Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who helped the Bush administration lie us into invading Iraq, is dead. Aram Roston at Buzzfeed tells us about his legacy.
If not for the man named Ahmad Chalabi, the United States probably would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. If not for the Iraq War, as a senior CIA official flatly told BuzzFeed News earlier this year, there would be no ISIS. Indeed, the life of the charismatic and obsessive Chalabi, who died Tuesday of heart failure at 71, led to devastating and unpredicted results that will reverberate for decades.
Before he changed American and Middle East history, Chalabi was a failed Iraqi banker accused of massive international financial fraud in the 1980s. But through guile and grit, he managed to transform himself into Saddam Hussein’s most implacable and effective foe. The CIA, in cable traffic, called him Pulsar 1. His followers called him “the Boss” or “the Doctor.”
Because of Chalabi’s own diligent work, America’s elite were primed to believe him. More than anyone else in the late 1990s and the early part of the Bush administration, Chalabi had planted the seed in influential American thinkers, chiefly neoconservatives, that removing Saddam Hussein from power was a strategic imperative. But he did far more. Funded by the U.S., he fed bogus information and propaganda to the American press and to intelligence agencies.
In spring 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq and, as Chalabi boasted, toppled Saddam, because of him and the Iraqi National Congress. He dressed in a black Hugo Boss T-shirt, and he was flown by the American Air Force to the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya with a small army of ill-trained and chaotic “Free Iraqi Forces.”
Chalabi thought the U.S. would help install him as Saddam’s replacement, and he envisioned riding through Baghdad to cheering crowds of Iraqis, like de Gaulle returning triumphant to France. But that never happened. He had lost his influence in Washington, D.C., and he had too many enemies in the U.S. and Iraq.
It was after the invasion he’d pushed so hard for that his true weakness was exposed. He tried again and again to become the ruler of Iraq, convinced he was entitled to it. But he never scored more than 1% of the vote, and instead he survived by building blocks of coalitions and by allying himself with powerful Shiite politicians.
He tried one more time, last summer, to lead Iraq. He convinced his supporters, Americans and a handful of Iraqis, that it was a done deal, that he’d arranged a partnership by which he would become prime minister. In the end, that didn’t happen, and he was left, associates told BuzzFeed News, furious but impotent, convinced that he had been betrayed.
Is he really to blame for the current catastrophes of the region? Certainly, soon after the invasion, he pushed hard to maintain and even deepen Iraq’s sectarian divides, especially for policies that empowered Shiites while ripping the rug from under the Sunnis. Disenfranchising the Sunnis led to the rise of ISIS, which is what the senior CIA official mentioned earlier was referring to.
Still, the truth is that while Chalabi convinced the U.S. to go to war, it was George W. Bush and other American leaders in Congress and the White House who believed him and made the ultimate decision that caused so much damage. He never really had the power to invade, to change history. He just had an astonishing ability to influence and finagle others, and that was enough.
It sounds like he was the perfect partner for Bush/Cheney and the neocons who thought only of their own personal ambitions and vengeance. It had nothing to do with anything more than that. Thousands of lives have been lost for it, and we will be paying for it ourselves for generations to come.