Mr. Insurance Policy

Don't write off Ahmed Chalabi quite yet.

At more or less the same instant the White House was lavishing praise on Iraq's historic parliamentary elections, powerful American lobbyists with impeccable Republican pedigrees were busy making the case that Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress was a victim of those same fraudulent elections.

It is tempting to just chalk this dissonance up to the Bushies' failure to keep their propaganda straight. But that would miss a clear indicator of where the administration might be headed on Iraq and, more importantly, why.

The Bush administration is quite obviously reinforcing its Iraqi gambit with an if-all-else-fails fallback position. That position is the ever-ready Ahmed Chalabi, who coming out of the recent election, seems destined to be remembered as Iraq's own John Connally. Connally was the former Texas governor and Nixon treasury secretary who spent millions during the 1980 GOP presidential campaign and was left with exactly one delegate to show for it.

Chalabi's return on investment is thus far even worse. His Iraqi National Congress received about $40 million directly from the Pentagon for dubious pre-war "intelligence" and, by some accounts, up to $400 million in post-war rebuilding contracts are linked to Chalabi and his supporters.

For all that money, or perhaps because of it, Chalabi barely registered with Iraq's voters. Only 8,645 of almost 2.5 million voters in Baghdad opted for Chalabi. Nationally, his slate fared about as well even as other Shia-led parties swept to victory.

But no matter. That was merely Plan A for the Bush administration. With the overwhelming Shi'ite victory, Chalabi's complaints about vote fraud dilute and broaden the primarily Sunni complaint about the elections, which might help cool sectarian tempers. Plus, should the U.S. find the need to force the issue when and if the new government heads off the reservation, Chalabi still gives Don Rumseld and Dick Cheney a card to play in 2006. And card playing is what the post-Saddam Middle East is all about.

Contrary to assumptions that the rise of Iraqi Shi'ite power gives Iran an advantage, the neocon architects of Bush's foreign policy see this change as an opportunity. They want a new Arab Shi'ite power base to enter the realpolitik game, drawing power from and competing with Iran's Persian Shi'ite threat. A strong, unified, and democratic Iraq might be the first choice as a rival to Iran, but a largely autonomous Shi'ite region with Basra as is capital and with control of the holy city of Najaf is not a bad second prize in this worldview.

This idea has been in circulation so long as to qualify as an article of faith at this late date. Here's longtime Chalabi friend and ally James Woolsey appearing before Congress back in March 1999 to cite Cheney's Middle East point-man David Wurmser on the supposed weakness of Iranian-style Islamic rule:

Concerning the role of the Shia, both Iraqi and Iranian Shia have been unfairly tarred by the behavior of a powerful but small, and declining, faction within their division of Islam: those who support Khamenei and the rest of the Iranian wilayat al-faqih, often translated "rule of the jurisprudential", i.e. the theocratic and dictatorial portion of the Iranian government ... [Wurmser] outlines why the Iraqi Shia are far more a threat to Iran's wilayat than they are to Saudi Arabia. This was demonstrated in the spring of 1991, when the Iraqi Shia revolted, Saudi Arabia urged us to assist them (as then-Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has recently set forth), and Iran abandoned them. We, sadly, took a path parallel to Iran, with, to this point, eight years of tragic consequences. Wurmser concludes, I believe correctly, that a "free Iraqi Shi'ite community would be a nightmare to the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran."

The brains behind Bush's Middle East policy believe Iraq's Shia are just the instrument to bring down the terror-sponsoring, nuke-chasing regime in Iran. This remains the overarching foreign policy goal for the remainer of the Bush presidency. Iraq is merely a means to that end.

For that reason the odd extremist Shi'ite impulse in Iraq—a death-squad here or Islamic courts there—will be tolerated by the U.S. All-out civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites will not, as that does not fit into the Arab vs. Persian playbook.

Ahmed Chalabi might still have a role to play in this nasty little endgame. He can serve as a familiar face for the American public and Congress to affix a white hat to while the intrigue and deadly politics swirl around the region. Maybe he can visit Cheney and Condi Rice again. All Chalabi has to do is wait—and he has proven surpassingly good at that.

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