Before the war, no Arab was more influential on US policy toward Iraq than Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress and a favorite of the hawkish neoconservative faction in and around the Bush administration. Now Washington is placing its complete confidence in Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat and UN special envoy to Iraq.
The two have been engaged in an open spat that reveals much about the evolving US strategy in Iraq, and about power struggles within the Bush administration.
As Brahimi has been slowly unveiling aspects of his plan for an Iraqi transitional authority to be installed on June 30, it has become increasingly clear that there will be a concerted attempt to exclude some figures – especially Chalabi – who serve on the Iraqi Governing Council which is to be disbanded.
Chalabi has responded by dismissing Brahimi as “an Algerian with an Arab nationalist agenda” and “a controversial … not a unifying figure.” Though Chalabi still has supporters in the administration – some in the Pentagon and vice-president’s office are said to continue to advocate a major role for him – his falling star indicates a clear deterioration in the influence of neoconservative thinking on Iraq.
To some extent at least, Chalabi represents pre-war attitudes in Washington; simple certainties about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), Saddam Hussein’s links to Al-Qaeda, and the prospects for a stable, democratic, pro-American and pro-Israeli Iraq emerging soon after a US invasion. Brahimi’s rise reflects a deepening recognition of more complex realities and greater challenges; a growing sense that the United States must deal with existing circumstances in Iraqi rather than attempting to quickly reshape the country in its own image.
These changes indicate the strengthening of State Department and CIA attitudes toward Iraq, which always viewed Chalabi with skepticism and advocated a greater role for multilateral institutions and regional figures.
Andrew Cockburn, a journalist who has written extensively on Iraq, told The Daily Star: “Chalabi is a victim of the shift in power in Washington, and the complete collapse of the American agenda in Iraq – the other example being the ascendancy of Brahimi.”
Supporters of both sides have been making furious attacks in the US media. The pro-Israeli New York Sun featured an anti-Brahimi story entitled, Bush’s Iraq Man Betrayed the Lebanese to Syrian Regime. The Los Angeles Times quoted a Republican congressional staffer as calling the story “character assassination.” The neoconservative Wall Street Journal made a similar attack asking: “Whose side is Brahimi on?” The opposite attitude was summed up by Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times column demanding that the administration “dump Chalabi and other carpetbaggers. They are US stooges who undermine the legitimacy of any government they are in.”
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst who is among the most influential commentators on Iraq at the moment, urged the committee to investigate what happened to intelligence files of the former regime entrusted to Chalabi early in the occupation.
“My expectation is that you will find Chalabi systematically destroyed records incriminating him and his cronies, and used other records to bribe and blackmail people in Iraq into supporting him, and probably even fabricated others that implicated rivals of his in activity supportive of Saddam Hussein’s regime,” Pollack told the committee.
Nothing endeared Chalabi more to his neoconservative supporters than his assurances that Iraqis in general – other than Saddam Hussein – had no problem with Israel, and his trip to Israel in the mid-1990s to visit then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By contrast, Brahimi recently identified Israeli policies as “the greatest poison” in the Middle East, prompting howls of outrage from Israel’s US supporters, but no diminution in Washington’s virtually unconditional backing for him.
Another clear sign that the Washington is changing course on Iraq is its reversal on the “de-Baathification” program, which Chalabi heads. The US civil administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has acknowledged that the policy of banning all members of the deposed Baath Party excluded too much of the technocratic Iraqi middle class, and that the program had been run in a corrupt and unfair manner.
Faisal Istrabadi of the Iraqi Independent Democrats and a legal adviser to Adnan Pachachi agreed, telling The Daily Star: “There was no greater advocate of de-baathification than I, but on-the-ground realities meant that, as it was done, it was too comprehensive and too rife with corruption. The policy failed as a result.”
Chalabi has also been widely blamed for concocting bogus information from Iraqi “defectors” who, in the drive toward war, spun elaborate tales of WMDs and terrorism ties to US government agencies and journalists, most notoriously Judith Miller of the New York Times, in exchange for millions of dollars from the Pentagon.
Cockburn said simply: “Chalabi’s outlived his usefulness – he’s signally failed to deliver any puppet regime in Baghdad.”
“When the neoconservatives were in ascendance,” Cockburn said, “he was a useful appendage and good for dealing with credulous journalists. His sponsors have failed to produce the goods in the war and now, rather unfairly, seek to blame him.”
One of the most vocal supporters of both the war and Chalabi in Washington, journalist Christopher Hitchens, told The Daily Star: “Since there cannot be an inquest into what has been going wrong in Iraq that would blame someone in the US government without it turning fratricidal, and though (Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul) Wolfowitz and (Secretary of State Colin) Powell might like to blame each other, both have hostages from each other’s camp, so to speak, so the best bet seems to try to blame poor old Ahmed.”
“He makes a pretty easy scapegoat,” Hitchens argues, “because in fact the original charge against him – that he is a puppet of the Bush Administration – isn’t true. He’s come athwart everyone, and this allows him to be blamed for everything that has gone wrong.”
Some continue to argue that if only more weight and support had been thrown behind Chalabi, the United States might have avoided many of the travails it now faces in Iraq.
This was among the thrusts of a gloomy internal Coalition Provisional Authority memo recently exposed by investigative reporter Jason Vest, who told The Daily Star: “The support shown to Chalabi in the memo sums up the self-deluding quality of those determined to press on with the original administration agenda in the face of clear and recognized evidence of its folly.”
Even given the obvious shifts indicated in the move away from Chalabi and toward Brahimi, Washington still seems to be looking for the panacea for the ills of Iraq to come from an individual Arab, and is still hoping to discover the formula for a rapid – almost magical – transformation of that society.
In the meantime, of course, the United States has made it quite clear that the transfer of “sovereignty” on June 30 will not entail a redistribution of real authority in Iraq.
As Cockburn put it: “All of this seems to me to be slightly beside the point, since Iraq will in fact continue to be ruled by General Sanchez or some other US general after June 30.”