Ahmad Chalabi was in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, 2001. He had chosen his favorite double-breasted Ermenegildo Zegna suit and a bright orange tie to celebrate opening day of the George W. Bush presidency. With his mischievous smile and aristocratic bearing, the fifty-six-year-old Iraqi-born Chalabi made his way from one inaugural bash to the next, gliding among the crowds of Bush partygoers. A Muslim who neither smokes nor drinks, he took it all in with the eye of an exile and the soul of a schemer. What would the Bush era mean for him? he wondered. How could he make the most of it?
The day after Bush’s swearing in, Chalabi took a car to Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital. He was invited to a meeting at the two-story home of Richard Perle, a leading figure in the neoconservative movement, which advocated using American military power to promote democracy abroad. Among those present, Chalabi said, were Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas J. Feith, Zalmay Khalilzad, and John P. Hannah. Within a few months, they all would hold influential positions in the new administration—with Wolfowitz and Feith landing the number two and number three positions at the Pentagon and Perle becoming a top adviser to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Khalilzad a special assistant to Bush and ambassador at large for Iraqi exiles, and Hannah a national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. But on this brisk and sunny afternoon, January 21, 2001, they were just a handful of like-minded civilians who saw the charting of U.S. foreign policy as both their dominion and their duty.
Everyone came casually dressed, some in blue jeans, sweaters, and polo shirts—except for Chalabi, who, as always, chose his outfits with care. In this case, a beige sports coat with blue pinstripes, a pale blue shirt, and a wide navy tie. Casual was not his way. They gathered in a small salon near the front of Perle’s house, seated around a glass coffee table atop a red-and-black Turkish rug and beneath a portrait of Arthur Rimbaud, the influential eighteenth-century French poet who was as famous for his scandalous behavior as he was for his groundbreaking and revolutionary writings.
“Well, we have won.” Perle beamed as he opened the meeting. “And now we have to get our policy objective adopted by the administration.”
That policy objective was both simple and audacious: to get Bush to back Chalabi in his long quest to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
“We were sympathetic to what Ahmad was trying to accomplish,” Perle later explained matter-of-factly. But more important, the group believed that Chalabi was the missing piece in their own strategy for engineering a post-Saddam Iraq. To them, Chalabi was a modern-day Charles de Gaulle, someone “who shared our values” and who could be trusted to carry U.S. national interests to the most vital of regions, the Middle East.
“I believed at the time that we didn’t know enough about Iraq to go in there and remake the place,” Perle recounted. “We had to work with somebody, and I thought that he was the right person.”
So, over the next two hours, as they snacked on cold cuts and salad, they sketched out their agenda. Chalabi mostly listened. It was, in his estimation, a crucial meeting.
“Of course, none of these people had jobs in the administration,” Chalabi noted. “But it was important that they would be mobilized early to move the agenda for the liberation of Iraq.” The primary objective was to get “ideas through to the people who would be in a position to do things.” The ideas, he said, included “that Saddam was dangerous to U.S. interests in the Middle East. He was bent on revenge [over losing the 1990–1991 Gulf War].” Another objective was “to brush up and revive the arguments that would make it in the U.S. interest to help us overthrow Saddam.”
By “us” Chalabi meant the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the fractious umbrella group of Iraqi exiles—composed of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds—that he led. Chalabi was under no illusion about the enormity of the INC’s challenge, especially given the roster of enemies he had amassed over the years inside the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which preferred to maintain the status quo in Iraq.
“I didn’t know how they were going to outmaneuver the State Department,” Chalabi said of his neoconservative supporters. Or how they might neutralize the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where senior officials detested Chalabi, viewing him as a charlatan and an opportunist.
Then there was the question of Bush and where he stood on regime change. After a meeting with him in 2000, Perle had come to believe that Bush had “the temperament” to finish the job his father, George H. W. Bush, had begun. But Chalabi and his supporters gathered at Perle’s house that afternoon realized they would have to persuade the new president to make a U-turn on his campaign pronouncements denouncing nation building.
Perle, who had spent a quarter century in government—first on Capitol Hill as a Senate staffer and later as a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration—knew from experience that the fate of their agenda would most likely boil down to what he called “the battle of the memos.” He advised the group in his sitting room that while he expected many of them to land senior positions in the new administration through which they could promote their cause, they would still face formidable opposition from the career professionals in the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community. He called members of that permanent bureaucracy “mattress mice” because of their skill in quietly and anonymously gnawing away at policy initiatives they opposed. As one of the participants at the meeting described it, “Just when you think your bed is all made up and your policy is securely in place, along come these mattress mice with their nay-saying memos and, before you know it, you’re lying on a bed of shreds.”
To counter the mattress mice, Perle advised that they preassemble their own stack of memos to answer the likely arguments opposing regime change: that the United Nations’ trade sanctions against Iraq, though imperfect, were working well enough; that Saddam was safely contained and posed a minimal threat to the United States; that whatever the upside of removing the dictator might be, it was not worth the inevitable empowerment of neighboring Iran; that because Iraq is so ethnically divided, toppling Saddam could lead to a dangerous and uncontrollable explosion in ethnic and religious violence among its people; that without a strongman the country could break up into separate Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish enclaves, igniting an ethnic war so chaotic and violent that it would destabilize the region. There was much work to be done.
Even still, an epochal shift in U.S. foreign policy had begun. From day two of the Bush presidency, the push for a new Iraq was on—and Ahmad Chalabi was smack in the middle of it.
Who was this Iraqi exile?
I first met him a year after the Bush inauguration on behalf of CBS News’ 60 Minutes, where I have been a producer since 1988. At the time, I knew nothing of the meeting at Perle’s house. All I knew was that Chalabi was a leading figure in the Iraqi opposition movement and that he was campaigning hard for the overthrow of Saddam. The prospect of regime change in Baghdad was far from certain then, and the notion that the straight-talking former Texas governor would saddle up with this Iraqi blue blood with a taste for designer suits seemed far-fetched at best—especially to the executives at 60 Minutes in New York. But when I visited Chalabi that first time—at the Iraqi National Congress’s office in London near Hyde Park—I was struck by the nonstop frenzy of backroom meetings and cross-Atlantic cell phone calls I observed between him and the clique of neoconservatives working inside and outside the Bush administration. Chalabi was no mere dandy, I realized. This was a well-connected man of action who should be taken seriously. I called Lesley Stahl, the 60 Minutes correspondent, to propose our doing a story on him and the potential policy change afoot in the Bush administration, and she agreed. The result was the first of several stories she and I did together on Chalabi—and the beginning of a ten-year-long association with him in which I got a glimpse into just how wily he was, and how well positioned to maneuver the United States toward war.
I also knew that there was much more to this man and his story than I could document on a deadline or report in a television news segment. Chalabi had secrets to tell; it was a matter of prying them out of him. So I approached him in 2007 about sitting down with me and filling in the unexplored crevices of recent history—both his and that of the Bush administration’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein. Chalabi took several months to reply but eventually agreed, and since then I’ve traveled back and forth to Baghdad, where he now lives, interviewing him for more than sixty hours about his life and machinations. These include a larger-than-life résumé of triumphs and scandal: a degree in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a doctorate from the University of Chicago, stints as university professor and banker, a conviction for embezzling. And that was all before he became a CIA operative and decided to devote his prodigious intellect full time to what had always been his true obsession: overthrowing the murderous Ba’athist regime in Baghdad and returning home to Iraq in a blaze of glory.
Often the fate of an exile is to see his dreams dim and then die before ever making it home again. But throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Chalabi skillfully, fanatically, and sometimes ruthlessly orchestrated a uniquely different course for himself. Depending on whom you ask, he is either the Great Liberator of Iraq or the Great Seducer of America. Either way, there has never been a foreigner more crucially involved in a decision by the United States to go to war than Chalabi. He is one of the titanic figures to emerge from the U.S. adventure in Iraq, and the meeting at Richard Perle’s house that January 21, 2001, proved to be a turning point in his long journey home.