'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Comeback Kid 

Last spring when the US and the media first turned on Ahmed Chalabi there was a fair bit of skepticism about the reality of the break. It was sudden, unforeshadowed, and largely inexplicable, and some commentators speculated that the whole fall of Chalabi narrative was a misinformation campaign perpetrated by neoconservatives to bolster Chalabi's image in Iraq. Contributing editor for The Nation and senior correspondent for The American Prospect, Robert Dreyfuss, writing for TomPaine.com, claimed to even have a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute speaking on the record about this topic:

Chalabi, of course, is the roly-poly perpetrator of intelligence fraud and the convicted bank embezzler who still hopes to be leader of Iraq. Lately, Chalabi has scuttled into a would-be alliance with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the scowly fatwa man. In doing so, he's had the temerity to criticize the United States, leading some fuzzy thinkers to believe that Chalabi, whose puppet strings are made of steel, might be trying to show some independence from Washington. Well, says [Michael] Rubin, who served as one the Pentagon's liaisons to Chalabi, that's exactly what they want you to think:

"Much of the information he collected was to roll up the insurgency and Ba'athist cells. It caught people red-handed," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser who is now at a conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

"By telegraphing that he is not the favorite son of America, the administration will bolster him, showing he is his own man."

In other words, it's all a big con game. The still-neocon-dominated Pentagon -- which this week stopped funding Chalabi's INC -- is playing its last card, hoping that it can boost Chalabi's sagging fortunes by pretending to sever ties with him. That, the neocons hope, will allow Chalabi to strengthen his ties to Sistani, the king-making mullah who, they hope, holds Iraq's fate in his wrinkled hands.

At the time, I didn't buy this story for two reasons. If Chalabi was secretly still in the fold, I argued, then why was Richard Perle defending him? -- Shouldn't the Prince of Darkness have been shocked! shocked! to discover that Chalabi was a counterfeiter and an Iranian spy? That question, I think, still holds up. My other reason for believing that Chalabi actually had been excommunicated was that I thought the neoconservatives didn't have the political capital to launch media misinformation campaigns and so forth. Despite the resignation of Feith and other recent events, that belief now seems a little quaint to me.

Given the elections and the weird news stories in which members of the Allawi administration threatened to arrest Chalabi and hand him over to Interpol, I think it's time to take another look at the old speculation about the oddness of BushCo's decision to stab Ahmed in the back last spring. After all, Chalabi's girlfriend Judy just told Chris Matthews that the US is "reaching out" to Chalabi, insinuating that various parties are maneuvering to make sure Ahmed ends up as an interior minister in Iraq:

MATTHEWS: What does that mean?

MILLER: Well, there were, for example, some very tense relations between Ahmed Chalabi and the administration after they had raided his home, after they had accused him of being an Iranian agent, of giving information to Iran.


MILLER: We now are told, according to my sources, that the administration has been reaching out to Mr. Chalabi to offer him expressions of cooperation and support. And according to one report, he was even offered a chance to be an interior minister in the new government. But I think one effect of this vote is going to be that the Iraqis themselves will decide who will hold...

and, furthermore, the neocon hope Dreyfuss discussed in the above has come to pass: Chalabi has indeed "strengthen[ed] his ties" to Sistani.

Claude Salhani, UPI's international editor, recently wrote

If U.S. foreign policy planners were Machiavellian enough, one could be led to believe that they planned the whole affair surrounding former Pentagon golden boy Ahmed Chalabi, the man most likely to become the new prime minister of Iraq. But their track record -- and history -- has proven otherwise. [ ... ]

Since his fall from favor with the U.S. administration, Chalabi, a Shiite, re-aligned himself with Iraq's most revered Shiite religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. It was undoubtedly one of his smartest moves. Again, analysts remarked that if U.S. intelligence was Machiavellian enough, they would have orchestrated the whole episode. What better way to give Chalabi credibility among many Iraqis, particularly among those opposed to the U.S. occupation, than to make him appear a pariah to the United States?

Salhani speculates about a reality in which U.S. foreign policy planners are "Machiavellian enough" to have consciously created Chalabi's current position in Iraqi politics but concludes that "their track record" proves otherwise. Needless to say, I disagree with that conclusion and, further, suspect that Salhani does too but cannot say as much because he is an editor for an international press service rather than the editor of an obscure leftist blog. I do, however, have my doubts that U.S. foreign policy planners orchestrated the Chalabi affair -- not because they are not Machiavellian enough but because they haven't demonstrated lately that they are competent enough to pull off this sort of non-trivial political engineering (and I may be misreading Salhani in the above -- perhaps lack of competence is what he means when he writes of the Pentagon planners' "track record")

In the same essay, Salhani makes the following claim

Iraqis who voted Sunday chose a slate rather than a candidate. Given that the names of most candidates were not revealed due to security concerns, many Iraqis voted for the slate their religious leaders told them to vote for. Chalabi was the lead candidate on Sistani's slate. If Sistani's slate wins, Chalabi will most likely become the next prime minister of Iraq.

which I have read nowhere else. Even Judy Miller only hinted that Chalabi was being groomed for a position as an "interior minister" -- perhaps oil minister or finance minister, as Chris Matthews suggested during Miller's appearance on Hardball. Let's just say if this all plays out and Ahmed Chalabi ends up as the prime minister of Iraq then I apologize for doubting Robert Dreyfuss last spring...

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