Politics & Policy

Iraq’s Comeback Kid

Chalabi keeps his eyes on the prize.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 5, 2005, issue of National Review.

On November 8, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi arrived in Washington for an eight-day visit. His agenda included meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. To many pundits, Chalabi’s visit marks a change in fortune for an Iraqi politician not long ago dismissed as irrelevant by diplomats and intelligence officials alike.

Disdain for Chalabi runs deep in the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and U.S. Central Command. As an advocate of both regime change and democratization, he became a lightning rod for criticism among proponents of the status quo.

Both before and after Iraq’s liberation, State Department officials criticized Chalabi as an exile with little connection to his own country. CIA analysts seconded such pronouncements. On September 6, 2004, for example, Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq analyst now at the National Defense University, told the Associated Press that “over the years, [CIA favorite Ayad] Allawi’s contacts were proven to be real while Chalabi’s were never what Chalabi told us.” Former Defense Intelligence Agency official W. Patrick Lang described Chalabi as “basically an émigré politician” and told an Australian radio station that the CIA and State Department “didn’t trust what he said [and] didn’t think he understood Iraq, really.” General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, belittled Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress as “some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London.”

But, in the months before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Chalabi returned to Iraq. And after liberation, he became an irritant to Washington policymakers. While Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer sought to run Iraq by diktat, Chalabi agitated for direct elections and restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. He clashed with Meghan O’Sullivan, now deputy national security adviser for Iraq, when she worked to undermine and eventually reverse de-Baathification. He undercut White House attempts to internationalize responsibility for Iraq in the months prior to the 2004 U.S. elections when his Governing Council auditing commission began to investigate the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal. . . .

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Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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