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The Mind-Boggling Stupidity of Michael Rubin | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

The Mind-Boggling Stupidity of Michael Rubin

The 2000's produced a panoply of villains, cretins and bunglers on Iraq and the broader Middle East. Truly, however, none of them can hold a candle to the pudgy-faced boy wonder of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin.

On March 1, six days ahead of Iraq's March 7 parliamentary election, Rubin will be a featured speaker at an AEI conference entitled: "Iraq's Elections: Progress or Peril?"

For an organization that was obsessed with Iraq for years, especially in the period before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion, when it held an endless series of "black coffee briefings" on Iraq that often featured people like Ahmed Chalabi and his confreres, the AEI has been remarkably silent on Iraq lately. Perhaps that's because AEI, and Rubin, had consensual intercourse with Chalabi for years, and now Chalabi has emerged in full blossom as a pro-Iranian villain purging Tehran's opponents in Iraq.

Yet Chalabi's ties to Tehran don't faze Rubin. In a February 1 article in his favorite outlet, National Review Online, Rubin wrote a piece so mind-bogglingly stupid that it surpasses even his past efforts at winning a place in the Guinness Moron Book of Records. While the whole world, including countless good-hearted Iraqis, expressed outrage over the McCarthyite purge of more than 500 Iraqi candidates by Rubin's comrade, Chalabi, because of trumped-up charges about ties to the deposed Arab Baath Socialist Party, Rubin cavalierly dismissed the purge. He wrote:

"After the Iraqi parliament banned 500 candidates from contesting the March 7 national elections, Vice President Joseph Biden rushed to Baghdad to urge Iraqi political leaders to reconsider. While the ban has fueled U.S. cynicism about Iraqi democracy, such cynicism is unwarranted, especially now. 

"The Iraqi parliament's decision did not wipe out Sunni candidates. Even the majority Shia lists are multi-sectarian. Iraqis say the controversy is really about rule-of-law and sovereignty issues. Across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum -- and even in senior Iraqi military circles -- Iraqis consider it likely that there will be a Baathist coup attempt following U.S. withdrawal, even if they disagree about its chances of success. Indeed, it is no coincidence the current defense minister is among those banned by parliament."

You'll note that three times in those two paragraphs Rubin says that the candidate ban was imposed by the "Iraqi parliament." In fact, the ban was the nefarious work of an unaccountable body called the Justice and Accountability Commission. And the JAC is controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and one of his cronies in the Iraqi National Congress, Ali al-Lami. Rather than talk about the purge, Rubin gives credence to the nonsensical and paranoid concerns, often expressed by Iran's closest allies in Iraq, about a "Baathist coup attempt."

As Matt Yglesias, Brian Katulis, and others can attest, Rubin is notoriously thin-skinned about criticism of his bungling and ill-conceived opinions. He's prone to denouncing his critics as liars, distorters, and prevaricators, usually seizing on some mini half-truth to accuse his detractors of besmirching his reputation. So, for that reason, in this screed I am going to cite Rubin's own words exclusively to show how dumb he is. Why, exactly, the AEI allows him to pontificate from his perch there – even as AEI has let go or purged other bunglers, such as Michael Ledeen and Reuel Gerecht -- is beyond me. But they do. And he manages to appear from time to time on television as a pudgy-faced "expert" on Iraq and the Middle East.

The reemergence of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iranian-backed wheeler-dealer and charlatan who, once again, is angling to be prime minister of Iraq – yes, really! – allows us to remind ourselves about Rubin's idiocy. Last month, Chalabi, who spends a great deal of time sojourning in Tehran, and who worked tirelessly on Iran's behalf since last spring to assemble the Shiite-religious bloc, misnamed the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), for the March 7 elections, fired a de-Baathification bazooka at hundreds of Iraqi political candidates who distinguished themselves by speaking out against Iran's burgeoning influence in Iraq. One of Chalabi's stooges, Ali al-Lami – who, it turns out, had actually been arrested and detained by U.S. forces in Iraq on terrorism charges – orchestrated the McCarthyite banning of candidates for their supposed Baathist sympathies. Many of those banned had no relation to the outlawed Baath party whatsoever, while others were former Baathists who'd quit (or been expelled) decades ago, low-level party functionaries who had no responsibility for crimes committed during the Saddam era, and so on. Or else they were merely secular politicians, Arab and Iraqi nationalists, and others who have no use for Iran's increasingly heavy-handed involvement in Iraqi affairs.

Iyad Allawi, a secular Iraqi Shia who is leading a cross-sectarian electoral coalition in the March 7 vote, denounced the Chalabi-Lami ban in the strongest terms. "The justice and accountability commission is actually a secret police. We don't know who these members are or how they have been appointed. We know the main culprits." Allawi, a former prime minister, accused the JAC of "fabricating records" to smear its opponents, and he said: "The country will go into severe turmoil, I'm sure. It will cause a backlash. … This will put Iraq back in the box of sectarianism and the route to civil war."

Rubin could care less. It's hard to explain why Rubin would ignore the machinations of a blatantly pro-Iranian coalition, orchestrated by Chalabi, unless it's because Rubin remains enthralled by Chalabi, even years after Chalabi's treachery and dalliance with Iran's hard-line leaders was exposed.

It's useful to remind ourselves about Rubin's past love affair with Chalabi. To be sure, Rubin was not the only neoconservative whose heart fluttered when Chalabi walked into the room. Many, including ringleader Richard Perle, supported Chalabi since the 1980s, and even earlier Chalabi was a protégé of Albert Wohlstetter, the eminence grise of the neoconservative defense and national security movement for whom the AEI's 12th floor conference room in grandly named the "Wohlstetter Conference Center." Wohlstetter, who met Chalabi in the early 1970s at the University of Chicago's math department, introduced Chalabi to Perle in the mid-1980s – and the rest, as they say, is history. Even when concrete evidence emerged about Chalabi's perfidy – that is, after Chalabi was caught leaking ultra top secret information to the Iranian ambassador about U.S. eavesdropping on Iran's representatives in Baghdad – Perle and others doggedly defended Chalabi as a poor, misunderstood Arab neocon, in the mold of their favorite Arab, Fouad Ajami.

Even at the beginning, even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Chalabi made no secret of his ties to Iran. Indeed, in the hallway outside AEI's very Wohlstetter Conference Center, during the run up to the war in late 2002 and early 2003, Chalabi himself talked to me openly about his links to Iran. At one point, I asked one of his senior aides, in the same hallway, with whom Chalabi consorted when he visits Tehran. Was he talking to President Khatami, the reformist? To the army? Who, exactly? "Oh, no," said Chalabi's minion. "We talk to the hardliners." By "the hardliners," he meant Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). All of that was known to the neocons at the time – who, of course, were the bitterest opponents of Iran then (and now) – but who seemed to ignore the Iranian ties of Chalabi and his friends, including the group that was then called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), controlled by the mafia-like Hakim family of clerics. SCIRI, now ISCI, was created at the behest of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1982, and it was formed as a unit of the IRGC. Its militia, the Badr Corps, was known as the Ninth Badr Corps of the IRGC, and it fought on Iran's side during the grinding Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

It's easy to find near-orgasmic adulation of Chalabi by Rubin during the early years of the war in Iraq. From 2002 to 2004, Rubin was an apparatchik in the Department of Defense's Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he palled around with the likes of Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, who were fellow travelers in Rubin's Perle-generated neocon world, and who, like Rubin, were fervent admirers of Chalabi. In 2003-2004 – that is, during the early part of the war – Rubin was stationed in Baghdad for DOD, as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority, whose imperious chieftain, L. Paul Bremer, was responsible for creating the De-Baathification Commission, whose management was handed to Chalabi. It is precisely that commission, in a new form – the so-called Justice and Accountability Commission – which proclaimed the ban on Baathist sympathizers in the January 2010 decision. During this time, Rubin interacted often with Chalabi, although to this date Rubin has not provided a personal account or memoir of that period, nor described in any sordid detail his official or unofficial relationship to the Iraqi charlatan.

It's important to note that Rubin remained faithful to Chalabi even after the April, 2004, incident in which Chalabi was accused of passing secret U.S. intelligence to Iran. The inside story of that scandal has not been reported in depth by the mainstream media, but according to U.S. intelligence sources, here's what happened: Chalabi, once in Baghdad, began having regular meetings with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq. During those meetings, Chalabi blabbed to the Iranian ambassador about U.S. policy in Iraq and other matters, and the ambassador duly wrote detailed cables to his bosses in Tehran about information gleaned from Chalabi. However, what Chalabi didn't know is that the National Security Agency had broken the Iranian diplomatic code, and it was reading the texts of cables from Baghdad to Tehran from the ambassador – including the ones that involved Chalabi. Lo and behold, back at the Pentagon, Chalabi's friends such as Feith and Wolfowitz read those transcripts, and they horrified to see their friend Chalabi in deep exchanges with the Iranians. Someone – whether it was Feith or Wolfowitz, or even Rubin himself, we'll never know – warned Chalabi to stop blabbing to the Iranians. But Chalabi, ever irrepressible, told the Iranians that the U.S. had broken their code! That, too, found its way back to Washington, and Chalabi was exposed.

In May 2004, just weeks after the incident with Chalabi and Iranian ambassador, U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted a highly publicized raid on Chalabi's Baghdad compound. Rubin was shocked, and he bitterly denounced those who disparaged Chalabi. "By sending forces to break into Chalabi's house and then by holding a Governing Council member [i.e., Chalabi] at gunpoint, Bremer sought to humiliate Chalabi," said Rubin. Sounding like some outraged Islamist, Rubin accused the U.S and Iraqi troops that conducted the raid of stealing "a Chalabi family Koran," and he added:

"The inside-the-beltway rumor mongering made clear both the irrational contempt and ignorance that many professional pundits feel for any proponent of Arab democracy. Those academics, pundits, and commentators who have never met Chalabi reserve for him the greatest vitriol."

 In fact, of course, many of the people who have the "greatest vitriol" toward Chalabi are people who know him very, very well, including CIA officers who were exasperated and outraged by Chalabi's history of duplicity. I've talked myself to many, many people who know Chalabi intimately, and they find him beneath contempt. Not one of them criticizes Chalabi because, as Rubin asserts pompously, they hate "any proponent of Arab democracy." They just don't like (or trust) Chalabi.

In July 2004, Rubin conducted a sycophantic "interview" with Chalabi for the Middle East Forum, an outlet run by the Daniel Pipes, a hereditary neoconservative (son of Richard Pipes, a 1970s-era Team B activist) and a gleeful provocateur who sees himself as the scourge of everything Islamist. In the interview, which deserves to be read in its entirety to glean the full majesty of Rubin's worshipful approach, Rubin allows Chalabi to gloss over and deny U.S. charges that he revealed top secret U.S. intelligence to Iran about the broken code ("Which code?" Chalabi asked Rubin. "Do they have only one code? … George Tenet instigated a witch-hunt in Washington to cover his own failures, and innocent people are being picked on."). More importantly, and more relevant to Chalabi "de-Baathification" broadside against hundreds of Iraqi politicians in 2010, Rubin eggs Chalabi on over de-Baathification, and specifically slams Iyad Allawi, in this priceless exchange:

Rubin: "The de-Baathification procedure instituted by Bremer and the Governing Council applied only to the top four levels of the Baath Party, affecting perhaps 70,000 out of two million party members. The new prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has said he will scale back the scope of de-Baathification, bringing back a number of party members who did not have blood on their hands. Could Baath party members achieve such high ranks in the Baath party without direct complicity in the system? Was de-Baathification responsible for the insurgency or insecurity? Will Allawi's plan bring calm?"

Chalabi: "De-Baathification is enshrined in the Transitional Administrative Law [TAL]. This cannot be changed without the consent of the president and both vice-presidents. De-Baathification was actually responsible for saving the lives of individual Baathists. It must be understood that one of the primary purposes of de-Baathification is to have a systematic and legal process to deal with Baathists and to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands. A great danger of ending de-Baathification is that acts of violence and retribution will take place. Bringing predatory Baathists into government certainly will not bring stability. They are only interested in establishing their control again. Bringing back Baathists will inflame the great majority of the Iraqi people."

Ignoring Chalabi's by-then intimate ties to Tehran, Rubin has this naïve and embarrassingly simplistic exchange with Chalabi:

Rubin: "Have you met with Iranian intelligence officials? If so, why?"

Chalabi: "I have met with intelligence officials from many countries including all of Iraq's neighbors."

 That's it. No follow up.

Over the coming months, Rubin continued to defend Chalabi against charges of corruption, counterfeiting, and general malfeasance. As Chalabi worked alongside the massively pro-Iranian "United Iraqi Alliance," the coalition of Shiite religious leaders, clerics, and parties like SCIRI and Dawa, Rubin seemed blind to the heavy-handed interference of Iran and its allies in Iraq, especially SCIRI and Chalabi. Inexplicably, Rubin blithely ignored and excused the ultra sectarian character of the UIA, which was made up almost exclusively of Shiite religious parties, and which was endorsed by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, turban-wearing chief of the Najaf Marjaiya, as the crucial parliamentary elections of January 2005 and December 2005 drew near. Consider the following passage, from a piece entitled "Listen to the Iraqis," written for National Review Online in January 2005, in which he complained that Ambassador Negroponte was stiff-arming Chalabi:

"Political snubs also continue. John Negroponte, the United States ambassador to Iraq, has refused to meet with Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi may not have survived the interagency battles in Washington, but he has excelled in the Iraqi political arena and has emerged as a leading figure on Sistani's list of Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish candidates. Professional American diplomats and intelligence analysts may approve the snub, but Iraqis say it strikes them as petulant and unprofessional."

 Of course, needless to say, "Sistani's list" included damn few Kurds and Sunnis, and not many secular Shia, either! It was an all-out sectarian election campaign, widely boycotted by Sunnis. And as for Chalabi, who Rubin touted as a "leading figure on Sistani's list," well, when it came time for elections, Chalabi turned out to have a popularity among the Iraqis of something close to zero. In January 2005, Chalabi ran as part of the UIA Shiite sectarian confederation, so his unpopularity was disguised by the vote for the alliance as a whole. But in December 2005, Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress ran as an independent party and won less than 0.5 percent of the vote. His INC failed to win a single seat in the Council of Representatives, Iraq's parliament.

In a piece for National Review on December 5, 2005, Rubin praised Chalabi as a fiercely independent Iraqi patriot. The title of the piece was: "Iraq's Comeback Kid: Chalabi Keeps His Eye on the Prize." In it, Rubin scorned the CIA for disparaging Chalabi over the years, and he praised Chalabi for insisting on all-out de-Baathification of Iraq, without mentioning the fact that Iran, too, was hell-bent on de-Baathifying Iraq. "Iraqis," said an awe-struck Rubin, "have seen Chalabi hold fast to Iraqi nationalism." And Rubin concluded:

"His [Chalabi's] relevance has remained constant. Unlike those of other Iraqi figures embraced by various bureaucracies in Washington, Chalabi's fortunes have not depended on U.S. patronage. His survival--and, indeed, his recent ascent against the obstacles thrown in his path by Washington--underlines the failures of diplomats and intelligence analysts to put aside departmental agendas to provide the White House with an objective and accurate analysis of the sources of legitimacy inside Iraq."

 Of course, as already mentioned, Chalabi's "legitimacy" and allegedly nationalist credentials convinced very few Iraqis to actually vote for him. Apparently, Iraqis know a charlatan when they see one, but Rubin failed to acknowledge Chalabi's utter inability to get votes.

In his interview with Chalabi for Middle East Forum, there is this hilarious exchange:

Rubin: "How come we don't see crowds of people shouting your name?"

Chalabi: "In Nasiriya, I addressed the first political rally to be held in post-Saddam Iraq. Ten thousand people came to hear us. The enthusiasm was tremendous, and the people called out for democracy and the rule of law. It was very moving to see Iraqi citizens yearning for democracy after so many years of brutality."

The "rally" that Chalabi was referring to was in the very days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when American forces brought Iraqi exiles back to the country that many of them had not even visited for decades. Needless to say, in the months and years that passed, the only attraction that Chalabi drew as he traveled around Iraq were the bullets of would-be assassins, and if Iraqis were "shouting his name," as Rubin asked, it was as part of the phrase: "Down with Chalabi!"

Over the subsequent years, as Iran's influence in Iraq grew mightily, Rubin did take note. But in his analyses, Iran's role in Iraq was limited to covert action, through Hezbollah-like militia organizations, and through its closest ally, SCIRI, according to Rubin – and never, ever, through Chalabi or, for that matter, other Iraqi actors such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki. In fact, Iran's influence in Iraq is comprehensive and multifaceted, involving overt and covert support for its friends, along with political, economic, and religious efforts to build ties with Iraq's Shiite establishment and with the Kurds in Iraq's north. None of this seems evident to Rubin. In February 2006, as Iraq's bloodiest phase of civil war kicked off, Rubin wrote an unintentionally funny piece in the Wall Street Journal about Iran's influence in Iraq. "Tehran," he wrote, "has a formula for success in Iraq." However, according to Rubin, that "formula" centered on Tehran's supposed plan to build a version of Hezbollah in Iraq, by using the paramilitary Badr Brigade, SCIRI's Iran-trained militia. And not once did he mention Chalabi's comfortable ties to Iran. (Only weeks before Rubin's op-ed, Chalabi had traveled to Iran for a friendly tête-à-tête with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's newly elected president.)

One aspect of Iran's support for SCIRI that was unmentioned by Rubin is the fact that special elements of SCIRI's Badr Brigade were used by Iran to carry out a lethal program of assassinations from 2003 through 2007. Perhaps that's because both SCIRI and Rubin are avid partisans of de-Baathification. Thousands of Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, were murdered systematically by SCIRI during those years. American intelligence specialists on Iraq have told me, for instance, that scores if not hundreds of Iraqi air force pilots were murdered, one by one, in their homes, by SCIRI assassins, using lists they'd compiled from seized Iraqi government records. Countless former Baathists were killed in the same manner, gunned down in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, and other capitals. But perhaps that is the sort of "de-Baathification" that warms the heart of Rubin, Chalabi, et. al. Certainly, Chalabi is back in a firm alliance with SCIRI, Badr, and the rest.

In recent years, Rubin and written less and less about Iraq, and more about Iran, where he has emerged a leading voice in opposition to President Obama's diplomatic opening to Tehran. His understanding of Iran is weak, however. Like many neoconservatives, in the period before the June 12 election in Iran Rubin bitterly criticized and dismissed Iran's reformist opposition movement, the Green Movement, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and former President Khatami. On March 25, 2009, Rubin wrote a piece called "Khatami Is Just Ahmadinejad With a Silver Tongue," in which he wrote:

"It is easy to be fooled by appearances and see Khatami as a moderate when juxtaposed with firebrand President Ahmadinejad. Alas, the differences are only of style, not substance."

Rubin has put forward a wide range of hawkish alternatives to negotiations with Iran, all centered around the premise that negotiations won't work. In a lengthy report in 2008 for a little-known group called the Bipartisan Policy Center, for a task force led by former Senators Dan Coats and Chuck Robb, Rubin laid out an escalating series of measures aimed at preventing Iran from going forward with its nuclear program.

In the report, predicting that the talks will fail, Rubin proposed "prepositioning military assets" in anticipation of that failure, coupled with a "show of force" in the region. Then, almost immediately, he suggested a blockade on Iranian gasoline imports and oil exports, which would paralyze Iran's economy, followed by what Rubin called, euphemistically, "kinetic action."

That "kinetic action," a U.S. attack on Iran, would be massive, urged Rubin. Besides hitting dozens of sites alleged to be part of Iran's nuclear research program, the attacks would also target Iranian air defense and missile sites, communications systems, Revolutionary Guard facilities, key parts of Iran's military-industrial complex, munitions storage facilities, air fields, aircraft facilities, and Iran's entire naval complex. Eventually, he says, the United States would have to attack Iran's ground forces, electric power plants and electrical grids, bridges, and "manufacturing plants, including steel, autos, buses, etc." If that isn't all-out war, I don't know what is.

It will be interesting to see what Rubin and his AEI colleagues have to say at the March 1 conference. As for myself, I won't be there. In its never-ending quest to enhance democracy and free speech, AEI banned me long ago from its gatherings. Perhaps an enterprising reporter who is still in AEI's good graces will ask Rubin about his unrequited love affair for Iran's favorite Iraqi, Ahmed Chalabi.

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