Monday, January 29, 2007

"Where are they now", part XXIV. This week, Ahmed Chalabi

From Nick's book

"I got to know members ot the Iraqi opposition in London, particularly Iraqi Kurds whose compatriots were the targets of one of the last genocides of the twentieth century. They were democratic socialists whose liberal-mindedness extended to opposing the death penalty, even for Saddam Hussein. Obviously, they didn't represent the majority of Iraqi opinion. Equally obviously, they shared the same beliefs as the over-whelming majority of the rich world's liberals and leftists and deserved our support as they struggled against fascism. Not the authoritarianism of a tinpot dictator but real fascism: a messianic one-party state; a Great Leader, whose statue was in every town centre and picture on every news bulletin; armies that swept out in unprovoked wars of foreign aggrandizement; and secret policemen who organized the gassing of 'impure' races. The Iraqi leftists were our 'comrades', to use a word that was by then so out of fashion it was archaic.

When the second war against Saddam Hussein came in 2003, they told me there was no other way to remove him. Kanan Makiya was on their side. He was saying the same things about the crimes against humanity of the Baath Party he had said twenty years before, but although his arguments had barely changed, the political world around him was unrecognizable. American neo-conservatives were his champions now, while the Left that had once cheered him denounced him as a traitor.

Everyone I respected in public life was wildly anti-war, and I was struck by how their concern about Iraq didn't extend to the common courtesy of talking to Iraqis. They seemed to have airbrushed from their memories all they had once known about Iraq and every principle of mutual respect they had once upheld."

I've bolded the sentence that actually motivated me to write here, because it seems really quite hypocritical. Let me explain. I have a number of points of disagreement with Nick over this passage - in particular, I disagree that the Iraqi opposition was anything like as monolithically in favour of invasion as he claims. The Kurdish parties were, for the very good reason that they already lived in territory controlled by NATO forces in the quasi-independent no-fly zones. But the people who faced the realistic prospect of actually living with the invasion and its consequences were decidedly more cautious about the whole prospect.

With one notable exception, of course. The Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi. Nick was really rather close to this group. He wrote this encomium to them in April 2002, seeing them as the moral equivalent of the ANC. In July of that year, he appeared to be suggesting that he would even withdraw his support for a war in Iraq if INC weren't put in charge (this was during the transitional period, when Nick's support of Bush and Blair was more critical and qualified). By August, he was saying " But the moral calculus would change if the West met the demands of the Iraqi National Congress". It doesn't look to be too much of an exaggeration to say that Ahmed Chalabi sold this war to Nick.

His support and contacts with INC continued right into the war - here's a piece from January 2003, which is rather interesting as it shows that Nick was fully aware that the original war plan was not to bring democracy to Iraq. He also appeared to be taking briefings from them quite uncritically - in February 2003, Nick claimed that the INC was an umbrella group including SCIRI, which was very misleading - in fact, SCIRI had a very short term alliance with INC which stopped basically the second that they realised that Chalabi had an agenda which favoured a much longer US occupation than SCIRI wanted. (This bit of the Observer archive is also rather interesting in that on the very day that Nick was choosing to have a go at his domestic enemies on the Left, Kanan Makiya was also appearing in the Observer, flacking for the big and disastrous Cheney plan, his support for which rather had the effect of tarnishing him in the eyes of anyone who prefers to listen to people with a clue what they're talking about).

So I think we can establish that Nick was really rather close indeed to Ahmed Chalabi and the INC. It is not as if he wasn't warned that this was a bad idea, by Mark Seddon in this case (via the excellent Wikipedia page on Nick Cohen - I think I know who maintains it and well done, it's fantastic). HE had very definitely taken on borad Chalabi's vision of a secular and democratic Iraq (how SCIRI were going to be fitted into this I am not sure), fully de-Baathized and with Chalabi in the top job, and it looks like that was what sold him on the war in the first place.

But, since the war … not so much. Searching the Guardian website gives one mention of Chalabi in Nick's column in 2004, here as a footnote to an article about Howard Shipman. And nothing else. And now in the book, history has been rewritten so that it was Kanan Makiya who was the driving force. I think this is unlikely, because Makiya spent most of the period immediately before the war carrying out lobbying in the USA, where he is a professor at Brandeis University. Nick did have contacts with Makiya (oddly, he refers to Makiya offering him "coffee and digestives in his London flat". Makiya lived and worked in London between 1979 and 1983, but not since, so if he owned the flat from those days, he's made a packet on it. Chalabi did live in London, where the INC is based).

I think this is rather unfair. Makiya was an important dissident, but since the invasion, he has remained in the USA. Chalabi, on the other hand, has continued to be involved in Iraqi politics, presumably at great personal risk to himself, and served as the Deputy Prime Minister as recently as May of last year. Surely to god, if "supporting those Iraqis who are struggling to build democracy" means anything, it means not snubbing an old mate who is actually doing that job? What was that phrase again?

"They seemed to have airbrushed from their memories all they had once known about Iraq and every principle of mutual respect they had once upheld"

What's that you're saying? Chalabi brought it on himself? Precisely how did he? BY lying about WMD? I don't think so. Nick hasn't turned on anyone else for lying about WMD, and if anyone was providing "multiple rationales" for invading Iraq, Chalabi was. In fact, Chalabi's actions since the invasion certainly seem to show that he was a lot more serious about building democracy in Iraq than Blair or Bush were.

Is it because Chalabi was an Iranian spy? Well, has that charge ever been proved in a court? Recall that Nick took up Chalabi's cause at a time when Chalabi was well known to have been a convicted fraudster. Nick referred to "disputed accusations of fraud", which I think refers to the CIA expenses fraud claims. He doesn't mention the bank fraud charges which were proved in a Jordanian court, but I suspect that at the time he took the Christopher Hitchens line (Hitchens was another big Chalabi fan) that these charges were established in absentia in a court run by a military dictatorship and thus probably trumped up.

However, the Iranian spying charges have never made it anywhere near a court. They've never been tested at all. The CIA floated them out into the public domain and just left them there. They didn't even convince sufficiently many Iraqis to prevent Chalabi from restarting his political career. Although the cold-shouldering of Chalabi does date to about the same period in 2004 when these accusations were first made, they are so insubstantial that a man who swallowed all the fraud problems before the war can surely have no basis to drop Chalabi for this.

I find myself concluding that in the absence of any other explanation (and I tried to get some comment from Nick, on the Guardian chat last week), we have to at least consider that Nick has dropped Chalabi because he nowadays finds him politically embarrassing. It is good to see that there are at least some of the old traditions of the Left still going.


Blogger ejh said...

That said, it would be wrong to deny thqat many Iraqis, particularly the exiles, did support the invasion, not because they thought it was great but because they couldn't see how else to get rid of Saddam.

I did have the common courtesy to talk to an Iraqi woman about this - or rather, she had the courtesy to talk to me, in the London medical library where I was then working and where I wore an antiwar badge.

She didn't consider me pro-fascist or morally repugnant for opposing the war: she simply put the argument above, that nothing else would get rid of the man. (I replied, with the same courtesy that she showed in addressing me, that of course I saw her point, but I thought that the invasion would be a destructive disaster for the wider world.) She also made it quite clear, by the way, that she did not trust the Americans. "They follow their own agenda", she said, quite forcefully.

I don't know what she thinks about it now and I won't presume. I'm well out of it, where I am: and I hope she is too.

1/29/2007 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous bb said...

Yes, I think that someone who took Iraqis in London as their touchstone would have ended up following roughly the Johann Hari trajectory, albeit that I'm not 100% sure that they would have been quite as vitriolic in the early stages. Nick could have found all sorts of Iraqi exile groups, but he did in fact find the INC and now he's trying to pussyfoot.

1/29/2007 01:11:00 PM  
Anonymous redpesto said...

If Nick is going to big-up Makiya, perhaps he should have checked this article in Salon, about George Packer's The Assassins' Gate (which I'm sure I've posted here before):

And the coup de grâce was administered by none other than the lofty idealist turned practical politician Kanan Makiya. Makiya, who had emerged from obscurity to find himself courted by the White House and a figure with influence at the highest levels of the U.S. government, had made the fateful decision to form an alliance with Ahmad Chalabi (Makiya told another Iraqi exile that "Iraq has one democrat -- Ahmad Chalabi"), and had decided that the Future of Iraq Project would weaken Chalabi. The Pentagon ordered the Future of Iraq Project's report shelved.

Or this:

Makiya is Virgil to Packer's Dante, a man whose unimpeachable decency, idealism and courage coexists with a naiveté verging on myopia and -- it turns out -- a near-complete lack of knowledge of the land he had fled so many years before.

Packer apparently gave up on Makiya in the end; maybe Nick didn't get the memo.

1/29/2007 01:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NCohen was on bbc R4 'start the week' this morning. about 10-12 min from the start

He smears "Chomsky & his gang" as holocaust deniers ..

You can download or listen again at

jah p, bristol

1/29/2007 07:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Nick S said...

Not to pat myself too much on the back, but I was the one who added the Chalabi bits (and the Seddon link) to the Wikipedia entry back in the day, having noted the absence of any reference to those days of cheerleading the INC.

I take it somewhat personally: whenever I think of Cohen's pre-war columns, I'm reminded of how pissed off my dad was when he gave money to some nice people at the door for their books about the Bible, only to find out that they were collected articles from The Watchtower.

(My CiF comment on Cohen's book-launch post, linking to those Observer pieces, was vanished into the ether. Obviously just a software glitch, and not airbrushing at all, oh no.)

2/02/2007 04:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Nick S said...

[And that selective blindness to your questions on Chalabi in the Guardian talk thread really couldn't have been more obvious, could it?]

2/02/2007 04:53:00 AM  
Anonymous dd said...

ha! I thought it was you nick!

2/02/2007 08:19:00 AM  

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