President Clinton could use a little wise counsel on Iraq and Middle Eastern affairs these days. Too bad he hasn't taken the time to talk to Fouad Ajami.
One of the smartest, most experienced and wisest Americans about the Middle East, Ajami teaches just down the road from the White House, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.An intense, bearded man in his 50s, with the compact build and quick moves of a scatback, Ajami was born in Lebanon. Educated by Middle Eastern scholars, he has traveled the region extensively for a lifetime. His new book, "The Dream Palace of the Arabs" (Pantheon), proves once again how clear-eyed and well-considered his expertise is.
He views Saddam Hussein as "a jackal, cunning and vicious," an opponent tailor-made to give "idealistic and decent-intending Americans such as Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Sandy Berger fits - and nothing but misery."
This also explains, says Ajami, why Saddam suckered Ronald Reagan and George Bush so effectively, for so much, for so long.
"Psychologically and politically, Saddam has outmaneuvered American policy-makers. Time after time, he has had America playing his game, dancing his tune. And so it is again now. In the land of Saddam Hussein, we're playing by his rules. He brings us to the brink, then suddenly backs away from the brink as he gains his advantages.
"He has worked his way back into considerable influence in his neighborhood," Ajami says, and in regaining respect among Arabs, "he has undermined the American case for sanctions."
Ajami points to a number of American decisions that he believes made the sanctions less effective anyway.
"Bush allowed him to keep his helicopter forces and the best of his Republican Guard. Clinton has allowed him to rebuild alliances with Russia and France - and allowed him to more than double the amount of money he can gain from selling oil. It's gone up from $2 billion every six months to $5 billion every six months. So now Saddam's on a roll," Ajami says. "He's eroding the case for sanctions and underlining the isolation of American power in the Middle East as a whole."
Ajami is also scathing on the role of the Republican congressional leadership in contributing to Saddam's comeback. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich have been "missing in action," he says, when it comes to courage and conviction in crafting effective opposition to Saddam. "They criticize Clinton, but what are their ideas? They don't seem to have any to which they are willing to commit fully."
Ajami says that, in spite of tough talk from Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in the White House, fear has prevailed. President Bush feared that, after Saddam, Iraq would be fragmented and vulnerable to an Iranian takeover. President Clinton shared this fear, for much of his presidency.
The result? Plenty of people talk about removing Saddam from power, but nobody takes decisive action.
Even the American people have been reluctant to commit to getting Saddam out. "Saddam knows that," Ajami says. "Saddam was glued to his television, watching the spectacle of Columbus, Ohio, the great American heartland, rejecting even the Clinton policy of threatening Saddam with force."
To Saddam, the Columbus "Town Meeting" was "affirmation and reassurance that once again he would survive, and move to greater influence in his neighborhood by playing hard and tough. He remains alive and well, free to continue working his strategy of cheat and retreat, then cheat again."
This is Professor Ajami's analysis. And it is the kind of straight talk one wonders whether the president ever hears.