The calculating chameleon

My following book review appears in today’s Weekend Australian newspaper:

The Man Who Pushed America to War
By Aram Roston
Nation Books, 400pp, $49.95

Ahmed Chalabi, the chameleon-like Iraqi exile who fed bogus intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to the Bush administration and to willing media, told Britain’s The Daily Telegraph in 2004 that he regretted nothing.

“We are heroes in error,” he said defiantly. “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam (Hussein) is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat.”

Chalabi has been accused of being an Iranian agent, the key figure behind the Iraqi Government’s recent plan to back Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s withdrawal timetable from the occupied country and of aligning himself, as a secular man, with Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter recalls meeting Chalabi in Washington in 1998 and being shown a document drafted by the US-backed Iraqi National Congress that considered installing Chalabi in Iraq as a viable political alternative to the dictator.

“Chalabi’s plan struck me as simplistic at best and entirely unrealistic,” Ritter wrote earlier this year. Alas, an eerily similar plan eventually became the White House’s strategy for overthrowing the once-feted ally.

In 2006, Chalabi told The New York Times that he blamed the roaring insurgency in Iraq on the Americans for not handing over control to Iraqis as soon as they had deposed Saddam in 2003. He always blamed everybody but himself.

In The Man Who Pushed America to War, Emmy award-winning journalist Aram Roston has undertaken to explain this man, a maths genius and former diplomat, banker and fraudster. Chalabi refused to co-operate with his efforts. At times the writing is disarmingly conversational, but the journey reads more like a less-than-believable thriller.

Born to a wealthy Shia merchant family in 1944, “when the British still quietly pulled the strings in Iraq”, Chalabi was the last of his parent’s nine children. In the 1950s, Iraq’s prime minister Nuri as-Said was supported by the US in its global battle against communism. Brutality against the Iraqi regime’s internal enemies was extreme, but the Chalabi family wasn’t opposed to it; they were more concerned about losing influence in the new world of Arab nationalism.

Chalabi studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — one of his mentors, Warren Ambrose, was politically aligned with Noam Chomsky — and he excelled in mathematics. After working in Beirut as an academic, he helped found Petra Bank: years later, he was convicted and sentenced in absentia for bank fraud by a Jordanian court, though he claimed the charges were politically motivated.

It wasn’t until the late ’80s — Roston adroitly questions Chalabi’s opposition to Saddam and notes his willingness to provide loans to businesses doing deals in Iraq — that the chameleon adopted a new persona. He befriended several prominent US journalists — including The New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who published numerous false stories about Saddam through the years — and one of the key jobs of the INC became funnelling stories to the media. Chalabi found politicians and media receptive, as Saddam moved in the ’90s from hero to villain.

The picture of Chalabi that emerges is of a man possessed of incredible charisma, able to smoothly milk the post-September 11 angst and the Bush administration’s focus on deposing Saddam. Amid American unease over terrorism, the INC, regarded at that stage by the CIA as wholly unreliable, took its reasons and recommendation for invasion to willing members of the Bush administration. (Chalabi had backed John McCain for president in 2000, considering him more supportive of his aims.)

Since 2003, Chalabi has shown an amazing ability to rescue success from the jaws of defeat. Despite his pathetic showing in the 2005 Iraqi elections, last year he was appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to head the Iraqi Services Committee, which is in charge of the basic necessities for reviving life in Baghdad. His fortunes are on the rise once more.

One thing remains unexplained in the context of Chalabi’s relationship with leading US neo-conservatives: whether the Pentagon — including former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz and former undersecretary of defence for policy Douglas Feith — planned to appoint Chalabi as ruler of Iraq soon after Saddam’s fall. Feith, recently spruiking a book defending the invasion, claimed that there was never a plan to do this.

One thing is certain, however. Chalabi will inevitably play a key role in the future of Iraq, with or without US permission.

Antony Loewenstein is the author of The Blogging Revolution, published by Melbourne University Publishing this month.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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