I've just come out of hearing Ahmad Chalabi speak at the Council on Foreign Relations (an embarrassment that the august organization will have to work to overcome).
Chalabi was a polished speaker -- which made the b.s. he was peddling easier to swallow but no less nauseating.
The only thing that made Chalabi's talk bearable was the group of friends who had come with me -- including John Cusack, Jeremy Pikser, Mark Layner, and Grace Loh. Like insolent high-schoolers, we kept passing notes back and forth, offering each other real time translations of what he was saying.
This report is our collective take on the event, cobbled together in the car after we left.
Our main takeaway from the speech was the dissonance between Iraq's reality and Chalabi's presentation.
He was very smooth. Many in the crowd left muttering about how impressive he was, effectively wondering, Why were people saying all those awful things about such a nice man?
Watching him speak, you'd have no clue that this was a man at the epicenter of one of the great tragedies of our time (to say nothing of being a wanted man in Jordan and under investigation by the FBI).
Instead, he looked like a guy whose ship had just come in -- giving off an aura that was a curious cross between Moses, Dick Cheney, and Oliver Reed.
We were all struck by his command of political buzzwords and American slang -- at one point declaring that the idea he had used faulty intelligence to lead the U.S. into invading Iraq was "an urban myth." (For some urban reality, read David Corn's takedown on Chalabi's use of this term in relation to another charge against him.)
I've seen this response before. People are always impressed when a foreigner can string 3 sentences together (it's a reaction that's served me well over the years).
Chalabi was introduced by another well-spoken foreigner, his old friend Fouad Ajami. Ajami's introduction couldn't have been more glowing. We had to check the program to make sure we weren't about to hear from Nelson Mandela. The CV we were given made it sound like Chalabi's life was a seamless trajectory from his birth in Baghdad through his PhD from the University of Chicago to his current role as Deputy Prime Minister -- without any mention of the scandal, corruption, and crimes that have followed wherever he has gone.
Looking tan, rested, a little balding, and very well fed, Chalabi delivered a casual talk that called to mind the fireside chats of FDR.
Here are some of the stand-out moments that most struck our little group:
On the insurgency: "There is no communal strife in Iraq. Only individual acts of violence."
On his relationship with Iran (the source of that FBI investigation): "completely transparent."
On Ayatollah Sistani: "He has no interest in politics. It's the last thing on his mind."
On the corruption that has plagued the U.S. occupation of Iraq: "95% of the corruption is gone."
On Iraqi oil and gas: Chalabi said that, according to the new Iraqi Constitution, all of the country's oil and gas are owned by the people. He then repeatedly mentioned how important it was to open the country -- including its oil and gas resources -- to privatization. He also predicted that gas prices in Iraq would continue to rise, but mitigated it by saying that it wouldn't really matter because poor people don't have cars anyway.
On the terrorists plaguing Iraq: When asked about whether his statement that the terrorists have better intelligence about the government than the government has about the terrorists "wasn't alarming" -- he replied: "Yes, that is alarming." But he didn't look at all alarmed.
On the Iraqi Army: He made it clear that the Iraqi army was going to have to go on a spending spree to buy American-produced weaponry as opposed to the inferior Eastern European arms they now have. Clearly a bonanza for U.S. defense contractors.
"We have achieved democracy," he announced at one point. Good to know. It was all very congratulatory, clubby and collegial. Dissident voices were not allowed. When I stood up to ask a question, I had the microphone offered and then quickly taken away at the moderator's prompting as soon as I introduced myself.
For the record, here is what I was planning to ask: "It has now been established, including by the Robb-Silberman commission, that the group you headed, the Iraqi National Congress, coached defectors to fabricate information about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction to the intelligence community. Do you take responsibility for the actions of the group?"
The presentation ended with Ajami praising Chalabi again and comparing him to Scheherazade, saying they both understood that the secret of a good story is to end it with the audience wanting more. True enough. We certainly left wanting more from Chalabi. Like some direct answers. And the truth.
A half-hour after leaving the speech, I got a surprising message through the Council from Chalabi's office asking if I could meet him for breakfast tomorrow morning at 8:15 at his hotel. I really would have loved to but my flight for L.A. leaves at 7 a.m. Too bad. It would have been great to blog about "My Breakfast with Chalabi."
Update: My Dinner with Chalabi
But that was not the end. Since breakfast was not possible, I was invited to dinner at Megu, a Japanese restaurant in TriBeCa with his daughter and members of his entourage. More about my surreal evening chilling with Chalabi on Monday (I'm off to San Diego to board the M.S. Oosterdam for a weekend on The Nation magazine seminar cruise to Mexico). Oh yes, but before I sign off, Chalabi did tell me he was meeting with Cheney on Monday and that he had met with Judy Miller on Thursday.