I was never charmed by Ahmad Chalabi. But that’s only because I never met him. I doubt that I would have resisted his charm and intelligence any better than most of the policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits he met in the 1990s and early 2000s as he was agitating for American help to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
A brilliant if unprincipled former banker with a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, Chalabi did a wonderful job of convincing the power players in Washington that Saddam Hussein’s regime could be easily overthrown and replaced with a democratic, pro-Western government in which he would have a leading role — if not THE leading role. He was particularly successful in ingratiating himself among a circle that critics called the “neocons” — a pejorative way to describe policymakers and thinkers who wanted to promote American ideals in the world. Chalabi gulled them into thinking that he, too, was an idealist instead of the self-promoter that he actually was.
Claims that Chalabi invented Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction program are overstated. While he did steer some of the defectors who peddled these claims to his sometimes sponsors at the CIA, he was probably sincere in his belief that Saddam had the weapons in question. Heck, even Saddam’s own generals thought so: Saddam ultimately out-bluffed everyone and paid for his deceit with his own life. But even if Chalabi did not invent the casus belli for the Iraq War, he did instill confidence in Washington that the post-Saddam phase was going to be a lot easier than turned out to be the case.
Once back in Baghdad, Chalabi never rose to become prime minister, as he had hoped, but his political machinations never ceased. He arrived in Baghdad with American patronage, but he played a double game by developing close ties with the Iranians as well. He was being too clever for his own good: the U.S. intelligence community had excellent “situational awareness” of what was going on, and the result was that no one in the American establishment trusted him anymore. His house was raided by American troops, and he was entirely cut off from American patronage.
He compensated by forming an unholy alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shiite preacher who, with Iranian backing, was waging war on American forces and engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Sunnis. Chalabi was even said to be implicated in the activities of Shiite death squads. He probably imagined that, with his superior intelligence and worldliness, he could manipulate the uneducated, provincial Sadr into placing him into power.
Chalabi was at the forefront of the de-Baathification campaign that under his zealous administration turned into an anti-Sunni witch-hunt. That, in turn, drove many potentially “reconcilable” Sunnis into armed opposition to the government. Many joined forces with al-Qaeda in Iraq, the ISIS precursor. As Iraq dissolved into civil war, Chalabi, Sadr, and their Iranian patrons were one of the initial winners, because the polarization of the country allowed them to extend their control over the Shiite population. The success of the Anbar Awakening and the American surge in 2007-2008 was a setback for Iranian designs and for Chalabi, but he adjusted to the new realities.
Nothing if not a survivor, Chalabi continued plotting for power. As recently as 2014, he was in the mix as a potential candidate to replace Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister — a job that ultimately went to Haidar al-Abadi. With his typical chutzpah, Chalabi was giving interviews touting himself as the best leader to reconcile with Sunnis —despite having pursued an anti-Sunni vendetta— and even to clean up Iraq’s pervasive corruption even though he was found guilty by a Jordanian court of massive financial fraud (a conviction that he conveniently blamed on his enemy Saddam Hussein). It is hard to tell from the outside why Chalabi did not succeed in winning the top job, but one suspects he was seen even in the unprincipled politics of Iraq as someone who was a bit too slick, a bit too much of a self-promoter, and as someone who was ultimately not trusted by anyone because he had flipped sides once too often.
In the end, Chalabi wasted his opportunities. He could have been the Ashraf Ghani of Iraq — a pro-Western technocrat who rose to the top. Instead, he will be remembered as a slicker version of Moqtada al-Sadr. His greatest skill was simply staying alive so long, figuratively and literally, in the snake pit of Iraqi politics. He dodged assassination attempts, only to be felled by a heart attack. RIP.