“I just get up every morning to confound my enemies.”
Richard Milhous Nixon to Senator Robert Dole
"Generally speaking, an urban legend is any modern, fictional story, told as truth, that reaches a wide audience by being passed from person to person. Urban legends are often false, but not always. A few turn out to be largely true, and a lot of them were inspired by an actual event but evolved into something different in their passage from person to person. More often than not, it isn't possible to trace an urban legend back to its original source -- they seem to come from nowhere."
November 14, 2005
For some time Ahmed Abdel Hadi Chalabi was known in neoconservative circles as the “George Washington of Iraq.” No Iraqi exile got more time, attention, ink, airtime, and federal government funding than this crafty and controversial Shi’a politician who is – if nothing else – a survivor, sui generis.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, and for some time afterwards, Dr. Chalabi – a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago – was the Iraqi of choice for the neoconservative congregation, beginning with Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and the full run of founding brothers of the Project for the New American Century –Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, Scooter Libby, and many others.
Beyond that, some of the country’s most influential columnists and reporters -- most notably the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland and the New York Times Judith Miller – were in thrall to the founder of the London-based Iraqi National Congress, the organization through which millions of State and Defense Department dollars flowed freely.
Moments after the fall of Baghdad (sic) and Saddam’s statue -- the moment of peak experience for all those who had counseled regime change -- Chalabi swept into southern Iraq with U. S. armed forces, while loudly proclaiming disinterest in holding public office in a newly-liberated Iraq.
But in between the time that looters began showing up and WMD’s did not, Chalabi’s pronouncement and fortunes began to shift, slowly and then with more velocity.
In January 2004, he held a place of high honor, seated just behind First Lady Laura Bush at the State of the Union Message. But by May, the President would authorize U. S. troops to accompany Iraqi police in a raid of Chalabi’s expansive home and office compound, to seize his papers, arrest two of his aides, and officially bring the era of good feelings to an abrupt halt.
The Bush Administration’s open arms and open pocketbook policy turned from benign neglect to cold shoulder and, finally, to “Ahmed Who?” – a practice honed to perfection with Enron’s “Kenny Boy” Lay.
And then the fun began, in earnest.
Chalabi way down.
Chalabi way down and out.
Chalabi way down, out – and irretrievably out.
And then -- much like the junior senator from California who became the Republican Party’s 1952 vice presidential nominee, who was nearly dumped from the ticket just before the election, who saved his political life with the infamous Checkers speech, who won the 1960 presidential nomination of his party, who narrowly lost the election to JFK, who went on to lose the 1962 California governor’s race, and who famously said, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” -- suddenly Ahmed Chalabi was back.
First, as a member of the Interim Governing Council, briefly as its President, then Oil Minister in the Interim government, and now as Deputy Prime Minister. And all this for a man who was deemed “most trusted leader” by less than 1% of Iraqis in a 2004 BBC-sponsored poll.
At this moment in Iraq’s political gestation -- from dictatorship to democracy and, perhaps, to civil war along the way – Ahmed Chalabi is beginning to look a lot more like Richard Milhous Nixon than George Washington.
However, the question is: “Which Richard Nixon”? the comeback kid? the crook? Or both?
Few public figures in any country have recovered so rapidly and repeatedly as this pugnacious politician, not even Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton.
But even fewer can match his problematic curriculum vitae.
In the 1970s, Chalabi was convicted and sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to a seventeen-year prison sentence for fraud and embezzlement in the collapse of Petra Bank; in the 1990s, he became the purveyor-in-chief of intelligence about Saddam’s WMD program, which has now been fully discredited but not before becoming Exhibit A in Colin Powell’s UN Security Council presentation; and in 2004, he was investigated for currency fraud and grand theft in Iraq, accused of espionage for funneling U. S. state secrets to Iran, and charged with interference in the U. S. investigation of the UN Oil-for-Food Program.
There’s more, but this covers the basics.
Despite this unrivaled rap sheet, Deputy Prime Minister Chalabi made a triumphal return to Washington DC last week, to the town where he has been both embraced and scorned by the Bush Administration and its ideological kitchen cabinet.
Following visits with Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Treasury Secretary John Snow, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and others, Chalabi made his way to the chambers of America’s foreign policy establishment on Friday afternoon to address members of the Council on Foreign Relations (and a few members of the press and punditry who attended via teleconference hookup.)
It was vintage Chalabi – confident, self-assured, and forthright in tone if not always in content. The highlight of the conversation, led by Council director and distinguished Middle East scholar, Fouad Ajami, came when a member asked about Chalabi’s role in promoting regime change through the provision of now-discredited WMD intelligence.
Without hesitation, Chalabi dismissed those personal charges as “urban legend.”
Perhaps that’s the story of this war, commencing with Vice President Cheney’s August 2002 war drum speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention – “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”
And President Bush’s Cincinnati speech in October of that year: “We've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and gas.”
Right on through to the President’s 2005 Veteran’s Day speech in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania – “At this hour, a new generation of Americans is defending our flag and our freedom in the first war of the 21st century. The war came to our shores on September the 11th, 2001. That morning we saw the destruction that terrorist (sic) intend for our nation. We know that they want to strike again.”
And in between a spate of statements by every headliner in the Administration, which became part of the litany of urban legends – about Saddam and 9-11, Saddam and Al Qaeda, Saddam and WMD’s, American troops greeted as liberators, mushroom clouds, the road to Baghdad runs through Jerusalem, the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad, bringing democracy to the Middle East, the insurgency being in its last throes, and on and on and on.
“Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I’ve talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House.”
“But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
"Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things . . . "Stuff happens . . . "
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
“I disagree, yes. And you’ll find the CIA, for example, and other key parts of the intelligence community disagree ... we know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. ElBaradei (Director of the IAEA) frankly is wrong.”
No matter your politics; no matter your views on the legitimacy, morality, or conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom and its various offspring, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others in this Administration have engaged in the folk art form of the urban legend for more than three years to defend this war and to support a cause in which they believed fervently.
As the Council on Foreign Relations’ James Lindsay and his Brookings Institution co-author, Ivo Daalder (American Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy) have argued for some time:
“ . . . the Iraq War was more about an excess of conviction than a lack of honesty.”
Better and earlier than Lindsay and Daalder, perhaps, is Francis Bacon’s observation nearly four hundred years ago:
“People tend to believe what they hope to be true.”
And that, dear reader, is the story of how the United States of America got itself into an unimaginably long slog that has consumed more of its precious human resources than the American military family could have ever imagined, more money than Lawrence Lindsey ever predicted, and more of its international and domestic political capital than it had to spend in the first place.
But it sounds like we're going to have Ahmed Chalabi to "kick around" for a lot longer.