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The Friend We Betrayed

Commentary

April 07, 2005|MAX BOOT

In 1987, after he was exonerated of corruption charges, former Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan issued the classic plea of the wronged man: "Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?" Whichever office it is, Ahmad Chalabi may want to apply there as well.

The leader of the Iraqi National Congress has been the most unfairly maligned man on the planet in recent years. If you believe what you read, Chalabi is a con man, a crook and, depending on which day of the week it is, either an American or Iranian stooge.

The most damning charge is that he cooked up the phony intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq. In the words of that noted foreign policy sage Maureen Dowd: "Ahmad Chalabi conned his neocon pals, thinking he could run Iraq if he gave the Bush administration the smoking gun it needed to sell the war."

Such calumnies are so ingrained by now that La Dowd published that sentence on Sunday, three days after the release of the Robb-Silberman report that refutes it. The bipartisan commission headed by Chuck Robb and Laurence Silberman did not give Chalabi a totally clean bill of health. It found that two INC-supplied defectors were "fabricators." But it also determined that the most notorious liar popularly linked to the INC -- a defector known as "Curveball" who provided false information on Saddam Hussein's biological weapons -- "was not influenced by, controlled by, or connected to the INC."

"In fact, over all," the Robb-Silberman report concluded, "CIA's postwar investigations revealed that INC-related sources had a minimal impact on prewar assessments." Translation: The CIA's attempts to scapegoat Chalabi for its own failures won't wash.

This is only one of many unsubstantiated accusations against Chalabi. Last August, for instance, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Chalabi and his nephew, Salem Chalabi. Ahmad was supposedly guilty of counterfeiting, Salem of having an Iraqi official murdered. Within weeks the bizarre charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Unfortunately, no court of law has examined the accusations made by anonymous U.S. spooks that Chalabi told the Iranian government that one of its codes had been broken by the United States. U.S. officials claimed that they found out Chalabi was the source of the leak because they were able to decode a message to that effect to Tehran. But why would Iranian agents use the compromised code to transmit that information? And how would a foreign national such as Chalabi get access to secret intercepts? Guess we're supposed to take the U.S. intelligence community's word for all this, even though its judgment has been discredited in every outside inquiry.

Then there's the charge that Chalabi was guilty of fraud at a Jordanian bank he once owned. A secret Jordanian military tribunal convicted him in absentia in 1992. Chalabi argues that this was a frame-up by Jordanians eager to seize his assets and curry favor with Hussein. The truth may come out in a lawsuit that Chalabi has filed in the U.S. against the Jordanian government. In the meantime, claims that he's a swindler must be treated with skepticism.

This man risked his life and his fortune to overthrow one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century. He deserves better. More important, the U.S. would have done better in Iraq if it had been listening to Chalabi as much as conspiracy buffs claimed.

In early 2003, the Bush administration ignored Chalabi's warnings that liberation should not be allowed to turn into occupation. Chalabi wanted to set up an interim government right away. The administration refused on the grounds that exiles had no standing in Iraq. So instead that well-known Iraqi, L. Paul Bremer III, was anointed potentate. His mistakes, which Chalabi criticized, resulted in a critical loss of momentum. A year later, the U.S. finally appointed a government headed by Chalabi's cousin and rival, Iyad Allawi. If an exile could be appointed in 2004, why not in 2003?

But don't worry about Chalabi. Unlike Secretary Donovan, he's done just fine. Contrary to CIA reports that he had no constituency, he has positioned himself at the center of Iraqi politics. He was a leading candidate for prime minister and will probably get a Cabinet post.

On second thought, Chalabi is better off not getting his old reputation -- that of a U.S. ally -- back. Being reviled in Washington may be the best gift that any Iraqi politician could receive.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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