Who’s our S.O.B. now?

The strange career of Ahmed Chalabi shows that America's henchmen are not what they were.

Philip Cunliffe

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Remember Ahmed Chalabi? The shady, silken-suited leader of the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress (INC), and supposed Iraqi frontman for the neo-cons. With all the turmoil in Iraq, and now America’s so-called ‘transfer of sovereignty’ on 28 June, it is difficult to recall the role that Chalabi was once destined to play in the Pentagon’s post-Saddam vision for Iraq.

Chalabi had been the authoritative source for all those stories about Iraq’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. He was flown into Iraq with US special forces following the 2003 invasion, and rapidly established himself as the head of both the Interim Governing Council’s Economics and Finance Committee and its de-Ba’athification committee (1). Critics of America predicted the ex-banker rapidly ascending to the Iraqi presidency, supervising the privatisation of the Iraqi oil industry, the dismantling of OPEC, and the subsequent deluge of cheap oil to slake America’s energy appetite.

But the script has ended differently. On 20 May Iraqi security forces, doubtless acting on US orders, raided both the Baghdad headquarters of the INC and Chalabi’s Baghdad home. Prior to the raids, Washington announced that it was annulling its $300,000 annual subsidy to the INC (2).

Now, the USA has (at least nominally) transferred sovereignty to an Iraqi government – a government drawn up, not in the backrooms of the Pentagon, but in the august chambers of the United Nations. While the continuing coalition military presence in Iraq casts doubt on the reality of Iraqi independence, it is clear that American plans for post-Saddam Iraq have changed shape dramatically over the course of the past few years. So why was Ahmed Chalabi’s career as Washington’s lackey in the Middle East cut short so dramatically?

Legend has it that American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suppressed his ambassador’s disquiet over Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García, with the immortal words, ‘He may be a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch’. Others attribute the remark to US Secretary of State Cordell Hull or President John F Kennedy, in reference to another US-backed dictator, Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. But the meaning is the same. While historical personalities came and went, one aspect of US foreign policy in the third world remained more or less unchanged: unwavering support for America’s local strongmen, no matter how corrupt, brutal or bloody.

These ‘sons of bitches’ were scattered far and wide throughout the world: Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Thojib Suharto in Indonesia, Mobuto Sese Seko in Zaire…not to mention Saddam Hussein (3). These strongmen’s credentials were often strikingly similar: ruthless despotism and staunch anti-communism. Until his recent fall from US graces, Ahmed Chalabi seemed to be a prime candidate for this rogues’ gallery.

For many critics of the Bush administration, the shady Chalabi personified the sinister scheming that ostensibly drove the Bush administration’s policy toward Iraq. The American liberal press dug up Chalabi’s murky past and connections: a protégé of Professor Albert Wohlstetter, the University of Chicago nuclear strategist and ‘godfather’ of the neo-cons; Chalabi’s 1989 plunder of Jordan’s second largest commercial bank to the tune of $70million; his back-room role supplying intelligence to Pentagon neo-cons such as Bush’s deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz (4).

In recent months however, the media was flooded with claims emanating from US intelligence sources, that Chalabi’s INC acted as a front for the Iranian secret service, to channel fabricated intelligence to Washington about Saddam’s arsenal, thereby paving the way for the invasion (5). But the notion that Iran manipulated the world’s only superpower into invading Iraq, apparently as part of some convoluted grand scheme to install a Shi’ite theocracy in Baghdad, stretches credulity. Others have suggested that Chalabi was ditched by Washington once it became clear that he had no real power-base in Iraqi society. But this too rings hollow. In the past, America’s third world strongmen often established power-bases in their societies because of their US backing. Once it was clear which individual had Washington’s support, indigenous elites rapidly coalesced behind the local interlocutor with US power (6).

Just as the USA’s ‘sons of bitches’ once personified the ferocious determination and ruthless drive of US foreign policy, so the twists and turns of Chalabi’s fortunes embody the incoherence that has dominated the Bush administration’s policy towards Iraq. The original US plan to simply impose Chalabi on Iraq has mutated into America desperately falling back on the UN to ensure a credible ‘transfer of sovereignty’ (7). In the meantime, the mighty US army has relied on Saddam’s ex-generals to pacify Fallujah (8), and rumours of oil industry privatisation have been replaced by talk of a state-run industry along Saudi lines (9).

All of this indicates the Bush administration’s inability to decisively impose its vision on Iraq. As for Chalabi himself, his career as Iraq’s new ‘son of a bitch’ seems to have been cut short by nothing more premeditated than wrangling between the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA. (The May raid on INC headquarters seems to be part of the CIA’s latest offensive to dislodge neo-con dominance of the Pentagon (10).)

Inter-agency bureaucratic wrangling is nothing new, but this latest quarrel has been unusually public. During the Cold War, bureaucratic clashes were generally contained by an underlying unity of purpose, because America was locked in a global struggle against communism. The consensus on long-term political goals helped to ensure that internal dissent within the government remained private.

The fact that Chalabi does not seem to have been consciously sacrificed, but has rather fallen prey to a sprawling bureaucratic vendetta, indicates that the Bush administration is warring against itself in the deserts of Iraq as much as against any insurgency.

Philip Cunliffe studies international politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Email ppc03@aber.ac.uk

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Who’s who in Iraq: Ahmed Chalabi, BBC News 20 May 2004

(2) Who’s who in Iraq: Ahmed Chalabi, BBC News 20 May 2004

(3) See Friends, allies and enemies, by James Heartfield

(4) See Tinker, banker, neocon, spy, Robert Dreyfuss, American Prospect, 18 November 2002

(5) See, for example, The trail to Tehran, Andrew Cockburn, Guardian, 26 May 2004

(6) See, for example, Gabriel Kolko’s discussion of the indigenous elites’ support for South Vietnamese leaders Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu during the Vietnam War, in Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience, Gabriel Kolko, Free Press, 1994

(7) See How to get out of Iraq, Peter Galbraith, New York Review of Books, 15 May 2004

(8) See Chalabi: From prize to pariah, Bridget Kendall, BBC News, 26 May 2004

(9) See Iraq ‘could get state oil firm’, BBC News, 8 January 2004

(10) See US intelligence fears Iran duped hawks into war, Julian Borger, Guardian, 25 May 2004

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