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Howie Kurtz has a

Howie Kurtz has a piece today on the new conservative complaint that The New York Times is tossing aside whatever objectivity conservatives feel the Times has left to prevent a war against Iraq. The accused here, of course, is Times Executive Editor Howell Raines. I have no brief for Raines. His years of crusading against Bill Clinton from his perch as editor of the Times OpEd page makes my personal sense of him pretty much permanently negative. And I haven't paid sufficient systematic attention to the Times Iraq coverage to say definitively what tilt I think there might be. But this brouhaha over whether the Times distorted the position of Henry Kissinger to advance its own editorial line (portraying Kissinger as a critic of administration policy when in fact, say the conservatives, he was endorsing it) tells enough of the tale.

If you read the Kissinger piece and the Times article and you understand the terms of the debate you cannot help but conclude that the Times characterization of what Kissinger said is vastly more accurate than the characterization being peddled by conservative Iraq-hawks. In the Iraq debate, the attitude toward inspections is fundamental. The administration line -- emanating from the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President -- doesn't believe in them at all. Neither tactically nor strategically. The fact that Kissinger says we should start by "propos[ing] a stringent inspection system that achieves substantial transparency of Iraqi institutions" makes him, by definition, a critic of administration policy on a fundamental point.

What you have here is the fun-house episode in which Charles Krauthammer and others are tendentiously misconstruing what Kissinger said and then simultaneously falsely accusing Times writers of doing what he has in fact himself just done.

At the end of the day, Kissinger dissents from Bush's policy while Krauthammer says he supports it. If there's a contest for distortions here Krauthammer wins easily.

(First, let's deal with a few other points. In fairness to everyone in this debate one has to point out that Kissinger's piece was, as John Judis noted last week in TPM, intentionally muddy and opaque. It lends itself not so much to misinterpretations as self-serving interpretation. A la Krauthammer, et.al. Another point: the Times article everyone is discussing is the Purdum and Tyler piece from August 16th. The piece the next day by Elizabeth Bumiller -- which the critics also mention -- does use a shorthand (putting Kissinger in a "a group of Republicans who were warning him against going to war with Iraq") which glosses over much of what he said. But to make too much of this line -- after the Times discussed the fullness of what Kissinger said the day before -- would be to fall into Krauthammer's mau-mauing trap, scrutinizing every line in every Times piece when his own column is filled with mistatements, tendentious misconstruals, intentional ignoring of awkward data, and so forth.)

Now another point: when I talked with Kurtz yesterday for his article I said I thought the Times was doing a good thing by reporting on all the downsides of going to war with Iraq. Frankly, no one else is. Tucker Carlson got himself in an embarrassing moment yesterday on Crossfire when he got out-argued by the editor of the Village Voice on this Kissinger question. But recently he's been saying that elected Democrats have abdicated their responsibility by basically sitting out the debate over Iraq policy. And on this I'm sad to say I think he's right. By and large they're just not saying anything. That's too bad. Because the Democrats could help themselves and their country by outlining a policy for regime change which is not as amateurish and ill-considered as the one the administration is currently pursuing.

Next up, why it makes sense to push inspections first if you're serious about getting rid of Saddam and why someone should be telling the public about all the dangers involved in a strike against Iraq -- something which most of the hawks want to ignore.

Students of warfare will

Students of warfare will tell you that the stroke of actual violence is sometimes only the coup de grace. The build-up can be key: creating divisions in the enemy camp, sowing confusion and uncertainty with disinformation and propaganda, putting the enemy off-balance. Sun-Tzu has a slew of great aphorisms illustrating the point.

Unfortunately, those things seem to be happening here, in the United States, at least as much as in Iraq.

The Stratfor strategy intelligence site said yesterday that the White House is beginning a climb-down from its bellicose rhetoric on Iraq and looking for the least damaging way to do so. Or maybe not? The President has called a meeting of what amounts to his war cabinet down in Crawford, Texas on Wednesday. Officially, they're slated to talk about military 'transformation.' The personnel involved, however, make it look more like a meeting -- perhaps a key one -- on Iraq.

What's going on? Who knows? And that uncertainty applies to pretty much everything about administration Iraq policy right now. What we're doing, how we're going to do it, why we're going to do it. Everything.

The administration's approach to building up to this conflict turns out to be a reductio ad absurdum of its notorious addiction to secrecy. They say it's premature for the president to discuss why, when and how we might be going to war or what the costs might be because he has not yet made a decision about whether to do it at all. Until then, everything's under wraps. Yet this is belied by numerous statements that make the president's decision -- in favor of war -- seem quite clear. In fact, if the president hasn't made a decision he is making his country play the fool on the world stage since he and his advisors are clearly threatening war. Either he's not leveling with the country when he says he hasn't made a decision or he's engaging in a classic case of talking loudly and carrying a very little stick.

"I want him to make the case when he's decided to go in," said Ken Adelman this evening on Crossfire, summing up the administration line. "That will be the time to make the case." In other words, persuade the public after you've signed off on an attack. But this isn't persuasion or even explanation. It's just an announcement -- the presidential equivalent of a declaration of war.

You build support for a war policy so that you go into it with a unified nation behind you. You don't commit yourself and then go see if you can convince anyone that it's a good idea. In any case, the issue here isn't really a matter of the quality of the president's presentation. It's the palpable and widespread doubt that the president's team really knows what they're doing. They're working up their Iraq policy like they crafted the botched plan for the Department of Homeland Security, with a half dozen suits working away in secret in some windowless room in the White House, ready to spring the whole thing on the public fully formed, and then hope -- really hope -- that everyone is wowed into falling into line. Adelman again sums it up nicely: "I think that once the president ... says that we absolutely have to go in. ... I think that the view of Americans, 90 percent of Americans would say that's a very good thing." Truthfully, it's another example of the big bluff from the White House.

Let's be honest. There's a more logical explanation for the president's weird reluctance to talk details. The White House has walked very far out onto the plank committing itself to 'regime change' by war. If they have to climb down from that rhetoric now the country will be embarrassed and humiliated. At best they have tenuous support within the country. They have virtually no support anywhere else in the world. And to date they have no credible war plan that withstands both military and geopolitical scrutiny. Like Adelman, they say that once the president gives the go-ahead all of this will change. Keeping up the no-decision's-been-made charade puts off having to admit that that's not true.

What would David Dreier

What would David Dreier do without Osama bin Laden?

Harsh words? Perhaps. But painfully apt. David Dreier is the hail-fellow-well-met congressman from the small patch of LA suburbs where I grew up. Today he was on Wolf Blitzer's show debating the economy and the deficit with South Carolina Congressman John Spratt. Every time Spratt explained that the president's tax cut had created vast new federal deficits over the next decade (just as Democrats said it would) Dreier jumped in with a 'that was all before September 11th.' Clear meaning: the bleak fiscal picture is fallout from September 11th. Don't blame us.

But even White House budget analysts don't believe this. They say some 40% of the decline in the projected ten-year surplus is directly due to the president's tax cut -- numbers which are themselves likely understated. Spending on defense and homeland security is but a small part of the equation.

But isn't the recession responsible for the red ink, you might ask? Not a valid argument. Go back and look at the debates. The premise of the opposition was that the surplus numbers would fall substantially in the next economic downturn. A big tax cut on top of that would throw us back into the deficit era. As, indeed, it did. The central fact of politics today is that the president rammed through a tax cut which he said wouldn't create deficits. The opposition said it would. Now the evidence is in; the president was wrong; and the country is paying the price. Dreier and other administration apologists are trying to pass it off on Osama bin Laden. It's not true. They know it's not true. And it won't work. But there's no other argument left.

Can anyone now deny

Can anyone now deny that President Bush's $5.1 billion budget cut stunt was a political goof? Of course not. And now the president has to resort to transparent weaseling to try to recover. In response to ferocious criticism from the nation's firefighters' union ("Don't lionize our fallen brothers in one breath, and then stab us in the back ...") the president today tried to explain why he's cutting more than $300 million in funding for firefighters and ground zero rescue personnel. It's Congress's fault: "What [the firefighters] ought to be upset about is the fact that Congress tried to tie my hands. They said, 'You've got to spend $5 billion or none of the $5 billion.'" The clear sense of that remark is that the president would have supported the money for firefighters. But Congress forced his hand by lumping it in with a lot of other spending.

Unfortunately, this contradicts what the president said a mere three days ago. Back on Tuesday the president said that along with axing the $5.1 billion he would ask Congress to send him another bill to reinstate funds for "truly pressing needs and priorities" which he said were $200 million for AIDS prevention and $250 million to be divided between aid for Israel and aid for the Palestinians. Those were the priorities the president did want to spend on. The money for firemen wasn't one of them.

The whole budget cut stunt was just a snap decision to save the Economic Forum. They hadn't thought it through. Now they're in damage control. The president has to make stuff up. It's not a pretty picture.

Oh the indignity It

Oh the indignity! It appears Bernie Ebbers' name has finally been taken down off Trent Lott's Mississippi Wall of Fame. And he's apparently been replaced by ... Benji! He of canine fame.

P.S. Thanks to TPM reader "D" for the eagle eye.

And then there were

And then there were six! TPM readers know we're trying to find out which of the seven other congressmen who attended the Free Markets and Democracy conference in Doha, Qatar, in April 2001, went along with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to meet with the Taliban delegation and discuss Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan' for Afghanistan with then-Taliban Foreign Minister Muttawakil. According to several contemporaneous wire reports, other congressmen also joined in on the meeting. We've just heard back from Sununu campaign spokeswoman Barbara Riley and she tells us that Congressman Sununu -- who is currently challenging Senator Bob Smith for the Republican Senate nomination in New Hampshire -- did NOT attend the Rohrabacher-Muttawakil meeting. That leaves six other possibilities. Still no more details on the contents of Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan.' And still no response from the Bob Barr campaign to our repeated queries about whether he was one of the attendees at the Muttawakil meeting.

Just a brief update

Just a brief update on the washingtonpost.com's snatching the name of this website for its own DC-based, online, politics column. I have it on the best authority possible that the Post has received literally hundreds of emails about this. So again, thank you to everyone who's written in. A number of Posties have been kind enough to send along word about how embarrassed they are by their employer's behavior. Which is quite kind of them. Actually I'm just thankful they're still talking to me. I wondered for a while why I wasn't getting any response to my phone calls or emails. I mean, I know everyone is in Crawford and Waco and such. But what am I? Chopped liver? Okay, I guess the answer to that is yes. But still: Why no calls back? Then I discovered that relevant folks at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive (the corporate moniker of the Post website) had been given strict instructions not to talk to me, respond to my queries, emails, phone calls, morse code, smoke signals, what have you ... I kid you not. Apparently there was even some talk of sending Bob Woodward over with a baseball bat, a ragged phone cord, and a decapitated horse head. But they decided that might be too heavy-handed. (Okay, the part about Woodward is a joke. The rest is true.) Finally I got someone at the WPNI Communications Department who was authorized to talk with me. He told me that next week they are going to get all the relevant people at WPNI "around a table and have a smart conversation about it" and then after that they'll get back to me.

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