Ahmad Chalabi, RIP

I detested Ahmad Chalabi.

I first met him soon after the Persian Gulf War when I still worked for the CIA. I cannot remember if it was 1992 or 1993. I just remember that my immediate response after meeting him was that I wanted to take a shower. I could not believe that we were giving him money to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He was so unctuous, so obviously duplicitous and self-serving, I could not understand why anyone would buy what he was trying to sell.

And yet they did. That to me was the great mystery of Ahmad Chalabi. Why a great many people, particularly some terribly intelligent and worldly-wise American officials, took him at his word and believed that he was the answer to a variety of Iraq-related questions. How to get rid of Saddam before 9/11 created public backing for an invasion? Arm Ahmad Chalabi’s men and send them into Iraq backed by U.S. air power. How to rule Iraq after we had overthrown Saddam? Turn the country over to Ahmad who will make Iraq an American ally, make peace with Israel, build a true democracy, and keep the Iranians at bay. How to untangle Iraq’s financial mess and extirpate the Baath Party from the Iraqi polity? Turn these problems over to Ahmad, who will apply his mighty intellect and democratic soul to straighten them out.

I could not understand why anyone would buy what he was trying to sell.

It was all nonsense. Complete nonsense. But many believed it. Or perhaps they just wanted to believe it.

In the years before the invasion of Iraq, I became something like the media’s “go-to guy” to pour cold water on Ahmad’s many claims. I co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs in 1999 that compared the idea of arming “Chalabi’s men” (as if there were any—he could never produce more than a couple hundred despite regularly promising thousands) to a new Bay of Pigs. (The CENTCOM Commander, General Anthony Zinni, would later use the more colorful phrase, a “Bay of Goats.”) I appeared on TV, radio, and print articles criticizing his schemes and his history.

He never forgot it. I got threats from his minions—threats against my career and reputation and later a threatened lawsuit claiming that I was “defaming” him. I am not the only one; I know of others, including U.S. government officials who did not toe Ahmad’s line, who received similar threats and worse. In all of my many trips to Iraq since the invasion, Ahmad was the only Iraqi political leader I would not meet for fear that I might find some of his cutlery planted firmly in my back.

All that said, I don’t think it accurate to say that Ahmad was responsible for the invasion of Iraq in 2003—or even for the disastrous mishandling of the post-Saddam reconstruction. After 9/11, the Bush administration came to its decision to invade Iraq on its own, and for its own reasons. Those reasons differed from senior official to senior official, but they all seemed to be in agreement that they wanted to depose Saddam and did not want to stay to rebuild the country. They did this in defiance of all of the experts who warned them that if they did not make the full effort to rebuild the country, it would create a disaster worse than Saddam.

For that reason, I think that Chalabi was convenient for them. If there had been no Ahmad Chalabi, the Bush administration would have had to invent him. I suspect they would have tried to build someone else up to play that role—Ayad Allawi perhaps, or Sharif Ali, the pretender to the throne. That person might have accepted the role, but he would not have played it as enthusiastically or heedlessly as Ahmad. Ahmad was hugely convenient for the Bush administration because he wanted to play that role and would play it to the hilt. But I don’t think that absent Ahmad Chalabi the Bush administration would have refrained from invading Iraq.

I will also say that much as I disliked him, much as I believe his actions were disastrous for both America and Iraq, I do not believe that he was an Iranian “agent.” I have no trouble believing that he gave all kinds of information to the Iranians. I also have no trouble believing that he took money from Iranian intelligence when he needed to (and when it was convenient), just as he took money from the United States when he needed to (and when it was convenient). That is not what I mean.

What I mean is that I think it wrong to see Ahmad Chalabi as anyone’s cat’s paw. Ahmad served one master and one master alone: Ahmad Chalabi. During my personal experiences with him when he was in the Iraqi opposition and I was in the U.S. government, you could always count on Ahmad to do the right thing—and to do it well—whenever it was in his interest to do so. The moment it was no longer in his interest, he would do everything he could to undermine the effort, even if doing so was bad for Iraq and good for Saddam.

I think it wrong to see Ahmad Chalabi as anyone’s cat’s paw.

In many ways, Ahmad Chalabi was emblematic of the entire American experience in Iraq. He represented all of its worst elements. He symbolized the Bush administration’s determination to get rid of Saddam for a whole grab bag of reasons, some understandable, some not. And he was their perfect excuse for getting out of Iraq quickly without making the effort to stabilize and rebuild the country so that it would not slide into civil war. But he was equally emblematic of a group of Iraqi leaders—exiles and warlords—that the United States put in charge of Iraq when Washington suddenly learned that it couldn’t just turn the country over to Chalabi and leave.

That is the other half of Ahmad Chalabi’s story, the one that most Americans know little about. After the fall of Saddam, Ahmad played a highly disruptive, even destructive role. He played a significant part in the spread of corruption throughout the Iraqi government. He played an even larger role in alienating Iraq’s Sunni community, running the De-Baathification process and expanding it to encompass huge numbers of people, most of whom had joined the party because it was mandatory for their chosen professions. Rather than do the painstaking work of winning over the Iraqi populace to choose him as a true democratic leader, Ahmad flipped and suddenly became an Islamist and ingratiated himself with Muqtada al-Sadr’s party.

In the end, he was a sad, fitting symbol of America’s experience with Iraq.

As Ahmad’s biographer, Rich Bonin, observed, in this way, Ahmad’s own story mirrored the wider arc of America’s post-Saddam experience with Iraq. Before 2003, Ahmad Chalabi was the supreme secularist and the darling of the United States, or at least of some Americans. He claimed to be a great democrat and the eternal friend of the United States. He also claimed to be a true Iraqi patriot, wanting to unite all Iraqis. By the time he died, Ahmad was doing everything he could to become Tehran’s chosen one. He claimed to have found religion and played the ardent Islamist. While he desperately wanted to be prime minister, he was attempting to do so by manipulating Iraq’s elite politics, not representing the Iraqi people, and he was doing everything he could to become the leader of its most sectarian and most anti-American elements.

In the end, he was a sad, fitting symbol of America’s experience with Iraq. The U.S. invaded Iraq hoping (certainly claiming) to repair the evils of Saddam’s tyranny and leave behind a stable, democratic, pro-American Iraq. Instead, we left behind an unstable, sectarian nation where Iran is the leading foreign voice. Ahmad Chalabi rode that wave from beginning to end. Perhaps we cannot blame him for doing so, but perhaps we will remember him when the next one like him comes along.