On a recent Tuesday morning,the NPR broadcast is filled with Iraq news. The women of Fallujah have left town for their own safety, and a bomb has hit a Baghdad restaurant.
But inside the Franklin County Visitor’s Center, about 50 miles southwest of Kansas City, the war seems a distant concern. The newish building, decorated with blown-up vintage postcards and a real pumpkin from Peckham’s Pumpkin Patch, is the first of this morning’s stops for U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback. There will be 49 more Kansas destinations for Brownback in the 3 weeks between the end of the congressional session and Election Day.
That sounds like a grueling campaign schedule, but it really isn’t. In Brownback’s run for re-election, there is no real campaign to speak of. Brownback’s Democratic opponent, little-known Lee Jones of Lenexa, was actually defeated in the primary by even littler known Robert Conroy of Shawnee, who then withdrew from the race, giving the nomination to Jones by default.
Brownback’s tour is more like a series of coffees with the pastor, 45-minute visits during which he lays out his three priorities — jobs, security and values — and takes a few questions before hitting the road again.
The senator is introduced by Bruce Osladil, Franklin County chairman for Brownback’s campaign. Osladil pushes the refreshments (doughnuts and a meat-and-cheese tray) and apologizes that the 7:45 a.m. event conflicted with a board meeting of the chamber of commerce. The forty or so people in attendance do their best to fill the space, despite the missing members of the chamber’s board.
Brownback looks relaxed in his purple-and-teal Kansas State University jacket, which he wears despite his alma mater’s shocking football loss to the University of Kansas the previous weekend.
He begins by appealing to the farmers in the room, mentioning that his own father’s farm not too many miles to the south is enjoying a bumper corn crop. Then he recites his trinitarian message.
“We’ve gotta keep the economy growing.
“We can’t let the terrorists rest or have sanctuary anywhere in the world.
“I never thought running for office, I’d be debating what marriage is.”
Then Brownback fields questions about stem-cell research, taxes, health care and energy. No one brings up Iraq.
Don Waymire, a Franklin County commissioner in attendance, says he isn’t surprised.
“Hindsight is 20-20,” Waymire says as Brownback is ushered out the door to a waiting car, bound for another stop in Garnett. “When you look forward, you have to do what you think is best based on the information you have. I think that was accepted by the majority of people here.”
Although the country’s top Republican, President George W. Bush, has endured a withering examination of his decision to launch a pre-emptive war in Iraq, it’s hard to find anyone in Kansas’ small towns or in Washington, D.C., who will speak critically about Brownback’s role in that decision.
“They aren’t into navel-gazing when it comes to Iraq,” says a staffer for a Midwest senator about the lack of second-guessing in the nation’s capital.
But some can’t forget that fellow who, before Bush launched the first missiles on Baghdad, seemed to be a constant companion of the hawkish senator from Kansas.
“When the definitive history of the current Iraq war is finally written,” John Dizard pointed out in a May 4 Salon piece, “wealthy exile Ahmad Chalabi will be among those judged most responsible for the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein.”
Although Kansans tend not to bring it up, it was Brownback who provided Chalabi much of his access to Washington.
Brownback repeatedly had the Iraqi exile testify before his subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. And Brownback continually pressured President Bill Clinton and President Bush to give money to Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.
“Chalabi played Washington like it was an orchestra, and Sam Brownback was one of the violins,” says Erik Gustafson, Army veteran of the first Gulf War and executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC). The nonprofit group, founded in 1998 to work for human rights and democracy in Iraq, questioned the rush to war.
“It was clear Sen. Brownback was one of the prime senatorial offices that Ahmad Chalabi and those that supported Chalabi relied on,” Gustafson says.
Brownback’s staff members have not returned repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story. But approached after an appearance at a Garnett, Kansas, restaurant, Brownback assigns Chalabi to the same category as the entire war, which turned out to be a snipe hunt for nonexistent stockpiles of chemical and nuclear weapons.
“You look at it now. It’s like looking at Iraq and saying, ‘Well, where are the weapons of mass destruction?'” Brownback explains. “You deal with the best information you have at the time.”
Brownback says he has no information on news reports that Chalabi is being investigated for allegedly passing secrets to Iran. And he is no longer talking to the Iraqi dissident.
“I haven’t talked to him in probably five months, maybe six. No, it’s been longer than that,” he says.
Brownback became important to Chalabi by virtue of the Kansan’s placement on the Senate’s foreign-relations subcommittee, a plum assignment for a new Senator.
A former state secretary of agriculture and congressman, Brownback was elected to the Senate to finish out the term of Bob Dole, who had resigned to run for president. Assigned to foreign relations, he was also made chairman of the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.
With a background in farming and education, Brownback might have seemed an odd choice to keep tabs on the fate of Israel, the friction between India and Pakistan and other matters in one of the world’s more volatile regions.
At the time, however, it was a relatively mundane assignment. But Brownback took to it, says Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “Legislators, like nature, abhor vacuums. A smart legislator, if no one is doing something in an area … tries to address issues there.”
From his days as an all-star 4-H’er in high school and as student body president at K-State, Brownback has always been a high-energy guy.
“It used to be [Sen. Pat] Roberts’ office and Brownback’s office were next to each other,” Loomis says. “Roberts’ office, you walk in and it’s quiet and things are going along … like a small corporate office someplace. You go to Brownback’s office, and it’s just a lot more active and energetic and a lot more stuff churning, more balls are in the air.”
Into this eager environment walked Ahmad Chalabi.
Chalabi was from a wealthy landowning family that fled Iraq in 1958 when the monarch they favored was overthrown. Then a teenager, Chalabi gained entry to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a degree in mathematics. He continued his studies at the University of Chicago.
It was there that Chalabi made many of the contacts that would gain him entry into Washington, D.C., power circles. He studied with Albert Wohlstetter, known as the godfather of neoconservatism. Among the tenets of neocon political philosophy is an aggressive foreign policy, particularly against Middle Eastern states thought to harbor terrorists and oppose Israel.
During the 1980s, Chalabi built a bank in Jordan before he was forced to sneak out of the country in the trunk of a car to avoid arrest. Jordanian authorities contend that he embezzled millions of dollars from his depositors. Chalabi denies the charges and insists they were filed to appease Saddam Hussein.
Chalabi eventually turned his attention back to Iraq. He helped found the Iraqi National Congress as an umbrella group for Iraqi dissidents who, like himself, wanted to see Saddam Hussein removed from power. He also became a CIA informant.
In March 1995, Chalabi brokered an alliance with Iraq’s oppressed Kurdish minority and planned to march on Baghdad from the north. He claimed to have the support of the American CIA, but on the eve of the attack, Chalabi says, his CIA contacts backed out. The coup was put down by Saddam Hussein.
“Chalabi was very much trying to drag us into a war,” explains EPIC’s Gustafson. “Eventually he was successful in that endeavor.”
Chalabi took the CIA’s waffling personally, Gustafson says. “From Chalabi’s perspective, the Clinton administration pulled the rug out from under them. It’s almost like he came back to Washington perhaps even with a bit of vendetta against the Clinton administration.”
Chalabi found an audience in the conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, including go-getter Brownback. Chalabi sold well in Washington. He was well-dressed, fluent in English, not conspicuously Muslim, and supportive of Israel.
“That’s what people wanted to hear. That was the kind of politician that would take over Iraq after Saddam was deposed,” says Chris Toensing, editor of Middle East Report, the quarterly publication put out by the Middle East Research and Information Project. The left-leaning organization pushes for progressive change in the U.S. approach to the Middle East. “The famous quote about him was he had more support on the banks of the Potomac than on the banks of the Euphrates.”
On October 31, 1998, President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act. Brownback had co-sponsored the bill, which tallied the sins of Iraq: its war with Iran, the chemical-weapons slaughter of Kurds, the invasion of Kuwait. It committed the United States to spending $97 million to push for regime change in Iraq, including $3 million for Chalabi’s INC.
It was a major change in U.S. policy. “It put the United States in conflict with the United Nations,” Gustafson says. “Prior to the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, while certainly the United States would prefer change of regime in Iraq, it wasn’t a stated policy directive.”
P.J. Crowley was a staff member of Clinton’s National Security Council at the time. Crowley says Clinton was pressured to sign the act but wasn’t enthusiastic about following it.
“Our approach was basically to try to fence off the extent to which the Iraq Liberation Act could complicate our efforts to sustain the containment policy with respect to Iraq,” says Crowley, now a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “The Iraq Liberation Act made regime change the law of the land, fair enough. The question is, how do you do it?”
Brownback had joined the growing ranks of decision makers who believed the economic sanctions, the enforcement of the no-fly zone and other policies meant to contain Saddam Hussein were failing.
“I have no question that Brownback was operating based on what he felt was the best course of action … just it was wrongheaded from the start,” Crowley says. “His perception was that containment was not working. Containment was, in fact, weakening Saddam, and we were steadily eroding his military capability, which means we were steadily eroding his ability to harm us directly.”
Just a few weeks after the Iraq Liberation Act was signed, USA Today published a story in which Crowley was quoted as saying there were no plans to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Federal law prohibited the targeting of foreign heads of state, he pointed out.
But Brownback told the newspaper he would consider sponsoring legislation to change the law in order to allow Saddam Hussein to be targeted. Further, he said he thought future airstrikes should aim at Saddam Hussein.
The next month, Brownback put his rhetoric in writing. He was one of six senators to sign a December 16, 1998, letter to Clinton requesting action on the Iraq Liberation Act. It included a plug for Chalabi’s INC: “We urge you and your Administration to move swiftly to designate a group such as the Iraqi National Congress under the terms of the Iraq Liberation Act.”
Brownback was aware that Chalabi and his supporters had proven themselves fallible. “Every one of them has warts,” he told a New York Times reporter.
During a hearing of his foreign-relations subcommittee, he explained the reality. “The opposition is not a group of Boy Scouts, nor is it a group of Jeffersonian democrats. It is an agglomeration of very different people and different groups who have been crushed under Saddam Hussein for decades.”
But Brownback’s actions showed he was firmly aboard the INC bandwagon. In August 1999, he was one of eight senators who wrote the president to demand that the INC be trained, armed and paid. “Over time, we must be prepared to deliver both lethal military training and lethal material assistance,” the letter reads.
In October 1999, Brownback addressed a gathering of opposition groups, dubbed the Iraqi National Assembly, which included members of the Iraqi National Congress.
“I have long argued that removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq is extremely important to the national security of the United States and its allies in the Middle East,” he said. “But let’s not pretend. I am not the commander in chief of the U.S. military, and I cannot order Saddam’s removal. Neither President Bush nor President Clinton has been willing to do so. That means the job is up to you.”
Brownback asked them to become a potent, unified force. “It is up to you, the members of the Iraqi National Congress,” he said “Remember, we have a common enemy, Saddam Hussein…. He is developing weapons of mass destruction, and I have no doubt he is willing to use those weapons. Saddam Hussein is evil, and it is your mission and ours to rid the world of this man.”
On June 28, 2000, Brownback had Chalabi testify before the foreign-relations subcommittee. In introducing the controversial Iraqi, the senator and subcommittee chairman ripped into President Clinton, who was nearing the end of his presidency.
“I cannot understand why President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act when he had absolutely no intent of implementing the provisions of the law,” Brownback said.
Brownback blamed the Clinton administration for abolishing the United Nations Special Commission that was looking into Iraqi weapons programs, allowing the rest of the world to ignore the sanctions on Iraq and failing to spend the money appropriated in the Iraq Liberation Act.
“They have failed to remind the world at large that Saddam Hussein has killed tens of thousands of his own people,” Brownback said. “They seem to forget that Saddam’s devotion to amassing weapons of mass destruction is the only remaining obstacle to Iraq’s rehabilitation.”
The docket of speakers that day included Chalabi himself, accompanied by a host of other Iraqi dissidents associated with the INC. The forum allowed Chalabi to portray himself as the INC leader.
It also allowed him to make the case he had been making through New York Times exclusives, INC press releases and letters of his own: that Saddam Hussein was even then building his stock of weapons of mass destruction.
“There are now massive investments in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs unrestricted by United Nations inspections,” he told the subcommittee members.
He complained that the Iraq Liberation Act was being ignored and that his organization had received only $100,000 of the money it had been promised. “Despite bold words and professed commitment, almost nothing has been done,” he said.
The subcommittee appearance, along with two others that had preceded it, gave Chalabi standing as a key player in the ongoing question of what to do about Iraq.
“It certainly was a factor,” says Anthony Cordesman of the global policy think tank known as the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman has held a variety of governmental staff positions, including jobs with the Senate Armed Services Committee, the office of the secretary of defense, the State Department and NATO.
But Brownback was by no means the only person to be charmed and persuaded by Chalabi, Cordesman says.
“The fact is that many people, including some people in the Democratic Party, sort of bought the Chalabi line,” Cordesman says.
He says Brownback and others fell into a trap in assuming that “the enemy of your enemy is your friend,” Cordesman continues. “The problem often is, when you deal with exiles, you don’t have good choices.”
Or any choices.
“Chalabi, at one point, seemed to be the only operative in Iraq that was politically active in the United States,” Cordesman says.
Because Iraq had been under the restrictive rule of Saddam Hussein for so long, finding people with knowledge of the country had been difficult, Toensing says. “There are so few people in the United States who really understood anything…. Some Americans have done histories of Iraq. Even they had not been to Iraq in some years.”
What American decision makers didn’t realize, Toensing says, was how little support the exiles had back in Iraq. “They simply don’t have organic ties. They didn’t have any legitimacy and credibility, and they still don’t.”
Because ignorance was widespread, some resist judging Brownback harshly today.
“I don’t think it is a bad thing that a senator ended up being sympathetic to the Iraqi opposition. That’s not a bad thing,” Gustafson says. “What I kind of saw with Brownback being a problem, he seemed to depend too much on a single source, and you never want to do that.”
Both Chalabi’s U.S. supporters and Chalabi himself can be blamed for the one-man vision, says Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
“[Chalabi’s] the one that they saw. He’s the one they were introduced to. He was introduced as ‘the next leader of Iraq,'” Yaphe says. “It was not true he was the only leader.”
But Chalabi forced out his rivals, and his dominance of the INC hindered the group’s effectiveness, Yaphe says.
“He muscled, he suppressed anybody who proposed any kind of rival leadership,” she says.
With the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001, Chalabi got a boost in the number of powerful people depending on him.
Several of the people with access to the president — including Richard Perle, who advised the Pentagon, and Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary — had connections to Chalabi that dated back to the University of Chicago.
In March 2001, Brownback held another hearing to discuss Iraq. He asked Cordesman, Perle and a couple of others whether Saddam Hussein was better off than he had been ten years before, at the start of the first Gulf War. In his introductory speech, Brownback welcomed Chalabi as part of the gallery.
“The evidence is overwhelming that Saddam is reconstituting his illegal-weapons programs,” Brownback said. “Defectors from the regime have told the British press that Saddam actually has two small nuclear weapons.”
Brownback said he hadn’t confirmed the nuke report, but he was sure that sanctions were failing in their goal to hurt Saddam Hussein and that America should amp up its support of the opposition groups and commit to training and arming them.
Then September 11, 2001, changed everything.
Former national security adviser Richard Clarke has testified that immediately after the attacks, the Bush administration was determined to blame Saddam Hussein in the face of evidence that showed otherwise.
Brownback, meanwhile, stepped up his own efforts to encourage war in Iraq. Three months after the attack, Brownback, along with eight other senators, including North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, asked President Bush to start writing checks to the INC.
“The Iraqi National Congress is the only umbrella organization comprising all elements of the Iraqi opposition. No one group is excluded, no one group is favored,” the letter states. “Mr. President, all indications are that in the interest of our own national security, Saddam Hussein must be removed from power. Let us maximize the likelihood of a rapid victory by beginning immediately to assist the Iraqi opposition on the ground inside Iraq by providing them money and assistance already authorized and appropriated.”
While Chalabi was asking for money, he was offering information.
On December 20, 2001, The New York Times published a Judith Miller story quoting an Iraqi defector who claimed to have been working at a secret laboratory in Baghdad to develop chemical and nuclear weapons. Chalabi had arranged the interview.
In the ensuing months, the Times would run numerous exclusives with Chalabi’s help. The stories became part of a drumbeat, hammering on the consistent message that Saddam Hussein possessed and was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction.
In December 2002, Brownback was a special guest in London at a meeting of Iraqi opposition groups, a meeting he described at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “They were really setting their differences aside,” Brownback told the committee. “I was quite impressed at how far forward they had gone, how much they were cooperating and working together and really pulling together.”
At Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003, Chalabi showed how far his star had risen. In the television coverage of the event, his round face was conspicuously present in the background of each shot of first lady Laura Bush. He had been invited to share the first family’s box.
Two months later, the country was at war.
Brownback took the opportunity to send one more letter to the White House, signed with four other senators.
“The fact that we are at war with Saddam’s regime and still not fully funding the Iraqi opposition in their struggle to achieve the same goal is wrong,” the letter said.
This time, Brownback’s water carrying got results. Within days, the State Department released $4 million to the opposition group.
But Brownback was pushing for nearly $100 million more, money that had been approved by Congress that had been held up by the State Department. According to the D.C. publication The Hill, Brownback blamed distrust of Chalabi, who had drawn criticism from the CIA and the State Department. “I consider those statements a compliment to Chalabi,” Brownback told the paper. “Not being someone the CIA and State Department like says a lot in his favor.”
Meanwhile, Chalabi prepared himself for a triumphant return to his native land. American military planes flew Chalabi and an army of 700 into southern Iraq in early April. Chalabi followed U.S. soldiers into Baghdad and set up a headquarters.
Three days after Bush declared victory from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 2, 2003, Brownback complained to the National Review that the United States wasn’t putting enough of an Iraqi face on Operation Iraqi Freedom. “Parts of our government have been against the INC for years, and that attitude is hindering us in the fight to liberate Iraq,” he said.
For the next year, Chalabi became a key player in Iraq, advising the country’s rebuilding effort. But this past April, his fortunes dissolved. The United Nations shut out the Iraqi Governing Council from the nation’s new government, and Newsweek reported that Chalabi, the council’s finance chairman, was being investigated for passing classified information to Iranian officials.
The General Accounting Office, meanwhile, released a report on $33 million the INC received from the State Department between March 2000 and September 2003. The report criticized Chalabi’s group for poor accounting and for failing to operate the television station they were charged with, particularly during the crucial days leading up to the war. The report also gave voice to the suspicion that Chalabi’s intelligence-gathering efforts were not credible.
Chalabi responded in a letter that the accounting allegations were untrue and that delays in payment from the State Department had been a chronic problem that hurt his efforts.
In May, Iraqi police and U.S. military officers raided Chalabi’s Baghdad home. Chalabi was suspected of espionage. Officials contended that Chalabi had alerted Iranian authorities that the United States had cracked their intelligence codes.
Last month, an Iraqi judge dismissed a counterfeiting charge against Chalabi, but The New York Times says Chalabi is still “fighting for his political future.”
For its part, the Times printed a mea culpa, admitting that reporter Judith Miller and others had been duped by Chalabi and had written faulty stories about weapons of mass destruction.
The paper wrote that the Bush administration had been fooled as well.
While Chalabi is fighting off accusations, however, Brownback is cruising to re-election.
And he hasn’t given up on a proposal he put forward shortly after victory was declared in Iraq.
In May 2003, Brownback proposed the Iran Democracy Act, which would have provided $50 million to Iranian opposition groups, mostly to support radio and television broadcasts into that country.
“As we proceed through the difficult task of establishing an open society in Iraq and fighting terrorist networks around the world, it is crucial that American policymakers understand the role Iran is playing in that region,” Brownback said at the time. “Now is not the time to coddle this terrorist regime. Now is the time to stand firm and support the people of Iran — who are the only ones that can win this important battle.”
The proposal failed to pass in Congress, but for those who pay attention to the Middle East, it held eerie parallels. As he did for Iraq, Brownback wants to fund dissident groups, in the hopes they will overthrow their country’s government.
“It seems to be the same script,” EPIC’s Gustafson says. And he adds that, as with Chalabi, Brownback may be relying on the advice of too few.
“There are people in the administration who would like to see Iran as the next target for regime change,” Yaphe says. “They believe Iran is ripe for revolution. It’s not.”
But that kind of Washington second-guessing doesn’t seem to have legs on the prairie.
Like his earlier talk in Franklin County, Brownback’s stump speech in little Garnett, population 3,500, goes without a hitch. The smooth senator easily handles several inquiries about health care and taxes.
Questions about Iraq don’t come up.
And no one thinks to ask about Iran, either.