I met Ahmad Chalabi only once, and in that encounter I came to the same conclusion reached by Richard Bonin in “Arrows of the Night.” I visited Mr. Chalabi in his suite at a Washington hotel during the early months of the intervention in Iraq as a special adviser on counterinsurgency for Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. The Pentagon had realized belatedly that it had an insurgency problem, and I had some ideas for dealing with it. Because Mr. Chalabi - who was still in favor in Washington - was in town, the secretary asked me to run certain ideas past him and get his reaction.
Mr. Chalabi thought the whole counterinsurgency idea was an overreaction. He kept to the line that the insurgents were a few Baath Party “dead enders” and that once an Iraqi provisional government was set up, the problem would disappear. Throughout the meeting, Mr. Chalabi was just as Mr. Bonin describes him: witty, brilliant, charming and utterly wrong.
Mr. Chalabi was born into a life of Iraqi privilege. His father was one of the few in the downtrodden Shiite majority of Iraq to reach a position of power and influence in society and government. All that ended in 1958 when an army-led coup toppled the monarchy and sent his family into exile. It was the defining moment of Mr. Chalabi’s life. He spent the next four decades trying to overturn the coup and its ultimate product, Saddam Hussein. In pursuit of that end, he would consider any means, any lie or any betrayal to be justified. Finally, he succeeded. Mr. Bonin’s account of his life traces that quest and its ultimate aftermath.
No one who has ever met Mr. Chalabi doubts that he is brilliant. He is a graduate of MIT and the University of Chicago, excelling in mathematics. Along the way, he showed a skill for banking in Jordan and made a fortune in his own right as the head of Petra Bank, Jordan’s second-largest bank. It was in this venture that Mr. Chalabi’s dark side emerged. His penchant for scheming and risk-taking caused a huge banking scandal, and Mr. Chalabi had to flee the country.
In that episode, he also first showed a lifelong tendency to bite the hand that fed him and blame others for his problems. He turned on his benefactors in the Jordanian royal family and blamed Saddam Hussein for setting him up. Saddam was happy to see his enemy disgraced, but the scandal was of Mr. Chalabi’s own making.
Petra would set the pattern for this world-class wheeler-dealer and backroom manipulator, who veered from stunning success to inglorious disaster caused by his own miscalculation. The center of the story, however, is Mr. Chalabi’s relentless quest to topple Saddam and replace him with a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. In that he succeeded, but he would never lead it as he had dreamed.
Mr. Bonin explains in detail how Mr. Chalabi manipulated two very smart men, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, and gained the support of the American neoconservative movement for the Iraqi adventure just as the neocons were coming into power in the George W. Bush administration. Even those who despise the neocons may come to understand how two very experienced bureaucrats could be misled by deliberate falsifications and outright lies.
In all the time he was courting American favor, Mr. Chalabi also was double-dealing with America’s Iranian enemies. He was never the democrat the neocons thought; his idea of Iraqi democracy was a Shiite tyranny of the majority, and he got it.
Mr. Bonin, a “Sixty Minutes” producer, used his unique access to Mr. Chalabi and his inner circle in preparing several segments for that show to draw some unique insights into Mr. Chalabi’s personality. Mr. Chalabi is the ultimate narcissist. He equates what is good for Chalabi with what is good for Iraq. Given the list of people and institutions he has betrayed, it is a wonder he is still alive. They include the CIA, the Iranian government, Gen. David H. Petraeus, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Jordanian royal family and the Bush administration.
Despite all that, he has had many comebacks. In the end, the one group he couldn’t scam was the Iraqi people. When he has stood for election, he repeatedly has been rejected overwhelmingly.
His final betrayal came in 2007 when, as a member of the Iraqi government, he sided with the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr in an aborted uprising. That treasonous act should have been the final straw, but Mr. Bonin points out he likely will pursue his schemes until he finally is buried.
Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.