- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 1, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If John LeCarre were to write a comic spy novel, his main character might resemble Ahmad Chalabi.

The pudgy, self-absorbed Iraqi exile has lived a colorful life and helped encourage the United States to overthrow the dictator of his homeland. Along the way, Mr. Chalabi’s made-up allegations about weapons of mass destruction and other tall tales, combined with an ability to con journalists from respected news organizations, made him a character that is the dictionary definition of larger-than-life.

Those wanting to learn more about him will find “The Man Who Pushed America To War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures, and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi” to be a solid, though unspectacular work.

NBC News producer Aram Roston has synthesized a great deal of existing reportage on his subject and uncovered new information about Mr. Chalabi’s efforts to convince the Bush administration to go to war and many of his questionable financial dealings.

While it has been widely reported that Mr. Chalabi worked with officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard during the lead-up to war, Mr. Roston alleges that Mr. Chalabi met at least twice with one of its leaders, Gen. Ahmed Frouzanda, whom the American government has identified as a terrorist.

Mr. Roston also documents how many of the stories that Mr. Chalabi’s organization arranged for Iraqi refugees to tell about conditions in that country (and about the links between Iraq and the September 11 terrorists) were untrue.

Further, the book shows how Mr. Chalabi’s main organization, the Iraqi National Congress, made private plans for the initial post-war government of Iraq to use dictatorial powers and run things as an occupying force, possibly with Mr. Chalabi in a key role.

Once Hussein’s government was toppled, Mr. Chalabi tried (despite his promises to the contrary) to win election to a key position in the new regime. He lost by a landslide.

Mr. Chalabi’s practices and reputation were so unsavory that the Israeli Mossad (which shared his displeasure with the Iraqi leadership) refused to work with him.

Mr. Roston documents the extent of payments (totaling at least $59 million) to Mr. Chalabi’s organizations by the CIA and other government agencies going back to 1991. Much of the money was unaccounted for and some top officials, including President Bush, became disenchanted with him, though they still acceded to his requests regarding the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The author contends that Mr. Chalabi is a delusional con man and charlatan.

“He literally changed history. And like so many leaders, he was perhaps delusional as well, possessed of a strange sense of his own grandeur and destiny. He’s Don Quixote and Captain Ahab and Elmer Gantry all rolled into one contradictory and tragic bundle,” he writes.

As critical of Mr. Roston is of Mr. Chalabi, he places more of the blame on the Bush administration.

“If he became influential, it is because others let him,” the author concludes.

Given that the book is being published by the Nation magazine, it is not surprising that this book goes to great lengths to make both the subject and the whole war effort look bad. Mr. Chalabi and his top aides did not cooperate with Mr. Roston and the author makes little effort to present the other side. Also, the workmanlike prose means that what could be an exciting tale of geopolitical intrigue reads like the transcript of an extended television documentary.

Another problem is that Mr. Roston did not check all his facts carefully. He mistakenly states that former Sen. Claiborne Pell, Rhode Island Democrat, is dead. Also, he misidentifies Danielle Pletka as the “chief spokesman” for the American Enterprise Institute. Actually, she is head of that think tank’s foreign policy department.

Despite these shortcomings, “The Man Who Pushed America To War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures, and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi” is a solid brief against Mr. Chalabi. Perhaps, Mr. Chalabi will give his side of the story to the author of a subsequent book. Meanwhile, those looking for balance on the subject, would do well to look under “b” in the dictionary.

Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, is author of a chapter on media and politics in “The Sixth-Year Itch,” edited by Larry Sabato.

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