Frank Foer has a very nice piece in the current issue of the New Republic. I’ve said many times that there’s been at least as much self-deception as deception in the Bush administration’s myriad endeavors in the Middle East. And Foer’s article unpacks one part of this story: conservatives’ romantic attachment to exile ‘opposition leaders.’ At the moment — or, actually, more like six months ago — Ahmed Chalabi is the example par excellence. As Foer makes clear, he’s just the most recent in a long line going back to the anti-communist insurrectionists of the 1970s and 1980s.
But there is a difference with Chalabi.
Chalabi’s supporters would often attack his critics in two ways. First, they’d claim that opposition to Chalabi meant opposition to Arab democracy. Second, they’d imply that Chalabi had been unjustly maligned or demonized by opponents with other agendas to pursue.
I won’t deny that there was some small merit in these responses, or that they did not identify some roots of the opposition to Chalabi. What’s most revealing about both, however, is how they serve to avoid what was always the paramount criticism of the guy: his general irrelevance to the situation inside Iraq.
There’s no doubt that Chalabi would have been better than most of the potential leaders an unreconstructed Iraqi political system could have churned up. But once you cut your reasoning off from any practical sense of how a potential leader might sustain himself as leader of his country or what his basis of support might be, you can come up with an almost limitless number of fantasy candidates — all of them equally irrelevant to the realities at hand.
Frank quotes Deputy Undersecretary of Defense William Luti calling Chalabi the “George Washington of Iraq.” I’ll do that one better. There’s another neocon at DOD who, I’m told, has often called Chalabi the most important Muslim since the Prophet Mohammed.
As Foer ably notes, there were a lot of folks at the Pentagon who really thought Chalabi could rapidly bestride the Iraqi political scene and take care of many of the problems we’re wrestling with today. Today of course there’s really no one who imagines he’ll be more than a bit player.
The old time right-wing heart-throbs like Jonas Savimbi really did have troops on the ground in their homelands. The problem was that they were often murderous thugs. The problem with the new right-wing-adored opposition leaders — Chalabi perhaps becoming the archetype — is not their bad behavior but their irrelevance.
Coming up later: the much-discussed David Kay report.