Meredith Willson’s sappy 1962 Broadway show “The Music Man” illuminates an inscrutable side of American foreign policy: Why do Americans persist in believing that they can remake the world in their own image, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? We Americans love crooks and swindlers who appeal to our national narcissism, even when we know that they are crooks and swindlers. Willson’s hero is a turn-of-the-twentieth-century rogue who styles himself a professor of music, and sells marching band equipment to midwestern towns with the promise that he will teach the local kids to play–but disappears before keeping his end of the bargain. In one Iowa town, the “music man” is caught red-handed, but pardoned by the townsfolk who bask in the warmth of his flattery. He has a long list of antecedents, such as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.
The Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, whose death last week revived the controversy about the 2003 Iraq war, lives on in the hearts of the neoconservatives for the same reason that the burghers of River City, Iowa embraced Willson’s swindler. It reveals the better side of the American character: We’re too dumb to lie about other countries’ politics, which we understand about as well as Sanskrit, and we have no natural defense against sociopaths who lie whenever their lips are moving. There are very few uniquely American jokes: one queries what Snow White said to Pinocchio (“Lie to me, Baby”). We Americans love it when the Pinocchios of foreign policy lie to us. Those who view American democracy as an export industry still haven’t managed to fall out of love with Chalabi.
Seth Lipsky hailed Chalabi in the Nov. 5 Wall Street Journal as “the leading tribune of the idea of a free and democratic Iraq.” Chalabi helped persuade the Bush Administration that Saddam was building nuclear weapons, and that an American invasion could build democracy in his country. He also devised the so-called “de-Baathification” program that expunged virtually the whole of the Sunni elite from positions of civil and military power, pushing the Sunnis into the violent opposition that culminated with ISIS.
Chalabi allegedly betrayed American intelligence secrets to Iran long before he aligned himself with Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militias. The New York Times reported in 2004, ” Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi leader and former ally of the Bush administration, disclosed to an Iranian official that the United States had broken the secret communications code of Iran’s intelligence service, betraying one of Washington’s most valuable sources of information about Iran, according to United States intelligence officials.” Chalabi’s devotees at the Defense Department still claim that the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency invented these charges. I have friends on both sides of the Bush Administration (or at least people who were friends prior to the publication of this note) and no way to verify any of the relevant claims. The trouble is that what Chalabi sold to the neo-conservatives was silly on the face of it.
Seth Lipsky describes a 1998 dinner with Chalabi at the offices of the Forward, the venerable (and now left-leaning) Jewish newspaper.
During the dinner, Mr. Chalabi sat next to Robert Bartley, then editor of The Wall Street Journal. Only a few years earlier, Bartley had told his editorial lieutenants that he no longer wanted to treat with Arab dictators. Instead, he wanted to meet the democratic idealists in exile.
At one point during the dinner Jonathan Rosen, an editor at the Forward, turned to Mr. Chalabi and asked about Israel. The room fell silent. Mr. Chalabi reminded us that before World War II Baghdad had been home to such a large Jewish population that it was known as the Vilna of the Middle East. Jews served in the government. “My policy for a democratic Iraq,” Mr. Chalabi said, “is that I want them back.”
In all my years covering the Middle East, I had never heard an Arab leader talk like that. It wasn’t that Israel was the only issue, either for him or the Forward. But Mr. Chalabi was singular in his lack of xenophobia, as well as in his appreciation for ideas, markets and the democratic cause.
I knew the late Bob Bartley well; my business partner during the late 1980s and early 1990s was his sidekick Jude Wanniski, who discovered what he dubbed “supply-side economics” and became its prime apostle at the Wall Street Journal editorial board. To the amusement of the dour Canadian economic genius who formulated the theory behind it, the Journal editorial page believed that they had discovered a magic formula to fix every society in the world. Bartley and Wanniski were bright and well-meaning journalists, but neither of them spoke a foreign language, traveled much abroad or knew anything about any other culture.
Chalabi was rewarded for his flattery with $8 million a year in overt funding for his Iraqi National Congress and indeterminate amounts of covert funding between 1998 and 2004, when the Defense Department cut it loose. It is baffling to read this glowing reminiscence after Chalabi allied himself to the most radical pro-Iranian elements in Iraqi politics.”There are those of us who have never wavered in our admiration for him, even if he was a complex figure,” Seth Lipsky explains. “Complex” meant double-dealing. As Eli Lake wrote at Bloomberg News:
Chalabi’s post-American political career also proves that his supporters back in the 2000s also ended up getting him wrong. Chalabi’s political allies at the time, men like Moktada al-Sadr, were militant, fundamentalist demagogues. They were the party of the brutal Shiite militias that are today — along with the Islamic State — breaking Iraq apart. Even though Chalabi in private was a secular man, he was happy to play the role of a Shiite Islamist. His organization was also happy to align with the Iranian-supported special groups who were targeting U.S soldiersin 2007. This was all a far cry from the hopeful democracy Chalabi promised audiences in Washington.
Writing in the New York Daily News, former Forward reporter Ira Stoll gushed, “To me, Chalabi was Iraq’s Samuel Adams, its revolutionary leader who inspired, agitated, persuaded, and persevered in the face of overwhelming odds and when others lost hope.” The notion that some countries do not have a Sam Adams and never will have a Sam Adams simply doesn’t occur to the neo-conservatives. Like the last academic Marxists, they will die convinced that the theory was right and the failure lay in the implementation. Somehow they managed to gain the confidence of George W. Bush and did more to undermine America’s power and credibility than all of America’s declared enemies.