The media is letting the tail wag the dog. In doing so, it is helping the U.S. government wash its hands of its disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq -- and rewriting history in the process.
Ahmed Chalabi, a rich Iraqi dissident from a powerful exiled family and a vociferous supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, died on Nov. 3. In the slew of reports on his passing, the media promulgated a flatly false, and even dangerous, idea: Namely, that the culpability for the Iraq War rests squarely on the shoulders of a single Iraqi man.
Perhaps the most egregious framing came from BuzzFeed, which insisted that, if "not for the man named Ahmad Chalabi, the United States probably would not have invaded Iraq in 2003." Taking the idea even further, BuzzFeed -- citing a senior CIA official who correctly pointed out that, if it were not for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there would be no ISIS today -- blamed Chalabi for the rise of the violent extremist group, histrionically dubbing him "the man who gave us ISIS."
The media is utterly obfuscating the facts surrounding the Iraq War, in a way that just so happens to be very useful to the U.S. government -- and to the Bush administration in particular.
BuzzFeed was by no means the only network to make such claims. This tipsy-topsy illogic predominated in much of the press coverage surrounding the Iraqi politician's death.
France 24 and AFP called Chalabi "the man who drove the U.S. to war in Iraq."
Reuters suavely characterized Chalabi as "the smooth-talking Iraqi politician who pushed Washington to invade Iraq in 2003 with discredited information on Saddam Hussein's military capabilities."
Another particularly appalling framing appeared in The Daily Beast, which described Chalabi as the "Iraqi architect of U.S. invasion" who "convinc[ed] the United States to invade his country and topple Saddam Hussein in 2003."
Similarly, NPR reported Chalabi "has often been referred to as the architect of the Iraq war. That was because of his role in persuading the United States to go to war against Saddam Hussein."
Yet, in this same segment, NPR international correspondent Alice Fordham pointed out that the Iraqi National Congress, the exiled opposition group led by Chalabi, "was very close to the Unites States government, [and] funded by the United States government to the tune of millions of dollars."
Wait a second. How much "persuading" did the U.S. government need if it was funding the very same Iraqi opposition group that was supposedly persuading it?
NPR was not the only news outlet to gloss over this blatant paradox.
A year before blaming the rise of ISIS on Chalabi, the same BuzzFeed reporter, Aram Roston, claimed Chalabi singlehandedly "conned America into war." In his own article, however, Roston wrote: "Funded by the U.S. government itself, Chalabi's group lobbied the successive American administrations to topple Saddam Hussein."
Again, we must ask ourselves, if Chalabi needed to lobby the U.S. government to convince it to overthrow Saddam Hussein, why was the U.S. already funding his lobbying group?
The answer to this question, of course, is that Chalabi did not convince the U.S. to invade Iraq. The Bush administration already planned to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and used Chalabi, as a Western-educated Iraqi who spoke in the language of democracy and freedom, to sell its invasion to the public.
Contrary to the insistence of much of the media, Chalabi was decidedly not an architect; rather, he was a collaborator.
In his detailed documentation of media distortion for watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), journalist Adam Johnson drew attention to a crucial fact: The Bush administration was populated by figures from the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century "who had been calling for the removal of Saddam since 1998." In that year, John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz -- all of whom played influential roles in the Bush administration -- among others, wrote a letter to President Clinton, asking him to "aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power."
The U.S., the most powerful country in the world, was not swindled by Chalabi. The Bush administration did not base its foreign policy on the whims of one Iraqi man. Chalabi told the neocon-led Bush administration what it wanted to hear. He was influential precisely because the U.S. gave him a platform -- not the other way around.
To its credit, The Daily Beast followed up its earlier "architect" report with a much more nuanced piece exposing precisely the opposite: Chalabi was not the orchestrator of the war, and the "Bush administration wasn't tricked into invading by the schmoozer who died Tuesday. Instead, he fed their hubris about how easy a war would be."
The New York Times echoed the "architect" claim, but in a different way, characterizing Chalabi as "an architect of the country's de-Baathification policy," not of the war itself. Once again, though, in its own article, the Times contradicted its former claim, carefully pointing out that "the original decision to bar Baathists from senior government positions was an American one, driven by the goal of ensuring that Hussein's political bloc never returned to power."
Subtlety can go a long way; the press just tends to avoid it.
BBC was perhaps the most careful in its coverage. It said that Chalabi played a role in "manipulating the US-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003." Manipulating is fundamentally, categorically, different than orchestrating.
Moreover, BBC indicated that Chalabi "found himself knocking on an open door." "If he knowingly misled Washington with dodgy intelligence on Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction and links with international terrorism," BBC wrote, "he knew that powerful American circles were willingly taking the bait without scrutiny as they prepared for their war of choice. They were using him, and he was using them."
Compare this with previous descriptions of Chalabi's role. The difference is like night and day.
The Washington Post did what few other outlets bothered to do -- that is to say, named the names of the actual architects of the Iraq War. Chalabi's "legacy will be forever linked to the buildup to the Iraq invasion and its main architects, including Vice President Richard B. Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz," the Post wrote. These are the real orchestrators of the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al. -- the neocon establishment, not an Iraqi dissident.
None of this is meant to be a defense of Chalabi -- not in any way. He betrayed his own people, encouraging the world's hegemon as it invaded and then occupied his country for a decade. Moreover, he tried to personally capitalize on the war and gain political control in Iraq. Yet the U.S. government did not reward him for his collaboration quite in the way he imagined it would (imperial powers never do).
But this is not about Chalabi the man; this is about how Chalabi's legacy is being used, and abused, in the wake of his death.
Writers, pundits, journalists, and even educators often actively look for and grasp onto simple explanations for complex political phenomena. This is what leads to the "Great Man theory" of history. In order to describe historical changes, it is quite easy to blame isolated individuals, particularly in hindsight.
The problem is this is not just a factually incorrect explanation for large-scale events like the Iraq War; it is also intellectually lazy and completely ahistorical. Countries don't start wars over one person. Contrary to the popular myth, World War I was not started because of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Yugoslav nationalist. This event was certainly a factor that led up to the war, but it was a small incident in a long series of much larger political developments. Yes, it was the straw that broke the camel's back, but let us not forget the myriad other pieces of straw that were weighing down on the camel's back in the first place.
History is made socially, not individually. The enormous weight of already existing social forces overpowers individuals. As The Intercept's Jon Schwartz put it, "Even if Ahmed Chalabi had never lived, someone else would have been selling."
In every invasion, an imperial power elevates the voices of dissidents and works with native compradors to try to legitimize its foreign conquest. This practice can be traced back to the European colonization of the Americas, and much before.
The U.S. government used Chalabi in order to legitimize its war -- not the other way around. By blaming him for the Iraq War -- one of the most influential events of the 21st century, and one of its worst crimes -- the media is helping the Bush administration exculpate itself. In doing so, the press is letting the neocons off the hook.
The undeniable reality is that it is the U.S. government that is responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq today -- for the deaths of over one million people, for the destabilization of the region, and for the spread of sectarian extremism -- not a lone Iraqi dissident.