Why Saddam Gets Away With It

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 25 1998 3:30 AM

Why Saddam Gets Away With It

Fouad Ajami on Arab intellectuals.

The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey
By Fouad Ajami
Pantheon Books; 344 pages; $26

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T he Arab predicament is most painfully evident in what Ajami calls "the orphaned peace" with Israel. The intellectual guardians of Arab nationalist orthodoxy--Said, the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, Egyptian cultural leader Saad Eddin Wahbe, Egyptian editor and pundit Mohamed Heikal--have never accepted the fact of Israel; they cannot envision a world without the rallying cause of anti-Zionism. Nothing could have been more infuriating to them than the sight of Yasser Arafat, the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism, shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's late prime minister. They never forgave Arafat for bowing to what Ajami calls "the logic of brute, irreversible facts." To them, the 1993 Oslo accords meant settling for a sadly truncated form of Palestinian self-rule without extracting an Israeli admission of wrongdoing. Indeed, Said and other rejectionists showed a perverse glee when Israel's dovish Labor Party was defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud. Here, again, was a world they could understand. "Men love the troubles they know," Ajami witheringly observes.

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Ajami's heroes are figures such as Egypt's novelist Naguib Mahfuz, the Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibah, and the tragic Hawi--men of integrity imbued with "the old, confident spirit" of cosmopolitanism and an openness to the Western ideas that led to the Arab awakening in the first place. But they are under siege. Mahfuz's secular liberalism so enraged Egypt's Islamists that one fanatic knifed the old man, paralyzing his writing hand.

"The political culture of nationalism reserved its approval for those who led ruinous campaigns in pursuit of impossible quests," Ajami writes. Campaigns do not come much more ruinous than Saddam's 1980 invasion of Iran or his occupation of Kuwait a decade later. But Saddam, for all his strategic blunders, is deft at posing as today's heir to the tradition of Arab nationalism. As Bill Clinton ratchets up the pressure on Baghdad, Saddam will inevitably bellow Nasserite defiance. Ajami's book is an indispensable guide to why anyone in the Arab world still listens to it.

Warren Bass is an associate editor of Foreign Affairs.