Politics & Policy

Ahmad Chalabi, Evangelist for Middle East Reform

Chalabi in Baghdad, 2004. (Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty)
He represented a hopeful, long-vanished vision of Arab and Islamic revival.

There are moments in history when a man and a moment converge. Then the moment and man pass away, as if wedded to each other. This week, we mark the passing away of a remarkable man, who was so much more than that: Ahmad Chalabi.

I knew Chalabi well, at first in my capacity as the director of the Near East program at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in the mid-1990s. What had started as a valued relationship to discuss issues in a largely academic setting, however, changed soon after the election of President George W. Bush in 2000, when a number of AEI scholars departed to enter the new administration. I myself left as well, first to stand up a special policy cell within the Department of Defense (which later became the Office of Special Plans) in 2001, then as senior adviser to Under Secretary of State John Bolton, and in 2003 as senior adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Chalabi’s relationships with me and others who transitioned from outside the corridors of power into their center, of course, became the focus of intense speculation. A lot of ink has been wasted on speculations and assumptions about Chalabi’s relations with particular cliques at the center of Washington’s power. I myself was featured in some of these commentaries — placed at the center of some sort of vast neoconservative conspiracy answering in part to foreign powers.

Ironically, in one week back in 2005, I was simultaneously accused by some in the security structures of being an agent of Iran and of Israel — a feat that, if possible, would have placed me and the several others accused at the same time in the highest ranks of global intrigue alongside Mata Hari. While I was flattered by being considered so cunning, smart, and agile in maneuvering and manipulating those corridors of power, it was horrifying to see how easily such accusations of treason spread and became urban myth. It alerted me to the fact that while I was preoccupied in trying to understand what was wrong with the Middle East, I should have spent a little more time worrying about what was going wrong in Washington.

At the center of these accusations of conspiracy was the idea that Ahmad Chalabi, employing his charm and smoothness, lied and funneled information to a clique of co-conspirators who implemented a plan that, emanating from abroad, was cooked into maturity at AEI and then employed to manipulate the entire U.S. government and its elected stratum into a war that was based on false premises to serve a foreign agenda. Again, while it was flattering to be thought of as so cunning and smart so as to become part of what would have been one of the greatest acts of hijacking in human history against the will of a nation, it is stunning how far this was from reality.

The neoconservatives, and those of us who did not quite fit that category (such as me) but were fellow travelers, were ultimately intellectuals driven by ideas rather than a quest for bureaucratic power, and the fact that many of us took stands in the 1990s that could be considered career-ending choices only reinforced the idea that we were answering to a hidden hand. In fact, we adopted such unpopular positions because we operated from a deep sense of suspicion of the political and cultural elites from the Arab world. Collectively — neoconservative or not — we were deeply shaped by our experiences of the Cold War, and we profoundly wished and projected onto Arab society a belief in its goodness if only it were freed from the shackles of its corrupt elites. We were a group that — in part because of our support for Israel — could not allow ourselves to accept the racism of low expectations into which Washington had descended in understanding the region.

Precisely because so many of us were Jewish, it became an unspoken understanding that we would react allergically to any suggestion that there was something inherently wrong in the Arab mind other than the distorting politics to which it had been subjected. Working with dissidents in central and eastern Europe under Communism — many of whom were Jewish also — humanized the enemy and reminded us that there were no evil eastern European peoples, only evil leaders distorting their politics. We thus were in an eager quest for the Arab Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. For me personally, being the son of a Czech dissident leader who fled her homeland in 1948, this was doubly imperative.

Starting in the mid-1990s, thus, I had many long conversations along the C&O Canal, or at cafés and restaurants in northwest Washington, with this man who would educate me on the richness of Arab philosophy and history. In this period, before September 11, there was a flow of information from Chalabi that neither surprised us nor changed any of our views, because as a community, we were about ideas, not power, about capturing a minute sense of culture and discerning what President Obama now calls “the broad arc of history,” not about chasing the news and trying to spin it to advance policy. The Ahmad Chalabi I knew was about deep knowledge and love for his people and Shiite religion, his knowledge of its great philosophers and how political thought in the Arab world fit into the equally long, broad arc of Western political history.

The Chalabi I knew had deep knowledge of and love for his people and their Shiite religion, its great philosophers, and how Arab political thought fit into the equally long, broad arc of Western political history.

It was from Chalabi that I learned that the Sunni narrative on which we all were weaned in the U.S. university system was one-sided and flawed. I learned how the Iranian revolution in 1979 was a revolution within Shiism rejected still today by the majority of Shiite clerics. I learned from him that Khomeini’s Shiite Islamist revolutionary thought was ultimately a religious recasting of Plato’s philosopher king, which in turn was the foundation of Western totalitarian thought, all of which explained why the Islamic Revolution of Iran borrowed so extensively from third-world Communist thinking, and why they could work in pragmatic cooperation with fellow totalitarians in the Sunni Islamist and Arab nationalist camp. It was from him that I learned that one needs to look beyond the superficial tensions between totalitarian Arab nationalism and totalitarian Islamism to see how each breathes life into the other — both being a nostalgic return (one to the original racial greatness, the other to the original theological purity of Mohammed’s followers), but both also being brutally, murderously, radically totalitarian in their concept of power and society. I learned from him that he and others among an older Arab elite looked with remorse over the expulsion and termination of ancient Near Eastern Jewish communities from Baghdad to Cairo, not for the love of Jews, but for sadness over what a gaping hole their removal had left in Arab culture and society — a lesson that perhaps Europe’s elites should now take more seriously as Jews begin their final exodus from that continent.

It was this deep sense of optimism over what is possible within Arab culture — and not one or another particular shred of information — that led me and others to support the removal of Saddam Hussein and his totalitarian Arab-nationalist comrades from power. It was for us a continuation of the war on totalitarianism — Communism in the 1980s, then Arab nationalism and equally ghastly Islamist totalitarians emerging alongside and symbiotically with Arab nationalism in the 1990s. And it was not meant as a one-off or end in itself. It was seen as an opening to challenge the continuance of the murderous regimes of Iran, Libya, and Syria and their allies — a view to which even the Obama administration came around in part to embrace . . . ostensibly.

After the attacks of 9/11, I was called upon — having just retired as a naval intelligence officer — to examine the vast body of information that had been amassed by our intelligence structures to see who did it, and how broad the problem was. I was not asked to find or isolate evidence to justify a preconceived plan for war. And indeed, what emerged from the tens of thousands of pieces of information I reviewed was that our collection structures left little need for additional sources of information. In terms of raw intelligence, our system was functioning to such a high level that I am sure other nations could only envy us. As such, when I set up the initial structure of what some called a “rogue intelligence cell” at the Pentagon, there were no conversations between me and Chalabi about new sources or new tidbits of information. Demeaning the effort as a rogue intelligence cell rested on the assumption that it collected information out of sanctioned channels, indeed largely from Ahmad Chalabi, when in fact, I and my colleagues (one of whom later became a Democratic congressman) in this period had absolutely no information from Chalabi and instead relied on pre-existing intelligence collected by our intelligence agencies in official channels.

Chalabi downplayed the danger of Iran, since he saw its ideology with such disdain, as being so flawed that he believed it was a goner in its last gasps, unworthy of our concern.

What we did import from Chalabi was his optimism and faith in a better future for his people, and his deep disdain for the totalitarian leadership in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya, as well as the PLO, for what they were doing to distort their populations into impoverished peoples mobilized to murderous rage by enforced despair. Indeed, I never let Chalabi know, but it was not his information about or understanding of Baathist Iraq, but rather his enlightening conversations with me on the revolutionary and radically new nature of the Iranian Islamic Republic’s ideology, that led me in this period to see Iran as the premier threat, in part by the danger it posed, and in part by the damage its continuance did to our ability to galvanize the region’s Shiites into an amicable and potent structure to simultaneously challenge Arab nationalism and Islamism.

True, Chalabi downplayed the danger of Iran a bit, since he saw its ideology with such disdain, as being so flawed that he believed it was a goner in its last gasps, unworthy of our concern. I could not agree with Chalabi on that — ironically, because of the danger (about which he had enlightened me) in that regime’s nature and the opportunity (of which he had convinced me) in the potential of a modernizing Shiite awakening out of Tehran’s control. It was precisely those realizations, to which he had brought me, that led me to focus — probably to his great agony, had he known — before the Iraq war primarily on the Iranian threat in the region (instead of taking an active part in Iraq war planning), and after the war on the threat posed by Iran’s waging war on us in Iraq and its strategy of ripping apart any hope we might have had of developing a new Shiite awakening amicable to the West.

In short, Ahmad Chalabi’s influence forced us to think about what had gone wrong with Arab and Muslim culture rather than to judge it as inherently flawed. In 1997 I’d had a conversation with Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, in which she confided to me that the Arab world tried her faith in the universality of the liberal ideal. For a group of us, many of whom were protégés of Ambassador Kirkpatrick, Chalabi served as the antidote to an otherwise depressing conclusion.

This week we mark the passing of this great man, and his passing seems almost an allegory of what has transpired in the last decade. The liberation of Iraq — which triggered the first, unacknowledged chapters of the Arab Spring, in Beirut in 2005 and Tehran in 2009, by the admission of the leaders of these upheavals — has yielded to an unimaginable darkness. The region’s liberals — seemingly the wave of the future, modern, and emerging Middle East — now hunker down into hiding or retreat into flight. What is emerging is a regional civilization — not individual states — descending into failure with unfathomable misery and a refugee crisis to follow, much beyond anything yet experienced. Left to control the region are a collection of thugs — some Sunni, some Shiite, and a few still Arab nationalist — against a straggling remnant of a more moderate Arab leadership clinging to the few centers of power still left them. There would be no reintegration of Jews through a robust Israel into a reinvented Middle Eastern milieu where they would begin to enrich their neighbors, as they had before 1948, but instead the wholesale extinguishing, expulsion, and destruction of the rest of the region’s minorities and their monuments, many of which are older than the Islamic and Arab identity that seeks to erase them. In short, faith in what could be in the region — which is what defined Ahmad Chalabi — is yielding to the despair born of the relentless success of regional totalitarianism and organized murder. This week we mark not only the passing of a man, but also the demise of the hopeful moment he represented.

— David Wurmser is the founder of the Delphi Global Analysis Group.

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