Lest We Forget: Chalabi’s Useful Idiots

It’s now really quite clear that long-time neo-con heartthrob, Ahmad Chalabi, has been doing the bidding of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iraq. The latest on that subject was published Thursday by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius who apparently was given an unclassified summary of alleged Iranian efforts — in which Chalabi has apparently played a key role — to influence the upcoming March 7 elections. See Marc Lynch’s recent post on Chalabi’s continuing machinations.

The question is this: if the neo-conservative hawks, who played such a necessary — if not quite sufficient — role in getting the United States to invade Iraq in 2003, so misjudged Chalabi, why should they be taken seriously on what to do about Iran, or just about anything else in the Greater Middle East? After all, this was the man on whom they relied, by their own admission, so much for their understanding of Iraqi and regional politics. (“Meeting him helped our intellectual juices to flow,” the Hudson Institute‘s Meyrav Wurmser, whose husband David would go on to write the case for overthrowing Saddam Hussein at the American Enterprise Institute and later served as a top adviser to John Bolton and Dick Cheney, told Aram Roston.) And if they don’t even now admit that maybe they made a very big mistake – that maybe Chalabi was not a true democrat in the Jeffersonian tradition, or that maybe he was not, as Reuel Marc Gerecht described him in 2002, as “among, the truest … of [Washington’s] Iraqi friends,” or that he may indeed have been working closely with the IRGC for some considerable period of time – why should they expect anyone to take them seriously when it comes to their policy prescriptions throughout the region?

I have little to add to the excellent reporting by Bob Dreyfuss at The Nation about Gen. Ray Odierno’s charges that Chalabi is behind the effort to exclude alleged Baathists and other mainly Sunni secularists from next month’s parliamentary elections in Iraq, apparently at the IRGC’s behest. Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, described Chalabi (and his partner-in-destabilization on Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission, Ali al-Lami) as being “clearly influenced by Iran” and in sustained and eminently suspicious contact with an Iraqi, Jamal Jaffar al-Ibrahimi (aka Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis), who “sits at the right-hand side of the (IRGC’s) Quds Force commandant, Qassem Soleimani.”

“We have direct intelligence that tells us that,” Odierno told the audience at the Institute for the Study of War last Tuesday. “…Chalabi, who, you know, has been involved in Iraqi politics in many different ways over the last several years, mostly bad,” he added.

Odierno’s remarks, which were forcefully endorsed by Washington’s ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, the following day at the Council on Foreign Relations, were the latest in a series of charges by U.S. government officials and others (notably Roston, who wrote the definitive work to date on Chalabi, The Man Who Pushed America to War, that Chalabi has been — if not an Iranian agent — more than willing to do Tehran’s bidding in Baghdad for some time.

Those charges first gained serious traction back in May, 2004, when U.S. troops and Iraqi police raided Chalabi’s home and offices in Baghdad in search of evidence that he was passing sensitive intelligence to Iran. Here’s how Newsday’s Knut Royce described the reason for the raid based on Pentagon sources back in Washington:

“The Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that a U.S.-funded arm of Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress has been used for years by Iranian intelligence to pass disinformation to the United States and to collect highly sensitive American secrets, according to intelligence sources.

‘Iranian intelligence has been manipulating the United States through Chalabi by furnishing through his Information Collection Program information to provoke the United States into getting rid of Saddam Hussein,’ said an intelligence source Friday who was briefed on the Defense Intelligence Agency’s conclusions, which were based on a review of thousands of internal documents.

The Information Collection Program also “kept the Iranians informed about what we were doing” by passing classified U.S. documents and other sensitive information, he said. The program has received millions of dollars from the U.S. government over several years.

An administration official confirmed that ‘highly classified information had been provided [to the Iranians] through that channel.’

The Defense Department this week halted payment of $340,000 a month to Chalabi’s program. Chalabi had long been the favorite of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. Intelligence sources say Chalabi himself has passed on sensitive U.S. intelligence to the Iranians.”

The raid and the leaks surrounding it provoked a veritable torrent of outrage from the neo-con war hawks, notably on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who had been promoting Chalabi as Iraq’s George Washington and a loyal ally of the United States non-stop since the early to mid-1990s. After all of the credibility they had invested in him, it was inconceivable that Chalabi might actually be exposed as having worked on behalf of Tehran for as long Royce and his sources were suggesting. Their hero, they argued, must instead be the victim of the many enemies he has accumulated over the decades: Jordan’s ruling family, his internal Iraqi rivals, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief J. Paul Bremer, or, most likely, the neo-cons’ perennial nemeses: the State Department and the CIA, both of which had grown thoroughly disillusioned with Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) years by the mid-1990s.

“We still believe Mr. Bush can succeed in Iraq,” the Journal sputtered in one of what seemed like a never-ending series of editorials and lengthy op-eds in a campaign designed to rescue Chalabi’s reputation and its own credibility after the raid.

“But the Chalabi fiasco is emblematic of the mistakes this White House has made in not deciding among its warring camps on Iraq policy, and in failing to exert any discipline on its factions at the CIA and the State Department that oppose Mr. Bush. We don’t know what role Iraqis will decide Mr. Chalabi should play in their future government – perhaps it will be none. But we do know that the way for America to succeed in Iraq is not to make war on its friends.” [Editor’s note: Chalabi and his party failed to win a single seat in Iraq’s parliamentary elections in December, 2005, a fact that did not prevent the Journal for touting his credentials as prime minister in 2006.]

Along with the Journal‘s efforts, a flurry of op-eds by prominent neo-cons, such as AEI’s Danielle Pletka (who accused U.S. agencies of “being more concerned with carrying out vendettas than with pursuing the real enemies of the United States” in the Los Angeles Times); Gerecht (who, as noted above, had already described him in the run-up to the invasion as “among the truest … of [Washington’s] Iraqi friends” in the Weekly Standard); Michael Ledeen (who called Chalabi a “scapegoat” for the CIA’s failures in Iraq in the National Review Online, a point echoed by Frank Gaffney in the same publication); David “Axis of Evil” Frum; and, of course, Michael Rubin (who was still defending Chalabi and the Accountability Board three weeks ago), were churned out in the days and weeks that followed. (Google any of these names with Chalabi, and the idolatry comes through.)

For some significant amount of time, the campaign appeared to succeed. Despite reportedly being under investigation by the FBI, Chalabi came to Washington in November 2005, and met personally with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney before receiving a veritable hero’s welcome at AEI where he spoke to its packed Albert Wohlstetter Conference Center, named for the defense guru who first introduced Chalabi to Richard Perle back in 1985. U.S. officials in Baghdad soon renewed their own contacts with him, although these were cut off again in May 2008, despite his just having been appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to head the latter’s Community Services Committee.

In contrast to their 2004 rehabilitation campaign, however, the neo-cons who have been so vociferous in promoting and defending him over the past two decades have now been uncharacteristically quiet about Odierno’s latest charges. Indeed, they’ve been put in a very bad position. The accuser, after all, was not some smarmy, pin-striped appeasing diplomat like Hill whose allegations they could easily reject. Odierno was hand-picked for his current post by another neo-con hero, Gen. David Petraeus, but has also received lavish praise from prominent neo-con commentators, such as Max Boot, the Weekly Standard, and other Surge supporters. Moreover, the forum at which he spoke, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), was created as a virtual adjunct of AEI and founded by Kimberly Kagan, spouse and ideological comrade of AEI’s Fred Kagan, who introduced the speaker and in no way sought to separate her own views from his. Indeed, both Kagans, in response to Bob’s reporting on the event, issued a statement that stressed that they were never “involved with the Bush Administration interactions with exiled leaders and the restoration of civilian government in Iraq” and that they “have never supported Ahmad Chalabi nor advocated for him to play any role in Iraqi politics.” Nor did they stop there:

“Kim and Fred Kagan entirely agree with the comments General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill have made this week about the role that Chalabi is playing and has been playing for some time–a role that is heavily influenced by Iran and specifically the Qods Force, and that has done significant damage to the cause of cross-sectarian political development in Iraq. In no way do they deny or minimize Chalabi’s malign influence in Iraq.” [Can you imagine the looks they must be getting in the AEI lunchroom after issuing this statement from Pletka, Perle, Wolfowitz (a long-time Chalabi champion), and Rubin?]

Indeed, aside from the feeble attempt by Rubin – the subject of a devastating and comprehensive critique by Dreyfuss – to justify the Accountability and Justice Commission’s action a couple of weeks ago, it seems the neo-cons have been rendered virtually speechless about their erstwhile hero. The Journal’s editorial board, probably Chalabi’s single most influential and enthusiastic booster dating back at least to the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 (of which the INC was a huge financial beneficiary), hasn’t published a word on Chalabi’s associations since Odierno spoke out. Clifford May, founder-director of the Likudist Foundation for Defense of Democracies (which now houses Ledeen and Gerecht, as well) raised concerns about the activities of the Accountability Commission in an article on National Review Online, but, as again noted by Dreyfuss, conveniently failed to mention Chalabi’s role in its deliberations. And even Melik Kaylan, a New York-based travel writer and Forbes columnist who published three positively fawning op-eds in the Journal about his travels across Iraq with Chalabi over the last couple of years, now admits to some doubts about his former hero’s true loyalty, conceding that he has perhaps “drifted to the dark side.” I would love to be a fly on the wall when the question about Chalabi comes up at next Monday’s AEI forum entitled “Iraq’s Elections: Progress or Peril?”, but I’ve been declared persona non grata there since 2003.

Now, I still don’t know whether Chalabi is an actual Iranian agent, or whether, more likely, he is a consummate opportunist and con- (or neocon-) artist who is happy to fully co-operate with the IRGC so long as his interests coincide with theirs. Nor do I know how long he has acted as an Iranian agent or found the IRGC’s interests to be coincident with his own. As his disappointed disciple Kaylan suggests, his turn to the “dark side” may have been relatively recent. On the other hand, it seems altogether credible now, in light of the latest developments, that Chalabi was working closely with the IRGC back in 2004 when the neo-cons all rallied to his defense. Indeed, it’s quite likely that Chalabi and the IRGC were working together as far back as 1998 when he and the neo-cons were pushing for Washington to adopt a policy of “regime change” against Tehran’s worst nemesis, Saddam Hussein, as provided in the Iraq Liberation Act, and then again later when he and the neo-cons were pushing for ousting Saddam through military action after 9/11, especially if such action would bring Chalabi to power in Baghdad. That last notion, of course, was pursued with vigor not only by Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith in the Pentagon, but also by the usual suspects at AEI, the Journal’s editorial board and the man from whom many of them (and later Cheney) derived their underlying ideas about Arabs and the Middle East, the fabled Orientalist, Princeton Emeritus Professor Bernard Lewis. He argued in an op-ed entitled “Put the Iraqis in Charge” published by the Journal in August, 2003, that:

“Democracy is the best and therefore the most difficult of all forms of government [he wrote]. “The Iraqis certainly have the capacity to develop democratic institutions, but they must do so in their own way, at their own pace. This can only be done by an Iraqi government.

Fortunately, the nucleus of such a government is already available, in the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmad 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. It took years, not months, to create democracies in the former Axis countries, and this was achieved in the final analysis not by Americans but by people in those countries, with American encouragement, help and support. Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress deserve no less.

(It’s worth noting that it was Lewis, invited by then-Defense Policy Board Chairman Perle, who brought Chalabi along to the Board’s secret meeting at the Pentagon the week after the 9/11 attacks. And it was at that meeting that the necessity for using the opportunity created by 9/11 to oust Hussein by any means (regardless of his role or lack of one in the attacks) – echoed in the now-infamous September 20 letter to Bush from Bill Kristol’s and Bob Kagan’s Project for the New American Century (PNAC) – was forcefully pressed. [One can only imagine what Chalabi may have reported back about the meeting to his handlers back in Tehran, assuming, as now seems likely, that he was then in regular communication.] “Bernard Lewis has been the single most important intellectual influence countering the conventional wisdom on managing the conflict between radical Islam and the West,” Perle explained much later. “The idea that a big part of the problem is failed societies on the Arab side is very important. That is not the point of view of the diplomatic establishment.” Lewis was the recipient of AEI’s Irving Kristol Award for 2007 and delivered the Irving Kristol Lecture at the Institute’s annual dinner in March of that year.)

Wikipedia defines “useful idiots” as follows:

“In political jargon, the term useful idiot was used to describe Soviet sympathizers in Western countries and the attitude of the Soviet government towards them. The implication was that though the person in question naïvely thought themselves an ally of the Soviets or other Communists, they were actually held in contempt by them, and were being cynically used.

The term is now used more broadly to describe someone who is perceived to be manipulated by a political movement, terrorist group, hostile government, or business, whether or not the group is Communist in nature.”

My sense is that the neo-con hawks who championed Chalabi all these years – and we’re talking about people like Wohlstetter; Perle; Lewis (who was first charmed by Chalabi in 1991, according to the best book on Chalabi to date, The Man Who Pushed America to War by Aram Roston) and his many neo-con protégés (including Gerecht, Rubin, DOD’s Harold Rhode, to name just a few); Wolfowitz; Douglas Feith; Scooter Libby, Elliott Abrams; all of AEI’s Middle East-related “fellows” and “scholars” the Journal’s editorial board and contributors like Kaylan and Fouad Ajami; Commentary magazine; The National Review; Bill Kristol and his Weekly Standard, Charles Krauthammer; Randy Scheunemann, who headed the INC’s short-lived U.S. front group, the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI)* and since last year has served as Sarah Pailin’s chief foreign-policy adviser; the CLI’s honorary co-chairs, Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain, and advisory board members*; former CIA director James Woolsey; and eventually Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (who became a Lewis acolyte) — fit the definition.

So the next time you see any of these “experts” on TV or read one of their op-eds or editorials in a newspaper or on-line claiming great knowledge of and insight into the region and its peoples and advocating, for example, “crippling” sanctions against Iran; a naval blockade to prevent it from importing gasoline or exporting oil; or military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities and other targets — and there’s no doubt that you will, and with growing urgency in the coming weeks and months — think of their long love affair with Ahmed Chalabi and how well they understood him. The phrase “useful idiot” should come to mind.

*CLI’s Advisory Board Members

Sen. Evan Bayh, Honorary Co-Chair
Mahdi Al-Bassam
Barry Blechman
Eliot Cohen
Jacquelyn K. Davis
Thomas Dine
Gen. Wayne Downing
Rend Rahim Francke
Peter W. Galbraith
Newt Gingrich
Lt. Gen. Buster Glosson
James P. Hoffa
Howell Jackson
Robert Kagan
Robert Kerry
Jeane Kirkpatrick
William Kristol
Bernard Lewis
Will Marshall
Gen. Barry McCaffrey
Joshua Muravchik
Richard Perle
Danielle Pletka
Richard Shultz
Stephen Solarz
Maurice Sonnenberg
Ruth Wedgwood
Leon Wieseltier
Chris Williams
James Woolsey

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Very well put, very devastating, but — you’re preaching to the choir. The neocons, in their Orwellian way, will just move on. Chalabi will become a “nonperson” (remember that term?). And the beat will simply go on.

  2. And I thought de-Bathification was Viceroy Bremer’s bright idea. Rumsfeld’s abject lack of planning and serial tactical errors are not the cause of the fiasco, oh no, it is the steady progress Iran has made in establishing some meaning to the meaningless carnage and destruction.

    You can hate Iran as much as you like, but surely the lesson here is that the narrow prism of your dearest wish or your deepest dislikes will make you lag reality by one crucial step, consistently.

  3. Thanks, Jim Lobe. This column is truly priceless.

    It’s amazing that anybody listens to the neoconservatives, who have led the US and the world into disaster.

  4. Neocons needed Chalabi to help justify their case for attacking Iraq, they used him to the fullest. They probably knew quite well about his connections to Iran but at that time the main target was Iraq. They don’t have much use of Chalabi now, they will find other ways to push us into yet another war. Contrary to what the article suggests, the neocons are quite smart and they have full support of Israel firsters.

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