"If in eliminating the Ba’ath Chalabi was seeking to marginalise not simply secular Sunnis but secular Shi’a — who were of course supposed by his champions in Washington to be his power base — then the suggestion that he duped the neocons in particular and the Bush Administration in general acquires a wholly new dimension.
Whether or not Chalabi is ‘power mad’, it is certainly plausible to suggest, as Wayne White did earlier, that Chalabi was pursuing his own personal agendas, and not as it were working as an Iranian agent. But the remarks of the former CIA official quoted by Richard Sale drive home a fundamental point which has been apparent for some time. The relations between Chalabi and the Iranians were rooted in a real commonality of interest, so that the question of whether they or their Iraqi clients needed to trust him was in a sense marginal. Getting rid of Saddam suited both the Iranians and Chalabi. Meanwhile, those Iraqis — both Sunni and Shi’a — most likely to oppose Iranian clients were also those most likely to resist any significant role for Chalabi in the new Iraq. But precisely because Chalabi’s interests coincided largely with those of Iran, the appearance that they coincided with those of the United States — or indeed those of Israel — could only be sustained by creating a fantasy view of political realities in Iraq.
Chalabi is, I think, a past master at identifying what people want to be hear, and telling them it.
Taking the Israeli element in the equation, there is one point on which the neocons are clearly right. Looking longer term, Israel is quite patently under ‘existential threat’. Among the many reasons for this is the country’s dependence on American support. Doubtless this is reliable for now, but if one looks decades ahead, it is hardly a solid foundation for Israeli security. And if one looks closely at the 1996 Clean Break paper, a central goal is quite patently to create a situation where Israel is no longer dependent on the United States. To achieve this end, however, the ‘Clean Break’ authors relied upon the exploitation of the current close alliance between the two countries to use American power to remodel the Middle East.
Tragically for Israel — in my view — precisely the availability of unquestioning American support encouraged the belief that one could avoid the difficulties of dealing with the Middle East as it was, and create a new Middle East, in which leaderships hostile to Israel were replaced with ones friendly or at least accepting. And it was in large measure this fantasy which created openings for Chalabi’s myth-making talents. At the heart of the ‘Clean Break’ paper there was the remarkable conception of the Iraqi Shi’a welcoming a Hashemite restoration in Iraq because King Hussein was a direct descendant of the Prophet. This was then supposed to lead to the Shi’a of South Lebanon being weaned away from Hizbullah, and the end of all Israel’s problems. Subsequently Chalabi switched tack, and sold the neocons a new vision of the Shi’a as unqualifiedly secular (remember Wolfowitz on the absence of holy cites in Iraq?) and prepared to welcome him as their de Gaulle. The new s ecular Iraq was supposed to recognise and cooperate with Israel, and also to become a dagger pointed at the Tehran regime, and perhaps also the Saudi regime, leading on to the collapse of Hizbullah and Hamas — and again, the end of all Israel’s problems.
As strategies based on fantasy often do, this ‘Clean Break’ strategy backfired dramatically. The kind of preemptive military action the paper recommended was tried against Hizbullah, which however saw off the Israeli attack. It appears that Hizbullah is now constructing a system of fortifications north of the Litani which are likely to make Israeli air power even less effective — and from which, as increasing accurate missiles become available, larger and larger swathes of Israel can be attacked. Against Iraq, the strategy of preemptive war has led to a vast increase in the power of Iran. It has also maximised the incentives for the Iranians to acquire nuclear capabilities, while rendering it far more difficult for the United States to prevent them doing so. So the supposed ‘clean break’ has tended to produce the precise reverse of the results intended. The combination of Hizbullah missiles and an Iranian nuclear capability threatens to turn the ‘existential threat’ to Israel from a longer-term to a relatively near-term possibility, and indeed to lead to the kind of ‘eroding national critical mass’ which concerned the ‘Clean Break’ authors. As the Deputy Defense Minister Ephram Sneh said last November, a ‘dark cloud of fear’ could easily lead to emigration — particularly among the highly educated elites on whom the country depends, whose skills are much in demand in safer places, like the United States or Britain.
Unsurprisingly, Sneh expressed scepticism about the effects of international sanctions or diplomacy in curbing Iran. But the effect of the strategies which were supposed to benefit Israel has actually been to not only to make military options far more problematic — but to make the use of military threats in support of diplomacy difficult. In effect, these strategies have left both Israel and the United States boxed into a corner: caught between the rock on which they could be easily be wrecked should an attack on Iran misfire, and the hard place of accepting there is no effective way to prevent a nuclear Iran. If the kind of fantasies of easy solutions underpinning the attack on Iraq lead to an attack on Iran and this goes badly wrong, the damage to American — and Israeli — interests — could dwarf that already incurred.
I think it is perfectly possible that with the wisdom of hindsight people will look back on the ‘Clean Break’ paper as a kind of suicide note. And while I would agree with the tusked one (Walrus) that one should be cautious about assuming that rhetorical agendas are real ones, I do think that the suggestion that the current shambles is the product of ‘deliberate policy’ is implausible — because actually this shambles is not in the interest of the United States or of its Israeli ‘client’.
I do think it is actually difficult to exaggerate the sheer ineptitude of Feith, Perle, Wolfowitz et al. The contributions by Richard Sale and the discussion of his first posting seem to make amply clear that by the time of the invasion of Iraq, it should have been clear to anyone reasonable rational in Washington — or indeed in London — that one became involved with Chalabi or his associates (including Kanan Makiya) at one’s own risk. Today this should be even clearer. Moreover, the fact that Chalabi’s interests mesh with those of the Iranians and their clients, rather than those of the United States, should by now be indisputably clear. The suggestion by Wayne White that in impeding rehabilitation of elements of the Ba’ath Chalabi is seeking to cultivate his political constituency among the Shi’a seems eminently plausible. My only caveat would be that Chalabi is both unlikely to acquire a mass constituency of any kind — but also may not actually need one. So lon g as the Iranians and their Iraq clients are convinced that his objectives and their own run in parallel, his vast accumulated expertise and contacts can be very useful to them — and surely he can expect, as quid pro quo, to find Iraq a fertile ground for his business ventures?
And of course this means that precisely what many of the neocons want — an American attack on Iran — is what Chalabi cannot afford to be seen to countenance. One would accordingly have thought that there would have been a clear split between Chalabi and his erstwhile allies among the neocons, and other elements in Western security establishments who were diddled by him. But, remarkably, this seems only to have happened to a limited extent.
In the piece by Dexter Filkins on Chalabi that appeared in the NYT last November, Richard Perle said the question was ‘is he fooling the Iranians or are the Iranians using him?’ — and went on to suggest that ‘Chalabi has been very shrewd in getting the things he has needed over the years out of the Iranians without giving anything in return.’ As Iran’s great enemy Saddam has been destroyed, and as the U.S. continues to fight the Sunnis who are the implacable opponents of the Iranians, and also appear implacably hostile to the most ‘nationalist’ of Shi’a leaders, al-Sadr, Perle’s remark is simply surreal. One really has to ask what it would take to persuade Perle that Chalabi might have given the Iranians as much as he has got out of them — American generals taking direct orders from Tehran, perhaps?
The fact that Perle still cannot grasp that he has been richly and royally fooled by Chalabi is testament to the extraordinary combination of arrogance and imbecility which has characterised neocon policymaking from the start. That the Iranians and Chalabi were both using each other, for essentially complementary purposes, also seems evident. How far the gains achieved by the Iranians were the product of a deep-laid Machiavellian strategy is of course another question. But I think one can say that one is rather more likely to find effective Machiavellianism today in Tehran, than in Washington or London."