The death of Fouad Ajami this weekend, at the age of 68, deprived this country and the world of a uniquely powerful voice – one that is at the same time both Arab and American – that could have helped guide us, as he has in the past, through the hazards and complications of his native Middle East.
When I became dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Relations in 1994, Professor Ajami was the director of Middle East studies and one of the joys of that job was being able to interact with him on a regular basis.
It would be difficult to find anyone writing on international politics today with such eloquence and power, and his extraordinary command of the English language was all the more remarkable for the fact that it was not his native language.
Along with that eloquence came remarkable courage. He spoke the truth as he saw it, without rounding off the corners. That earned him many enemies, writing as he was in a field full of sharp divisions.
Born in Lebanon, Fouad became an American by choice. He embraced the values of his adopted country, the United States, with a passion that matched his adoption of English. But he never lost sight of where he had come from or of the complexities and tragedies that will beset that part of the world for a long time to come. His writing is imbued with a deep sense of the tragedy arising from the clash between American power, with its “armies and machines – and earnestness," and “a big impenetrable region” where “America could awe the people of the Arab-Muslim world, and that region could outwit and outwait American power. . . . America could entertain for Iraqis hopes of a decent political culture, and the enemies of this project could fall back on a bigotry sharpened for combat and intolerance.”
Yet he retained a belief that the “decent political culture” of his adopted country is what the people of the Middle East need and that, despite the challenges, this “foreigner’s gift”—as he titled one of his books—would one day make the Middle East a better place, both for its own people and for the rest of the world.
There would never be a good time to lose someone like him. But he left us much too early, and at a time when his wisdom is so badly needed. Our country and the world are much poorer for it.