All things considered, Ahmed Chalabi had no reason to be surprised. The man who headed a coalition of Iraqi opposition forces before the war, who is accused of pilfering millions of dollars from a Jordanian bank, who managed to snare hundreds of thousands of dollars from the U.S. government to assist the propaganda campaign he waged against Saddam Hussein, now finds himself as one of the accused. This time, the suspicion is that he tried to relay secrets to the Iranians. American forces raided his home, confiscated documents, computers and weapons and detained some of Chalabi's associates for questioning.
Chalabi's crime, however, is rather greater in scope: He duped President Bush and, more particularly, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the Pentagon, and made them look like dunces. Chalabi persuaded the Americans that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, that the Iraqi Shiites loved the Americans, and that everything would be rosy after a U.S. victory.
If there is anyone to whom the Iraqis owe their freedom, it is Ahmed Chalabi, who led the U.S. and Britain by the nose. Now, he will apparently pay a price - perhaps not, because after his spat with the Americans, he might be able to present himself as an authentic leader, and perhaps as a member of the new Iraqi government.
Yet none of this is the main point. More than anything, the Chalabi story is about media use and abuse of reality. A few days after the army raid on Chalabi's home in Baghdad, The New York Times published a quasi-apology, stating that its investigations of reports of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's arsenals were not sufficiently vigorous. "In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged," wrote The New York Times. "Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in reexamining the claims as new evidence emerged or failed to emerge." The paper added: "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper." Admitting to the use of "questionable" information, the Times suggested that such data came from Iraqi exiles.
In fact, the information came mostly from one exile: Ahmed Chalabi.
Why is The New York Times' contrition so significant? Because this newspaper, and media generally, rely on common sense and upon the recognition of facts that are not twisted by ideology; and newspapers are in the business of understanding and describing processes, not creating them. In this connection, Chalabi is not merely an Iraqi who deliberately circulated misinformation. He is akin to a hero of literature who managed to concoct a narrative of steadfast Iraqi resistance, which was embraced eagerly by the U.S. government. Chalabi managed to circumvent the facts themselves, and also officials who are supposed to corroborate the facts. Without sympathetic media Chalabi, and the U.S. government, would have had merely a story about a thief devoid of the heroic element; and without the media, the CIA's skeptical attitude toward Chalabi would have pushed aside the Pentagon's fixation with him.
Such opposition heroes are the beloved knights of ideology - the ideologues exploit them both when they are looking for exemplary alternatives to a detested regime, and also when they need the opposite, a satanic fall guy. These are heroes who are used as warrants to justify a government's actions. Just as the American war was waged against Saddam Hussein, and Israel's warfare is waged against Yasser Arafat, Operation Iraqi Freedom was fought for the imagined attributes of Ahmed Chalabi.
The New York Times' enlightened regret extends beyond the level of professionalism displayed in the reliance on Chalabi. The troubling questions that The New York Times has raised while peering into the looking glass - in a display of self-criticism which should be a model for world media - are the same questions that every newspaper must ask, particularly those outlets that are called on to cover wars and national disputes in which their countries are embroiled. It's easy to roast other governments, and the foreign newspapers that circulate around them. But the Chalabi saga - with other figures playing the lead role - also transpires in Israel. Such dramas do not necessarily need flesh-and-blood protagonists. The use of distorted language, ill-begotten concepts, and superficially polished definitions can be called "Ahmed Chalabi." The Chalabis of the world spin yarns about reality - more precisely, they are engineers of reality.
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