Extended family man

<strong>The Man Who Pushed America to War: the Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahma

The dust jacket of this book characterises the author, Aram Roston, as someone who "specialises in covering national security, law enforcement, white-collar crime and corruption" - all qualifications ideally suited to investigating the career of Ahmad Chalabi, one of the more colourful figures thrown up by the US-led invasion of Iraq. It is a lively and entertaining read, fast-paced and well-told, informed throughout both by Chalabi loyalists and by those who have fallen out with him.

These personal likes and dislikes figure prominently in Chalabi's career. Mistrustful of institutions, exasperated by rules and regulations, he has made it his business to charm, impress and, some would say, hoodwink those whom he thinks can be useful to him. Whether in his financial dealings or in his political ambitions, the personal relationship is always the most important. It has been both his strength and his undoing. This is not simply some quirk of his personality; it was a marked feature of the world and the class into which he was born. His family's fortune was founded on the networks of personal trust, on hierarchies of patrons and clients which were - and to a large degree still remain - part of the very fabric of doing business in the Middle East. At the heart of it stood the extended family, its connections and influence multiplied by strategic alliances and marriages with other clans.

Following the Iraqi Revolution of 1958, the Chalabis shifted their operations to Europe and Lebanon, using the same methods in their business ventures. Having abandoned his academic career, Ahmad Chalabi played an active part, along with cousins, brothers and nephews. However, family favours and fiscal propriety sit uneasily with each other. As Roston skilfully untangles the various threads, we see banking regulators first in Switzerland, then in Jordan and in Lebanon beginning to suspect that something was amiss. In the late 1980s they closed down most of the Chalabi operations, bringing lawsuits and criminal charges against Ahmad Chalabi among others.

It was then that he became more active in the politics of the Iraqi opposition in exile. At a time when most western governments were supporting the dictatorship in Iraq, this effort went nowhere. But everything changed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Suddenly the very states that had supported Saddam Hussein scrabbled around for ways to undermine him. For Chalabi, this was a golden opportunity, and CIA funds soon came his way. They were meant to promote the insubstantial Iraqi National Congress, but seemed rather to allow Chalabi himself to indulge in various acts of self-promotion.

Roston brings out well the ways in which Chalabi used his skills to cement personal alliances within the US Congress and in the curious half-world of lobbyists, think tanks and other anterooms to power. His account shows equally that Chalabi managed to alienate a host of US officials, partly because of his proprietorial attitude to US public funds and partly because he could never deliver even a fraction of what he had promised.

This is where a critical question arises concerning the degree to which Chalabi was responsible for pushing the US to invade Iraq in 2003, as the title of the book suggests. On balance, the author goes along with the view of some of Chalabi's most ardent supporters - and of Chalabi himself - that, were it not for his lobbying skills in the US from the late 1990s onwards, the US army would not now be in Iraq. Yet, as with so many of the other claims made by Chalabi, one should take this with a pinch of salt.

In fact, a recurrent theme is the ease with which he could be brushed aside, outflanked by those with greater clout and dumped by a variety of patrons. This puts him in a position where he is always restlessly on the lookout for new sponsors, sidling up to those with power in the hope of making himself indispensable. In doing so, of course, he becomes a lesser figure, an opportunist trying to insert himself into games, the rules of which are determined by others.

This has been very much the pattern of his career since 2003. In a telling echo of his financial dealings, his experience in Iraq during these years has been to use personal connections, cultivating the powerful, surrounding himself with some very strange people, bullying and submissive by turns, spinning stories to make himself appear more central than in fact he was. However, when the crunch came, the political capital was missing: there never was a constituency that could back up his claim to be taken seriously.

This has not prevented Chalabi from bouncing back periodically. Indeed, the present political situation in Iraq - with powerful patrons using networks of influence, with public finances and accountability in complete disarray, and with government-backed militias seeking to get by force that which cannot be achieved by law - is in many ways a congenial setting for someone of his talents. This in itself is a depressing testimony to Iraq's current predicament.

Charles Tripp is professor of politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. His most recent book is the third edition of "A History of Iraq" (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.