Ahmed Chalabi: The genius who didn’t know his limits
In the mid-1990s, I attended a high-level meeting at the home of a senior Jordanian political official who informed me that I was sitting in the same chair in which Ahmed Chalabi had sat shortly before he fled Amman.
This well-known Jordanian politician, a fierce opponent of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, explained how Chalabi had paid a surprise visit before leaving Amman under mysterious circumstances immediately after the Petra Bank scandal that rocked Jordan’s economy in 1989 — and just ahead of a warrant was issued for his arrest.
The politician revealed that he had invested $1 million with Chalabi’s investment fund, which had promptly lost the money. But such were Chalabi’s powers of persuasion and personal charisma that the politician acknowledged he would probably not hesitate to invest with Chalabi again.
Ahmed Chalabi’s role in Iraqi politics is peerless — no other politician has had such an effect, whether we are talking about the Saddam Hussein era or beyond. Chalabi’s political manoeuvring and ability to influence others were second to none. He played a pivotal role in two major changes in Iraqi, and indeed world, history.
The first game that Chalabi mastered was playing on the Iranians, securing US-Iranian rapprochement and cooperation on Iraq. The master manipulator managed to convince the George W. Bush administration of the need to oust Saddam and his regime, a decision that has had a profound effect on the region.
Chalabi was somehow able to convince the most powerful government in the world of a non-existent connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. This is a connection that only existed in the minds of those who wanted a justification, any justification, however delusional or false, for a war on Iraq.
Yes, Saddam had to go, but the question remains: Is Iraq today better off than it was in 2003?
Without Chalabi, there would have been no US-Iranian rapprochement and cooperation and, indeed, no 2003 Iraq war. Chalabi was instrumental in organising the famous 2002 London conference of Iraqi opposition figures that put forward the basis of a deal between them — with US-Iranian sponsorship.
Chalabi, who arrived on a plane from Tehran, took a leading role in the conference, which provided the theoretical political basis for the post-war period. This conference needed a Shia component, which Chalabi duly provided in the figure of Abdulaziz al-Hakim, the late leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. He also went to the British capital directly from Tehran.
Any disagreement that emerged during this pivotal meeting can be traced to Chalabi, who knew how to use Iranian influence and US cover as levers to achieve his objectives. The London conference emerged with the most dangerous document for the future of Iraq, including the phrase “the Shia majority of Iraq”, which pleased Tehran, and the term “federal formula”, which pleased the Kurds.
Iraq continues to suffer from the results of this notorious document, which destroyed any chance of a strong and stable political future.
Yes, Chalabi manipulated the Americans. He knew how to get things done in Washington and how to benefit from any opportunity to stand out and push his agenda. Most surprising of all, he managed to do this while lacking any real or genuine popular support in Iraq, something that stymied his post-invasion political career.
But Chalabi failed to understand his limits. In post-Saddam Iraq, he was no longer able to exploit and manipulate the big players, including Washington, which had gotten wise to his game. But most dangerously, he was simply not aware — although some others argue the opposite — of where all this would end, with Iraq falling into the hands of sectarian militias controlled by Iran and under greater Iranian hegemony. There can be no doubt that Chalabi was a charismatic genius but did he use this genius and charisma in order to build or to destroy?
Chalabi’s opposition to the Ba’athist regime in Iraq was all well and good but is the sectarian system that he contributed to establishing any better?
Or was Chalabi, the grand manipulator, unable to understand that perhaps others were using and manipulating him for their own ends?
The tragedy of Chalabi was his belief in his own ability to use and manipulate others. He was convinced of this until he found that he was the one who had been manipulated and used.