Network researchers who book “experts” say they look for someone who can “give good bite.” Two of the most conspicuous prime-time sound bite experts during the war against Iraq were Anthony Cordesman and Fouad Ajami. These sketches were prepared by Sandrine Bretonniere.
Anthony Cordesman: “We Must Strike Again”
Anthony Cordesman was ABC’s Gulf war “military expert,” and appeared on other networks as well. At the height of the war, he was the analyst who showed up most often as a network news source — 11 times in 14 days (Extra!, May 1991). Another survey ranked him the most quoted “expert,” with 56 appearances. (Steele, “Enlisting Experts”).
Cordesman was frequently identified as a “Georgetown professor.” He teaches the odd course at Georgetown, but his background is not that of a dedicated scholar. He has served in the Pentagon and done stints at the State Department and the Department of Energy. Cordesman says his Middle East background comes from his time with the US NATO command in Europe, where he was responsible for Middle East matters. During the Iran-Iraq war, he was a frequent visitor to Baghdad, where he had access to high state and military officials.
During the Gulf war, Peter Jennings asked Cordesman if the Pentagon was giving the media straight news. He answered: “I think the Pentagon is giving it to you absolutely straight.” But in Armed Forces Journal International (June 1991), Cordesman wrote that it “simply is not in the national interest to make every fact public. As a result, the Department of Defense almost certainly produced many numbers that will prove to be wrong and issued data that were selected for political and military effect, not historical accuracy.”
During the war, he routinely referred to civilian dead as “collateral damage.” After the fighting, Cordesman showed no second thoughts about the war’s impact on Iraqi civilians. “I think a people does have to pay the cost of the acts of its leadership when the leadership commits acts of war and aggression,” he told the New York Times (April 13, 1991), and in a Times op-ed (August 19, 1992) he urged the US to “strike at targets crucial to [Iraq’s] regime and do serious damage to them even if it means military and civilian casualties. We must strike again and again despite Iraqi claims that we are killing the innocents.”
At a Brookings Institution event in April 1991, Cordesman claimed that “the PLO and their ties to Iraq [and] growing rifts in the Palestinian camp” are obstacles to an Arab-Israeli settlement. He added that “we cannot achieve peace by pressuring Israel. The primary goal is military security, achieved primarily through Israel’s security, not a peace settlement.”
Fouad Ajami: America’s Arab Voice of Choice
Fouad Ajami is an ideal “expert.” He speaks in sound bites, he dashes off clever op-eds, he reflects current US policy views and his Arab origins serve as an authoritative seal for his analysis of the region.
Ajami moved to Seattle from Lebanon in the mid-1960s. After a Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1972, he taught at Princeton from 1974 to 1978. There he distinguished himself as a critical analyst of Arab politics, especially with his first book, The Arab Predicament (1979). He gradually distanced himself from this Arab dimension, and following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon adopted a thoroughly Western, even strongly pro-Israel approach to Arab politics.
In 1980, Ajami became the Majid Khadduri Professor of Islamic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, and in 1982 he was anointed with a five-year MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. He has a reputation with many students as an entertainer more than as a serious scholar. An “Ajami paper” requires little analysis but must be felicitously written. Regular guests for his brown bag lunches on Middle East politics include such “experts” as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former Reagan National Security Council staffer Geoffrey Kemp and Judith Miller of the New York Times, and he brought in Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic to speak on the Palestinian intifada. The only Arab in the cast is from the Saudi embassy. A frequent Ajami guest lecturer is Amos Perlmutter, from American University across town, whose political outlook is indistinguishable from that of Israel’s Likud Party. The result is a stand-up comedy act, as Ajami and Perlmutter play off each other with sarcastic and joking references to Arabs and the region.
A prominent feature of Ajami’s articles and talks is their osmotic relationship with US policy and his thoroughgoing disdain for anything Arab or Muslim. In a colloquy with former Rep. Steven Solarz (D-NY), in Congressional hearings in 1985, Ajami observed that “the Sunnis are homicidal, and the Shiites are suicidal.” In addition to his CBS perch, he has a regular column in US News and World Report. His August 12, 1991, article in The New Republic might have paraphrased a State Department’s press release: “The war in the Gulf was a battle between a local despot and a foreign savior.”
Since the summer of 1985, Ajami has been a paid consultant for CBS News. In May 1992, he appeared with Henry Kissinger and Dan Rather at a fundraising event for Israeli resettlement of Russian Jews in Jerusalem where he admitted that “I’ve never really wanted elections in any Arab or Muslim country.”