The Iraqi Champion of American Pro-democracy Interventionism

'My policy for a democratic Iraq,' Ahmad Chalabi said in 2001, 'is that I want the Jews back.'

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Accountability and Justice Committee speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Baghdad, Iraq, May 5, 2010.
Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Accountability and Justice Committee speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Baghdad, Iraq, May 5, 2010.Credit: AP
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

How will the Middle East be haunted by the ghost of Ahmad Chalabi? The leader who in the 1990s led the struggle for regime change in Iraq was buried in November in a state funeral in the country to whose democracy he devoted his life. On Wednesday he was remembered at a memorial service in America's capital, one of the seats of his exile. It was an occasion to mark, to judge by the report of Ira Stoll, who wondered whether it was “really a funeral for the idea of American intervention against brutal dictators.”

It’s a good question, and it’s not surprising that it was Stoll who asked it. The founding managing editor of the New York Sun, he was at the first sitting of the newspaper’s editorial board in November 2001, when our guest was Ariel Sharon. Before joining the Sun, Stoll had covered Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress for The Forward. He’d also been present when Chalabi came to dinner with editors of the Forward. That was shortly after Congress passed, in November 1998, the Iraq liberation act.

It was at that dinner that the writer Jonathan Rosen seized a rare lull in the conversation to ask Chalabi about Israel. The room fell completely silent. Then the Iraqi reminded us that before World War II Baghdad had been home to such a large Jewish population that it was known as the Vilna of the Middle East. Jews served in the government. “My policy for a democratic Iraq,” Chalabi said, “is that I want them back.” And in all the conversations I later had with Chalabi, he never wavered from that ambition.

At the Sun’s dinner with Sharon, Stoll flipped the query, putting the Iraq question to Israel — or at least to its next premier. Stoll observed that Israel had hung in the background, if that, in the debate over the Iraq Liberation Act and the struggle of the Free Iraq movement to mount an expedition. Sharon agreed. Stoll then pressed the point. Didn’t Sharon think Israel should be more supportive, given Sharon’s own oft-stated view that only between democracies could a real peace occur?

Sharon, as I recall it, merely acknowledged the point. It’s not as if he was indifferent to Saddam’s tyranny (or would have emerged in the camp that thinks it would have been better not to oust Saddam). In early 1989, Sharon took me for one of his tours of Samaria, whence he gestured into the distance, warned of the vast number of tanks Saddam had acquired, and declared that the next big news story out of the Middle East would come from Iraq. Little more than a year later, Saddam sent his armor into Kuwait.

So what was Sharon’s reluctance? Did he fear planting a Zionist kiss on a leader who, he could foresee, would have difficulties enough maintaining a vision of secular democracy amid the sectarian melee that would engulf Iraq after liberation? Or did he foresee the damage that an Iraq invasion could eventually do to the idea of American interventionism? That is something Stoll marks as now infecting much of Republican presidential field and the Democrats as well. In recent debates, Stoll writes:

“Donald Trump reminds voters he opposed the Iraq War. Senator Ted Cruz mourns the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya and warns, ‘if we topple Assad the result will be ISIS will take over Syria.’ Senator Rand Paul pronounces, ‘If you believe in regime change you are mistaken.’ Senator Bernie Sanders says, ‘Secretary Clinton is a little too much into regime change ... I’m not quite the fan of regime change that I believe she is.’’” And, of course, Clinton is among those who regrets her vote for the liberation of Iraq.

Yet Stoll ends his column on an optimistic note that I very much share. A scholar of Samuel Adams, the columnist notes that Chalabi was a fan of the declaration of independence (Chalabi described himself to me as also an admirer of Madisonian principles, meaning secular constitutional government). Stoll reminds that the debate on whether democracy can be exported goes all the way back to America’s founding era. The Iraq Liberation Act was not written until a generation after Vietnam.

In the end, it’s no small thing that Chalabi was a powerful committee chairman in the Iraqi parliament when he died at home of natural causes. His country is in danger, his own role has been wrapped in controversy, and no doubt will be so for decades. Yet for all that, Chalabi he was laid to rest with a full state funeral and a memorial service among his admirers in the capital of the country that backed his cause. And the emissary of his own government is, Stoll reports, calling him a simply “a hero.”

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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