I first met Dr. Ahmad Chalabi in the spring of 1998, a year when George Bush was still the governor of Texas and when Bill Clinton and Al Gore were talking at a high volume about the inescapable necessity of removing Saddam Hussein from power because of his continuous connection to terrorism and his addiction to weapons of mass destruction. (Remember … ?) It was also the year that the Senate passed, without a dissenting voice, the Iraq Liberation Act.
At our long meeting, Chalabi impressed me for three reasons. The first was that he thought the overthrow of one of the world’s foulest-ever despotisms could be accomplished. I knew enough by then to know that any Iraqi taking this position in public was risking his life and the lives of his family. I did not know Iraq very well but had visited the country several times in peace and war and met numerous Iraqis, and the second thing that impressed me was that, whenever I mentioned any name, Chalabi was able to make an exhaustive comment on him or her. (The third thing that impressed me was his astonishingly extensive knowledge of literary and political arcana, but that’s irrelevant to our purposes here.)
The anti-Chalabi forces, I found upon inquiry, had several criticisms to make. The first was that he was a shady businessman whose Petra Bank had fleeced the depositors of Jordan. The second was that he was an “exile,” remote from Iraq’s reality. The third was that he was too close to the Iranians. The fourth was that he was too ambitious. The fifth was that he was an American puppet.
I do not know what happened at the Petra Bank, and not even Andrew and Patrick Cockburn, who have done the most work on the subject, can be sure that Saddam Hussein’s agents in Jordan were not involved in the indictment of Chalabi by a rather oddly constituted Jordanian court. It could be, for all I know, that he was both guilty and framed. The litigation and recrimination continues, and it ought at least to be noted that Chalabi still maintains he can prove his case.
As for “exile”—a term used as a sneer by many people who have never set foot in Iraq—it is a word that would cover Willy Brandt, Bruno Kreisky, Andreas Papandreou, Benigno Aquino, and Kim Dae Jung, to name a few. Admittedly these brave men (four of whom I have met) were in prominent positions in existing mass-based parties before they fled their homelands, later to return as leaders. No less admittedly, Iraq for several decades had seen a complete, nightmarish extirpation of all independent political life. The only surviving party worth the name was the Iraqi Communist Party (which incidentally sits on the Iraqi Governing Council and has generally good relations with the Iraqi National Congress). Moreover, Chalabi during the 1990s had actually spent a good deal of time in liberated northern Iraq, and many Iraqis and Kurds who had had their doubts about him had been impressed by his courage, especially during the mini civil war that broke out between Kurdish factions.
As for Iran, it is the most significant of Iraq’s neighbors, and no aspiring politician can avoid the responsibility of conducting relations with it. Chalabi has never made any secret of his closeness to Tehran, and he operated a headquarters there, with the full encouragement of the U.S. government, during the run-up to the intervention. This necessarily involves a managed compromise between competing Shiite forces in both countries, at a time when both populations are anxiously awaiting developments in each other’s societies. If any Iraqi is “brokering” relations with Iran, I hope it’s Chalabi.
The last two allegations—too ambitious and too much of a puppet—are respectively irrelevant and absurd. Anyone taking part in the Iraqi transition has to be a full-blown hardnose, and the charge of puppetry, never very convincing, seems to have been dropped lately.
It has now been replaced with a whole new indictment: that Chalabi tricked the United States into war, possibly on Iran’s behalf, and that he has given national security secrets to Iran. The first half of this is grotesque on its face. Even if you assume the worst to be true—that the INC’s “defectors” were either mistaken or were conscious, coached fabricators—the fact remains that the crucial presentation of the administration’s case on WMD and terrorism was made at the United Nations by Secretary of State Colin Powell, with CIA Director George Tenet sitting right behind him, after those two men most hostile to Chalabi had been closeted together. Nor does the accusation about an alternative “stove pipe” of disinformation, bypassing the usual channels, hold much water (or air, or smoke). Woodward’s book Plan of Attack makes it plain that the president was not very impressed with Tenet’s ostensible evidence. The plain and overlooked truth is that the administration acted upon the worst assumption about Saddam Hussein and that he himself strongly confirmed the presumption of guilt by, among many other things, refusing to comply with the U.N. resolution. This was a rational decision on the part of the coalition. After all, German intelligence had reported to Chancellor Schröder that Saddam was secretly at work on a nuke again: The French government publicly said that it believed Iraq had WMD, and even Hans Blix has stated in his book that at that point, he thought the Baathist concealment apparatus was still at work. Whoever and whatever convinced all of these discrepant forces, it was not Chalabi’s INC or Judith Miller’s work in the New York Times.
As to the accusation that Chalabi has endangered American national security by slipping secrets to Tehran, I can only say that three days ago, I broke my usual rule and had a “deep background” meeting with a very “senior administration official.” This person, given every opportunity to signal even slightly that I ought to treat the charges seriously, pointedly declined to do so. I thought I should put this on record.
Some of my Iraqi and Kurdish comrades have expressed a different misgiving about Chalabi: that he has been playing confessional politics and maneuvering with the Shiites to get himself a power base. I entirely share their distaste for this kind of politics, but I don’t see—now that there are politics in Iraq once more—that anybody is not involved to some extent in playing the sectarian or tribal cards. Chalabi says in his own defense that it’s necessary to keep good relations with the Sistani bloc and that the ayatollah has been very helpful: most particularly in his fatwa against private revenge by those Shiites who lost relatives, or limbs, to the hateful former regime. And I would add in Chalabi’s defense that he did call for an earlier transfer of sovereignty and earlier elections: an odd position for a man with “no base” to take and also the position now taken, with differing degrees of regret and remorse, by almost everyone involved. Again, if there has to be a “Mr. Shiite” in Iraq, I can think of worse candidates than Chalabi.
It is clearer every day that Iraq under Saddam was becoming a failed state as well as a rogue state. The immiseration and humiliation of its people, the looting and degradation of the economy and society, the resort to jihadist rhetoric and measures by the Baath Party and the opening given to clerical demagogues were all even worse than we thought. If this vindicates anybody, it vindicates those who urged a swifter and earlier international rescue expedition. Those who would have left Iraq to rot were only postponing an evil day that would have become steadily more ghastly and costly. Chalabi had been saying this for six years by the time I met him in 1998: Those who now say that the whole mess is his fault are panicking and scapegoating, as well as attributing superhuman powers to one individual. Of course, if he was that good, and that powerful, one might even want to bet on him all over again.