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Chalabi, RAND and the Iraq War

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The following is an excerpt from my book Soldiers of Reason:

Back when neoconservatives ruled Washington (was it really just five years ago?), some conservative observers compared the controversial Iraqi banker-politician Ahmed Chalabi to George Washington. As head of the largest Iraqi exile group, The Iraqi National Congress, he had convinced the Bush administration that invading Iraq would be a cakewalk, that invading Americans would be greeted as liberators, not conquerors. Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, Vice President Dick Cheney, President Bush, all saw Chalabi as the man who would be hailed as the founding father of his country. Nowadays, four thousand American casualties and a trillion dollars later, we see that that Chalabi is really today's Talleyrand.

After the fall of Napoleon in 1814, when the great powers of Europe wanted to dismember France, Talleyrand, a French nobleman, was able to preserve the territorial integrity of France through sheer diplomacy alone. Like Talleyrand, Chalabi used his persuasiveness to save his country, leading the mightiest military power in the world to depose the tyrant of his people, and in the process restore his own family fortune -- all through skilful diplomacy. For, what is diplomacy if not carefully calibrated lies to secure advantage over an adversary?

Chalabi's story, like so many in official Washington over the past 60 years, is linked to RAND -- specifically, to RAND's brilliant nuclear strategist and founding father of neoconservatism, Albert Wohlstetter.

Back to Iraq

Ahmed Chalabi's rise to prominence in Washington circles came at the instigation of Albert Wohlstetter, who met Chalabi in Paul Wolfowitz's office. Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, a friend of Wolfowitz and Wohlstetter, had already talked up the exile to both men, knowing they would see the value of Chalabi's acquaintance. Wolfowitz, Wohlstetter, and Lewis shared similar values and background; each of them secular Jews, defenders of Israel, devoted to reason and to the spread of American values. Wohlstetter and Lewis shared a common fascination with how Kemal Atatürk created the modern, secular Turkish state -- seeing it as a model for the new Iraq Chalabi would lead.

Wohlstetter and Lewis expected that after the depredations of Saddam Hussein, Chalabi and his exile organization, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), could restore the cradle of civilization to her proper place in the world, with a secular government that would make peace with Israel, serve as an example to the Arab "street" -- and never wage war on the United States. As Lewis would write,

The nucleus of such a government is already available, in the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmed Chalabi. In the northern free zone during the '90s they played a constructive role, and might at that time even have achieved the liberation of Iraq had we not failed at crucial moments to support them. Despite a continuing lack of support amounting at times to sabotage, they continue to acquit themselves well in Iraq, and there can be no reasonable doubt that of all the possible Iraqi candidates they are the best in terms alike of experience, reliability, and good will.

That Chalabi was a charmer, nobody could deny. With his expensive suits, exotic accent, and soothing manners, he easily filled the role of the Oriental princeling. Yet few expected at the onset of his quixotic quest that he and his cadre of RAND-originated backers would succeed in convincing the American government to go back to Iraq to finally unseat Hussein. That they managed to do so is a fascinating story about the use and abuse of power, influence, and innuendo.

The scion of an ancient Iraqi family, Chalabi was a precocious child, regularly skipping grades in the Jesuit school he attended in central Baghdad. After King Faisal II was assassinated and his government deposed in 1958, Chalabi's family fled Iraq, losing most of its fortune. Chalabi, then twelve years old, went to boarding school in England. He finished his studies in America, earning undergraduate and master's degrees in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Chicago at the same time Wohlstetter was teaching there, although according to Chalabi they did not meet then.

In 1977, at the invitation of Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, Chalabi moved to Amman; there he founded the Petra Bank, which soon became the country's second-largest financial institution. He befriended the royal family of the small Hashemite kingdom; he lived in an opulent villa filled with modern art, and his children rode horses with the king's family. The pain of exile was mitigated by his growing wealth, yet by 1989 Chalabi was fleeing Jordan to London with his wife and four children, accused of causing the collapse of his own bank. In 1992 a Jordanian court found him guilty in absentia of thirty-one charges, including embezzlement, forgery, and theft; it sentenced him to twenty-two years of hard labor and ordered restitution of $70 million.

Chalabi had even weightier matters to deal with in the years after his escape. In May of 1992, he cofounded in Vienna the INC, a politically and religiously diverse group of Iraqis pledged to establish a representative government in Iraq. Chalabi set up headquarters in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. In the wake of the cease-fire after the Gulf War, and under the subsequent no-fly zone established by American and British planes over northern Iraq, the mountainous region enjoyed something close to autonomy.

In July of 1992, Chalabi put in motion the first of several plots to overthrow Hussein: a mechanized brigade of about 3,000 soldiers and dozens of armored vehicles set off for Baghdad to overthrow the tyrant. Republican Guard troops loyal to Hussein ambushed them, however, and the attempted putsch was snuffed out. More than eighty army officers were captured, tortured, and killed by Hussein's forces. Three years later, Chalabi tried again, but Hussein infiltrated an INC conspiracy and arrested more than 100 officers before the plot could unfold. Then, with the bribed cooperation of a Kurdish leader, Iraqi troops raided and destroyed INC headquarters in the Kurdish region.

Having learned from those and other attempts that he could not defeat Hussein by force of arms, Chalabi turned to Americans to do it for him -- a job that fit in nicely with the aims of Wohlstetter, Wolfowitz, Lewis, and their RAND brethren. Zalmay Khalilzad would call Chalabi "one of the key figures in the fight against Saddam Hussein, organizing to generate support in Europe, the U.S., and Iraq."

Through the good offices of Wohlstetter and Richard Perle, Chalabi soon had the ear of Republican Senate leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as well as that of two powerful former secretaries of defense, Halliburton president Dick Cheney and RAND board of trustees chairman Donald Rumsfeld. He also worked closely with former CIA director James D. Woolsey and with General Wayne Downing (who would serve in the National Security Council under President George H. W. Bush) formulating plans to overthrow Hussein militarily. Their vehicle for convincing the public that regime change in Iraq was in America's best interests was an organization founded in 1997 and similar in scope to the Reagan-era Committee on the Present Danger: the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), similarly boasting of several RAND luminaries as founding members.

From the start, PNAC expressly saw Iraq as the pivot for a new politics for the Middle East. In an open letter to President Clinton in 1998, the group urged him "to enunciate a new strategy that would secure the interests of the United States and our friends and allies around the world. That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power... This will require a full complement of diplomatic, political and military efforts." The letter was signed by Wolfowitz, Perle, Dan Quayle, Cheney, former RAND president Henry Rowen, Rumsfeld, and RAND Pardee School of Policy director Khalilzad.

Months later, the same signatories would go a step further and ask that the administration deal directly with Chalabi's INC as the sole representative of the Iraqi people. That year, President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which declared, "It should be the policy of the United Stares to support efforts to remove the [Hussein] regime from power." There were no teeth in that promise, as the law did not specify how the liberation would take place -- at least not overtly. Covertly, the INC had been burning through a $100 million CIA war chest authorized by President Bush after the Gulf War to fund enemies of Hussein. After the Iraq Liberation Act, the State Department funded the INC with an additional $33 million. When that money was cut off in 2000, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency took up the slack, subsidizing the INC to the tune of $335,000 a month.

In exchange for American support, Chalabi not only lent legitimacy to neoconservatives advocating regime change in Iraq but also provided them with information on purported Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. A panoply of informers, many of them recruited by a wide-ranging network of INC collaborators inside and outside Iraq, delivered ever-more ominous reports, most of which proved false -- Saddam has laboratories making biochemical weapons; Saddam is collaborating with al Qaeda; Saddam is buying materials needed to make nuclear bombs -- a constant chorus of impending doom from the INC in Washington and from neoconservative think tanks and advocacy groups.

After the razor-thin victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000, PNAC packed the new Bush administration with its members, just as the Committee for the Present Danger had packed the Reagan administration with its own. Rumsfeld became secretary of defense; Wolfowitz was named deputy secretary of defense; Perle was appointed chairman of the Defense Planning Board; Richard L. Armitage became deputy secretary of state; Khalilzad was named U.S. ambassador to the Iraqis in exile, then ambassador to Afghanistan, then to Iraq, and finally to the United Nations; and, of course, Cheney became the most powerful vice president in American history.

In the weeks following the calamity of September 11, 2001, the neoconservative lobby was perfectly placed to advocate Chalabi's cause. Within days, Wolfowitz was telling the president that there was from 10 to 50 percent probability that Iraq had been involved in the attack. Soon the president was leaning on his intelligence people to find evidence that would link Hussein to 9/11. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, borrowing a page from the Team B playbook of the 1970s, established the Office of Special Plans to produce intelligence analyses that would override the CIA and prepare a justification for the upcoming war in
Iraq -- relying on information provided by Chalabi's INC. In the media, neoconservatives continually whipped up the cries for war against Iraq, going so far as to affirm that deposing Hussein would be "a cakewalk."