Former Bush Advisers Back Chalabi for Prime Minister of Iraq

The man said to have supplied false information that took America to war still has the support of past administration officials after all these years.

A combination of three file pictures taken in Iraq shows (LtoR) former Iraqi deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi, former vice president Adel Abdul Mehdi and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Iraq's parliament convenes on July 1, 2014, the first time since April's elections, with world leaders and the country's top Shiite cleric urging the fractious politicians to unite and swiftly form a government. Chalabi, Mehdi and al-Jaafari are some of the candidates seen as possible replacements for incumbent premier Nuri al-Maliki. AFP PHOTO / (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images
National Journal
Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
July 7, 2014, 6:32 p.m.

Des­pite some troub­ling epis­odes over the past dec­ade, at least two top ad­visers to Pres­id­ent George W. Bush think Ahmad Chalabi could be the one to save Ir­aq.

Chalabi, 69, is also the one cred­ited with giv­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion tenu­ous jus­ti­fic­a­tion for in­vad­ing Ir­aq, de­liv­er­ing false in­tel­li­gence that then-Ir­aqi Pres­id­ent Sad­dam Hus­sein pos­sessed weapons of mass de­struc­tion. He was later ac­cused of spy­ing on the U.S. for Ir­an.

But former Bush ad­viser Richard Perle says he’s still friends with Chalabi and de­fends his ac­tions lead­ing up to the Ir­aq War.

“Chalabi is far and away the most com­pet­ent and the most cap­able of sal­va­ging this situ­ation,” said Perle, who chaired the De­fense Policy Board Ad­vis­ory Com­mit­tee from 2001 to 2003. “I think he’s got the best chance. It would be fool­ish if we ex­pressed a pref­er­ence for some­body less com­pet­ent, which we’ve done be­fore.”

Since his fall­ing-out with the U.S. gov­ern­ment, Chalabi has served in Ir­aq’s Par­lia­ment and was named last week as a can­did­ate to suc­ceed Nuri Kamal al-Ma­liki as the coun­try’s prime min­is­ter. Pres­sure is mount­ing in Wash­ing­ton and Ir­aq for Ma­liki to resign be­cause his Shia gov­ern­ment has not wel­comed the two oth­er prom­in­ent Is­lam­ic fac­tions, the Sun­nis and Kur­ds, as the U.S. and Ir­aq had hoped it would. A uni­fied gov­ern­ment is seen as the first step to­ward pre­vent­ing the in­sur­gent group IS­IS—the Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia—from win­ning con­trol over the re­gion.

But a Chalabi rule in Ir­aq could be prob­lem­at­ic for the U.S. Both the Pentagon and the CIA dis­tanced them­selves from Chalabi in the years fol­low­ing the in­va­sion of Ir­aq. Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain, ar­gu­ably Chalabi’s biggest pro­ponent in Con­gress lead­ing up to the Ir­aq War and who once called him “a pat­ri­ot who has the best in­terests of his coun­try at heart,” said Monday that the politi­cian is “play­ing both sides” to get ahead.

“I am not a sup­port­er of Mr. Chalabi,” Mc­Cain said. “Since Chalabi star­ted hav­ing close re­la­tions with the Ir­a­ni­ans I have not sup­por­ted him. From what I’ve heard, there’s very strong op­pos­i­tion to him amongst the Ir­aqis.”

Perle offered a dif­fer­ent as­sess­ment of Chalabi’s repu­ta­tion among the Ir­aqis.

“I think he’s un­der no il­lu­sions about wheth­er the U.S. will sup­port him, be­cause of the long his­tory of bur­eau­crat­ic in­sti­tu­tions not lik­ing him,” Perle said. “Wheth­er people like him or not, they know that he is first and fore­most an Ir­aqi na­tion­al­ist that will put Ir­aq’s in­terests first. Where­as Ma­liki put the in­terests of the Shia first.”

Perle cited Chalabi’s ex­per­i­ence as head of the Ir­aqi Na­tion­al Con­gress—a Hus­sein op­pos­i­tion party es­tab­lished with the aid of the U.S. after the Gulf War to de­pose the Ir­aqi pres­id­ent—as evid­ence of Chalabi’s abil­ity to unite the Is­lam­ic fac­tions in Ir­aq.

“Nobody would be talk­ing about him now if he wasn’t good at it,” Perle said. “If the U.S. is smart, they will work with who­ever is able to bring some or­der out of this chaos. The U.S. is in no po­s­i­tion to de­clare that it doesn’t like X or Y. They liked Ma­liki. It’s time for a little hu­mil­ity from U.S. of­fi­cials. We should not be pick­ing Ir­aqi of­fi­cials for the Ir­aqi people. It’s time to let them do that them­selves.”

An­oth­er top Bush aide, Paul Wolfow­itz, told Bloomberg News over the week­end that Chalabi would be a vi­able op­tion.

“The man is a sur­viv­or,” said Wolfow­itz, who served as deputy De­fense sec­ret­ary from 2001 to 2005. “That’s im­press­ive. I think he wants to suc­ceed in what he does, he’s smart; maybe he’ll fig­ure out a way to do it.”

Like Mc­Cain, Wolfow­itz said he thought Chalabi’s ties to Ir­an are a reas­on to be con­cerned.

“We’ve put him in a situ­ation where, in my view, he’s much too close to Ir­an,” Wolfow­itz said.

However Wolfow­itz doesn’t think that’s a reas­on to pre­vent a fu­ture work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Chalabi.

“Chalabi is not an an­gel; no one in that sys­tem is an an­gel,” Wolfow­itz said. “You have to be care­ful who you work with, but I think you need to try to work with every­body.”

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