A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Ahmed Chalabi, 1944-2015

Ahmed Chalabi
Ahmed Chalabi has died at the age of 71, apparently from a heart attack. For several years before the launch of the Iraq War in 2003, Chalabi was the darling of the neocons, the liberator who would democratize Iraq. By the time he died yesterday, a Member of Parliament in Iraq and a Committee Chairman, some of his onetime champions had come to accuse him of being an Iranian agent.

Although like most Middle East hands in Washington I crossed paths with Chalabi a few times,  but never quite understood what so captivated his admirers. He was a well-spoken, well-dressed man, a persuasive speaker, but I could never really envision him as leading Iraq. And in the end, though he held Cabinet positions, he never gained he political traction in Iraq that he had enjoyed in George W. Bush's Washington.

Chalabi was also at pains to explain the fact that he was a wanted man in Jordan following the failure of the Petra Bank he had founded;  he insisted the prosecution was political, inspired by Saddam Hussein, and perhaps that was true.

Unlike some, I don't blame Chalabi for "causing" the US to invade Iraq; if I'd been an Iraqi Shi‘ite I'd have wanted a superpower to take out my enemy too. I blame the credulous neocons who believed everything Chalabi and the rest of his Iraqi National Congress said, and somehow mistook him for George Washington. The US is responsible for its own mistakes, and those who were surprised when he became a sectarian Shi‘ite politician instead of an author of the Iraqi version of the Federalist Papers, never understood Iraq or Chalabi, an Iraqi Shi‘ite from a wealthy background, married to a daughter of Lebanese Shi‘ite figure and Speaker of Parliament ‘Adel ‘Osseiran.


Anonymous said...

(1) What captivated them? He told them what they wanted to hear and looked like a Westerner rather than an Arab.

(2) It wasn't just the Petra Bank that failed, but each and every bank of the Chalabi family. Mebco Bank Lebanon (prime bank to the Amal militia); Mebco Suisse, Socofi Geneva, Petra Bank Washington DC and Petra Bank, Jordan.

(3) Excuse ran the ganut from Saddam to Mossad to UBS. No culpability ascribed to the real cause - fraud and excessive risk taking.

David Mack said...

Agree with essential elements of Mike's post, as well as the comment by Anonymous. As the principal State Department contact with Iraqi opposition figures starting after Desert Storm, I met Ahmed very early in 1991. Indeed, I facilitated his entry to the U.S., despite the Interpol warrant which made him ineligible for routine visa issuance. While I never viewed Ahmed as a likely leader in post-Saddam Iraq, I did find him to be very intelligent, hard working and a good organizer. As long as he was working for the U.S., he served our interests well. We viewed the Iraqi opposition movements as potential catalysts for change within an Iraq that was contained, even though it had an internally abusive government that might once again be a threat to its neighbors. We knew that Ahmed had his own agenda, but as long as we kept a significant degree of influence over his activities, I believe he was useful. Once he got back into Iraq, he quickly began manipulating the USG officials assigned to control him. Moreover, he learned fairly quickly how to manipulate people in the U.S. media, the Congress and out of power Republican politicians who thought they could use him for their own political agenda against the Clinton Administration and, eventually, after the Bush Administration came into office. It is silly to blame Chalabi for what happened after that. He was just better at doing what emigre political opposition leaders have done throughout history. He was just better at it than most of his rivals. After they delivered him to Baghdad in 2003, the Bush Administration quickly started blaming Chalabi when things did not work out as intended. As if Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, etc were not adults responsible for their actions. Maybe they thought they were smarter than Chalabi. They were not, and they underestimated grossly the difficulty of what they had set out to do. Arrogance plus ignorance is a fatal combination.

Anonymous said...

I have a question for Ambassador Mack.

The Interpol warrant was based upon conviction for embezzlement by the courts of one the USA's longstanding Middle Eastern allies in the Middle East, The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Was the decision to admit Mr. Chalabi based on a determination by the US Government that the court decision was unjust? Mr. Chalabi as a modern day Dreyfus?

Or was it based on expediency?

If one deals with crooks and conmen, one shouldn't be surprised to get cheated.

Are stories like this a damning indictment of USA policy in the Middle East?

It seems that the best that the USA can find for allies are the likes of Samir Geagea, the Gemayyels, Mubarak, Ahmad Chalabi, etc. Rather poor company.

David Mack said...

Chalabi was already a resident of the UK, and the decision to admit him for a visit to the U.S. did not require a judgement on the merits of the charge before the Jordanian court.

Anonymous said...

Nor any consideration of his character it seems.