Few figures have been more loved and loathed in Washington than Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi expatriate who charmed American politicians and built the case for the war in Iraq.
His death in Baghdad at age 71 has laid bare the deep divisions that remain regarding the causes of the U.S. failure there, the lessons that have yet to be learned from it and the raw anger it still provokes.
To a handful of true believers, Chalabi remains a battle-tested hero who toppled a dictator and sought to bring Western-style democracy to the Middle East. “I was at his house for hours and hours,” said Richard Perle, a former head of the Defense Policy Board in the George W. Bush administration and one of the architects of the Iraq war. “We talked about art, we talked about history, we talked about poetry. Did he share our values? You’re damn right he did.”
Those who opposed the invasion describe Chalabi as a charlatan who deceived the world’s most powerful nation into launching a disastrous war at a cost of trillions of dollars and nearly 5,000 American lives. “He was a scam artist who conned many members of Congress, an administration, the neocons and some members of the military,” said Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who served as commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. “We tried to warn people, but it fell on deaf ears, and they vilified us as messengers. We all paid the price.”
Whether he deserves it or not, Chalabi’s name has become synonymous with America’s rush to war in Iraq and its failures in the broader Middle East. His personal biography was impressive. Chalabi fled Iraq in the late 1950s, eventually landing in the United States, where he earned a degree in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate from the University of Chicago. Before the war, he inhabited a 12-room London flat filled with fine furniture and expensive art.
His undeniable genius was in working Washington. “He had the ear of Republican and Democratic administrations,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East analyst with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. The CIA and Congress steered millions of dollars to Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress in the 1990s as Chalabi shuttled between Washington, London and the Kurdish-dominated regions of northern Iraq.
His role only grew after George W. Bush was elected president. Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress smuggled out defectors who helped generate flawed intelligence suggesting that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had chemical and nuclear weapons.
He convinced top Bush administration officials that the war in Iraq would be quick and easy. “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” Vice President Richard B. Cheney said on the eve of the invasion. Cheney was essentially channeling Chalabi.
As the years passed and the war — which began with the promise of a fast victory — descended into quagmire, the contradiction and mystery surrounding Chalabi deepened. He met with top Pentagon officials, including then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, even as he courted Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia was responsible for hundreds of American deaths.
The U.S. military raided Chalabi’s Baghdad home amid allegations that he had been passing secrets to Iran but never leveled charges against him. “He felt, with some justification, that he’d been badly used by the U.S. government,” said a senior Bush administration official who worked closely with Chalabi, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I’m not defending his behavior for a minute, but one of the broader lessons of Iraq is that Americans keep looking for Iraqis to blame.”
Indeed, Chalabi’s death has produced a scramble for lessons. To some, he’s proof of the misplaced faith that Americans have in foreign leaders who wear Western clothes and are fluent in English and U.S. politics. “Time and again, our chosen partners turn out to have agendas that differ from our own,” said retired Col. Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. “They have their own values and pursue their own purposes. Eventually we accuse them of having failed us, but the failure originates in our own delusions.”
To others, Chalabi is emblematic of how little the U.S. government knew about the country it was invading and how ignorant it remains today. “We still don’t have a deep understanding of the political and social factors that shape the conflict there,” Katulis said.
Still others cite him to explain President Obama’s caution when it comes to supporting rebels on other battlefields. “He’s one of the reasons why we didn’t back the Syrian rebels in 2012,” said retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, an Iraq veteran and a principal author of the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine. “We very possibly overlearned that lesson. Chalabi was not the partner we hoped for, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find good local partners.”
Even today Chalabi is a contradictory and somewhat unknowable figure. The accusations that he was funneling intelligence to Iran were never proved. He long maintained that his conviction in absentia for embezzling $300 million from a Jordanian bank was a product of a political vendetta.
A few facts about Chalabi’s life seem irrefutably true: He was obsessed with toppling Hussein and claiming a prominent role in his homeland after 45 years of exile. He was courageous, forsaking a comfortable life in London for the chaotic and dangerous world of Iraqi politics. He was duplicitous but justified his lies by insisting that they served a greater good.
“We are heroes in error,” Chalabi famously told Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2004 after it was revealed that Hussein had disposed of his chemical and biological weapons.
Chalabi was smooth, polarizing, paranoid and complex.
“Of course this is self-serving, but I was never sure what to make of him,” said Eliot Cohen, a former top Bush administration official who served in the State Department after the invasion. “Chalabi was clearly very smart, and the venom of opposition to him made him a more credible figure. It was so over the top. It brings back all these painful memories.”
So what’s the lesson of America’s three-decade relationship with Ahmed Chalabi? Maybe, Cohen said, it’s that there’s no single, clear lesson.
“When you ask one human being to bear the freight of an entire war, you’re asking for trouble,” Cohen said. “These are complicated people operating in a complicated environment. The best we can say is that he’s an extremely ambiguous figure.”