Ahmad Chalabi met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today, but there are no pictures of it. That's the way the State Department wanted it. The former Iraqi exile whose reputation fell from hero to pariah was greeted by the administration as something in between: an official from the fledgling Iraqi government they can work with but not trust.
It's hard not to snicker at the awkward fence-mending. The administration publicly abandoned Chalabi in the spring of 2004. They didn't just take him off the holiday card list. American officials ordered Baghdad police to raid his house and headquarters. He was accused of corruption and peddling classified intelligence to Iran. In Washington, Iraq hawks in the administration (including the vice president), who had once been addicted to intelligence he had provided about Saddam's weapons programs, acted like they'd barely heard of him.
The disgrace may have been the best thing ever to happen to Chalabi. In 2003, a triumphant Chalabi flew into Iraq escorted by U.S. special forces, having achieved his decade-long goal of persuading the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Many of his countrymen considered him a Bush administration pawn. The break with the United States dispelled those rumors. After that he was able to build his own domestic power base.
Now that he's rebuilt himself as an independent, Chalabi returns to the States to show his countrymen that he still has ties here. One Bush administration adviser joked that Chalabi would be so anxious to get a picture with Rice that he'd have one of his men snap one with a camera phone. Chalabi, who claims he can unite the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions in Iraq, is using his recent visit to Iran and this one to the United States to prove that he can work beyond his borders too.
U.S. officials are in a pragmatic mood. They may not trust Chalabi, but he may be the best they can get—dealing with democracies is funny that way. "After everything that's happened with him, the fact is he's still damn effective," says one senior administration official. Chalabi is credited with having brought the oil ministry into line. "Finally there is someone competent in charge," says Dan Senor, former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. Chalabi is described as an Iraqi Jack Welch: able to cut through the clutter and meander of Iraqi meetings where much is discussed and nothing is ever done. "When he is focused he is a very good manager," says Senor. "He can drive something through."
U.S. officials are also anxious to rebuild bridges because Chalabi may be the future prime minister of Iraq. Speaking at the conservative American Enterprise Institute Wednesday afternoon, he was coy about his political ambitions—"That's for me to know and you to find out"—but he was in sync with U.S. talking points on most everything else. He wouldn't talk about what happened to Saddam's weapons of mass destruction: "It is not useful for me to comment on that." He's appreciative of U.S. soldiers: "We are very sorry for every American that is lost." And he is staying the course: "No responsible leader in Iraq calls for the withdrawal of the multinational/U.S. forces."
Chalabi smiled and pushed back in his salmon tie and dark suit when confronted with charges that he'd offered bogus information. "As to the fact that I mislead," he said, responding to David Corn of the Nation, "This is an urban myth." When another reporter tried again, asking if he would "apologize for frightening the American people into war," Chalabi referred all his critics to Page 108 of the Robb-Silberman report. Though Chalabi is not mentioned by name, that page deals with the informant known as "Curveball" who was the primary source for what proved to be false information about Iraq's mobile biological weapons labs. The commission found that the defector was not provided by Chalabi's organization, but a defector they did provide who was later determined to have been a fabricator was used to corroborate "Curveball's" erroneous claims.U.S. officials say Chalabi has a lot more to answer for than just his reports relating to Curveball.
To describe just how Iraqi democracy was flourishing, Chalabi offered a little tour of the intricacies of the oil budgetary process. He said that when officials at the Oil Ministry wanted to tap excess revenues in one account for use in another, they couldn't. "We had to go to the assembly!" he said to applause—no doubt the first time bureaucracy had ever been celebrated at AEI.