I have long been fascinated by political exiles and their outsized dreams and intrigues. Some of them will say or do anything to return home in glory. Ahmad Chalabi was such an exile. He died yesterday at the age of 71.
Chalabi is best known as the Iraqi exile leader who talked the neo-cons into ousting Saddam Hussein by hook or crook; primarily by the latter. Chalabi was a silver-tongued opportunist who started whispering in the ears of official Washington not long after the first Gulf War. His goal was to return to Baghdad accompanied by the American military. As we all know, his dream was realized. It was followed by a nightmare for Iraqis and Americans alike. Things didn’t go as planned for Chalabi. His political career laid an egg: he was largely unknown in Iraq and regarded as an American catspaw by those in the know. They were wrong: he duped the so-called tough guys and hard men of the United States national security apparatus.
Chalabi was a skilled con man and fabricator of “evidence,” which is, perhaps, one reason I find him so appallingly fascinating. He understood his American audience and played to their fears and delusions. To Cheney, it was finish the job you started in 1990. To W, it was avenge your father, Saddam tried to have him whacked. To Rummy, time to show up Poppy Bush for the feckless fool you believe him to be. Con men know what buttons to push and what marks to target: Paul Wolfowitz was born to be conned by Chalabi. Wolfy’s unholy blend of arrogance and gullibility made him the perfect sucker for the likes of Chalabi. As recently as 2014, Wolfy thought his boy Ahmad would be a fine Iraqi Prime Minister even though he’d been playing footsie with Iran for years.
Despite Chalabi’s lies and Machiavellian maneuverings, I don’t blame him for Bush, Cheney, and Rummy’s Iraq misadventure. He was doing what exile politicians do: lying, selling, and exaggerating for his cause. The Bush administration was ostensibly made up of grown-ups who could have said no to the wily con man. They did not: widespread death and destruction ensued. It’s still going on.
Ahmad Chalabi thought he was playing a long con that would make him the ruler of Iraq. Things obviously didn’t turn out as planned. It was, however, a successful short con on terms that only an exile could understand: his target was overthrown and executed.
Wishful thinking and the dreams of exile politicians are a poor basis for policy making. It remains astonishing to me that the Bushies not only followed Chalabi into the rabbit hole, they led the way. The next time an exile tries to sell us a used war, we should pass.