PARIS — Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi mathematician, banker, schmoozer, spy and source of dubious intelligence provided to journalists and politicians alike, died today of an apparent heart attack in Baghdad at the age of 71. And at least one breaking news headline called him “the man who drove the U.S. to war in Iraq.”
That’s a common, and perhaps convenient, perception. But for my part, as someone who first met Chalabi 30 years ago, and stayed in close touch with him up to and through the first years of the disastrous American occupation of his homeland, I think the blame is misplaced.
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and crew were hellbent on war with Saddam Hussein, and if they hadn’t had Chalabi supplying grist to their mill, they’d have found someone else. Their attachment to fantasies was infinitely greater than their attachment to facts, and, believing in American omnipotence, they wanted to make their dream of an utterly overhauled Middle East a reality. Chalabi played to their delusions and prejudices, but he didn’t create them.
Do you remember the ideas floating around Washington in those days? With a minimum of force, the United States would invade Iraq; the people would rise up; Saddam would fall; Iraq would recognize Israel (and Iraq’s Jews would return to Baghdad); Iran would be intimidated. The Middle East would be set on a path to democracy. Oh, and a grateful Iraq probably would give American companies great deals on Mesopotamian oil and gas.
Anyone who knew the region well, and there were many in the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department who knew it very well, realized that these were pipe dreams. But the top officials in the Bush administration systematically excluded those voices. Some of the best Mideast hands in Washington were enlisted in a program called “The Future of Iraq Project” the year before the invasion, compiling hard drives full of data about what sort of resources and administration would be needed post-Saddam, but months before the invasion, the conclusions were tossed out and the experts who had reached them were dismissed.
On the military side, when Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, told a congressional committee before the invasion the plain facts about the kind of resources an occupation would require, he was vilified and marginalized by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush administration hawks.
“Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required,” Shinseki said matter of factly. “We’re talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems,” he added. “And so it takes a significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment, to ensure that people are fed, that water is distributed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this.”
That should have been obvious, but the Bushies were heavily invested in the notion that Iraq could be conquered, a totalitarian dictatorship much like Stalin’s could be toppled after more than 30 years in power, and somehow it would all work out without a prolonged exercise in nation building (a phrase they could hardly say without a contemptuous roll of the eyes in those days).
Even in 2005, when it was clear that the whole occupation had gone to hell, the true believers of the Bush administration clung to their academic fantasies. I buttonholed Paul Wolfowitz, who had done so much to promote the invasion when he was deputy secretary of defense, and asked him how he, who knew a lot and should have known better, could have supported the idea of occupation.
“I was against the occupation,” he said, explaining he had wanted to go into Iraq, topple Saddam, and get out. As if that were even remotely plausible.
And, yes, that was where Chalabi was supposed to come in. Like any good con man, he had learned to play to all those hopes and dreams in Washington, and, unable to resist temptation, had offered himself as the answer to the Bush administration’s prayers.
The spectacle was stunning, not least, because Chalabi himself was so out front about what he was doing.
In January 2002—well over a year before the invasion—I went to see Chalabi at the offices of the credit-card-clearing company in London where he made some of his money in those days. (The bankruptcy of his family’s financial empire in the Middle East and Switzerland in the 1980s had long since given him a reputation as a swindler, but this business was low profile.)
I might as well quote from the first paragraphs of the article that came out of that interview published in the Jan. 21, 2002, issue of Newsweek:
“Set yourself up as Saddam Hussein’s worst enemy and you’ve got to be very courageous, very crazy or some kind of scam artist. Ahmed Chalabi, 57, has been called all of the above. He’s also been dubbed a genius—even by his detractors—and a Machiavellian plotter who wants to drag the United States, one way or another, into a new war against the Butcher of Baghdad.
“To this last charge, Chalabi pleads guilty: ‘We do! Yes!’ says the enthusiastic ex-banker, immaculate in a pale blue pinstripe suit as he receives visitors in his London offices. Trained as a mathematician at the University of Chicago and MIT, Chalabi has developed a military and political formula for Saddam’s defeat: the United States would seize air bases in southern Iraq, and defend them if necessary with its troops. Chalabi’s allies would carry out guerrilla operations and welcome what he promises will be such hordes of defectors and deserters that Saddam’s regime will crumble much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
"And he could be right. But would you want to buy a war from this man? Or, as one American official puts it, ‘Without disputing the merits of taking out Saddam, do you really want to [hand] the keys to American national-security policy to a foreign national who has his own agenda and objectives, to lead us down a path at his time and choosing?'”
Sad to say, that was precisely what the Bush administration’s leading voices had in mind. And as the days of shock and awe approached, they turned to Chalabi again and again for “intelligence” to bolster their case for war. Weapons of mass destruction? Here’s some bio weapons for you, cooked up in mobile laboratories … and so on.
Were Bush administration hawks duped? Some journalists might have been. But I don’t believe Rumsfeld or Cheney were deceived for one second.
There is a common cultural phenomenon in the Middle East where you lie to me and I lie to you but we understand each other, and we each use the lies as we need to for our own ends. That’s why Chalabi, whom I had known for almost 20 years at that point, felt comfortable saying on the record he’d stop at nothing to drag the United States into war with Saddam. He had a line to sell, but he was happy to proclaim caveat emptor, buyer beware, because he knew his clients in the White House and the Pentagon were just so damn hungry for his product they wouldn’t pass it up.
Would you buy a war from this man? The Bush administration did just that. But only because it was the war they’d dreamed of to begin with.