The "stop Chalabi" movement is in full throat, we
see from the wires over the weekend. No doubt it perked up with the news that
500 Iraqi exiles, assembled under the aegis of the Iraqi National Congress,
are being assembled to enter southern Iraq. Right on cue, the foreign affairs
columnist of the New York Times, Thos. Friedman, rushed out a column warning
President Bush against the "ideologues" within his team "who
have been dealing with the Iraqi exile leaders and will try to install one of
them, like Ahmad Chalabi, to run Iraq."
Mr. Friedman then went on to write an amazing sentence for a man who has been covering foreign affairs throughout this whole period. "I don't know any of these exiles," he confessed. He insisted he has nothing against any of them personally. But it sort of makes one wonder. The United States Congress went to the trouble of passing a strategy setting law — the Iraq Liberation Act — in 1998, which established regime change as American policy as a matter of law. It acted largely to support the exiled Iraqi democrats and following extensive testimony by Mr. Chalabi. It’s hard to imagine how a serious foreign affairs columnist could avoid the temptation to seek at least one get-acquainted interview.
In the case of Mr. Chalabi, he would meet a man who has nursed the dream of liberating Iraq from the clutches of Baathist thugs and murderers for decades, despite continual attempts to throw sticks in his wheel by powerful enemies and various entrenched interests. His detractors conjure relatively few criticisms of the man, one of them being that he has lived for so long outside of Iraq — he fled in 1958 after the royal family’s overthrow — that he has no support on the Iraqi street. That can be tested, of course. But our impression is that Mr. Chalabi has created over the years an impressive network of intelligence and political contacts inside of Iraq, many of them cultivated while he was spending much of his time living in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq between the end of the first Gulf War and 1996.
As for the notion that he is either unknown or unpopular, our sources inside Iraq tell us that Mr. Chalabi, just arrived at the liberated city of Nasiriyah with his Free Iraqi Forces, was welcomed with open arms, with the local notables even inviting him to stay at the governor’s mansion. And the suggestion that Mr. Chalabi is a pliant follower of the United States is ridiculous. The DCI, George Tenet, has been deriding him all around town. He is looked down upon by the Cable News Network’s Iraq expert, Kenneth Pollack, himself a former analyst at the CIA. The State Department, the Saudis and the heads of other Arab dictatorships in the Middle East want nothing to do with him.
Mr. Chalabi, in other words, has all the right enemies. The reason that crowd dislikes him is simple: he is not one of them. He’s independent-minded, secular, democratic, and loves liberty. He doesn’t suffer fools. The CIA has spent millions of our dollars trying to buy off tribal loyalties in Iraq’s south. They have little to nothing to show for it. But it’s starting to look like Mr. Tenet’s shop is seeking to undercut a contender like Mr. Chalabi just to protect its own troubled program. Mr. Friedman wants President Bush to travel to the West Bank to see how an occupation shouldn’t be handled. It’d be fine with us. But we suspect that what Mr. Bush would tell Mr. Friedman and his friends on the West Bank is that America isn’t planning an occupation of Iraq but a liberation. And for that there will be a need for Iraqis who understand the idea of liberty, have devoted their lives to nursing the idea during their country’s years of darkness and can articulate the idea of liberty for the Iraqis so they themselves can decide.