Former Iraqi dissident and discredited huckster Ahmed Chalabi died Monday at the age of 71. While most in the media played it straight, noting Chalabi’s role in selling the Iraq War but putting in the proper context, a significant number of journalists and pundits did something very odd: They turned his death into an opportunity to lay the blame for the Iraq War at his feet.
Some described Chalabi as the Iraq War’s “architect”:
Iraqi Architect of US Invasion Is Dead
Veteran Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, most remembered for his role in convincing the United States to invade his country and topple Saddam Hussein in 2003….
—Daily Beast (11/3/15)
Iraq War Architect Ahmed Chalabi Dies Aged 71
—Middle East Eye (11/3/15)
Others presented him as someone who “convinced” or “persuaded” an apparently reluctant Bush administration to invade Iraq:
Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi politician who from exile helped persuade the United States to invade Iraq in 2003….
–New York Times (11/3/15)
Ahmad Chalabi, Who Helped Convince Bush Administration to Invade Iraq, Dies at 71
—New York Post (11/3/15)
Some even had him “manipulating” or “duping” the US into war:
Ahmed Chalabi was a con artist & opportunist masquerading as an idealist. Manipulated US, then became Iranian ally. Never became PM. RIP.
–CFR senior fellow Max Boot (Twitter, 11/3/15)
Breaking: Iraq state media reports that Ahmed Chalabi, who proudly played role in duping US into toppling Saddam, died of natural causes
—Buzzfeed’s Borzou Daragahi (Twitter, 11/3/15)
Much of how one reads this framing depends on how one defines “the US.” Given that the term is typically used as a synonym for the US government–or at the very least its national security apparatus–it’s fair to assume that the New York Times, the Daily Beast and Max Boot intend to convey that the Bush administration was “convinced” by Chalabi. To be convinced, of course, one had to have previously been skeptical. Well, let’s take a quick look at where we know the administration stood at the time. As Paul Waldman recently documented in The Week (5/20/15):
In the summer of 2002, the administration established something called the White House Iraq Group, through which Karl Rove and other communication strategists like Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin coordinated with policy officials to sell the public on the threat from Iraq in order to justify war. “The script had been finalized with great care over the summer,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan later wrote, for a “campaign to convince Americans that war with Iraq was inevitable and necessary.”…
The intelligence wasn’t “mistaken,” as the Bush administration’s defenders would have us believe today. The intelligence was a mass of contradictions and differing interpretations. The administration picked out the parts that they wanted–supported, unsupported, plausible, absurd, it didn’t matter–and used them in their campaign to turn up Americans’ fear.
The marketing campaign nature of the build up to the war in Iraq has been thoroughly documented by a number of journalists and historians. The New York Times‘ Frank Rich, for instance, in his 2007 polemic The Greatest Story Ever Sold makes a convincing case that the Bush administration’s mind had long been made up, with facts simply cherry-picked to suit the narrative.
Bush’s own Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill told 60 Minutes in 2004 that Bush “sought a way to invade Iraq.” Recent emails show Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair planning the Iraq war a whole year before 9/11. Put simply, the Bush administration didn’t need “convincing”–what it needed was fodder to convince the American public (not all of whom, of course, were ever convinced). These are two entirely different readings of history that have, in the past 48 hours, become dangerously conflated by some.
The most lofty of all these revisionist readings comes from veteran journalist Aram Roston of BuzzFeed, author of The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi, who begins his obituary with an exceedingly dubious counterfactual:
Ahmad Chalabi, the Man Who Gave Us ISIS
If not for the man named Ahmad Chalabi, the United States probably would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. If not for the Iraq War, as a senior CIA official flatly told BuzzFeed News earlier this year, there would be no ISIS.
So not only is Chalabi responsible for the crime of the Iraq War, but also, albeit indirectly and on the word of an anonymous CIA official, for ISIS? A generous reading here is that because Roston wrote a book on Chalabi, he has an incentive to overplay his significance, but this claim is an extraordinary one. The assumption that the Bush administration–populated by PNAC alums who had been calling for the removal of Saddam since 1998–would not have been able to find some other pretext or marshal the political will without Chalabi is dubious to say the least.
But there it is, just asserted. We live in a world where, in the court of public opinion, responsibility is zero sum. The more guilty Chalabi is of something, the less Bush & Co. are. This is why terms like “architect” and “convince,” as they relate to the US government in the buildup to war, are so consequential in how they affect public perceptions.
Roston went on:
Still, the truth is that while Chalabi convinced the US to go to war, it was George W. Bush and other American leaders in Congress and the White House who believed him and made the ultimate decision that caused so much damage.
Note: not “helped convince,” but simply “convinced.” Again, Roston is familiar with Chalabi, having literally written the book on him, but in what reading of history did the Bush administration need “convincing” to go to war? What they needed was an excuse, a pretext, a justification–not to be won over. As Middle East expert Karl Sharro noted on Twitter about the strange framing by some in the media:
Ahmad Chalabi ‘duped’ the US into invading Iraq. The evil man duped a poor little country into doing something it didn’t want to do.
Jon Schwartz of The Intercept (11/3/15) would offer his own counterfactual, and one far more aligned with the facts as we know them, given that the Bush administrations was
determined to start a catastrophic war, no matter what. The US was buying lies that would help it invade Iraq, and paying top dollar. Even if Ahmed Chalabi had never lived, someone else would have been selling.
The reality is that we have ample proof the Bush administration had every intention–not to mention the sole power–to launch the disastrous Iraq invasion. Chalabi was just the right guy at the right time. He didn’t “convince” the US government; he helped the US government convince the American public. Of course, as US corporate media were active participants in this disastrous deception, they have every incentive to remember it differently.
CORRECTION: This piece originally attributed a New York Post headline over an AP story to the AP.
Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet and writes frequently for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.