I'm not Chalabi.

I'm not Chalabi.

I'm not Chalabi.

Making government work better.
Feb. 7 2005 12:39 PM

To Be Chalabi, or Not To Be

This Syrian exile wants to overthrow another evil Baathist dictator. How can he persuade the U.S. to help him?

So, you're an Arab exile. You've prospered in the United States. You've got lots of influential neocon friends. And now you want to overthrow the evil Baathist dictator back home. Here's the catch: Your name, fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—is not Ahmad Chalabi. What are you supposed to do?

This is the predicament in which a man named Farid Ghadry finds himself. (Remember that name: He could soon be cashing millions in U.S. government checks.) The regime Ghadry would like to terminate is that of Bashar Assad, dictator of Syria, his country of birth. There's no question that the Syrian government is a nasty one: Prisoners of conscience languish in jail, the police torture detainees, and the government harbors and funds some Islamic terror groups.

Advertisement

But Ghadry finds himself in a peculiar post-Iraq-invasion dilemma: to be Chalabi, or not to be. President Bush singled out Syria's bad behavior in the State of the Union, but no one expects regime change in Damascus anytime soon. Syria's mere nastiness isn't enough these days. Iraq has sapped the appetite for war, and nuke-happy North Korea and Iran are way ahead of Syria on the regime-change roster. "Maybe we don't have weapons of mass destruction," Ghadry told me. "But there's reason enough to help. It's important to free Syria because Syria could be on the avant-garde of helping the U.S. win the war on terror." Maybe it could, but that point alone is not about to send the American war machine rolling to Damascus.

Given these constraints, how can Ghadry rally American support to his cause? Ghadry has to both learn from the Iraq model and distinguish himself from it. Here's an eight-step plan for him and other would-be regime-changers to prosper in a post-Saddam world.

1. First task: Make it clear that you are not Ahmad Chalabi. This is so important that Ghadry headlined one of his recent mass e-mails "I am not Ahmad Chalabi."

Chalabi, who fed reporters and Pentagon officials dubious information about Iraqi misdeeds and WMDs in the war runup, has become a synonym for "one who manipulates country A into invading country B for his own nefarious reasons." But while you don't want to look like Ahmad Chalabi, that guy seriously knew what he was doing, so go ahead and take a page from his playbook. For instance:

Advertisement

2. Be the kind of guy Americans think they can do business with. Chalabi is a secular, pro-democracy Shiite from a majority-Shiite country and by all accounts a charming man.

Ghadry is a secular, pro-democracy Sunni from a majority-Sunni country. He is charming and articulate, enjoys driving his kids to soccer practice, and favors a Syrian peace with Israel. When I asked him why he started the Reform Party of Syria, he said that he and his wife had reached a comfortable point in their lives, with their children nearly grown, and decided that they wanted to give something back. Who wouldn't find such a philanthropic impulse appealing? She joined the board of a children's hospital, and he decided to overthrow a government.

3. Make nice with neocons. Chalabi was close to such prominent hawks as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith,and Vice President Dick Cheney. Ghadry has joined the Committee on the Present Danger, a group of politicians, ex-administration officials, and big thinkers who say they are dedicated to winning the war on terrorism; its members include such pre-emption supporters as Newt Gingrich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and James Woolsey.

4. Get the word out. Chalabi advertised Saddam Hussein's evildoings, even going so far as to make some of them up. The Reform Party of Syria advertises Bashar Assad's evildoings with a feisty Web site and frequent press releases.

Advertisement

In this area, though, Ghadry doesn't touch the master, Chalabi. While his party steadily recycles the message that Syria is helping the Iraqi insurgency, Ghadry doesn't appear to have actually fabricated anything. And while Chalabi had big-deal journalists on his speed-dial, most notoriously the New York Times' Judith Miller, Ghadry's dire warnings mainly get picked up by excitable hawks, who preach to the converted in such publications as Front Page and the Washington Times.

5. Explain why the takeover will be a cakewalk. Chalabi, who hadn't lived in his country since the 1950s, said Iraqis would welcome their liberators with open arms. Ghadry, who hasn't lived in his country since the 1960s, said that Syria has "good dissidents, who understand the United States, can work with the United States, and can help bring about major change."

6. Support sanctions, even though they're lame. The United States slapped sanctions on Syria last May and is threatening new ones, which Ghadry endorses. The trouble is, the United States had virtually no trade with Syria to begin with, so the regime is not feeling much pain. But sanctions send a message that says, "We're going to get serious really soon."

7. Count your blessings: At least the Assad regime is on the outs with the United States. If Ghadry wanted to overthrow, say, the comparably unpleasant Saudi monarchy, he would be up against one of the world's most sophisticated and expensive public relations efforts—not to mention a dynasty with close personal ties to President Bush.

8. Wait 10 years. The Chalabi strategy was not, in fact, wholly original. He merely refined the techniques pioneered by the Kuwaiti monarchy after Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990. Blessed with sympathy from the U.S. administration but insufficient support from the American people, Kuwait's rulers created and funded a U.S.-based group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait. It paid PR firm  Hill & Knowlton $14.2 million to convince Americans that their soldiers should go defend the tiny, distant kingdom.

In addition to distributing "Free Kuwait" T-shirts on college campuses, Hill & Knowlton achieved a new low in public relations when it fielded a sobbing 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl to testify before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. She claimed to have witnessed Iraqi soldiers removing hundreds of babies from hospital incubators. The girl turned out to be the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States, and her statement, as various investigations later confirmed—including Kuwait's own—was a lie. But the media echo chamber did its work, and some three months later, U.S. forces pushed Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. This has all been well-documented, probably best by John R. MacArthur in his book Second Front. Substitute Iraq-imports-aluminum-tubes-to-make-nuclear-weapons for Iraqis-rip-babies-from-incubators, and Chalabi pulled off the same thing in 2003.

The road to Damascus may be closed for now, but if Ghadry can just sit tight—and save a few million for PR—collective amnesia ought to have us ready for another Middle East invasion by the early 2010s.