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May 18, 2005 6:29 pm

The American Chalabi

It finally hit me who Chalabi's American counterpart was. James Wilkinson, the duplicitous head of the army in the 1790s who collected a salary from Spain while he was also on the US payroll. Most Americans have heard nothing about him. That's too bad. It's helpful to remember the scalawags from history. And Wilkinson was one of the greatest. Among his sins was that he conspired with Aaron Burr to detach several western states in a crazy plot that was to end with Burr's naming himself leader of the West (including Mexico!). This at any rate is what Burr's enemies alleged. Whatever the truth, Wilkinson was a bad egg.

In the 1970s I was working for a brief time for the Jackson Papers Project. Harriet Owsley, the widow of celebrated Southern historian Frank Owsley, was working in the office as a key editor. One day Wilkinson's name came up. She hissed when speaking his name.

It is worth remembering that we had a Wilkinson as we watch events unfold in Iraq. It is particularly important when considering the strange career of Chalabi. His up/down/up again mercurial career both astonishes and appalls. But we shouldn't be too shocked. Characters like him came along in our own salad days.

Like Chalabi, Wilkinson kept popping up again and again despite the mud coming off his boots because he was, like Chalabi, scheming, ambitious and lucky. By all counts he should have been washed up when he became entangled with Burr; at the least he should have been cashiered from the army. But Jefferson kept him on because a fight just then with Wilkinson would have proved damaging to the national administration. So instead of going down in history as another Benedict Arnold Wilkinson went down as a minor leader of the Revolution and was largely forgotten.

Chalabi should be so lucky.

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