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On Demonizing Chalabi

Mainstream journalists have now picked up on increasingly noticeable chatter inside Iraq suggesting that Ahmed Chalabi could become a compromise candidate for Iraq’s premiership should incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down or fail to achieve a coalition to support a third term.

I had written here several years ago about Chalabi’s strengths (although predicting he would win five percent in those parliamentary elections was in hindsight much too optimistic). That said, he is one of the few Iraqi politicians—ailing incumbent president Jalal Talabani was another—who managed to talk to all sides through thick and thin and to whom Iraqis of all beliefs and ethnicities turned for mediation. Even his opponents also acknowledge he is also smart and organized.

He has drawbacks as well. Even his friends acknowledge that he is arrogant. Like many other Iraqi politicians, and frequent American partners as well, he surrounded himself with people who abused positions, power, or engaged in corruption. As one Iraqi put it, “it’s hard to dress in a white suit and clean a cesspool without getting splatted with sh-t.” I haven’t seen evidence of direct Chalabi complicity in corruption, though he can be faulted for turning a blind eye toward those in his organization. The Jordan Petra Bank issue is more political than real. King Hussein of Jordan was between a rock and a hard place and made many compromises to Saddam Hussein, including targeting Iraqi oppositionists in Jordan.

Chalabi has not been consistent when it has come to secularism versus religion in politics, or allegiance to the West versus toward Iran. That said, no politician should be expected to fall on his sword when abandoned by one side or the other, but they adjust to the new reality. Chalabi less abandoned the United States than the United States abandoned Chalabi. Does Chalabi have relations with Iran—and, indeed, people whom the U.S. government considers very bad in Iran? Yes. But, here American officials and journalists should not be selective: Those embraced by Washington—Jalal Talabani, Barham Salih, Qubad Talabani, Nechirvan Barzani, among others—have relations with the same Iranian officials. Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for that matter, sat down across the table from a Qods Force operative (and former Iranian ambassador to Iraq) to discuss security in Iraq.

Aspersions with regard to false intelligence are exaggerated, because many journalists confused Chalabi and his inner circle with the broader opposition coalition under the Iraqi National Congress (INC) umbrella. Much of the controversial intelligence came through the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Here, for example, is then-New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg talking about al-Qaeda-affiliated prisoners to whom he was introduced by the PUK testifying to the Iraq-al-Qaeda links. And here is the New York Times correcting almost a decade ago the calumny that Chalabi was responsible for the false “Curveball” intelligence. And here is Jonathan Landay, an unabashedly partisan journalist now at McClatchy, burying a correction for his past mistakes in a Knight-Ridder story. Landay and his colleague do note “the INC did provide U.S. intelligence services with defectors whose claims about Iraq’s banned arms programs and links to terrorism were exaggerated or fabricated.” That’s true. But the INC was well known by Iraqis and exiles alike as an umbrella. When Iraqis claimed to have information—and, admittedly, they often exaggerated what they knew to inflate their own importance and their attractiveness to the West—then by law the only organizations that can debrief and process them are the CIA and DIA. The INC without apology referred them to the CIA and DIA in order to determine if these individuals were sincere or showed deception. In few cases is the answer 100 percent of either, but rather that defectors fall on a spectrum. To complain that any group should not direct defectors to the proper persons to screen them is a bit ridiculous.

Could Chalabi do the job? Only Iraqis know and could tell, and ultimately it is their choice. I still doubt that Chalabi will make the cut because I believe the Iranians find him too secular and too unwilling to accept Iranian dictates.

That said, it was always counterproductive for the United States to demonize mainstream politicians it does not like who operate in allied countries. It did something very similar with newly elected Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, to whom the United States refused visas and sought to marginalize for very different reasons and, for that matter, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who became the subject of harsh critiques and outright slanders in self-serving books penned by former Clinton administration officials who, 15 years later, discovered awkwardly that they would have to interact with the target of their open animosity once they were brought into the Obama administration. Have Chalabi, Modi, and Netanyahu made mistakes? Yes. Is there much to their personalities and policies to resent or oppose? Certainly. Too often, however, American journalists and officials exaggerate faults and flaws which then become false conventional wisdom. Few officials serve in the same position long enough to have depth of knowledge in any particular subject, and few have time or the desire to challenge the conventional wisdom which they inherit.

Chalabi may become prime minister, or he may not. Should he rise to the premiership, it will not be because anyone in the United States helped him get there, which perhaps is testament to his political skill. But whatever happens, perhaps it’s time for the United States to sit back and look forward, rather than leap forward and think only of the past.

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2 Responses to “On Demonizing Chalabi”

  1. Jonathan Foreman says:

    Even Patrick Cockburn in the UK Independent is writing sympathetically of Chalabi:

  2. DAVID PATTEN says:

    For every Iraqi who wrote Ahmad Chalabi’s name on their ballot, 72 wrote Nuri al-Maliki’s. Maliki’s coalition won an outright majority in three provinces (Najaf, Karbala, and Muthana) and beat the next three coalitions combined in seven others, including Baghdad. Five of the remaining eight provinces obviously went to the Kurds. By contrast, Chalabi is the only member of his party who even won a seat in the 328 member assembly. Maliki’s victory at the polls was his most overwhelming to date. The Iraqis unambiguously chose Maliki. No credible charges of corruption have been brought against him, nor is he accused of any atrocities. Yet, after eleven long years of listening to Bush’s critics complain about America’s arrogance in interfering in another nation’s political system – a political culture we know very little about – here we are openly discussing pushing out the legitimate, popular leader of Iraq and installing someone more palatable to Western tastes. While still other Western leaders and pundits nonchalantly discuss dividing Iraq in three to better suit their psychological need for tidiness, as if it is obvious to them why Americans should get a vote in a matter that happens to be anathema to non-Kurdish Iraqis. But I digress. Michael is probably right that we overrate how terrible Chalabi is, but it does not follow that his being anointed Prime Minister by Washington and Tehran would be anything other than a defeat for democracy in Iraq.

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