Book Review: The Man Who Pushed America to War

Who is Ahmad Chalabi, really? A scheming manipulator, a corrupt businessman, a political visionary, or all of the above?

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi, By Aram Roston. Nation Books, $27.50.

Who is Ahmad Chalabi, really? A scheming manipulator, a corrupt businessman, a political visionary, or all of the above? In The Man Who Pushed America to War, Roston, an Emmy-winning investigative reporter, tries to solve the riddle of the man who would have been president of Iraq and how he captivated neoconservatives with his vision of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East.

Much of Chalabi’s story is well known (see “Heroes in Error” in the March/April 2006 issue of Mother Jones), but Roston weaves its disparate parts into a coherent narrative. He follows Chalabi through his various incarnations, starting as the brainy, exiled son of Baghdad’s ruling elite who headed his family’s international business empire. Roston provides an overdue explanation of how Chalabi treated his Petra Bank as a private slush fund, fleeing into the night when his embezzlement was discovered by Jordanian authorities. Next came Chalabi the dissident, the Iraqi National Congress head who devoted his every waking moment to guiding America into war with Saddam. Finally, we meet today’s Chalabi: Rejected by his American patrons and allied with Shiite warlord Moqtada al-Sadr, he’s a floundering has-been. (Or is he?)

More than just a biography of a chameleon, Roston’s book is a fascinating, if dispiriting, look at the mechanics of power in Washington. Time and again, Chalabi, “an extraordinary dining companion,” wins the loyalties of key political players by sheer force of personality. (Chalabi’s gustatory skills are presumably the reason for the book’s bizarre focus on his undulating waistline and his enthusiasm for the Atkins diet.) Despite parsing the minutiae of his bloated ambition, Roston never nails down a satisfactory answer for what really drives Chalabi. But this portrait will surely be recognizable to those who fell into Chalabi’s orbit, not realizing their mistake until it was too late.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest