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|Posted April 27, 2008|
The Man Who Pushed America to War
ROBERT NICKELSBERG/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
THERE''s never been anyone like Ahmad Chalabi in American history, never a foreigner without official status so crucially involved in a decision by the United States to go to war. Of course, Winston Churchill helped engineer Americas entry into World War II, but he was, after all, prime minister of the United Kingdom. And Chalabi a University of Chicago Ph.D. in mathematics, wealthy banker forever going bankrupt, and creator and sole proprietor of a Potemkin Iraqi freedom front financed entirely by United States taxpayers is no Winston Churchill.
|THE MAN WHO PUSHED|
|AMERICA TO WAR|
|The Extraordinary Life,|
|Obsessions of Ahmad|
|By Aram Roston.|
|369pp. Nations Books|
|By Leslie H. Galeb|
In many ways, Chalabi resembles William Randolph Hearst, a master at ramping up Spain as a mortal threat to America at the end of the 19th century. Hearsts power, however, exploded from the barrel of his ubiquitous newspapers, while Chalabi had only his own wits.
With those wits, this improbable chunky, merry-eyed dynamo tirelessly connived and schemed on behalf of two dreams: for American military might to drive Saddam Hussein from power and to install himself in the dictators place. His Washington allies needed little motivation to oust Hussein; Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and many others already regarded him as Public Enemy No. 1. But they welcomed Chalabis ammunition, his information, in the fight against war skeptics though they didnt welcome him enough to implant him as Baghdads new boss.
This general story line is familiar, and Chalabi has earned a lot of ink in recent books. But more is needed. His successes should occasion great soul-searching among Americans interested in how and why we decide to fight and die and spend our national treasure. Chalabi, an occasional resident in our country whom Ive been acquainted with for almost 20 years, knew us well and played us like the proverbial violin.
In The Man Who Pushed America to War, Aram Roston, a television reporter and producer, tells about every Chalabi machination in 53 staccato chapters beginning with his childhood. Only rarely does he slip into analysis or commentary, as when he invites readers to imagine Chalabi as an amalgam of Don Quixote, Captain Ahab and Elmer Gantry.
The Don Quixote analogy eludes me. Chalabi never tilted at windmills; his lance pointed unerringly at Husseins heart. He did pursue that brutal dictator with all the ferocity and single-mindedness of an Ahab. Unfortunately for us, his vessel for the chase was not the Pequod, but the United States. And Chalabi manipulated our dreams with all the intuitive force Elmer Gantry conjured up to woo the souls of Middle Americans.
Roston bases his account on interviews with Chalabis family, friends, intimates and enemies, and on a range of books and articles. Chalabi did not give Roston an interview. The overall result is a book with some new details on key events, but no headlines. Its main contribution is to consolidate all the Chalabi anecdotes into one coherent and fair-minded account. Roston does very little speculating or searching for larger meanings, but he provides a solid foundation to analyze what this brilliant, charming rogue led us to do to ourselves.
In at least one sense, Chalabi is as American as a Washington apple pie. He courted and accumulated power players through a wicked sense of humor and a collection of indiscreet tales featuring human foibles, all conveyed with the bite and delight of a Mark Twain. His conversation is irresistible. His mind can open vistas previously unseen by the more conventional denizens of our capital city.
Rostons narrative shows that the United States, revealingly, was the country of Chalabis greatest success by far. He never made anywhere near as big a splash in England, where he lived for years. And while his personal and political circles in Iraq incredibly span every religion, culture and ideology, he never rose to the top of political power there. Europeans and Middle Easterners had a feel for Chalabi that Americans lacked, a better sense of a man who always skated close to the edge in business and politics, close to danger.
Chalabi grasped our strengths our ideals, our open political system and our self-confidence (or hubris) and he knew how to flip these strengths into vulnerabilities. Roston relates how Chalabi unfurled the banners of freedom and democracy because he knew well that few Americans would dare argue against bringing these blessings to the oppressed. He also knew that many Americans, including a great number in the Washington crowd, didnt see the difference between the readiness for democracy of a postwar Japan and Germany or of a South Korea all free from internal warfare and with a good economic base and a country like Iraq, which had experienced only tyranny.
At the same time, he saw that Americans were terribly impressed with apparent facts. He offered up many, most notably the fable of Husseins biological weapons labs. He noticed that no matter how many times false assertions were exposed, politicians and pundits never stopped purveying them. He observed that the news media might correct misinformation once, but after that didnt consider the correction to be news and simply regurgitated garbage ad nauseam.
Chalabi saw beyond the research institutes and policy makers in Washingtons national security power structure. He spent little time on liberals, whose influence on foreign affairs is by and large limited to Democratic Party presidential primaries. If he needed a Democratic senator, and he always did, he went to hard heads like Bob Kerrey of Nebraska or Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. He devoted most of his time to Republican conservatives like Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, to influential journalists and, above all, to neoconservatives like Richard Perle. They were the ones who had mastered the art of public debate, of skywriting threats and diminishing opponents as wimps. Accordingly, they commanded the most attention from reporters, Congress and Washington whisperers of what was really going on.
Roston deals especially well with the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which committed the United States to overthrowing Hussein. It was bipartisan and embraced by the Clinton administration. Chalabi pushed bipartisanship hard, understanding that liberal foreign-policy types (who no longer referred to themselves as liberals) never wanted to be out-Saddamed by the conservatives.
Chalabi did what he did for personal and patriotic reasons. And who is to say that from the point of view of an Iraqi, he was not justified in using whatever means, fair or foul, were available to remove the beast of Baghdad? The problem and it is an immense one is not that Chalabi did what he thought was necessary; it is that we fell for it all without serious examination, without Congress or the administration looking into what we would do the day after victory, without anyone in the White House ever asking what the effects would be on Islamic terrorism or the regional influence of Iran.
The problem is not that Chalabi was so smart, but that we were so careless and so vulnerable to manipulation. As Roston thoroughly demonstrates, Chalabi understood us better than we understood ourselves.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former Times columnist and now a Council on Foreign Relations board fellow, is completing a book on power in the 21st century.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book Review, of Sunday, April 27, 2008.
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