- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

Ahmed Chalabi has suddenly become a kind of Arabian pinata, presented to the world as everything from a con-man, felon and liar to the man who single-handedly duped the U.S. government into invading Iraq on the basis of fraudulent intelligence and a promised flower-strewn cake-walk.

To the extent the Bush administration contributes to this transparent effort to find a scapegoat for its increasingly troubled Iraq policy — presumably, in hopes of improving the president’s sagging popularity here at home — it has made not only an epic strategic mistake, but a potentially costly political one, as well.

First, consider the ineptitude of trying to undermine Mr. Chalabi as a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and a force in Iraq’s future by, among other things, mounting a U.S.-backed raid on his home and offices, destroying property and stealing his Koran. Such high-handed and illegal behavior is seen by Iraqis as of a piece with the American misconduct now known the world over as “prison abuse.” Call this variant “politician abuse.”

Even those in Iraq who might accept that only rogue military police officers were responsible for the former find it totally implausible that the take-down of Mr. Chalabi is other than an authorized power-play by a government already seen as unreliable and scarcely more committed to the rule of law than Saddam Hussein’s regime. We don’t exactly have a surfeit of friends in Iraq. It is hardly an incentive to those still on the fence to join our team when we publicly humiliate and punish people who have been our closest allies.

One purported justification for this ham-handed effort to take down Ahmed Chalabi is that he has been less and less of a U.S. ally in recent months. This ignores the fact Mr. Chalabi is an Iraqi patriot, first and foremost — not the American puppet his critics make him out to be.

As a University of Chicago-trained Ph.D., Mr. Chalabi believes passionately the things that make this country great — our freedoms, values and democratic institutions — can make his own great, too. And it can credibly be argued he did more over a longer period than any other Iraqi to give his countrymen the chance to put that proposition to the test.

Imagine, then, the anger and frustration of an Iraqi patriot who sees such an opportunity being squandered, especially by those he has reason to believe are sacrificing his country’s long-term interests to U.S. domestic political expediency. If the situation were reversed, would an American patriot not be at odds with his sometime allies?

This is especially true of the effort to fob off decisions critical to Iraq’s future onto the United Nations. Most Americans are clueless about the contempt felt not just by Mr. Chalabi but millions of Iraqis for an organization that helped prop up the Butcher of Baghdad and perpetuate his reign of terror.

Matters can only be made worse if the raid on Mr. Chalabi’s organization actually was designed to prevent release of damning documents from Saddam’s era said to be in the Iraqi National Congress’ possession, documents that could further inflame the burgeoning U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal and raise more questions about U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s role in anointing a new, interim government.

Long before Ahmed Chalabi became a critic of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s conduct and decisions — and a target of its enmity, however, he was reviled by the U.S. State Department and CIA. His determination to create a free and peaceable Iraq was anathema to these agencies’ other regional clients (notably, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) and traditional modus operandi (consorting with “stabilizing” authoritarians, not untidy democrats). And for years before the liberation of Iraq, they worked to thwart his efforts to bring it about and to preclude his broadly representative umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress, from becoming a powerful and legitimate alternative to Saddam.

It is tragic Mr. Chalabi’s advice was not heeded long ago. In 1998, he helped draft a plan that was embraced by a diverse group of policy-practitioners — many of whom now hold senior positions in the U.S. government (including not only the Defense Department’s Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, but Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage). This plan ultimately gave rise to the Iraq Liberation Act that was adopted by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton.

Had it been implemented, the present war might have proved unnecessary. At the very least, there would have been a provisional Iraqi government could have taken over upon Saddam’s overthrow and invited us to help provide security, sparing us the costs (political, military and financial) of an occupation. Could that have been worse than what we have now?

Unfortunately, the decision to destroy Mr. Chalabi and the INC seems no more likely to help George W. Bush politically than to improve our situation on the ground in Iraq. After all, allowing Mr. Chalabi to be painted as someone who successfully duped the president is unlikely to reflect well on the man whose principal claim to re-election is his clear-eyed, visionary conduct of the war on terror.

Mr. Bush should appreciate, moreover, that those savaging today’s scapegoat are after bigger game. Already, they claim that Mr. Chalabi’s success was due to the connivance of the administration’s so-called “neo-conservatives.”

If the president succumbed to the logic of throwing them to the same wolves now devouring Mr. Chalabi, Mr. Bush would only ensure he, too, will be consumed in due course.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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