The Iraqi National Congress's Ahmad Chalabi.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 9 2003 7:16 PM

Ahmad Chalabi

Why shouldn't a politician be president of Iraq?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

"I have returned home," Ahmad Chalabi declared today on CNN from the city of Nasiriyah, in a country that he has barely set foot in for more than 40 years. It was a stirring moment and a nice sentiment. But it's more accurate to say that the 58-year-old leader of the Iraqi National Congress finds himself in a place where almost no one knows his name. If Iraq were New Hampshire, Chalabi would be polling somewhere behind Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley-Braun. Luckily, Chalabi is running in a democratic primary and not a Democratic one. But perhaps he's learned a lesson during his lifelong project to bring American-style democracy to the Middle East: If Hillary Clinton can be a senator from New York, why can't Ahmad Chalabi be the president of Iraq?

For now, Chalabi denies that he wants to be his country's first democratically elected president. But his statements are something less than Shermanesque. In fact, they sound suspiciously like the carefully crafted formulations that American presidential candidates use when they're pretending not to be presidential candidates. "I'm not a candidate for any position in Iraq, and I don't seek an office," Chalabi told 60 Minutes this past week, echoing a statement he made to the Financial Times last year: "I have no desire or inclination to seek office in Iraq." Chalabi's slipperiness on the subject plays into the hands of his critics, who point out that he's a showman, an operator who was better at using his political skills to garner credit for himself than he was at mounting a serious opposition to Saddam Hussein. Let's assume the critics are right. Their objections raise an obvious question: Since when did that ever stop someone from winning an election?

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It's certainly true that as a military leader, Chalabi was an abject failure. The best anyone can say about him is that he tried hard, and for the right side. From 1993 until 1996, he spent time in Iraq's north, trying to put together an organized, armed resistance to Saddam. His efforts culminated in disaster when a Kurdish faction, the Kurdish Democratic Party, invited Saddam's tanks into Kurdistan to crush their rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as well as the INC. More than 100 INC officials were executed, and thousands more had to be evacuated by the United States.

By 1998, however, Chalabi had used his formidable lobbying skills to restore the INC's luster in Washington. He helped to win passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, in which Congress endorsed regime change in Iraq and appropriated funding to the INC. Chalabi's plan was to use INC soldiers and U.S. air power to take the cities of Kirkuk, Mosul, and Basra, then pray for Iraqi soldiers to defect and for a popular uprising to begin. In Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Pollack, Daniel Byman, and Gideon Rose dubbed the plan "militarily ludicrous."

It's not clear that Chalabi's forces are any less absurd in 2003. A Financial Times report last week questioned the discipline of the INC troops and described a drunken soldier at the INC's northern headquarters at Dokan; he was "falling over into the gutter, where his plastic bag containing beer and stronger liquor burst open." And according to U.S. News, Chalabi's Free Iraqi Forces, which were recently airlifted by the United States into southern Iraq, are off to an inauspicious start, too. The FIF's first move was to take over some local government offices, only to be told by the British to get out in an hour unless they wanted to be regarded as "hostile forces." U.S. News added that Chalabi's men have not been given any weapons, and their job so far consists mainly of identifying fleeing Baath Party leaders at U.S. checkpoints.

There are other reasons to be suspicious of Chalabi. In 1992, a Jordanian military court convicted him in absentia of bank fraud for allegedly embezzling $70 million from Petra Bank, which Chalabi founded in the 1970s in Amman. Chalabi's supporters argue that he was set up by the Jordanian government because he was helping to fund the opposition to Saddam. But Chalabi's money-management skills didn't necessarily improve over time. According to a State Department report, nearly half of the $4.3 million in U.S. dollars doled out to the INC under the Iraq Liberation Act wasn't properly accounted for. Ultimately, State cut Chalabi off, and the INC's funding was turned over to the Pentagon, where Chalabi has more political allies. Chalabi also reportedly ran through $100 million in CIA money.

Chalabi's military failures, his poor bookkeeping, and his lack of support inside Iraq have led some people at the State Department and the CIA to be skeptical about his prospects. But a more worrisome possibility is that some people inside the United States government don't like Chalabi because he's serious about trying to create an Iraqi democracy. Foreign-policy "realists" may prefer a pro-American dictator who is more interested in security than popular sovereignty. The Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya said as much in the New York Times Magazine in March: "Some people in the government are talking democratic change," Makiya told the writer George Packer, "and there are other people who think that's all a pile of garbage. These others are in the State Department and the C.I.A. today."

Of course Chalabi should not be imposed on the Iraqi people as their ruler. But there's no reason for the United States not to encourage him in his project to build a real, democratic government inside Iraq. Now that Saddam Hussein has been defeated, Chalabi's military prowess isn't all that relevant, and it's hard to see how allegedly wasting American taxpayer dollars disqualifies him for elective office. If anything, it should qualify him for it. The very attributes that sometimes hurt Chalabi as leader of the Iraqi National Congress—his over-optimistic assessment of his abilities, his penchant for mismanaging other people's money, his failure to always be truthful, and his self-promoting style—sound like virtual prerequisites for higher office in the United States. Chalabi "has been entirely ineffective, except in one area, which is undermining other opposition groups," an anonymous U.S. official told the Philadelphia Inquirer last year. In a war, behavior like that can get you killed. In a democracy, it makes you president.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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