Ahmad Chalabi and the Great Man Theory of History


Last month was the third anniversary of the death of Ahmad Chalabi. It came only a few days after what was the 20th anniversary of President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Iraq Liberation Act, which passed with a vote of 360 to 38 in the House of Representatives and by unanimous consent in the Senate. This bill was unlike any other act of Congress in American history. Usually, even when openly hostile towards a regime, the United States maintains an ambiguous position on regime change. But now, without declaring war, the president was given the authority to select “Iraqi democratic opposition organizations” to receive up to $97 million of American assistance to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

While other Western countries sought an easing of sanctions against Saddam, the United States never did, although it is difficult to know whether this was in part because of the Iraq Liberation Act itself or simply due to of the state of elite American opinion. Nonetheless, the Iraq Liberation Act basically made political rapprochement with Saddam Hussein impossible and turned him into a permanent enemy of the United States. After 9/11, when members of the Bush administration were convinced that the attacks of that day required a muscular response against terrorists and their supporters, they turned their focus to Iraq.

How did elite American opinion become so unified about Saddam Hussein? Surely it was in part because of his own behavior, including massive human rights violations. Yet other Western democracies took a softer stance and, indeed, even the United States takes less stark position when it comes to other autocracies with atrocious human rights records such as China. Even after Saddam invaded Kuwait, Americans generally supported President George H.W. Bush when he decided not to march to Baghdad, as demonstrated by his sky-high approval ratings at the time. What changed between 1991 and 1998, hardening Washington’s position and making Saddam such an appealing target for American leaders after 9/11? And what can Chalabi and the Iraq Liberation Act teach us about regime change and American attempts to remake Middle Eastern societies more generally?

Chalabi as a Necessary Cause of the Iraq War

The story of the Iraq Liberation Act is to a great extent the story of Ahmad Chalabi. According to Kenneth Pollack, he had made such a strong impression on members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 1998 that it was no coincidence that the bill passed not long after. Chalabi’s remarkable life and influence on American and Iraqi politics have been chronicled in two books, The Man who Pushed America to War by Aram Roston, and Arrows of the Night by Richard Bonin.

After kicking Saddam out of Kuwait, American officials began thinking about what would come if and when he was overthrown. According to Chalabi, whose family left Iraq after the 1958 anti-royalist coup and who had been involved in exile politics for decades, he was offered $700 million to overthrow Saddam by Representative Jack Murtha, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense at the time. Incredibly, Chalabi claims to have turned it down on the grounds that he did not need that much. Before long, however, he was taking American money for his cause. In the years after the Gulf War, the CIA started paying $326,000 a month to a PR firm called the Rendon Group to help create and operate the Iraqi National Congress (INC), with Chalabi using $650,000 in American money to hold an opposition conference in Salahuddin. Within a few years, the organization had a staff of several thousand working in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Chalabi had in effect become the only American source of human intelligence about what was going on within his native country.

The CIA had a falling out with Chalabi in the mid-1990s. As recounted by former case officer Bob Baer in See No Evil, after having established a base in Iraqi Kurdistan, Chalabi sought American help in a plan to use Kurdish forces and defecting Iraqi army units to march into Baghdad. Top government officials found out that he had led the Iranians to believe that the United States was on board with the plan, causing National Security Advisor Tony Lake to make clear that no American support was coming. Chalabi went ahead with the attack anyway and failed. American officials in the State Department and CIA stopped trusting Chalabi due to what was perceived as a reckless mission, in addition to an in absentia conviction in a Jordanian court on the grounds of embezzlement.

Yet Chalabi’s political skill was such that he was able to turn even the Kurdistan debacle to his advantage. In June 1997, the story of the attack was featured in a primetime ABC report by Peter Jennings, told mostly from Chalabi’s perspective of American betrayal. If anything, his falling out with the CIA may have helped him cultivate other powerful allies in the media and among Congress. On February 19, 1998, Richard Perle moderated a panel on the future of Iraq that included Paul Wolfowitz and Chalabi. Immediately afterwards, Chalabi was taken to address the House Republican Policy Committee, a regular source of legislative initiatives. There he met a congressional staffer named Stephen Rademaker, who introduced Chalabi to his wife Danielle Pletka, a senior advisor to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms. Rademaker ended up drafting the bill that would become the Iraq Liberation Act with Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress in mind. President Clinton would go on to designate Chalabi’s organization as one of the democratic forces deserving of American support. According to one estimate, the Iraqi National Congress ended up receiving around $33 million from the State Department between 2000 and 2003, out of a total of at least $59 million of American money over the course of its existence.

Just how important was Chalabi? A review of the record shows that his growing prominence in the media as represented by the ABC special coincided with a major shift in the conservative movement. While the first Bush administration certainly considered Saddam’s removal a worthy goal, until the second half of 1997 there was practically no constituency among American elites in favor of using American troops to overthrow the dictator. In a 1994 interview, former Secretary of Defense Cheney said that the problem with going into Baghdad was “what are you going to put in [Saddam’s] place?” The fixation with invading Iraq is usually traced to neo-conservative intellectuals affiliated with the Project for a New American Century and the Weekly Standard. Yet between 1995 and October 1997, the Weekly Standard only mentioned Iraq five times. Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan’s landmark 1996 article “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” does not make any recommendations regarding that country, nor does the first document produced by the Project for a New American Century, its June 1997 “Statement of Principles.”

The change towards Iraq within the American conservative movement can be traced to November 1997, when the Weekly Standard began regularly calling for regime change. Two months later PNAC released its famous letter to President Clinton urging him to remove Saddam Hussein. The neo-conservative turn towards prioritizing regime change through American military action as a signature issue came within months of Chalabi’s increased media exposure, and was likely the direct result of that attention along with his personal relationships with influential figures among the right-leaning foreign policy community.

Both supporters and critics of the neo-cons are in agreement on this point. Meyrav Wurmser, the co-founder of the think tank MEMRI and the wife of author David Wurmser, reflected on the influence that Chalabi had in the 1990s on her circle of neo-conservatives:

Ahmad came, and all of a sudden, we had an angel! This intellectual idea that we were believing in regardless of him, all of a sudden we are like, here is the Arab democrat. See, they exist. Not all Arabs have horns. You know! God sent us this real democrat. And he meant it! He wasn’t lying about his belief in democracy. Here’s proof: Arabs can be democrats.

Jacob Heilbrunn, a critic of the neo-cons, makes the same argument when he writes that “Chalabi was central for the neocons because to them he represented the possibility of an enlightened leader bringing Iraq out of the dark ages.”

Up until the 2003 invasion, Chalabi would continue to influence American leaders and reassure them about what would happen after Saddam was overthrown. In the days before the war began, Vice President Cheney referenced meetings that he and the President had with exiles to argue that the United States would be greeted as liberators after the invasion. Members of the Iraqi National Congress held regular events in Washington and appeared in the media, pushing the case for liberation. While some in the State Department and CIA put forth more pessimistic scenarios about what would happen in the aftermath of Saddam’s removal, there were few media figures who could make that case.

A similar pattern could be seen in selling the American public on the existence of WMDs. Chalabi and those around him would provide journalists with stories about Saddam’s weapons, which would be reported in news articles that would in turn be presented to government officials as evidence to support the argument for invasion. In one case, the Iraqi National Congress worked with a defector claiming that Saddam had created mobile biological weapons laboratories, an uncorroborated story that made its way into Colin Powell’s famous February 2003 speech at the United Nations.

Thomas Carlyle’s great man theory of history is generally considered a nineteenth century anachronism. But it seems very likely that without Chalabi there would have been no Iraq Liberation Act nor second Iraq War. He held a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago, indicating an IQ well above what we normally see among politicians, and those who met him regularly commented on his charm, dedication, and intellect. He could inspire others with his deep devotion to the cause of Iraqi liberation, and there are several documented instances of Chalabi’s magnetic influence on others. One of the most extreme examples of this was the case of political operative Francis Brooke, who sold his house and moved in with Chalabi in order to fully focus on lobbying to overthrow Saddam.

Critics of the war hawks within the Bush administration claim top officials wanted to put Chalabi in power. Most of them deny it, and say that their goal was simply to avoid occupation by putting an Iraqi face on the new government as soon as possible. Yet while the neo-cons won the debate about going to war, they lost the argument about what to do in the aftermath. After Paul Bremer was named head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, he decided that Iraqi leaders were not ready to take over the country, effectively siding with the State Department. In Bonin’s book, Richard Perle reflects on the decision to slight Chalabi after the invasion:

Throughout the United States government … there were people who would do anything they could to prevent the INC [Iraqi National Congress] from emerging out of all of this in a leadership position. The animosity toward Ahmad, including a sort of personal hostility, mean-spiritedness, and deep abhorrence of Chalabi, led people—particularly at State and the CIA—to make serious mistakes about how to handle the postwar period. It blinded them to the benefits of working with the INC and led them to reject proposals to do that.

The argument on the other side, made by Colin Powell’s top deputy at State Richard Armitage among others, was that externals lacked legitimacy, and the United States needed time to find new leaders from inside Iraq to take over. This position was falsified, however, when in January 2005 Iraq had its first democratic elections and over 90 percent of the vote went to parties that had been on the original Iraqi Leadership Council established after the invasion. The United States could have avoided occupation in spring 2003 by simply handing over power to those who would later emerge to form the government of Iraq anyway.

Chalabi after the Iraq War

Chalabi became estranged from his remaining allies in the United States in 2004, after the Americans became convinced that he was passing along secret information to Iran. His Baghdad compound was raided, and President Bush personally ordered that the Iraqi National Congress be cut off from American funding. Showing characteristic adaptability, Chalabi at this point reinvented himself as an opponent of foreign occupation, and the long-time advocate of Western democracy threw his lot in with the Shia religious parties to form the United Iraqi Alliance. In January 2005, this coalition would win a plurality in the first Iraqi elections, and Chalabi was in the running for prime minister.

Amazingly, the United States came to rely on Chalabi again in late 2005 when Iraq was spinning out of control, and in November of that year he was invited back to Washington to meet with Rumsfeld, Rice, and Cheney. The next month, he went to Tehran. Chalabi was insulted when the Shia parties he aligned with offered him and his party only 3 seats in the run-up to the upcoming December 2005 elections. He then broke with them, but was only able to win an embarrassing 8,645 out of 2.5 million votes cast nationwide. Without hitching his wagon to Islamists such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Chalabi could not gain any power at the ballot box. Yet he remained an influential figure within Iraq, even aligning himself with Muqtada al-Sadr against the Iraqi government in 2008. In 2014, he amazingly found himself yet again one of the leading candidates for prime minister, despite his political party being in such a state that he was the only member of the Iraqi National Congress with a seat in parliament at the time. Chalabi did not get the post, and died of a heart attack the next year while serving as the chairman of the finance committee.

Lessons Regarding Regime Change and Preventing Civil Wars

Chalabi was a complicated man, and one could take a more or less charitable view of his life. A skeptic could easily see a greedy and power hungry politician, without any fixed moral compass. His hard work was simply in the service of his own aggrandizement, and he stole from and manipulated people whenever doing so was necessary to achieve his goals. From another perspective, he was a freedom fighter trying to will Iraq into the modern world, which meant that, like any politician, he had to sometimes make compromises with unsavory figures.

What no one can deny is that Chalabi was a man of considerable gifts. The list of individuals and institutions that he was able to form alliances with at one time or another is breathtaking: Among them were the CIA, members of the American media, neo-conservative intellectuals, members of Congress, Shia Islamist and Kurdish parties in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. No matter how many times he seemingly shot himself in the foot, his energy and charisma ensured that until he died he rarely found himself far from the center of Iraqi politics after 2003. He also showed a great deal of personal courage, as when he established his base in Iraqi Kurdistan in the mid-1990s and accompanied the American military into Iraq during the 2003 invasion.

Those seeking Saddam’s overthrow were a diverse bunch, and Chalabi was often the main conduit between groups and individuals that would otherwise have had nothing to do with one another. For example, in August 2002 he convinced a leader from SCIRI, Ayatollah Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, to fly from Tehran to Washington to meet with a group of top American officials including Cheney and Rumsfeld. The cleric made a favorable impression when he promised American leaders that Iraq would not become a satellite of Iran after Saddam was gone. Likely left unsaid was that SCIRI at the time subscribed to the doctrine of walayit al-fahiq, or the “rule of the jurist,” which acknowledges Ayatollah Khameini’s leadership in all political matters. It is difficult to imagine any other member of the anti-Saddam opposition with enough political skill to broker such a meeting, much less convince neo-conservatives to go to war to empower a party led by clerics close to Iran.

What would have happened had the United States simply handed over power to the Chalabi-dominated Iraqi National Congress in spring 2003 and gotten out of Iraq? It is impossible to know, and how one answers that question depends to a certain extent on what theories of history one finds more or less plausible. From one perspective, Iraq was destined to see civil war and eventually be run by Shia Islamists tied to Iran once Saddam was removed, a result that was all but inevitable based on its culture and history and the geo-politics of the region.

Yet if one man could have caused Iraq to go in a different direction, it was certainly Chalabi. After the 2003 invasion, he was by far both the smartest person involved in Iraqi politics and the most capable politician. If we take the great man theory of history seriously, believing that under certain circumstances one remarkable individual can overcome long odds on account of his unique gifts, then an Iraq ruled by Chalabi may have been the best option. For years, he had brought together the Kurds and Shia Islamists under the banner of the Iraqi National Congress, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that he may have been able to do the same with the Sunnis by reaching out to them after Saddam was overthrown, which could have avoided the years of bloodletting that followed the American invasion.

Instead, for 14 months Iraq was under the near absolute authority of Paul Bremer, who spoke no Arabic, had no particular expertise in the region, and no pre-existing relationships with any Iraqi politicians. In his memoirs, Bremer recounts his meeting with the Iraqi Leadership Council soon after coming to Iraq, which included members of the Iraqi National Congress among others seeking to form a new government:

“With respect, Ambassador Bremer,” Chalabi said, “I must remind the CPA of the promises made in this past month about the establishment of a transitional government in a few weeks’ time.” He smiled benignly at Jay Garner.

“It is the Coalition’s intention to establish a transitional government as soon as it can be done,” I said, keeping my tone even. I looked directly at Chalabi. “But I reject the idea that the Coalition is stalling. As I have said, the process will be incremental and must have as its goal a truly representative group. This body is not representative. There is only one Arab Sunni leader among you.” Everyone looked toward Naseer Chaderchi. “There are no Turkmen here, no Christians, no women.”

I was exerting the authority President Bush had granted me, “putting down the hammer.” … “Surely a representative government will have to include many Iraqis who lived here and suffered under Saddam for decades. This is not to detract from the exceptional efforts that the parties represented here this evening have made for years to free your country.”

The theory that the Iraqi leadership needed internal forces and demographic representation was asserted throughout Bremer’s book, but it seems to have been an unfalsifiable article of faith rather than a view well grounded in evidence. Governments that do not perfectly represent the demographics of the country that they rule have been the norm throughout human history, and the Iraqi people showed that they would accept former exiles as leaders when they made SCIRI and al-Dawa the two most powerful political parties in Iraq for over a decade, despite most of their leaders having been previously based in London, Tehran, or Damascus.

As it turned out, the main belief undergirding the justification for a prolonged occupation of Iraq, the quest for a legitimacy that only those who suffered under Saddam could bring, was largely based on a myth. With Chalabi as the appointed leader of post-Saddam Iraq, no one could for certain say whether such a government would have had legitimacy, and how much that would have mattered anyway, but it at the very least would have had competence. Trying that option, however, would have required a greater belief among American leaders that true political talent is relatively rare, and therefore worth supporting and cultivating when it is found. In cases where it is not evident, one should not simply assume that installing the right democratic processes will produce it.

There are of course good reasons to believe the Chalabi would not have stayed in power in Iraq for long, as demonstrated by his poor showing at the ballot box. Yet as Stathis Kalyvas points out in The Logic of Violence in Civil War, in times of political transition popular support is often the result of on-the-ground facts, rather than being a cause of who ends up with power. In this formulation, power brings legitimacy, rather than the other way around, as evidenced by studies of civil wars that show little connection between public opinion in a given area before the fighting begins and who ends up controlling that territory. The Sadrists and other Islamist parties filled the vacuum created by the American invasion within days of Saddam’s overthrow, and were able to parlay that success into votes for years to come. Had Chalabi been the head of a sovereign government from the beginning, or had the new Iraqi government been created as a product of elite deal-making rather than elections, there is no telling what kind of constituency he could have built or how successful he would have been in stabilizing Iraq.

While the question of what would have happened had Chalabi been appointed as the leader of Iraq is speculative, what is certain is that the United States did not have many choices regarding who would run that country. Given de-Baathification and the destruction of the old order, the vacuum created was always going to be filled by exiles of one stripe or another, whether the Islamists, the neo-conservative-favored Chalabi, or Ayad Allawi, the ex-Baathist of arguably questionable democratic credentials. If those choices were all unacceptable, as was al-Sadr, American officials would have been better off reconsidering regime change rather than assuming “better” leaders would have somehow emerged from within Iraq.

Iraq is not the only place where current strategies have proved inadequate. In Afghanistan, the American-supported government now has control of only 56 percent of districts despite 17 years of occupation, with the trend lines all going in the wrong direction. As the United States continues to fail in the aftermath of regime change abroad, we clearly need more realistic assessments of what comes after such interventions. Furthermore, when forced to confront the question of how to stabilize a country, we would perhaps be well-served by focusing more on finding the most effective leaders and less on ensuring that ideal processes are followed. In other words, perhaps the great man theory of history deserves another look.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Danielle Pletka’s name and misspelled the title of Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan’s 1996 article.

Richard Hanania is a Research Fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His research focuses on American grand strategy, the causes of civil war, and the politics of the Middle East. 

Image: Department of Defense photo by Master Sgt. William Greer.