The decline and fall of Ahmed Chalabi is a tale of United States folly. The Iraqi exile and Shi’ite clamored for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He fed the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency bogus information on weapons of mass destruction (WMD). He pollyanishly predicted the Iraqi people would instantly master the art of self-governance and would rally behind his Iraqi National Congress. He thus recommended the immediate dismissal of the Iraqi army after the liberation of Baghdad.
He attracted lavish funding from the Defense Department, which championed his candidacy to the presidency of Iraq. Mr. Chalabi sat beside Laura Bush during President George W. Bush’s last State of the Union address, a mark of his stardom.
The United States substantially relied on Mr. Chalabi’s monumental delusions in blithely assuming an effortless transforming of post-Saddam Iraq into a thriving and friendly secular democracy. The opposite was evident from open source intelligence. A steep price has been paid for the Chalabi reliance, for example, an improvident June 30, 2004, date for yielding United States sovereignty to a still-unknown concoction of Iraqi appointees of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi amidst rampant violence and strife.
Mr. Chalabi’s vaulting ambition and egomania soon made him more reviled among Iraqis than Saddam. As a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, he fell out of favor with Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul Bremer.
Mr. Chalabi’s honesty was suspect; his implacable opposition to any former Ba’athist party member serving under the CPA aimed to make Sunnis subservient to Shi’ites; and, his demand for a muscular post-June 30 role for the discredited Iraqi Governing Council was self-aggrandizing.
Earlier this month, the Defense Department terminated Mr. Chalabi’s funding. Last week, Iraqi police under the aegis of the CPA searched his house for evidence of crime. His plunge from the firmaments to the depths of despair provoked a clarion call for leaving Iraq to the Iraqis, confirming philosopher Sam Johnson’s adage patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
The United States should have been suspicious of Mr. Chalabi from the outset. He hoped to preside over a post-Saddam Iraq. His incentives were pronounced for fabricating WMD, the ease of transforming the Iraqi nation, and his acceptability to the people of Iraq after more than 40 years in exile.
Further, neither Mr. Chalabi’s background nor education made him an expert in indigenous Iraqi politics.
Finally, and most important, nations have interests that invariably trump personal friendships or enmities. No matter the friendliness between the United States and Mr. Chalabi, bilateral relations with Iraq would have thrived only if the national interests of the two countries converged.
And a convergence would have required a revolutionary transformation of Iraq into a secular democracy featuring the rule of law, free enterprise and protection of individual rights.
The United States should not have depended upon Mr. Chalabi as the cornerstone of its post-Saddam relations with Iraq. Instead, plans should have been made for a long-term occupation to overhaul Iraq’s political culture. That would have entailed inculcating in the classroom and in the family encouragement of thoughtful dissent; respect for differing religions and ethnic groups; majority rule that honors the rights of minorities; the wisdom of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and limited government; the concept of a loyal opposition; and the urgency of a fair electoral code and fair legislative procedures.
By changing Iraq’s political protoplasm, the United States would have insured permanent warmth in bilateral relations reminiscent of the way that post-World War II Germany and Japan were transformed into close allies.
The contrasting Chalabi phenomenon of dependency on personalities in foreign countries to promote smooth relations with the United States has been chronic. The United States relied on the shah of Iran to serve its interests in overthrowing the popularly elected democrat Mohammed Mossedeq in 1953. But the shah proved impotent against the 1979 Khomeini revolution, which made Iran a terrorist state enemy of the United States. Indeed, the U.S. stooped to bolster Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war to thwart the Ayatollah Khomeini’s designs on Persian Gulf oil.
The United States relied on Hamid Karzai to advance its interests in post-Taliban Afghanistan. It neglected the nation’s fissiparous and tribal political culture. Consequently, little has changed outside Kabul. Warlords flourish. Opium poppies proliferate. Taliban and al Qaeda are resurgent. Women are banned from broadcasting and subservient in political affairs. Elections are postponed because of violence and intimidation. Humanitarian aid workers confront death.
The U.S. relied on the Somozas in Nicaragua and Fulgencio Batista in Cuba to advance its interests. The twin follies midwifed the communist Sandinistas and Fidel Castro’s dictatorship.
The lesson of Mr. Chalabi and sister foreign policy fiascos is clear: Personal friendships are no substitute for unstarry-eyed masteries of the political dynamics and landscapes of foreign nations.
Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant with Bruce Fein & Associates and the Lichfield Group.