2006 November 11 Saturday
Chalabi Blames Wolfowitz For Iraq Debacle

Ahmad Chalabi, once the Iraqi exile pied piper of neoconservative war hawks in Washington DC, has lost power in Iraq and moved to his Mayfair flat in London where a reporter for the New York Times interviewed him.

He is here in London, his longtime home in exile, temporarily, he says, taking his first vacation in five years. At lunch at a nearby restaurant an hour before, he ordered the sea bass wrapped in a banana leaf. He walks the streets unattended by armed guards.

But the interlude, Chalabi says, is just that, a passing thing. His doubters will come back to him; they always have. As ever, he wears a jester’s smile, wide and blank, a mask that has carried him through crises of the first world and the third. Still, a touch of bitterness can creep into Chalabi’s voice, a hint that he has concluded that his time has come and gone. Indeed, even for a man as vain and resilient as Chalabi, his present predicament stands too large to go unacknowledged. Once Iraq’s anointed leader — anointed by the Americans — Chalabi, at age 62, is without a job, spurned by the very colleagues whose ascension he engineered. His benefactors in the White House and in the Pentagon, who once gobbled up whatever half-baked intelligence Chalabi offered, now regard him as undependable and — worse — safely ignored. Chalabi’s life work, an Iraq liberated from Saddam Hussein, a modern and democratic Iraq, is spiraling toward disintegration. Indeed, for many in the West, Chalabi has become the personification of all that has gone wrong in Iraq: the lies, the arrogance, the occupation as disaster.

“The real culprit in all this is Wolfowitz,” Chalabi says, referring to his erstwhile backer, the former deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz. “They chickened out. The Pentagon guys chickened out.”

Chalabi still considers Wolfowitz a friend, so he proceeds carefully. America’s big mistake, Chalabi maintains, was in failing to step out of the way after Hussein’s downfall and let the Iraqis take charge. The Iraqis, not the Americans, should have been allowed to take over immediately — the people who knew the country, who spoke the language and, most important, who could take responsibility for the chaos that was unfolding in the streets. An Iraqi government could have acted harshly, even brutally, to regain control of the place, and the Iraqis would have been without a foreigner to blame. They would have appreciated the firm hand. There would have been no guerrilla insurgency or, if there was, a small one that the new Iraqi government could have ferreted out and crushed on its own. An Iraqi leadership would have brought Moktada al-Sadr, the populist cleric, into the government and house-trained him. The Americans, in all likelihood, could have gone home. They certainly would have been home by now.

Is his argument plausible? We could have invaded, put the exile Iraqis in charge with lots of money, and then promised to leave in, say, 9 months? We certainly could have physically done this. Would that have motivated the Shias to band together to build up enough forces to keep the Sunnis from taking over? Then we could have just left regardless of the level of violence.

But would an invasion followed by a fast exit have provided the Bush Administration and the neocons enough time to play out their fantasy of setting up a democracy as the panacea to solve all ills? No, it would have been too messy by their then standards of what is an acceptable level of violence.

But wait, Wolfowitz says he wanted a faster turning over of power to the Iraqis but other people in the Bush Administration insisted upon a lengthy formal occupation instead.

Chalabi’s notion — that an Iraqi government, as opposed to an American one, could have saved the great experiment — has become one of the arguments put forth by the war’s proponents in the just-beginning debate over who lost Iraq. At best, it’s improbable: Chalabi is essentially arguing that a handful of Iraqi exiles, some of whom had not lived in the country in decades, could have put together a government and quelled the chaos that quickly engulfed the country after Hussein’s regime collapsed. They could have done this, presumably, without an army (which most wanted to dissolve) and without a police force (which was riddled with Baathists).

In fact, the Americans considered the idea and dismissed it. (But not, Wolfowitz insists, because of him. His longtime aide, Kevin Kellems, said that Wolfowitz favored turning over power “as rapidly as possible to duly elected Iraqi authorities.”) The Bush administration decided to go to the United Nations and have the American role in Iraq formally described as that of an “occupying power,” a step that no Iraqi, not even the lowliest tea seller, failed to notice. They appointed L. Paul Bremer III as viceroy. Instead of empowering Iraqis, Bremer set up an advisory panel of Iraqis — one that included Chalabi — that had no power at all. The warmth that many ordinary Iraqis felt for the Americans quickly ebbed away. It’s not clear that the Americans had any other choice. But here in his London parlor, Chalabi is now contending that excluding Iraqis was the Americans’ fatal mistake.

My view of the rapid withdrawal idea: It was a good idea then. It is a good idea now. Better late than never. Give those Shia Iraqi freedom fighters the chance to stand up and fight on their own for their liberal democratic Jeffersonian free society against those perfidious anti-democratic Sunnis. Never mind that Islam is an enemy of liberal democracy. Have liberal/neocon irrational unempirical faith in the universal desire for freedom and democracy.

One of the problems we've faced with Iraq has been the unwillingness of our elites to accept that things are going to get worse whether we leave or stay. Attempts to achieve better outcomes inevitably lead to worsening conditions. Attempts to stave off full scale civil war send us down the road of gradually intensifying civil war.

Western nations no longer have the stomach to rule an occupied country with the level of brutality needed to suppress rebellions of the sort that Arabs carry out. Saddam could rule Iraq because he was wiling to kill whole extended families if just one person stepped out of line. In a way his style of rule was more humane because while he occasionally killed whole families - many of whose members were not involved in plots against his regime - his very willingness to be that brutal greatly reduced the frequency of rebellion and therefore reduced the death toll from insurgencies.

Given that we aren't going to rule Iraq with the brutality that is required we really should just leave. We always could invade again if some part of Iraq becomes a terrrorist training center ala Afghanistan under the Taliban. But my guess is even that won't be necessary. We aren't going to turn the Iraqis into Jeffersonian democrats. Time to go.

Update: In case you aren't a long time reader of ParaPundit and might have missed the sarcasm in the phrase "Shia Iraqi freedom fighters": My point here is that once the decision to invade Iraq was made we would have been better off if Chalabi the neocon pied piper had managed to convince all the neocons in the Bush Administration that he could totally handle post-war rule in Iraq and that he, virtuous honest freedom lover that he is, would see it it that Iraq became a liberal democracy.

If the neocons could have been convinced that US troops did not need to stick around and if we'd therefore pulled out of Iraq a few months after invading and left Chalabi in charge of a Shia-dominated government then we could have been spared the death of thousands of soldiers and the maiming of tens of thousands as well as hundreds of billions of dollars. If only Chalabi had been more persuasive and if the neocons could have accepted Chalabi's exile group the Iraqi National Congress as the vanguard of liberal democracy in Iraq we would have been better off. Granted, Iraq still would have gone to hell in a handbasket. But not in our handbasket.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 November 11 08:46 PM  Mideast Iraq Blame Game


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