Ahmed Chalabi (remember him?) is back in the news. He is the power behind the de-Baathification Commission, which is wreaking havoc with Iraqi politics by disqualifying secular candidates for supposed Baathist ties. As General Ray Odierno has said, Chalabi and his protégé, Ali Faisal al-Lami, appear to be acting at the behest of the Iranians:
The two Iraqi politicians “clearly are influenced by Iran,” General Odierno said. “We have direct intelligence that tells us that.” He said the two men had several meetings in Iran, including sessions with an Iranian who is on the United States terrorist watch list.
Real Clear World’s Compass blogger Greg Scoblete has responded with a non sequitur headlined “Paging Douglas Feith”:
Many neoconservatives are demanding that the U.S. throw its full weight behind the Iranians in their pursuit of freedom. On the surface, this is obviously a noble idea, but it’s worth remembering that the very people making confident predictions about the predilections of the Iranian people were duped by an Iranian stooge.
In turn Feith, the former Undersecretary of Defense, has weighed in to deny “that Pentagon officials aimed to favor or ‘anoint’ Chalabi as the leader of Iraq after Saddam” or that they were duped by Chalabi before the war.
I think Feith is right on the narrow technical points (the U.S. did not try to install Chalabi as Iraq’s leader and the U.S. intelligence community did not buy all the intel he was peddling) but wrong on the larger issue. There is no doubt that Chalabi had a significant impact on the Washington debate prior to the invasion of Iraq: he was a leading lobbyist for the view that Saddam could be replaced by a democratic regime with minimal American investment of blood and treasure. Like other exiles (and some American experts), he vastly exaggerated the influence of secular technocrats and vastly underplayed the power of tribal and religious forces. This view was adopted by the Bush administration and helps to account for the major American blunders of 2003-2004, which were essentially based on the premise that Iraqi society could regenerate itself after Saddam’s downfall.
But I also believe Greg Scoblete is wrong: First place, the Green movement in Iran is not a figment of some exile’s imagination. Second, simply because Chalabi is now an Iranian stooge does not mean he was one in 2003. My read is that he is an opportunist, out to grab power for himself, who will make use of whatever allies he finds helpful. Prior to the invasion of Iraq and immediately afterward, Chalabi, no doubt, hoped that his American backers would enthrone him. When this didn’t happen, when in fact the U.S. authorities turned against him, he sought backing in another quarter and struck an unsavory alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr and his sponsors in the Quds Force.
The bottom line is that Chalabi now exercises a pernicious influence in Iraq and the U.S. should work with other Iraqi political factions to minimize his impact and try to roll back his electoral disqualifications. And those of us who ever had a kind word for him (myself included) should eat their words.