Reuel Marc Gerecht
6 November 2015 – The Weekly Standard
Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, my friend Ahmad Chalabi would often carry fat tomes about America’s occupations of Germany and Japan. An Iraqi exile after 1958 who lived mainly in London and Georgetown and maintained an off-and-on, love-hate relationship with Western intelligence agencies, he was blessed with a voracious, curious, and sensitive mind. He had a prodigious memory, too, and was well-schooled beyond mathematics, in which he held a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. But knowledge ultimately failed Chalabi. He didn’t see the most important lesson of the post-World War II era: It’s essential to keep the Americans around.
halabi certainly deserves the lion’s share of the blame for his egregious, anti-American mistakes. They sprang mostly from his Iraqi patriotism and a too-exuberant personal and family pride. However humbling, he needed to adjust to the realities of American power. Furthermore, he wasn’t easy for most American officials to digest. The Central Intelligence Agency in particular does poorly with foreigners (especially Arabs) who don’t feel beholden and are very bright. Even before the hideous Baath party seized power in Iraq in 1968 and a decade later ushered in the barbarism of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis weren’t known as the politest of peoples. Chalabi had more than a little brusqueness, amplified by a skyscraper IQ and an acute impatience with lesser mortals. His mordant wit too often gave way to scorn.
One of the oddest myths about this expatriate is that he greatly influenced the debate in Washington about going to war in 2003. The myth only grew as the war became unpopular. In fact, in the messy aftermath of the invasion, American officials became so infuriated with Chalabi, then an obstreperous member of the Governing Council of Iraq, that they went after him in May 2004. American soldiers raided and trashed his compound in Baghdad; it’s a wonder they hadn’t done it earlier.
By 2005, it was blindingly obvious that America’s military—the light-footprint brass who dominated the upper ranks of the Pentagon, along with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz—had grossly misjudged how to quell a revanchist Sunni insurgency that was radicalizing a traumatized Shiite community. At home, this animated the penchant for conspiracy that afflicts the American left, especially when it is trying to forget that it, too, mostly embraced the war against the Butcher of Baghdad.
Many in Washington and liberal intellectual circles in New York spewed forth calumnies. Hitherto civilized adults went a little bonkers about neoconservative cabals—and in the background a duplicitous Chalabi—supposedly running American foreign policy. I will never forget being off-air on the Charlie Rose show, listening to Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski suggest that the Israelis would have been the only ones capable of misleading both the Americans and the British into an addle-headed campaign to down Saddam. This antisemitic fantasy at least spared Chalabi, who, truth be told, was usually clamoring for attention in Washington. Senator Hillary Clinton, who’d watched her husband try to deal with the Iraqi dictator for eight years as president, surely didn’t give a moment’s thought to any idea or piece of intelligence that Chalabi proffered when she voted to support the war in 2003. What was true for Hillary was equally true for almost everyone else.
Chalabi returned to Iraq in 2003, right behind the U.S. troops, and found his destiny along the Tigris. The scorecard isn’t a pretty one. He was enamored of the idea that America’s presence in his country was a catalytic agent for the Sunni insurgency, which Chalabi preferred to see as a Baathist-run insurrection. Power needed to be transferred quickly and comprehensively to Iraqis—unelected Iraqis, including himself—who would rally Iraq’s Kurds, Turkomans, and Arab Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians to construct a new nation. Chalabi was hardly alone in believing that the Iraqis could raise themselves by their own bootstraps. At least at first, most Iraqis thought the same. This was music to the ears of the dominant voices in America’s military and to Rumsfeld, who wanted to leave Iraq even before arriving. Wolfowitz, too, his view freighted with moralism, believed in rapid Iraqi self-determination. By late 2003, it had become apparent that Iraqi society was broken and volcanic.
Chalabi may have been a failure at strategy, but he was often a tactical genius. Anyone who watched him up close in Baghdad, at dinners and late-night gatherings with mostly Iraqis present, had to be impressed by his ability to adapt to dangerous, chaotic situations that downed lesser men or sent his kind—Westernized, affluent Iraqis—scuttling back into exile. Chalabi became indispensable to other Iraqis who really didn’t like him. He operated on a higher plane, with a knowledge of the world that most Iraqis couldn’t comprehend. They’d become defensive, fearful, small-minded, and dumb under Saddam’s Orwellian tyranny.
So far as I could tell, Chalabi wasn’t a believing Shiite Muslim. We had long talks about philosophy that strongly suggested his relationship with the Almighty was distant. Yet his learning, curiosity, and attention to detail gave him a certain religious verisimilitude, perhaps even sincerity, that allowed him to interact respectfully with faithful Iraqis. He got along with clerics, no easy feat for a man raised in privileged—spoiled—circumstances in the West and the Westernized preserves in the Middle East where God is rarely on the agenda.
He was openly fascinated by and respectful of Iranians, who often stir tense, conflicted sentiments among Shiite Arab Iraqis. Chalabi was bemused that many Americans thought he had become, or always was, an Iranian agent. He certainly flaunted his Iranian contacts, of which, like any upper-class Iraqi Shiite of mixed Iranian-Arab ancestry, he had many. This raised red flags for Washington, at a time when the clerical regime was aggressively killing American soldiers through Iraqi proxies trained and armed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. But Chalabi knew that the Iranians would always be there; the Americans, as was evident from day one, were leaving. Chalabi indulged from time to time in vengefully turning the knife in his American tormentors.
Years ago Chalabi and I were at his home in Baghdad in his study listening to music. He had an impressive collection and an even more impressive high-fidelity system. Looking around the room, rich with the accumulation of a Western life, I asked him whether he could thrive in Iraq, even with the obligatory outings to London, Paris, and Vienna. The old Westernized elite of the Middle East, the worldly polyglots who grew up in the fading shadow of the Ottoman and Qajar empires, were all gone. In the wake of disastrous military tyrannies, the region had gone fundamentalist, and once-great Arab cities had fallen apart. Chalabi had almost no one to play with in his native land. Yet he looked at me and simply stated: “This is my home. I’m going to die here.”
Great men have great faults. In the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries—the worst of times for an Iraqi—Chalabi was a complex historic figure. Often knocked down, he willed himself forward, sometimes causing considerable collateral damage. I once asked him whether there was a mathematical equation that expressed who he was. Chalabi laughed, but didn’t answer. I am convinced he had one, some grand unifying spinoff of quantum mechanics: that everything would come together, and at the center of the universe he would be the last man standing.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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