Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi politician who is typically described as having manipulated the Bush Administration to invade Iraq, died in Baghdad on Tuesday at the age of 71. He died of natural causes—a heart attack—which is evidence enough of his political talent. Very few Iraqi politicians throughout the ages have died in bed, and many have suffered terrible deaths, including the one-time prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Said, who in 1958 was killed at least twice—shot to death, then disinterred and dragged through the streets, hanged, burned, and mutilated. Chalabi, who was up for prime minister just last year, not only managed to stay relevant in Iraqi politics, he also stayed alive.
Chalabi was famously brilliant. He had degrees in Mathematics from MIT and the University of Chicago, worked as a banker, and was able to speak interestingly about a range of issues. But to know many things is no great thing—or rather, it is not the kind of intelligence that determines whether you live or die, or spend your prime earning years being tortured by an Arab security service. Chalabi’s talent was that he knew the difference between his type of intelligence and that of others, especially Americans.
The one crime that the American elite cannot forgive is to not be smart, which Chalabi came to understand very quickly in his meetings in Washington, a city of a quarter million student council presidents who want everyone to know their GPAs. It takes no great wit to be the smartest boy in any given room, but to seduce everyone in that room by convincing them that they are the smartest is political psychology of a very high level.
I met him once, in Beirut, when the late Christopher Hitchens took a group of journalists to see Chalabi, who was in town visiting Lebanese relatives. We were served dinner and then moved to the large living room where we talked about the region, U.S. policy and the future of Ahmed Chalabi. Hitchens wrote movingly of his friendship with Chalabi, a man determined to bring an end to Saddam’s despotic dictatorship. Others have written about Chalabi the democrat and pluralist, who wanted Jews to move back to Baghdad. My lasting impression of Chalabi was his intelligence—or more precisely, his raw psychological ability.
Chalabi made sure you understood that you were a poet, a visionary, and he knew so because he was one, too. Yes, sure, he was brilliant, but you see, in the same way that you are brilliant, too. He was a great showman. He didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear—his method of seduction was to awaken in his interlocutors a sense that they had been raised to a level of rare brilliance that even they didn’t know they had in them.
Of course it is wrong to say that Chalabi was responsible for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was George W. Bush who sent Americans to the Fertile Crescent. However, the many memorials to Chalabi published over the last two days that seek to exculpate him from this charge are missing the point. That he was widely seen to be the man who manipulated the Americans became the cornerstone of his reputation and therefore his political power.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt frequently talked about Chalabi. He was fascinated by a man who’d seemingly managed to turn the most powerful country in world history to his advantage in toppling Saddam Hussein. Jumblatt told me that he met Chalabi once in Jordan where this scion of a powerful Baghdad Shiite family said that someday he was going to bring down the Baathist regime. “And he did!” said Jumblatt, shaking his head in admiration.
Even as the Chalabi narrative is mostly embellishment, it’s not hard to see why Jumblatt, among many others in the region, were interested in Chalabi. Here was a man of extraordinary energy and focus and guile who kept his head long enough that he was able to see his lifelong ambition intersect at the same crossroads with great power. Very few men are ever offered what British writers of a certain class—a generation raised by empire and the possibilities for advancement it afforded—used to call” the main chance.” Even fewer are able to recognize it, and then grasp it. Chalabi had it in his hands, almost. At one time, he very nearly came to rule Iraq.
It was this story that made him valuable to the Iranians and ensured his continued involvement in Iraqi politics, even after it became clear that, from an objective perspective, he had become irrelevant. And yet Chalabi’s enduring lesson to America was to show that, in the Middle East, what seems objective is often irrelevant—and that our vanity is hardly a secret to the people whose lives and countries we seek to re-order.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).