POLITICS
07/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Becomes Latest To Feel Chalabi's Burn

By now, Americans are accustomed to getting burned by Ahmad Chalabi. The Iraqi exile turned political official was instrumental in greasing the wheels for George W. Bush's war efforts only to be disavowed for leaking sensitive information to Iran. Numerous journalists, meanwhile, worked with Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress for stories on weapons of mass destruction (see: Miller, Judith) only to discover that the information they were being fed was monumentally bogus.

Now, Sen. John McCain - a longtime Chalabi advocate with many ties to the man - finds himself on the receiving end of this bamboozlement.

On Tuesday, Eli Lake reported for the New York Sun that the recent decision of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to endorse Barack Obama's troop withdrawal plan was likely driven by Chalabi's hand.

"Maliki," Lake writes, "had been advised by the Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi to express public support for the Obama withdrawal plan. Asked for a comment yesterday, Mr. Chalabi, an old hand at working the American political process to the advantage of Iraq, conveyed a statement via his Washington representative, Francis Brooke: 'This is an honor I will not claim and a rumor I will not deny.'"

If the report, which is seen as a huge blow to John McCain's candidacy, is true -- and with Chalabi, skepticism is required -- it would symbolize a Shakespearean act of political betrayal. Few American figures have done more to advance Chalabi's cause and career than the presumptive Republican nominee and his closest advisers.

As detailed in Aram Roston's book, "The Man Who Pushed America To War," the Arizona Republican was on Chalabi's International Committee for a Free Iraq way back in 1991. During the Clinton administration, McCain tried to pressure the president to set up an Iraqi government in exile and co-sponsored the Iraq Liberation Act, which called on the U.S. to overthrow Saddam Hussein and fund opposition groups. Around that time, as John Judis of The New Republic reported, McCain welcomed Chalabi to Washington and "pressured the administration to give him money. When General Anthony Zinni cast doubt upon the effectiveness of the Iraqi opposition, McCain rebuked him at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee."

When McCain made his first run for the White House, Chalabi called him his preferred candidate. Three years later McCain returned the favor, calling the Iraqi exile "a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart."

"His ties to McCain go back 18 years," Roston told the Huffington Post. "McCain has been supportive of his cause for so long, and signed on to it early, in 1991... I don't know if they are still in communication, but it is hard to imagine after this especially."

But it's not just McCain. The Senator's chief adviser, Charlie Black, has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying on behalf of Chalabi's former group, the Iraqi National Congress. The head of the powerhouse firm BKHS, he brought Chalabi access into Washington's inner circles of power, even helping him land a seat in First Lady Laura Bush's VIP box during the 2004 State of the Union address.

Another Chalabi advocate was McCain foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann, who promoted the exiled figure as "the new Iraqi Atatur," and championed the now-debunked claims that Saddam possessed caches of WMD. As president of the neoconservative Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, Scheunemann accused the State Department and CIA of distrusting Chalabi for "ideological reasons" (not personality concerns) during a 2003 NewsHour interview. A year later, Chalabi was reported to have passed Iraqi government secrets to Iranian agents, prompting the Defense Intelligence Agency to conclude that he was "manipulating the United States."

All of these personal and political ties were not, apparently, enough to keep Chalabi in McCain's favor. Maliki's support of Obama's withdrawal plan (even if later qualified) was a devastating blow to the Arizona Republican. And if Chalabi helped orchestrate it, even his biographers say it would be a new level of duplicity for a political career marked by self-interest and exploitation.

"He's brilliant and sees so many steps ahead that he can manipulate people not on his side," said Roston. "He is more of a politician than most politicians... and has burned so many and on both sides of the aisle. But it is also true that people have a real personal affection for him, especially in Iraq, despite these real Byzantine betrayals."