Joe Conason's Journal

Rumsfeld wants to turn Iraq over to Ahmad Chalabi and former CIA director James Woolsey. Maybe peace and democracy aren't the defense secretary's top priorities.

Published April 4, 2003 7:42PM (EST)

A Woolsey-headed plan
Peace and democracy, or permanent warfare? That could be the choice facing George W. Bush, as he contemplates the dispute within his own government (and his war coalition) over a post-Saddam regime. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who evidently believes that American foreign policy should be run from the Pentagon, is pressing the president to turn Iraq over to his neoconservative coterie and their friends in the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmad Chalabi. For the moment, at least, Rumsfeld seems to have the advantage over Colin Powell, whose effort to retain some authority for himself, the State Department and the U.N. is faltering.

It is difficult to see how the installation of Chalabi -- as advocated by Rumsfeld this week in a series of memos to Bush unearthed by U.S. News & World Report -- would advance democratic governance in Iraq or help stabilize the region. Nobody believes that Chalabi represents the Iraqis in any sense. Not only do they not know who he is, but they wouldn't be likely to support his agenda if they did.

Among Chalabi's attractions for the neocons is his publicly declared intention to recognize Israel. That would be wonderful, except that it hardly reflects the will of the Iraqi public. Establishing diplomatic relations with Jerusalem is not high on the agenda for the majority of Iraqis -- and would certainly inflame Shiite resistance to any U.S.-backed regime in Baghdad. Should Chalabi pursue such premature initiatives as an American-installed ruler, the diplomatic and political consequences could be disastrous -- for the revival of the peace process as well as for a battered Iraq. (It would serve, however, as a perfect propaganda point for Osama bin Laden.)

But perhaps peace, democracy and stability aren't the priorities of Rumsfeld and his advisors. If so, after all, why would they insist on naming James Woolsey to the most visible post in the "new Iraq"? It isn't pleasant to imagine how Arabs, liberal or reactionary, would view Woolsey's qualifications to serve as minister of information for an Arab state: former CIA director; former attorney for Chalabi's organization; advisory board member of the Likud-oriented Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; and client of Benador Associates, the public relations firm that represents Richard Perle and the rest of the neocon commentariat. (I cannot help wondering whether, as the potential information minister of an Arabic-speaking country, he reads, speaks or understands that language.)

Then there are Woolsey's own recent remarks, which suggest why the Pentagon hawks worry not about provoking unrest in the post-Saddam dispensation. He thinks we are in the midst of World War IV, as he told a group of college students yesterday. According to CNN, Woolsey believes "the new war is actually against three enemies: the religious rulers of Iran, the 'fascists' of Iraq and Syria, and Islamic extremists like al Qaeda." (He left out that other leg of the evil axis in Pyongyang.) And he expressed glee at the prospect of growing instability in the region. Addressing himself to nominal U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Woolsey reportedly said:

"We want you nervous. We want you to realize now, for the fourth time in a hundred years, this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you -- the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family -- most fear: We're on the side of your own people."

Whatever anyone may feel about the authoritarian governments in those countries, it seems odd for a man who may soon assume a controversial role in Baghdad to threaten war against two of Iraq's neighbors and taunt other Arab governments. Unless, of course, the aim of appointing him and others like him is to encourage continuing conflict.

Scanning the Internet for further clues to Woolsey's inclinations, I found the following exchange in an interview he granted last year to Insight, the Moonie magazine:

Insight: If the United States topples Saddam, what kind of regime will replace him?

JW: That's the right question for those folks in the U.S. government who might sponsor coups! But for those of us who want democracy to flourish in Iraq, there's only one answer: whomever the Iraqi people choose.

Loquacious as he is, Woolsey remains opaque. He may be utterly cynical or truly deluded. Can he possibly believe that the people of Iraq would ever freely choose him or his friends to represent them, now or ever? Despite all his buoyant rhetoric, I doubt somehow that he actually cares. Since he may soon be representing our country, however, we should.

In memoriam
On this anniversary, I spent some time reading Martin Luther King Jr.'s landmark speech against the war in Vietnam, delivered exactly one year to the day before his assassination, and Robert Kennedy's remarks in Indianapolis on the night of King's death. Thirty-five years later, the world is both unrecognizable and all too much the same. King's message remains as relevant and challenging as the evening he uttered those courageous words.

I must also express my condolences to the bereaved family and friends of Michael Kelly.
[12:47 p.m. PST, April 04, 2003]

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