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.
Chalabi 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.