‘Smear without substance’

After the raid on Ahmed Chalabi’s house in Iraq last week, his allies in Washington — the administration’s hawks — knew it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped. They were right.

Last Thursday, Mr. Chalabi was splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country, accused of being a spy for “axis of evil” member Iran. The public line was that there was “rock solid” evidence — as CBS News paraphrased “government officials” — that Mr. Chalabi had betrayed the United States in order to help the Iranian mullahs.

But much of what is being hurled at Mr. Chalabi probably can be explained away by old grudges, not just against him, but also against the strongest supporters of the Iraq war inside the administration.

Back in the mid-1990s, Mr. Chalabi and his group, the Iraqi National Congress, were still on speaking terms with the CIA. When a coup attempt was being cooked up against Saddam Hussein, Mr. Chalabi warned the CIA that it would fail. It did, and Mr. Chalabi was not bashful about defending his prediction — slash — warning.

He has been deemed an enemy of the CIA ever since.

That “intelligence officials” are now attacking Mr. Chalabi through hundreds of anonymous quotes in the press, in many respects, has not come as much of a surprise to many who understand the deep disdain in which the CIA holds him.

The same holds true for the attacks against administration hawks. The New York Times yesterday ran a story, seemingly based solely on “intelligence officials,” with the headline: “U.S. Steps Up Hunt in Leaks to Iraqi Exile.”

The “news” in the Times piece was that “intelligence officials” (read: CIA) are investigating “a handful of officials in Washington and Iraq who dealt regularly with Mr. Chalabi.” Who are these potential traitors? Well, according to the Times, “most of them are at the Pentagon.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, The Washington Post also ran a story on Monday dredging up a collection of old allegations and undisputed facts on the business activities of Richard Perle, the former head of the Defense Policy Board and a leading advocate of the Iraq war. Buried in what was more or less a hit piece was the following: “An investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general concluded last fall that Perle had not violated ethics rules.”

For those just now tuning in, this is a story that has much deeper roots.

As many people with a passing knowledge of Washington affairs have noticed, there is a perceived divide between the positions of the Departments of State and Defense.

There are two main worldviews: One that stability should be our primary foreign policy goal, and the other that the United States needs to use force when necessary, but more often should employ tough diplomacy in order to push countries into reforming.

The stability side is embodied by the State Department, but it is almost as deeply held by “intelligence officials” (i.e., the CIA), and even by many of the top brass in the uniformed military. It is a view that is “safe,” inasmuch as it has been the American approach to foreign policy for decades and it remains the conventional wisdom among self-appointed experts inside the Beltway.

Trouble is, it is also the worldview that prevented the United States from responding decisively during the 1990s against terrorist strikes — from Khobar Towers to the East Africa embassy bombings to the USS Cole — and from recognizing the need to be more forceful with the likes of the Taliban before September 11.

The relatively small number of Bush political appointees among the foreign policy team inside the administration — the overwhelming majority of whom are careerists, particularly at State and the CIA — are perceived as a grave threat because their worldview is anathema to the established stability-above-all-else orthodoxy.

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