The Tragic Career of Ahmad Chalabi

He failed to lead Iraq out of the conflict his deceptions helped launch. He had the potential to do so much better.

An Iraqi tribal leader stands near a portrait of Ahmad Chalabi during a rally in Baghdad in 2004. (Reuters)

The obituaries for Ahmad Chalabi have, inevitably, focused on his role in persuading U.S. President George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq, and his contribution to the fabrication of evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he helped make the case for the most disastrous war in Iraqi history.

But that would not have prevented him from becoming a bona fide hero in Iraq. In the summer of 2003, the majority of Iraqis—not only among the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north, but also among the Sunnis in Baghdad—would have had no problem with the idea that Chalabi’s lies had led to the war. They would have argued, as many did, that the end justified his means.

It’s easily forgotten now, but most Iraqis hated life under Saddam, especially in his final decade. A sense of hopelessness and helplessness pervaded the country. There was common consensus that no internal revolution was going to oust the tyrant of Baghdad (as I have argued elsewhere, an Arab Spring-like uprising would never had worked in Iraq), and that the only external power capable to toppling Saddam was the U.S.

If it took some mendacity from Chalabi to nudge the American war machine in the direction of Baghdad, most Iraqis would have seen this as lying in the service of a greater national good—patriotic perfidy, if you like.

Chalabi would never have put it that way, of course: He maintained that he had not deceived the Bush administration. But some of his acolytes and admirers make the argument for him, privately telling journalists that Chalabi had only been guilty of opportunism. The Bush administration had been looking for excuses to go to war in Iraq, and he had supplied some. He was, in the words of one obituarist, “first and foremost, an Iraqi patriot.” But this portrayal of Chalabi ignores the second part of his ambition: He wanted, to paraphrase an axiom from French politics, to be Saddam instead of Saddam. He had apparently hoped that the Americans would make him Iraq’s leader. He would, of course, be a benevolent ruler—he talked of democracy, human rights, and political freedoms. But when his hopes were dashed, when the Bush administration made him the scapegoat for its inability to find any of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, Chalabi swiftly dropped his pious pronouncements about democracy and secularism, and ingratiated himself with the foreign power that had greater clout in Iraqi politics: Iran.

He tried to reinvent himself as a Shiite politician with ties to Tehran. But he didn’t have the credibility to pull this off. For one thing, Iraqis knew he had arrived “on an American tank,” as the popular expression went. For another, there were plenty of politicians who had real sectarian credentials and Iranian connections. Tehran tolerated Chalabi—it must have amused the mullahs to no end to have a former American ally as their own puppet—but it never trusted him with any real power. Chalabi might still have made it to the top if he had the appetite for the hard grind of democratic politics—the difficult, time-consuming, often messy work of creating a party infrastructure across the country, campaigning in the heat and dust of the Iraqi heartland, and making alliances across sectarian and ideological lines. But his efforts in the lead-up to general elections were never more than desultory, and his Iraqi National Congress never got very far beyond Baghdad’s nicer neighborhoods. He always sought the easy way, trying to finagle his way to power.

In this, Chalabi was not alone. Most of the secular exiles who arrived in Iraq “on American tanks” displayed an exaggerated degree of entitlement, expecting Iraqis to vote for them for no other reason than their stated good intentions. When they failed to win power, rather than go back to the drawing board and try harder the next time, the secularists sulked and skulked around the margins. The sectarian parties, Shiite and Sunni alike, certainly enjoyed a natural advantage—they could rely on a network of mosques and tribal connections to bring out the vote—but they also worked harder.

Chalabi’s failure was the more egregious because he had the potential to do so much better. Unlike most of the other secularists, he had substantial name recognition, a huge asset. He got more airtime on Arabic TV than any other politician. And his ability to use the world’s most powerful nation to pursue his goal had earned him Iraqi respect. Unable to capitalize on these advantages, he capitulated at the first hurdle, trading his secular-progressive credentials for a bit part in sectarian politics.

Chalabi was never much of a retail politician—his speeches were stilted, at best. And his abilities as a backroom operator were vastly overstated. His personal charm, also substantial, worked better on a gathering of neoconservatives in Washington than on a group of tribal chieftains in Baghdad. I remember watching him at one meeting of rural sheikhs, where he treated his bewildered guests to a long, rambling exegesis on Western political systems, oblivious to their transparent lack of interest. When he invited them to ask questions, one of them pointed to an intricately carved elephant’s tusk in the corner of Chalabi’s living room, asked where he had got it, and what he paid for it.

When they group left, Chalabi pronounced himself satisfied that the meeting had gone well.

He never stopped dreaming about power. Every so often, rumors would surface that Chalabi was in the running for prime ministership, as a compromise candidate in the middle of some feud between Shiite grandees. Often, those rumors were started by the Chalabi camp.

There will be no more rumors. Iraqi politics is not poorer for Chalabi’s death: By failing to live up to his potential, he had already impoverished it in life.