Ahmad Chalabi's death this week brought up bits of Iraq War narrative from the danker reaches of the Washington swamp.
Was Chalabi "to blame" for eight disastrous years of "nation-building" in Iraq that continued on into Afghanistan? Was he the agent, or (less-loaded word) vector of Iranian influence in the halls of Washington power that mobilized to eliminate Saddam Hussein, Iran's main enemy?
A quick survey follows.
At Salon there is consternation that Chalabi's "manipulating" of the most powerful officials of the Bush administration into war is being exagerated into a master role of "orchestrating," as some have described it.
Pointing out that the W. Bush administration was staffed by people who had been publicly calling for Saddam's removal since the days of the Clinton administration in 1998 -- Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Paula Dorbiansky, Zalmay Khalilzad, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz -- and other famiiiar Washington figures such as William Bennett, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Richard Perle, among others, Greg Norton writes:
The U.S. government used Chalabi in order to legitimize its war — not the other way around. By blaming him for the Iraq War — one of the most influential events of the 21st century, and one of its worst crimes — the media is helping the Bush administration exculpate itself. In doing so, the press is letting the neocons off the hook.
His piece does not mention Iran or Chalabi's longstanding relationship with Iran, a point well worth kicking around if only because Iran emerged as the Iraq war's big winner, thanks to the US toppling its main regional enemy. (This is not dissimilar from the situation at the end of World War II, when the USSR emerged with big-winner status, Moscow's main enemies to either side having been destroyed.) We might even say "Arab Spring" started in Iraq.
Norton is particularly upset with Aram Roston's piece about Chalabi at Buzzfeed, calling it "perhaps the most egregiouos framing" because it argues that without Chalabi the U.S. probably would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. (I referenced Roston's book earlier, having found it quite compelling in its portrait of Chalabi as a vital mover and shaker of movers and shakers -- and certainly plausibly on behalf of Iran.)
Roston's piece doesn't mention the Iranian links, either. This is particularly strange given his attempts to assess the nature of the longstanding relationship between Chalabi and Iranian intelligence in his book.
Onto the Washington Post: "Charlatan or hero: Ahmed Chalabi's death and the lessons of Iraq"
Any piece about "the lessons" of Iraq that does not mention Islam -- and particularly not the catastrophically irresponsible see-no-Islam COIN war-making and nation-building that made the US war in Iraq into the fiasco that it was -- is not teaching the class anything vitally important. And that is true regardless of how it was that the U.S. invaded Iraq in the first place. The Post piece, however, mentions Iran in passing: namely, the 2004 US military raid on Chalabi's home in Baghdad after he was suspected of passing secrets to Iran. The case against Chalabi would be dropped. Could that have had anything to do with Chalabi's very influential friends who had themselves been under his influence (spell) and just preferred to let the while thing drop? I do wonder.
This one Iran item no doubt adds to the Post's "charlatan" category; although such duplicity -- as in working for the other side? -- would surely exceed mere fraud and amount to deception of the worst kind.
There is so much that is murky, if not very dark, about Chalabi.
Who could possibly still consider him a hero?
To a handful of true believers, Chalabi remains a battle-tested hero who toppled a dictator and sought to bring Western-style democracy to the Middle East. “I was at his house for hours and hours,” said Richard Perle, a former head of the Defense Policy Board in the George W. Bush administration and one of the architects of the Iraq war. “We talked about art, we talked about history, we talked about poetry. Did he share our values? You’re damn right he did.”
Defensive, no? And so very childlike. We talked about art, history, poetry, too -- and "damn right" he shared "our values"? Perle may be it as far as "the handful of true believers" goes, but he's a doozy. Unless Chalabi himself counts. The Post article quotes him as famously saying in 2004, regarding bad intelligence funnelled through his own Iraqi National Congress, "We are heroes in error."
Notably, Chalabi also said: "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...."
I guess as far as "we're" concerned, it worked.
Today, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius weighs in with "Ahmed Chalabi, the master manipulator."
Few people have changed the course of the past few decades more, through the force of personality, than did Chalabi. Historians will argue the causes and consequences of the Iraq war, but my own guess is that if it hadn’t been for Chalabi, Saddam Hussein or one of his odious sons or henchmen would be ruling Iraq today.
Chalabi tirelessly lobbied to persuade an America yearning for revenge after 9/11 to destroy his nemesis and that of Iran, his most steadfast patron. Iraqis must judge whether this outcome was better for their country, but it certainly has proved worse for the United States.
Ignatius thinks Chalabi played an essential role in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
There was nothing inevitable about the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the catastrophic consequences that have flowed from the decision. Like most big things in life, this happened at the margins.
If Chalabi hadn’t lectured regularly in Professor Fouad Ajami’s class at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies during the 1990s; if Paul Wolfowitz, later the deputy defense secretary, hadn’t been dean of that school then; if Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney hadn’t been enamored of Chalabi’s call to strike at the heart of Arab power by toppling Saddam; if Cheney hadn’t disdained the CIA, which tried to warn policymakers that Chalabi was unreliable. . . . None of it was foreordained.
The CIA got many things wrong about Iraq, but it had Chalabi right early on. The agency judged him as unreliable — and, more important, a man who had deep links with the revolutionary regime in Iran.
It’s one of the bizarre paradoxes of history that Chalabi was embraced by the pro-Israel neoconservative elite even as he was in contact with an Iran that sought Israel’s destruction. How did that happen? A whole library full of historians probably couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t a conspiracy. It was a mistake.
With a record as opaque and spotty as Chalabi's we cannot know with certainty that Chalabi was not ever involved in a "conspiracy" -- and certainly not when it comes to the Iranian or Iraqi ex-pat or Shiite sides.
That said, hindsight does tell us invading Iraq was most likely a mistake. Once there, however, the mistake became the epic blunder of "nation-building" in the Islamic world, the COIN war of trying to win Islamic hearts and minds, failing spectacularly, and at incalculable cost.
Certainly, Chalabi does not bear responsibility for that. This is not the case with his patrons, also including the Pied Piper of nation-building, Bernard Lewis -- t
he lesson of Iraq that cries out to be studied.