In January 2004, President Bush gave his State of the Union speech. Part of the address was about the war on Iraq. Afterward, many pointed out that Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) was seated in the gallery right behind First Lady Laura Bush. Commentators took that as an endorsement by the White House. In fact, despite many in the administration being fans of the INC, the President felt the exact opposite. Bush did not believe that Chalabi should be the next ruler of Iraq.
Ahmed Chalabi at the 2004 State of the Union standing in the back left next to Foreign Minister Zebari back right, front row center First Lady Bush, front row right Iraqi President Pachachi (White House)
Originally, Ahmad Chalabi was not supposed to attend the State of the Union. When he found out that the Adnan Pachachi, who was then the president of the Iraqi Governing Council, was going, Chalabi added himself to the entourage. At the event, Chalabi was seated next to Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, and right behind First Lady Laura Bush. During the speech, the President said, “And tonight we are honored to welcome one of Iraq’s most respectable leaders, the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi.” One TV cameraman then confused Chalabi for Pachachi, and gave the former a close-up. The next day, at a meeting of the National Security Council, the President asked Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage how Chalabi got into the speech. Armitage said he didn’t know, and neither did anyone else at the meeting. Bush was perturbed, because he did not like Chalabi, and did not think that he should have been there.
The press immediately seized upon Chalabi’s appearance. Five months later for instance, Ray Suarez of PBS’ Newshour said, “As recently as January, Ahmad Chalabi held a place of honor at President Bush’s State of the Union address. The former Iraqi exile was seated just behind the first lady.” This fed upon all the stories that had already come out about members of the administration promoting Chalabi to take over Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. At the top of that list was Vice President Dick Cheney. Others included Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle, and Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Scooter Libby. Since the late-1990s, Chalabi had been courting members of the Republican Party, and when President Bush was elected it seemed like that work paid off. He had several high-level members of the new administration supporting him, and he believed that was a means to gaining power in Iraq. These feelings were widely known throughout the media, which was why they all took Chalabi sitting behind the First Lady as just another example of how the White House backed the INC.
The truth of the matter was far different. Rather than being a supporter of Ahmed Chalabi, the President was consistently critical of him. In January 2003 for instance, Bush said that Iraqi exiles would not rule Iraq after the invasion. In March at a meeting of the National Security Council the President reiterated that point by saying, “The people in Iraq have suffered under Saddam Hussein, and they will have some resentment towards those Iraqis that were outside the country during Saddam’s rule.” Bush later stated that he was not going to pick the new leader of Iraq. That same month, Bush complained about American support for Chalabi. He told Rumsfeld that the U.S. assistance to the INC should be stopped. After the invasion, people like Feith would blame the State Department and Perle the CIA for not supporting Chalabi, and claimed that was a reason why things went so bad immediately after the fall of Saddam. They never acknowledged that Chalabi lacked the approval of the most important person, the President of the United States.
Rather than being a sign of support, Ahmad Chalabi’s appearance at the January 2004 State of the Union speech was an act of opportunity. Chalabi attached himself to Adnan Pachachi's delegation, and by accident was shown on American TV. Because so many prominent members of the Bush administration were advocates for Chalabi, the press thought that he was supposed to be at the event. Instead, the President was a constant critic of the Iraqi National Congress, and did not want him to take power after the 2003 invasion. Very few seemed to notice that fact even to this day. That’s why those for and against Chalabi still accuse each other for the problems with Iraq. They overplay the role of the INC, and oddly overlook the centrality of the President in decision-making.
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