It is hard to believe that a country reeling from reports of prison abuse at the hands of American military personnel would be a willing party to threatening and demeaning ill-treatment of a prominent Iraqi politician. The fact that the individual in question–the Iraqi National Congress’s Ahmed Chalabi–has arguably done more than any other Iraqi to effect his country’s liberation and, subsequently, to support the consolidation of democracy there makes this case of “politician abuse” positively bizarre.
To be sure, the Coalition Provisional Authority contends that the warrantless and destructive search of Chalabi’s home and two INC offices at gunpoint was conducted by Iraqi police. American military personnel cordoned off the areas being raided, however, and U.S. intelligence agents were reportedly among those who seized documents and personal effects without explanation or, it would appear, legal justification. And in occupied Iraq, it is laughably implausible that an assault on the person, property, and possessions of a leading member of what passes for Iraq’s government at the moment could have happened without the approval, or at least the acquiescence, of CPA Administrator Paul Bremer and the man assigned by President Bush to accomplish the end of the occupation by June 30: National Security Council staff member Robert Blackwill.
More to the point, the abuse of Ahmed Chalabi did not begin with yesterday’s raid. He has been the object of years of systematic and all-too-effective efforts–mounted by the U.S. State Department and the CIA–to discredit, if not destroy, him and his organization. Under successive administrations, these agencies adamantly opposed the idea of liberating Iraq. They favored, instead, “containing” Saddam Hussein or, at best, replacing him via a coup with some other despot who would not have Saddam’s criminal baggage but would fit in and play well with the Mideast’s other authoritarians.
Chalabi spoke for countless Iraqis–at home and, like him, in exile–who knew that such an approach was neither in the best interests of their country nor the rest of the world. He worked tirelessly to foster support in Congress, and in the press, and among the public for the United States to effect genuine regime change in Iraq. He bears considerable responsibility for the initiative that, in 1998, made such a goal the official policy of the American government.
In the years that followed enactment of the Iraq Liberation Act, State and the CIA did everything possible–most notably withholding duly appropriated funds intended for INC operations inside and outside of Iraq, and systematically smearing the organization and its leader–to discredit and impede Chalabi’s agenda. This deliberate sabotage continued in the run-up to the war to liberate Iraq, as the Pentagon–whose leaders had a very different view of Chalabi and the role he could play–sought to train men recruited by the INC to put, à la de Gaulle in World War II France, an Iraqi face on the invasion.
Thanks in no small measure to such obstructionism, there was no Iraqi government-in-waiting ready to be put into place when Saddam fell from power (something Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and others of us had recommended back in 1998). The victorious Coalition, therefore, had no choice but to become an occupying power. This virtually ensured that, sooner or later, feelings of resentment, impotence, and insecurity would translate into popular support for those who claimed to be resisting the “oppressors.”
Like most populations that have been brutalized by capricious despots and their police-state apparatuses, Iraqis have highly developed senses of self-preservation. They are keenly attuned to evidence of shifts in the fortunes of those who would rule them. They learned painfully over decades that a small miscalculation, even an incautious word, could translate into disfiguring trauma or death to oneself or one’s family.
Regrettably, far less sensitive antennae than the average Iraqi’s would have discerned by now signals that betting on the U.S.-led Coalition is dangerous, if not downright foolhardy. For one thing, those who have done so–from police trainees to CPA local hires to the president of the Iraqi Governing Council–have been systematically, and all-too-often successfully, targeted for attack, simply for being associated with the United States.
For another, the United States has taken steps that can only be read as unfriendly to the cause of freedom in Iraq. For example:
Washington has entrusted decisions about the country’s next government to a pan-Arabist Sunni in the person of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Understandably, such a step exacerbates legitimate fears of a return to oppression of the majority Shiite community and Kurdish minority at the hands of re-empowered Sunnis.
The CPA has deliberately chosen not to commit the bulk of the funds earmarked for reconstruction. When combined with the violence-induced slowdown of such work as has been commissioned, the effect has been to further diminish perceptions of American power and to inflame suspicions–greatly exacerbated by the prison abuse scandal–that it is being used only to add to Iraqis’ suffering, rather to alleviate it.
The Coalition is seen to have reversed course on deBaathification, allowing–among other alarming things–former generals and troops from Saddam’s army to don anew the uniforms of the hated ancien régime, even as they are seen to be protecting anti-occupation insurgents in Fallujah.
Ahmed Chalabi has been a prominent critic of such patently self-defeating measures. With access to vast quantities of Saddam-era documents shedding light on the corruption at the U.N. and in various Western capitals associated with the notorious Oil-for-Food program, he has been in a position not only to complain about the folly of turning Iraq over to the tender mercies of the so-called “international community,” but possibly to obstruct that step. Rather than risk such a development, the Bush administration has apparently decided to go beyond cutting off Chalabi from past U.S. financial and political support and to attempt to destroy him.
The message of the resulting “politician abuse” is clear to those Iraqis who may still be sitting on the fence: It is better to be an enemy of the United States than its friend.
If that perception now takes firm hold, it will effectively and tragically close, at least for the foreseeable future, the window of opportunity we had to help build a Free Iraq–the sort of place for which Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress have been more effective and reliable proponents than anyone else.
–Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and an NRO contributing editor.