Writing a tribute to Ahmad Chalabi (1944-2015) is probably not a wise career move for someone who seeks to re-enter the closed and pedigreed circles that craft Washington’s policies toward the Middle East. Eleven years after having worked for him, it is still easy for some to dismiss my ideas as those emanating from “a Chalabi guy”. But I am grieving for my friend, and I guess the writing helps. Furthermore, I believe that understanding his legacy will help those circles craft better, savvier recommendations for current and future administrations. The United States is, and will continue to be, the critical player in the region for the foreseeable future. Chalabi believed that, and so do I.
Chalabi was a leading protagonist in this century’s opening international drama, writ large on a Middle Eastern stage. It is my judgement that this drama may run for another decade. The rushed, early reviews dismiss his role as that of ‘charlatan’, ‘huckster’ and ‘con man’. The more thoughtful ones lurch towards terms such as ‘controversial’ and ‘complex’. Literary theory, written as history, may yet delve deeper. Chalabi’s most revealing, and most cited, soliloquy from February 2004 goes: “We are heroes in error. As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We’re ready to fall on our swords if he wants.” He improvised the “heroes in error” bit on the fly. The rest of the scripting was mine. He probably shouldn’t have read out a 27 year-old’s snarky comeback to drive the plot. But that was who he was.
Who was Ahmad Chalabi to me? He was not a father figure; my own parents—great people to me—loom large. But Chalabi was more than a mentor. There’s a relationship in sufism that approximates our earlier relationship, that of a pir (a saintly leader) and his murid (disciple). He relished that, and early on, so did I. Chalabi was a very spiritual man. I remember a day in 1999, spent rummaging through mathematics textbooks in a New York City bookshop, when a haggard old man walked up to us and interrupted one of Chalabi’s endless attempts to make math relevant to me, and bluntly asked him: “Can mathematics ever explain the mysteries of the cosmos?” Chalabi matched his bluntness and answered “No”. The man smiled, thanked him, and walked away.
He spent a lot of time selling me on the grand legacy of Islamic mysticism. He never drank alcohol, never smoked. He wasn’t an observant Muslim, but he was austere in his spirituality. He probably would have liked me to be the same. But I wasn’t much of a taker. He chalked up my skepticism to my own family’s communist legacy, a legacy that had put distance between mine and his. His mother was my father’s first maternal cousin. She married into the delicate ecosystem of the monarchy’s aristocracy and wealth, while her cousin sought to overthrow that order. It happened, and it forever colored a 14 year-old Chalabi’s understanding of what big ideas can do to a flawed, but workable social contract.
I broke with him in September 2004. I have never discussed the reasons for that break, neither in person nor in print. Chalabi’s very human and personal foibles put stress on our saint-disciple relationship. When I caught him lying to me, because he didn’t want to see himself through my newly-opened eyes (another very human thing), the break became inevitable. He often cited a line from the Quran, in the words of immortal saint al-Khidhir (Elijah, I guess) to Moses, which paraphrased into English goes something like, “Didn’t I tell you that you wouldn’t have the stomach for me?” As much as I wanted to believe his lie, a part of me saw that the pir was no longer infallible, never was. I had to make the transition to a relationship based on friendship and political partnership to continue working with him. I didn’t succeed. There were many stations towards the break. At one point he accused me of fomenting a coup against him; I wanted to build a party and a constituency for him after 2003 despite his reluctance and objection. So I worked around him. He didn’t like that. Another contentious point was that I never trusted the Iranians. He thought they would be reasonable enough to keep the peace in Baghdad and hoist him into executive office (…his friend, General Qasim Suleimani, would introduce Chalabi to his IRGC underlings before 2003 as “Iraq’s next prime minister”). I thought that his break with the Americans had gone too far, but he was just being his scrappy self in fighting back against his maligners, and what he legitimately interpreted as American attempts to undermine Iraq’s fledgling democracy. I managed the Sadrist file before the war, building up networks of contacts and cells from within their ranks. But in 2004, when Muqtada al-Sadr became a menace to the New Iraq, I thought they were irredeemable—Chalabi disagreed. On this last point he may have been vindicated: al-Sadr today counts today as a moderate in the Shi’a camp.
How did Chalabi understand history, and what does his understanding of history tell us about his place in it?
Boy did Chalabi like history. He’d go on and on about medieval Japanese martial doctrine, ‘Abbasid irrigation networks in Diyala, and conquistadors, among many other fascinations. He was even a U.S. Civil War buff. Lesser minds, jealous souls, saw this trait of his as erudite showboating.
Chalabi enjoyed the life of the mind. But his indulgence was not merely that of intellectual decadence, a way of life that his family’s wealth would have financed many times over. He scoured history for a plan of revolution. Ever the Hegelian, ever the mystic, he looked for a mathematical code that may be encrypted within the mechanics of history. He was a hacker (technology and encryption being another fascination of his) who searched for that esoteric blueprint, one that would empower revolutionary individuals, armed with big ideas, to change the course of history.
Chalabi chose maths as a field of study because it took up little time. It freed him up for the study of history. He peered into the obscurae of the Bolshevik revolution while tunneling through the stacks in Cambridge (MIT) and Chicago (University of Chicago). He watched 1960s America play out before him. (I overheard him telling congresswoman Sheila Jackson once, “I saw how America can quickly switch to a police state” when he was trying to get the Black Caucus to sign on to his Iraq Liberation Act.) Chalabi went back to the Middle East, and from his perch as assistant professor and assistant dean of arts and sciences at the American University of Beirut, a young man in his late twenties witnessed the toll of Big Ideas (Arab Nationalism, Marxism, Antoine Saadah’s ‘Fertile Crescent’) on the old order of the region, just as it had done in his hometown of Baghdad. He was no gullible idealist—another tag the early reviewers have given to his career—for he saw what revolutions against the status quo may reap: the Lebanese Civil War would force him out of academia and back into the family business, banking.
‘Professor’ Chalabi would shuttle to Tehran, to warn Mulla Mustafa Barzani that Kissinger, the Shah, and the Ba’ath regime, are about to sell out the Kurds. He had hoped that Barzani would turn his ethnic mutiny into a patriotic and democratic pan-Iraqi revolution. A thirty year old Chalabi would endure intimidation by the head of the Shah’s SAVAK, General Nassiri: “stop making trouble by putting ideas into Barzani’s head, or else.”
Verily, ‘Dreamer’ Chalabi understood the dangers of Big Ideas, but he believed, truly believed, that his own set of Big Ideas would bring justice and peace to a turbulent world.
Going back to the family business in 1977 was an act of going back to the drawing board following the Kurdish collapse. This time, ‘Banker’ Chalabi would use his new perch in Amman to finance revolution and sabotage Western interests that had aligned with those of a rising Ba’athist thug called Saddam Hussein. The rest, as they say, is history. By helping to settle his personal score with the Shah, the Ba’ath, and yes, the Americans, Chalabi would earn one of his prized possessions: a copy of the Quran signed by Khomeini with the words “To my son Ahmad”. Even I, one of his closest confidantes for a while, never got to know the whole story—“I’ll tell you about it some other time,” he would say.
Chalabi loved reading biographies to pick up on precedent. It was the mathematical code he sought to replicate for his own trajectory. He would anguish over the stories of awkward geniuses, weirdo loners such as Wittgenstein, those “who have fire in their eyes”, for he felt a camaraderie with them. But he was different. He wasn’t paralyzed by the non-functional sense of social ‘Otherness’ like many of them did. He was a charmer. He understood the traits of genius and charm to be a responsibility, born of biology and synaptic architecture, despite an unhappy, neglected childhood. A childhood during which the intelligently precocious boy would spend hours sitting silently in the family salon, as his father (the President of the Senate), his older brother (a minister), and the Grand Old Man of the gentlemanly tradition of Iraqi politics, Nuri al-Said, discussed the matters at hand, as well as the gathering clouds of revolution on the horizon. He was born into this. He was adorned with unique talents. He was obliged, and compelled, to fight the good fight.
Chalabi’s first reading list demanded of me was Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Venturi’s Roots of Revolution, and Sukhanov’s The Russian Revolution. He was so into the story of Russia at the turn of the century that he even tried to learn Russian while in Chicago, so he can get to read all seven volumes of Sukhanov in the original (only an abridged version of which exists in English).
Before 2003, Chalabi’s personal hero from the Russian Revolution was Alexander ‘Parvus’ Helphand. A Jew growing up in Odessa, Helphand hobnobbed with leftist and Marxist intellectuals until the failed 1905 revolution, then realized that he needed to go back to the drawing board. Helphand went off to make a fortune in early wartime Istanbul, but his quest for personal wealth was not born out of cynicism. He needed means and stature by which to convince the Germans, later on, to facilitate, by transit and by gold, Lenin’s ‘insertion’ into Moscow towards the goal bring down the Kerensky cabinet and knocking Russia out of the war. The rest is history.
Chalabi’s other home-grown personal hero was Muhammad Sharif al-Faruqi. A mere lieutenant from Mosul serving in the Ottoman Army, al-Faruqi defected to the British lines at Gallipoli, and convinced them that he was part of a larger network of Arab officers keen on bringing down the Ottomans. Al-Faruqi got the British Empire to jump-start and subsidize Arab Nationalism by dispatching gold and TE Lawrence, among others. The rest, again, is history.
Here were two individuals who ‘played’ Great Powers to further their personal revolutions. Sound familiar?
By this measure, was Chalabi a ‘charlatan’ or a revolutionary? Was he a ‘huckster’ or a patriot?
His was a not a cause that worried about WMDs being given to jihadists, as the Bush administration’s casus belli put it. His was a cause haunted by the crime of Halabja, a crime, let us remember, that the West had tried to cover up on Saddam’s behalf at the time when the latter was its ally. Did Chalabi, now America’s ally, owe Washington the truth should he have indeed known that Saddam no longer possessed the kinds of weapons he had used in Halabja? Did Washington owe the Iraqi people for calling upon them to rebel in 1991, which they did, while the former Bush administration subsequently did nothing to help? I don’t know whether there are any satisfying answers to these moral ambiguities, or ever will be.
After the 2003 war and all its ensuing recriminations, Chalabi tried to find himself, and some solace, in the biographies of Adenauer, Churchill and De Gaulle. Adenauer was detained and dismissed early on by the Americans (so was Chalabi). The British public voted Churchill out after he had led them to triumph (the Iraqi voting public was not kind to Chalabi). De Gaulle had to wade through the messiness and venality of French politics that displayed little gratitude at the time for his wartime efforts (Chalabi experienced much of the same with the Iraqi political class).
But it was a slow transition towards finding his post-revolutionary self. He had to change too. After my break with him, I’d visit him in Baghdad under the tenuous guise of being old friends, shooting the breeze about Brioni ties, contemporary Iraqi art, and sharing Thai cuisine recipes. We didn’t talk politics. We didn’t revisit our break. He was still smarting from the wound of our parting, and so was I. But Chalabi, in 2012, was a changed man. He saw how Maliki and the rest of the political class were taking the Iraqi democratic experiment off the rails. He no longer needed to see himself as the pir. At least it seemed so to me. He wanted one last go at trying to set things right. And he reached out, as a partner this time, to anyone who would help him get this course correction done. Politics found its way back into our conversations, just two guys (…I’d like to think ‘two patriots’) brain-storming about what can be done.
Did he have another revolution in mind? I don’t know. In the summer of last year, he pulled off a grand political gesture, and derailed Maliki’s (and Qasim Suleimani’s) plans for a third term. It was a beautifully choreographed act of parliamentary theater; he challenged Abadi’s nomination to Deputy Speaker of the house, taking the political class by surprise. It was a seminal moment, one whose effect on Iraqi politics many Iraq watchers had failed to interpret correctly, or give it its due. But it alerted Baghdad’s politicos to the threat that Chalabi’s brilliant mind still posed to their entrenched interests. His name as Maliki’s possible replacement was dropped; it would be too dangerous to give him the reins. Suleimani vetoed the idea. But they still needed him, so they thought they could contain his political machinations within the post of Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs in Abadi’s new cabinet, placing the live grenade of Iraq’s impending financial meltdown in his lap to defuse. Even that didn’t happen. After the fact, Chalabi told me that Suleimani came to him badmouthing al-Sadr, claiming that the latter had sold the post of Deputy PM to Baha al-‘Araji for twenty million dollars in cash. I didn’t believe it at first, after all, consider the source. But it turned out to be true.
Chalabi sat by his pool in September 2014, a stone’s throw away from where his father and Nuri al-Said would meet in the family salon, and told me, “I’m going to bring this whole corrupt edifice down”, meaning the way politics came to be practiced in post-Saddam Iraq. He went back to the drawing board, once again, and from his perch as head of the finance committee in parliament, collected the evidence and studied the means at hand by which to mount what may have been his final battle. A year later (last September), as he started going after the ‘Dollar Auction’ mafia—a global money laundering mechanism that had frittered away 200 billion dollars in hard currency over the last five years from Iraq’s reserves—I asked him, “This is dangerous stuff. Are you going through with it all the way to the end?” He looked at me, with that fire in his eyes, and said “Yes.” An arrow from his quiver—maybe one of his signature ‘Arrows of the Night’—seems to have made contact with the US Federal Reserve’s investigation into the practices of the Central Bank of Iraq, as reported by the Wall Street Journal on the morning of his passing.
Oh, how I would have loved to see him waging this one last noble battle. Maybe his detractors would have judged him and his legacy less harshly after it. But it was not meant to be.
He died suddenly, much like his pre-2003 personal heroes in the pantheon of history. Helphand by heart-attack in 1924, on his chair, in his mansion by Wansee Lake in Berlin. Al-Faruqi, probably destined to be one of Iraq’s greatest post-Independence politicians, had his story cut short by highway robbers in 1920 on the road to Mosul.
Some historians still call them ‘charlatans’. Kinder ones describe them as ‘controversial’ and ‘complex’. Both set in play some of the major headlines of the 20th century, around the globe and in the Middle East.
And here we are, in the 21st century, discussing Ahmad Chalabi.
“Heroes in error…”? Judged by what Chalabi et al set out to do, this was no error. Sec semper tyrannis.
Farewell my friend. Farewell my one-time pir.
I don’t know how history will judge you. I don’t know who will keep up the fight.