Exit Chalabi

International Herald Tribune, May 25, 2004

The fall from grace of Ahmad Chalabi, known until recently as America’s best friend in Iraq, is being described as an error of judgment belatedly corrected. But this is not an isolated incident of the United States making a mistake in its choice of overseas friend, nor of deserting him.

The United States has embraced numerous characters of dubious integrity, from President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines to the shah of Iran, only to be accused by these erstwhile allies of abandoning them when the going gets rough. While they are friends, the United States claims they are “good guys.” When it dumps them, it feels compelled to blame them for some evil action.

Pakistan’s late dictator, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, suggested that the United States was unable to give assistance to people in developing countries “on the basis of mutual respect”; Americans, he said, did not know how to be “friends, not masters.” Perhaps the Chalabi affair will prompt some thinking in Washington about how not to choose a “bad” friend in the first place, and how to avoid giving the impression that its allies have duped the United States. Washington also needs to figure out a way of cutting ties with undesirable allies without deepening the impression that America does not stand by its friends.

The shah of Iran, restored to the throne in 1953 as absolute monarch in a CIA-backed coup, complained in his last days that he was overthrown through American machinations. Marcos, backed for long years by the United States despite his corrupt and authoritarian regime, felt the same way when his regime collapsed in 1986. Panama’s dictator, Manuel Noriega, went from being a paid U.S. intelligence asset to an outlaw – he is currently serving a prison term in Florida for drug trafficking. The Bush administration supported and defended Ahmad Chalabi, no questions asked, right up to the recent decision to cut off his funding, followed by accusations of secret links with Iran.

In an imperfect world, America has to support some leaders who do not meet its criteria for honest, democratic leadership. Chalabi, however, was not the unsavory ruler of a strategically important country. He was an exile adopted as a friend by a U.S. faction because he provided it with arguments that advanced their strategic vision. But even if the intention behind the neoconservative vision for war in Iraq – the creation of an Arab democracy – was noble, its Iraqi architect, Chalabi, was far from an above-board ally. A nation like the United States, which claims a moral purpose in the world, cannot afford to let ends justify the means.

When allegations about Chalabi’s integrity first surfaced, his backers should have at least qualified their support for him. While insisting on seeing a world of gray in terms of black and white, they chose to whitewash Chalabi’s record. His lack of support among Iraqis was glossed over. The inability to verify his intelligence was ignored. And no one in the U.S. government or the U.S. media adequately questioned Chalabi’s past financial dealings.

This unqualified support for Chalabi until the recent break with him reflects a major problem in American relations with the world. The United States does not have sufficient nuance in its friendships, nor does it seem to know how to distance itself from friends it no longer needs.

Ideally, America’s friends abroad should share America’s proclaimed values. But when the United States is forced to join hands with unsavory characters for strategic reasons, it should not become their unquestioning advocate. In international relations, there are many categories between friend and rogue.