. You can see it in his picture — I remember the same grin, framed in a darker beard. When I was casting about for a major after realizing that I wasn’t cut out for [shudder] physics, my enjoyment of his course was part of why I chose Politics. I wish I could say I remembered some profound insight he shared that shaped my political development, but I can’t. I probably got a B in the course, because that’s how I rolled. In classes I liked.
Here’s what I remember: he quoted Lyndon Johnson’s characterization of Vietnam as “a raggedy-assed, third-rate country,” and said some American leaders dismissed a wide variety of countries in that way. As he made his pedagogical point, he just seemed delighted by the fact that he was saying a bad word in front of a classroom at a prestigious school and he could get away with it because we were nominal adults. He grinned that grin.
He became my favorite professor retroactively three decades later, when I discovered that my emerging world view was finding eloquent expression in his commentary in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. I blogged about him here and here and here. Since no one ever follows links on my blog (prove me wrong, I double-dare you), I’ll quote a passage from September 11, 2009, in which he championed the decision to go to war in Iraq:
Those were not Afghans who had struck American soil on 9/11. They were Arabs. Their terrorism came out of the pathologies of Arab political life. Their financiers were Arabs, and so were those crowds in Cairo and Nablus and Amman that had winked at the terror and had seen those attacks as America getting its comeuppance on that terrible day. Kabul had not sufficed as a return address in that twilight war; it was important to take the war into the Arab world itself, and the despot in Baghdad had drawn the short straw. He had been brazen and defiant at a time of genuine American concern, and a lesson was made of him.
Professor Ajami never wavered in his belief that America made the right choice by overthrowing Saddam Hussein. I wholeheartedly share that viewpoint. Despite the years of mismanagement of the war, the world is a better place today because of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I expect that will continue to be true despite the feckless blunderings of our current commander in chief.
In 2011, Ajami retired from Johns Hopkins and decamped to Stanford, where he was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His colleagues there have performed the invaluable service of compiling a page of links to his “best and recent articles,” the last of which was published in the Wall Street Journal on June 16, less than two weeks before he succumbed to cancer at the age of 68. It was vintage Ajami, headlined “The Men Who Sealed Iraq’s Disaster With a Handshake.” In case you have any doubt, the men in question are Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
(This post is the fourth installment in my Brush with Greatness series.)