Dec/Jan 2011

The Family Business

Tamara Chalabi's memoir sidesteps her father's role in the Iraq invasion

Aram Roston


The 2003 US invasion of Iraq began just as the persuasive exile Ahmad Chalabi desired. His vision, shared by neoconservative policymakers back in Washington, was that once US troops got "rid of Saddam for us," as he put it, he himself would drive into Baghdad triumphantly, welcomed by throngs of adoring Iraqis. Chalabi, who hadn't been to Iraq since 1958, when he was thirteen years old, patterned the idea on Charles de Gaulle's return to Paris during World War II with the Free French.

But things didn't exactly come off as Chalabi had planned. The US Air Force did fly the millionaire from Kurdistan to southern Iraq, with a group of "Free Iraqi Forces," but then wiser heads prevailed: The American regime in Iraq ignored him, and he never managed to take power. Accompanying Chalabi on his US-taxpayer-funded return was his eldest daughter, Tamara Chalabi, then twenty-nine years old.

Since then, she has developed a writing career. She published her Ph.D. thesis, about Shiites in Lebanon, as a book. During one of Iraq's elections, she wrote about her father's campaign for Slate. (He won less than 1 percent of the popular vote.) Now Tamara has written a book about her Iraqi family and about Iraq. The younger Chalabi is a capable researcher and an evocative writer, though perhaps it is good to be cautious when the rich chronicle their own lineage. Late for Tea at the Deer Palace recounts the Chalabi family's odyssey through the twentieth century. It is a somewhat rose-colored story that underscores the family's allegiance to the Ottoman Empire and then its alliance with the British-installed monarch.

However, the author warns at the outset that she won't spend much time on her father. "This is my story," she insists. Unfortunately, that isn't necessarily the story the reader wants to hear. Ahmad Chalabi, after all, is one of the most bizarrely influential characters in recent world history; omitting his role in the family saga is a bit like scripting The Godfather without prominently mentioning the Mafia don. His escapades in banking, politics, propaganda, and espionage are as astonishing as they are indisputable. After fleeing Amman, where he would be convicted of embezzlement in absentia for fronting shady loans to family members, Chalabi turned his attention toward pressuring the US government to topple Saddam Hussein. His ability to charm and manipulate influential Americans became the stuff of legend. The United States began funding Chalabi's political party in 1992 and continued till 2004, sending him millions in taxpayer dollars. He used that money to propagandize the American public, lobby Congress, and spread false stories about Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda.

Considering all this, it's perhaps too much to ask for honest insights from Tamara Chalabi into her father. But her routine explanation that Ahmad is the victim of a conspiracy is well shy of satisfying. Still, in at least an inadvertent sense, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace does provide context that may help explain the paternal Chalabi's motivations and social skills. The family's rendering of its own history gives it a unique sense of entitlement, it seems. And that is itself key to understanding just how the United States ended up invading Iraq when Hussein had no WMDs and no links to Al Qaeda.

The book's core narrative begins in 1913, in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire—and even here Tamara Chalabi shows her penchant for omitting negative references to her family. By most accounts, her great-great-grandfather Ali Chalabi was a nasty, brutal piece of work; Iraqi historian Hanna Batatu wrote that he "kept a bodyguard of armed slaves and had a special prison at his disposal." The author is clearly aware of the Batatu book, since she uses it as source material, but she skips this passage and instead begins her family saga with a more kindly figure from the past, Ali's son Abdul.

Abdul Hussein Chalabi was a loyal Shiite—but as Tamara notes, he was also pragmatic enough to ally himself with the British-backed Iraqi monarch, King Faisal. Abdul "saw his chance to make a favorable impression," even though his allegiance violated a Shiite fatwa against cooperating with the invader. Bucking the clerics turned out to help the family—because the British, and King Faisal, found these wealthy Chalabis useful, too. It was, for the Chalabis, a "golden age." Tamara writes with fondness and imagination about the things her aunts, uncles, and grandparents told her about the old country. There's a lot of silk: "rich silks," "beautiful silks," "a silk-embroidered shaving apron," "a swatch of silk as blue as a peacock's feather."

Of course, quality silk issues from less gossamer sources of wealth. Over the next few decades, the Chalabis acquired vast tracts of land for free. As the author writes glowingly, her grandfather "took advantage of a new law that awarded notables and tribal sheikhs the right to acquire empty miri, state-owned land. The new legislation was the perfect formula for Hadi, who managed to acquire many large plots of land." Indeed, Hadi, Ahmad's father, quickly monopolized Iraqi grain as well. "He soon found himself with 90 percent of the country's grain export," Tamara writes, with apparent pride.

The serene record of family holdings masks another set of developments that rarely impinge on the narrative here. In the mid-twentieth century, Iraq suffered from staggering poverty. The resentment in the general population, combined with the growing tide of Arab nationalism in the region, morphed to hatred by the 1950s. Iraq's royal family was largely seen as a stooge of the West, a bulwark against the twin threats of Communism and the pan-Arab nationalism of Egypt's leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. By 1958, the country faced a revolution, after a military coup killed off the royal family. The younger Chalabi delivers a gripping, well-told account of that fateful episode, which sent her family into exile, but barely touches on its causes.

It was during the Chalabi clan's diaspora that Tamara was born in Lebanon, and in recounting her early life, she evokes her growing awareness of her exile identity, or what she calls her "Iraqi inheritance." Unfortunately, surprisingly little of that inheritance involves the most compelling reason to take an interest in the Chalabis: the 2003 US invasion. But Tamara only turns to the Iraq war in her final chapter. There she gives no account of the war's justification—which means, in turn, that she doesn't confront the lies her father spread about the phantom WMD arsenal under Hussein: no mobile biolabs, mushroom clouds, anthrax, smallpox, or VX gas, and not a hint of the bogus propaganda alleging ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda.

She does cite her father's role in Washington on Capitol Hill. For two years, she writes, he "devoted all his energies to drafting a law committing the USA to support a democratic Iraq, and lobbying Congress in Washington to adopt this law. Both houses passed the Iraq Liberation Act (ILA) with large majorities, and it was enacted into law by President Clinton on 31 October 1998." But here once more, the dry recitation of events leaves the reader hanging. Behind the matter-of-fact tone of that passage, after all, is a staggering phenomenon: How could Tamara Chalabi's father, a convicted banker with no constituency, manage to do anything in Congress? And what business was it of his to be "drafting a law" that drew America into war?

No one reading this memoir will gain any insight into that bit of legislative handiwork or into any other crucial episode that laid the groundwork for the Iraq war. Indeed, all the book offers by way of a conclusion to this central family drama is a textbook study in careful understatement: "Perhaps my hopes for a rapid transition towards a representative government after Saddam's fall were unrealistic." It's hard not to think that this clipped and foreshortened version of recent events gives an unintended connotation to Tamara's reflection that the Deer Palace—the family's long-destroyed Iraqi estate—"was perhaps a dream." And that dream of hers, in turn, may well be linked to the more ludicrous dreams her father wove for his American supporters, when he helped to lure US soldiers into a conflict that has not ended.

Aram Roston is the author of The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures, and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi (Perseus Books, 2008).

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