Walker's World: Washington's civil war

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor  |  May 26, 2004 at 2:39 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 26 (UPI) -- Just over 40 years ago, in the wake of the disastrous CIA-backed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy voiced a profound truth about the realty of politics in Washington.

"Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan," Kennedy said. Had the invasion by Cuban exiles succeeded, then everyone from the CIA to the Pentagon to the State Department would have clamed a share of the credit. It failed, and everyone ran for the exits.

Today in Washington, we have a not dissimilar phenomenon. We had our splendid little victory when the Saddam Hussein regime fell a year ago, but it is turning into something that is beginning (let us not be too hasty; there is a long way to go) to smell of defeat. And in Washington, where the mood is more vicious and anguished than most veterans of the place can recall, the absence of victory and the prospect of defeat have unleashed something rather new.

There are no orphans. Everybody owns a bit of the massive setback in Iraq, from the military men who failed properly to administer the prison of Abu Ghraib, to the civilian leadership of the Pentagon who ignored much good advice, to the State Department where Secretary Colin Powell's "case proved" speech to the United Nations on the eve of war locks him into the chain of responsibility. And then there is the CIA, which failed repeatedly to topple Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, misjudged his weapons of mass destruction, and failed in Iraq to repeat the deft management of tribal politics they had displayed in Afghanistan.

But in the haste to deflect blame onto others, and to survive the internecine wars of the Washington bureaucracy, there is now a hunt for scapegoats. The first designated target is Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, once the Pentagon's favored intelligence source and later their chosen man to assume the mantle of power in Baghdad.

Chalabi is an easy target. Convicted of massive bank fraud in Jordan, and the purveyor of at best over-optimistic (and at worst, deliberately misleading) intelligence, he is now pilloried on the cover of Newsweek as "Our con man in Iraq." He is widely accused of passing intelligence material to Iran, and even of having been an Iranian agent of influence since the 1980s. (On the principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Chalabi's hatred of Saddam Hussein -- and the geographic fact of Iran's looming presence alongside Iraq -- would explain some of his contacts with Iran.

But the real target goes beyond Chalabi. The hunt is on, in the Republican Party, in Congress, in the CIA and State Department and in a media which is being deluged with leaks, for Chalabi's friends and sponsors in Washington -- the group known as the neo-cons.

In particular, the targets seem to be Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the former assistant secretary (in Reagan's day) Richard Perle, Vice President Dick Cheney's national security aide Scooter Libby, and the National Security Council's Middle East aide Elliott Abrams. The leaking against them -- from sources who insist on anonymity, but some CIA and FBI veterans -- is intense. Some of the sources are now private citizens, making a good living through business connections in the Arab world.

The targets, veterans of Washington infighting who understand the game and the way it is played, are now beginning to fight back. Richard Perle told this reporter Tuesday that the gloves were off. He said that the raid on Chalabi's home and offices in Baghdad last week was "the worst abuse of government power I have ever seen." Chalabi deserved better, Perle went on, citing Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying Chalabi's intelligence saved American lives.

Perle has no doubts that some of the attacks on him are coming directly from the CIA, in order to cover their own exposed rears, attacking Chalabi's intelligence to distract attention from their own mistakes.

"I believe that much of the CIA operation in Iraq was owned by Saddam Hussein," Perle said. "There were 45 decapitation attempts against Saddam -- and he survived them all. How could that be, if he was not manipulating the intelligence?"

Perle went on to suggest an even darker motive behind the attacks on the neo-cons; that the real target was Israel's Likud government and the staunch support for Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon in the Bush administration.

When this was put to one CIA source, the reply was mocking: "That's what they always do. As soon as these guys get any criticism, they scream Israel and anti-Semitism, and I think people are finally beginning to see through that smokescreen."

There is a classic progression to this kind of Washington war. It starts with smears and backbiting and once the target is smoked out and looks to be on the run, it goes on to the blood sport of witch-hunting and trial by public hearings and Congressional committees. So far, the Republican majority in Congress has proved remarkably resistant to this course, but the Republican loyalty is cracking under the strain, and the backbiting has now begun within the party's own ranks.

With less than six weeks to go before the handover of sovereignty in Iraq, and with looming formal and informal international summits in Paris and Normandy and the G8 meeting in Sea Island, Georgia, it is too soon to say that the Iraqi operation has been a failure.

NATO and the U.N. Security Council might take the responsible course and acknowledge that a collapse in Iraq could be even more dangerous for the Europeans than it will be for the Americans. But already European diplomats are wondering aloud why their governments should risk any political capital to support a president who could well be voted out of office in November.

But the point that President Kennedy forgot to make in his remark about defeat and orphans is that some orphans pay a much higher price than others. The fate of a handful of experienced Washington insiders, or even of a skilled player like Ahmed Chalabi, is unlikely to be nearly as awful as the prospects for those Iraqis and other Arabs who believed in Washington's good intentions -- if the current setbacks in Iraq turn into a full-scale strategic American defeat. President Bush may lose office; a lot of trusting Iraqis and Arabs will lose their lives.

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