Ahmad Chalabi died of a heart attack this morning at his home in Baghdad. Many things are written about Chalabi, few of which are positive and many of which depict him as a cartoon villain. Chalabi was both brilliant and arrogant, but he was less villain than scapegoat. And he was first and foremost an Iraqi patriot.
I first met Chalabi in the summer of 2001, shortly after I returned from an academic year teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan. Chalabi immediately rubbed me the wrong way: he was brash and arrogant, but also provocative and brilliant. He had little time for diplomatic politeness. If he thought a conclusion was stupid, he’d say so. I had thick skin, but many U.S. officials do not, and so he created unnecessary enemies. After all, why get insulted by Chalabi when his cousin and competitor Ayad Allawi might give gold earrings and throw lavish dinners, as he did for some diplomats? Chalabi relished an argument, could give as well as he got and had an encyclopedic knowledge of Iraq. Indeed, I say with only my tongue slightly in cheek that he could make the late Hanan Batatu look like a novice on Iraq. Indeed, part of his brashness was due to unconcealed impatience at officials young and old who came into Iraq absent knowledge. I would sometimes drop in on Chalabi once or twice a year if I was passing through Baghdad, although it has admittedly been about two or three years since I last saw him since having two young kids meant ever shorter trips to the region. Still, any meeting with Chalabi would often mean hundreds of pages of new reading to fully understand some of the references that he would make.
Shortly before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, I joined the Pentagon as a Council on Foreign Relations’ International Affairs Fellow and, after the war began, I volunteered for secondment in Baghdad. My job did not require me to work closely with Chalabi, but I saw him perhaps three times during my months there. He was deeply frustrated by what he saw in Baghdad. American officials grew increasingly annoyed with Chalabi for not telling them what they wanted to hear. Indeed, one of Chalabi’s early mantras was that any long occupation would turn the honeymoon into a nightmare. Then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, her deputy Stephen Hadley, and then-State Department Iraq chief Ryan Crocker argued vociferously — but wrongly — that the U.S. could maximize leverage with government formation delayed for several months and occupation in the interim. They arguably won the argument but lost the war. The vast majority of blood and treasure expended occurred during the failed experiment at nation building, and not in the operation to oust Saddam. Indeed, with the exception of Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, the politicians who emerged to lead Iraq were those who worked with the United States before the war began.
Chalabi did make many mistakes. Some of those closest to Chalabi abused his trust by engaging in behavior that reflected poorly on him, even if other politicians and their aides were doing far worse. Chalabi’s personal loyalty ultimately cost him dearly. Did Chalabi advocate for the ouster of Iraq and the Baath Party? Yes. He never tired of it, nor did he apologize for it. Unlike Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani who joined him in opposing Saddam, Chalabi did not simultaneously try to do business with the Iraqi leader. And unlike Allawi, he never worked with the Baath Party.
But was Chalabi responsible for the false intelligence that helped sway public and political opinion in favor of war? Perhaps some, but not quite as much as so many Americans believe and certainly no more than Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which was the source of much of the intelligence attributed to Chalabi (the PUK was a constituent part of the Iraqi National Congress). The reason why defectors flocked to Chalabi was because he was the best-known Iraqi opposition politician. He was one of the few that Saddam Hussein would condemn outright, and so when Iraqis would flee Saddam’s Iraq to escape from his brutal regime and he and his sons’ reign-of-terror, they would often seek out Chalabi or his representatives. Chalabi, in turn, would direct any Iraqis of import or who claimed importance to either the Central Intelligence Agency or Defense Intelligence Agency. These are the only two agencies allowed to vet defectors to determine if they are being deceptive and to assess their information. If the CIA and DIA accepted the defectors’ accounts, as they sometimes did, then the fault is with polygraphers and analysts, not with the person who properly directed defectors to vetting. Herein lies the real problem with U.S. intelligence on Iraq: many of the defectors believed what they told their CIA or DIA interviewers and so they did not come off as deceptive. The problem was that Saddam Hussein bluffed some his top aides who believed or led their own staffs to believe Saddam’s claims of WMD. Therefore, signals intelligence would often corroborate defector accounts. This is a problem that the multi-billion dollar intelligence community has yet to address. It was simply easier to scapegoat Chalabi, who had long before antagonized the CIA by telling them that some of their plans would not work (and they did not).
The myths simply snowballed. Those who disagreed with military action to oust Saddam Hussein seized upon the conspiracy and Chalabi-derangement grew. Consider the following 2004 New York Times correction regarding the defector code-named Curveball:
An article on Monday about the Senate intelligence committee report on prewar intelligence about Iraq misstated the relationship between a defector known as Curveball and the Iraqi National Congress. There is no information that Curveball, who worked with German intelligence, was introduced to that service by the I.N.C., which is led by Ahmad Chalabi. (Articles on June 2 and June 4 also described such a connection, attributing that account to American intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Those officials now say there was no such established relationship.) The Iraqi National Congress has denied any connection whatsoever to Curveball, and the Senate intelligence committee report issued on July 9 did not describe such a relationship.
In effect, the CIA had spun the New York Times, conducting an illegal influence operation upon American reporters. To me, that was a scandal that should have sparked outrage, not simply been ignored. Indeed, so much of the vitriol directed toward Chalabi was the result of reporters confirming other reporters’ rumors as fact, never bothering to trace the various secondary sources back to any primary source.
The press also lazily accepted other false narratives and never actually conducting basic fact checking. Consider today’s obituary from the Washington Post, written by Loveday Morris. She writes, “After years in exile in the United States and Britain, Chalabi returned to Iraq after Saddam’s fall, becoming interim oil minister.” This is false. Chalabi had a house in Beirut and London, but lived primarily inside Iraqi Kurdistan after the 1991 uprising freed the region from Saddam Hussein. When war broke out, he had been in Iraq for 12 years, and he was one of the few politicians to live exclusively outside the Green Zone in the wake of the war.
Was Chalabi corrupt? He did not embezzle billions as Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Khan, have allegedly done. He was a businessman, and he may have sometimes blurred lines about the interplay between political position and business opportunity. In this, he was really no different than U.S. ambassador like Zalmay Khalilzad or former ambassador Peter Galbraith, both of whom made windfalls — quite legally, although in ways that raised eyebrows about judgment — from their time in Iraq or, in Galbraith’s case, time as a Senate staffer. When Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer ordered the raid on Chalabi’s compound, he found about three dollars in bank specimens, not the windfall that U.S. intelligence believed falsely Chalabi possessed. Nor was Chalabi’s house particularly ostentatious. Most everything in it had belonged to his family for generations. So from where did the corruption accusations emerge? Historians may one day reconsider what lay at the heart of the Petra Bank scandal in Jordan. Saddam had put tremendous pressure on Jordan’s King Hussein to shut Chalabi up, and Petra Bank provided a useful way to do that. Many people forget just how closely Jordan’s king worked with Saddam back in the 1980s and 1990s. That said, there is no doubt that perception meant more than reality, and the corruption label that was rooted in Saddam’s propaganda became the dominant perception among Iraqis.
Equally facile is the argument that Chalabi was an Iranian plant because, toward the end of his career, he embraced more sectarian policies. Make no mistake: Chalabi was wrong to shift toward Iran but, like many Iraqi politicians, he did so only after rejection by the United States. It really is bizarre that American politicians like Secretary of State John Kerry can be for something before they are against it, but they do not understand that foreign counterparts can be just as opportunistic. That said, Chalabi should have known better: The cynicism inherent in the end of his embrace for a more secular outlook in Iraq led many to rightly question whether power would always trump principle. Then again, Chalabi could argue that becoming a martyr for secular liberalism in the way that Mithal al-Alusi had would not ultimately help Iraq. This, of course, was a cynical read, as the willingness of politicians to shift with the wind rather than stand on principle prevents a critical mass ever from forming. Alusi may not have power, but he can have a clear conscience on that issue.
Too many American pundits confuse the roots of popularity in Iraq. Often, votes cast have more to do with patronage dispensed than true ideological appeal. Because the U.S. repeatedly sought to push Chalabi down, he was unable to affect the sort of patronage that a Barzani, Talabani, Maliki, or Hakim developed. Chalabi, however, never gave up fighting behind the scenes to nudge Iraq in the right direction. While I overestimated his popular appeal in this article before the 2005 election, the rest holds true: He really was one of the few Iraqi officials — Jalal Talabani being the other back before a stroke incapacitated him — who could talk to almost anyone from any faction regardless of sect or ethnicity, and could talk to both Americans and Iranians. It was that sort of background coalition building that pulled Iraq back from the brink on multiple occasions. This is probably where Chalabi’s passing will most acutely be felt.
Ahmad Chalabi, rest in peace.