In Defense of the Late Ahmad Chalabi

Chalabi was awful, but if Americans want to blame someone for the Iraq War, we should look closer to home.

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Ahmad Chalabi, the George W. Bush administration’s favorite Iraqi — at least until the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003 — has just died in Baghdad at age 71.

According to the headline of his New York Times obituary, Chalabi “pushed for U.S. invasion.” The Washington Post’s headline says he “helped spur U.S. invasion,” and Reuters explains that he “pushed Bush to invade Iraq.”

And it’s true, Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress provided a big chunk of the “intelligence” the Bush administration used to make their case for the invasion. Chalabi was also a source for much of the New York Times’ atrocious reporting on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and was mentioned by name when the Times was finally forced to apologize. Moreover, he couldn’t have been much more in your face about it afterward, charmingly explaining in 2004 that “We are heroes in error. As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important.”

But if Americans want to blame someone for the Iraq War, we should be looking closer to home — at Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and ourselves. As former CIA officer Robert Baer put it: “Chalabi was scamming the U.S. because the U.S. wanted to be scammed.”

All the evidence indicates the Bush administration would have invaded Iraq with or without him. According to Mickey Herskowitz, Bush’s one-time ghostwriter, Bush was hoping to invade Iraq as early as 1999. Bush’s treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, later claimed that Bush had begun planning for war with Iraq within days of his inauguration. And on September 12, 2001, Bush was demanding that his top terrorism adviser find out if there were any way to blame the previous day’s attacks on Saddam Hussein.

Likewise, the Times didn’t need Chalabi to give Bush’s war a big boost. The 2005 book Hard News explains that Howell Raines, who at the time was the paper’s editor in chief, wanted to prove that he wasn’t leading the Times in a way that showed his liberal views. Doug Frantz, a former investigations editor, told the book’s author, “My sense was that Howell Raines was eager to have articles that supported the warmongering out of Washington. He discouraged pieces that were at odds with the administration’s position on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and alleged links of al Qaeda.”

For anyone who cared to ask at the time, Chalabi had an obvious motive to use the United States for his own ends. He had fled Iraq at age 14 in 1958, when the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown in a military coup. Imad Khadduri, who attended school with Chalabi from kindergarten onwards and later became a nuclear scientist, said today in an email: “I recall his father barging into our high school class at 9:15 a.m. with Father Sullivan, the principal of the Jesuit-run Baghdad College high school in Baghdad, and ordered Ahmed … to leave the class.” Khadduri now believes that Chalabi was driven by a deep desire for “exacting revenge” against the revolutionary regime of Abdul Karim Kassim, which confiscated his father’s considerable assets. “Ahmed exacted all of them back to him upon his return to Baghdad riding high on American tanks,” Khadduri wrote.

So certainly Iraqis (as well as Americans) legitimately have every reason to hate Chalabi. Soon after the invasion Glen Rangwala, a British academic, visited the new headquarters of the Iraqi National Congress — in what had been Uday Hussein’s Hunting Club in Baghdad. Rangwala remembers it as “bizarre,” with “waiters bringing you free cocktails under [Uday’s] elaborate chandeliers, whilst an INC goon tells you about how stupid Arabs are.” Khadduri writes that Chalabi’s “entrenched hatred and revenge-seeking, in my humble opinion, even at the expense of his country and his people, is a wholesome character of a traitor.”

Yet it’s a little much for Americans to be angry at Chalabi. The Bush administration should have read chapter 31 of Niccolò Machiavelli’s book Discourses on Livy, “How Dangerous It Is to Believe Exiles”:

How dangerous a thing it is to believe those who have been driven out of their country. … Such is the extreme desire in them to return home, that they naturally believe many things that are false and add many others by art, so that between those they believe and those they say they believe, they fill you with hope, so that relying on them you will incur expenses in vain, or you undertake an enterprise in which you ruin yourself. … A Prince, therefore, ought to go slowly in undertaking an enterprise upon the representations of an exile, for most of the times he will be left either with shame or very grave injury.

Machiavelli, however, didn’t say anything about a Prince who is determined to start a catastrophic war, no matter what. The U.S. was buying lies that would help it invade Iraq, and paying top dollar. Even if Ahmed Chalabi had never lived, someone else would have been selling.



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