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Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 2002 / 18 Teves, 5763

Seth Gitell

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Why democracy never came to Iraq after the last Gulf War | The momentum again seems swinging inexorably toward war with Iraq - perhaps as early as January (the same month America struck at Iraq in 1991).

With war looking more and more inevitable, the question is whether the administration has properly planned for the peace.

One interesting article, in this regard, is David Rose's profile of Iraqi National Congress chairman, Ahmad Chalabi, in the January issue of Vanity Fair. Rose recounts the almost-spiteful level of opposition to Chalabi, an MIT-graduate and advocate for a democratic Iraq, in State Department and CIA circles. Such sentiment has provided fodder for anti-Chalabi stories in the New York Times and Washington Post. On a quasi-official basis - usually on background, nobody speaks too publicly about these issues - both these bureaucratic entities dismiss Chalabi's business and organizational abilities, his viability as an Iraqi leader, and the reliability of his information. Rose suggests that all this comes at the expense of good information on Saddam Hussein's unconventional weapons capabilities provided by Iraqi defectors assisted by the INC.

I think the problem is more grievous than that. It's been clear that the career-officers in the State Department and CIA have had it in for Chalabi for some time. The issue is, to me, not so much personal - though it is likely influenced by long-time contacts some bureaucrats have with Arab leaders who fear Chalabi's ideas - as ideological. The regular gang in the CIA and State Department are classic Arabists, risk-averse folk in the mold of former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft who would prefer to deal with a business-as-usual dictator than someone new. (Scowcroft was the aide who advised the first President Bush to let Hussein use his helicopters to put down a rebellion in 1991 in the immediate wake of the Gulf War - a rebellion that Bush himself had called upon the Iraqis to take part in.)

There might be a kernel of truth to some of his opponents' arguments - that Chalabi and his followers are dreamers, that the challenge of leading Iraq is too complex for someone who has been in exile so long, etc. But it's obvious to me that America has been doing everything it can to shaft Chalabi at our own expense for a very long time.

I saw this first hand when Chalabi went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1998. Chalabi told his story, a sad one of how the Clinton Administration had failed to live up to its promise, in the form of a personal letter dated August 4, 1993 from Vice President Al Gore, to protect the opposition from Hussein. When Chalabi and other opposition forces were preparing an assault on Iraq in March 1996, Hussein sent his tanks rolling towards Irbil. The US did nothing. Senator Chuck Robb of Virginia, prepped by State Department opponents of Chalabi, asked him about a failed Jordanian business venture of his. Seven months later - during the last Iraq crisis - Congress passed a bill that Chalabi had been pushing for, the Iraq Liberation Act, which earmarked $97.5 million to the Iraqi opposition.

Back then, Clinton needed public cover for what was a policy decision he made. After agreeing to a four-day bombing campaign in December 1998, Operation Desert Fox - timed to coincide with Congress's impeachment of him over the Monica Lewinsky affair - Clinton basically decided to stop worrying about Iraq. His official support for the Iraq Liberation Act gave his administration the appearance that it was doing something. But behind the scenes, the reality was much cloudier.

The administration implemented the fact, but failed to fund the opposition. The State Department concocted a process whereby every single group opposed to Hussein had to be included in the umbrella of groups the US worked with, including ones based in Iran and Syria, not exactly US allies. The opposition groups were assigned what were essentially "make-work" tasks, such as envisioning what a post-Hussein educational curriculum would look like for K-12 students. I'm the first one to emphasize the importance of education in molding the future of young people. But should wasting valuable days and months - months during which Hussein could have been perfecting weapons of mass destruction - on, in effect, devising the first post-Hussein textbook really have been the main focus of this effort?

My conclusion at the time was that the State Department was going to great lengths to make things hard for Chalabi. It hasn't changed. If we had consistently supported his opposition movement from the end of the last Gulf War until now, we might not be preparing to move hundreds of thousands of troops to the Gulf today.

JWR contributor Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix Comment by clicking here.

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08/01/02: Gore's low profile is no accident
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© 2002, Seth Gitell