Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

What to make of

What to make of this flood of news about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

It is now being treated almost as a given that Zarqawi was behind the horrific wave of attacks that struck Baghdad and Karbala on Tuesday. Today, however, there is an unsubstantiated claim that Zarqawi was in fact killed during the war in early April. And on top of all this there's the report -- potentially explosive in a Washington context -- that the White House passed on several opportunities to take out Zarqawi and his group before the invasion because doing so would have weakened their case for going to war.

Let's take up the last point first.

According to this NBC News story, the Pentagon drew up plans to strike Zarqawi's outpost in the North several times. And each time those plans were rejected at the White House even though each appeared to hold a solid prospect of success and despite the fact the US was receiving increasing signs that Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam posed a serious terrorist threat.

Now, on his site today Andrew Sullivan writes: "I wonder how killing Zarqawi could have conceivably impeded our bid to topple Saddam."

Though Andrew and I often trade brickbats on our sites, that's not my intention in this case because I think he's giving this story just the seriousness it deserves. But I think there's a pretty obvious reason why eliminating Zarqawi could have slowed or impeded the drive for war.

To understand why, we've got to go back to the role Zarqawi and Ansar played in the administration's case for war.

As we've noted here many times, there was always a category difference between the White House's case on WMD and its case on Iraq's ties to al Qaida.

In brief, the first may have been debatable and exaggerated, but the second seldom rose above the level of ridiculousness. Yet to the extent that the White House had any argument about terrorist ties, Zarqawi and Ansar were at the center of it.

Let's remember what the argument was.

Ansar was a Sunni Islamist terrorist group operating from Iraqi Kurdistan which had ties of some sort and degree with al Qaida. Zarqawi, a Jordanian national and accomplished terrorist bad guy, had set up shop with Ansar and he too was affiliated with al Qaida -- though again the degree and closeness of the connection is a matter of some controversy . To add to the storyline, Zarqawi had apparently been to Baghdad for medical treatment.

So Zarqawi and Ansar were in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus they were 'in Iraq'. And they were linked to al Qaida. So al Qaida was 'in Iraq'. That was the argument.

Now, there was a pretty big problem with this argument. Namely, the US and the UK had made Iraqi Kurdistan into a virtual Anglo-American protectorate through its no-fly zones which kept not only Iraqi air power but basically all of Saddam's forces out of the region. The Kurds themselves had already set up a de facto government, though the region where Ansar was operating from was one they didn't control.

In other words, saying Ansar was operating out of Iraq was deeply misleading in anything other than a narrowly geographical sense since Ansar was operating from area we had taken from Saddam's control. Saddam might as credibly -- perhaps more credibly -- have charged us with harboring Ansar as vice versa.

(A side note: various Iraq hawks have alleged that Saddam's secret police were in contact with or even controlling Ansar. And it's true that Saddam and Ansar had a common enemy: the pro-American Kurdish parties. But I've never seen any credible evidence to persuade me of such links.)

In any case, to review, using Ansar and Zarqawi as proof of a Saddam-al Qaida link had serious evidentiary and logical problems. But that didn't stop the White House from making it a centerpiece of their argument -- as Colin Powell did during his presentation at the UN.

In the immediate lead-up to the war there were various parts of the White House's argument for war that were becoming weaker by the day. That, after all, was what was happening with the inspectors themselves who were, in the weeks and months just before the war, generating lots of new evidence that threw many of the earlier suspicions of WMD into real doubt -- particularly on the nuclear front.

The reports we have now about the White House's refusal to move against Zarqawi are still incomplete. And I think we've got to keep open the possibility that there were military or diplomatic restraints we were operating under that are not yet clear.

But if the reports bear out, the White House's reasons for not moving against Zarqawi when we could have don't seem to require much explanation. If we got rid of Zarqawi and Ansar the much-trumpeted Iraq-al Qaida, already so profoundly tenuous, would have collapsed altogether. To put it bluntly, we needed Zarqawi and Ansar.

That would mean it was a political decision -- one intended to aid in convincing the American people of the necessity of war -- for which we are now paying a grave price.

Later, we'll discuss why I'm still not entirely convinced that Zarqawi is behind all these recent attacks.

So now Oklahoma Congressman

So now Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole is telling constituents that voting against President Bush this November is like supporting Hitler during World War II.

He also apparently told a Republican audience recently that "If George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election."

Presumably, we need to vote for President Bush because otherwise we'd be saddled with those hateful, hating, hating, hating Democrats who have no understanding of what civility in politics is all about.

The report about these statements comes from the website of news radio station in Oklahoma City (Newsradio 1000 KTOK). And they appear to be going from an article in a local newspaper, The Yukon Review.

This morning I called Congressman Cole's office in Washington to get some confirmation on these quotes and see if Cole stood by them.

The press aide I spoke to in Cole's office noted that KTOK's reference to Cole's Hitler comparison was in fact a "paraphrase" rather than a direct quote, and that the office was trying to find out more about precisely what the congressman had said.

A new poll out

A new poll out from Pew: Kerry 48%, Bush 44% among registered voters. There's an extensive discussion of the internals from the poll here.

Two weeks ago I

Two weeks ago, I shared with you the<$Ad$> possibility that the long-brewing controversy over those pilfered Democratic Judiciary Committee staff memos could lead to an investigation of the White House Counsel's office. (The earlier post covers all the details of how this could come to pass.)

Now, last week four Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee (Durbin, Leahy, Kennedy and Schumer) wrote White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales with a series of detailed and pointed questions all of which focused on whether the White House had any knowledge of the pilfering or involvement in it and whether they had made use of those pilfered memos in any way.

One of the questions dealt with whether any outside groups had been the conduits for passing pilfered files to the Counsel's office ...

Did you or anyone who has served in your office or at the White House receive from C. Boyden Gray, Sean Rushton, Kay Daly, the Committee for Justice, the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary or any other intermediary any of the computer files of Democratic Senators or their staffs or information derived from those files?


Now, last week I called the Committee for Justice and asked Executive Director Sean Rushton whether he or anyone else at the Committee had known about the accessing of the Democratic staff memos prior to last November when the first published reports surfaced. He answered with a flat "no".

I also asked whether any of the memos had come into the Committee's possession prior to last November. And he again answered with a flat "no".

But yesterday Gonzales responded to the Democratic Senators' letter and he was far more equivocal when he spoke for the Counsel's Office and the White House staff. If it's not a classic example of a non-denial denial, it's definitely the well-chosen phrasing of someone who's far from ready to deny that his office was involved in the theft of these files.

The Boston Globe this morning reported Gonzales' response thusly ...

Gonzales, replying yesterday in a letter to Leahy, said he was aware of no "credible allegation" of White House involvement in the incident, so no investigation has been made. He said he "respectfully, but categorically, reject the statement in your letter" that administration actions contributed to the atmosphere around the files controversy.


But I think that doesn't do justice to the full measure of equivocation and obfuscation.

Here are the two paragraphs from Gonzales' letter in which he responds to the Senators' detailed questions about possible White House involvement ...

As I explained, I am not aware of any credible allegation of White House involvement in this matter. Consequently, there has been no White House investigation or effort to determine whether anyone at the White House was aware of or involved in these activities.

As I also advised you, I have no personal knowledge that any such computer files or the documents they may have contained were provided to our office or to others at the White House. So far as I know, moreover, neither my staff nor others at the White House were aware of activity by the Judiciary Committee staff or other Senate employees such as they alleged in public reports on this matter.


I have no personal knowledge ... so far as i know ... rather less than unequivocal, isn't it?

Maybe this gets added to the list of investigations hanging over the White House's collective head.

If you look at

If you look at the TV ads the president just unveiled today, you quickly see a main -- probably the main -- theme of his reelection campaign: it's not my fault.

Yes, there are all sort of bad things going on. The economy's been rough. The deficit is deepening. Job growth is barely registering. There's all sorts of chaos on the international stage. But it's not my fault. When I got here there was a recession already, which I didn't have anything to do with. That was Clinton's fault. And the same with all the corporate scandals. And then Osama bin Laden got involved and that wasn't my fault either. And that Iraq thing didn't completely work out. But that's the CIA's fault. So if there's anything that's bad now it's not because of anything I did. It's because of 9/11. And if it's not because of 9/11 then it was already broken when I got here. So don't blame me.

Now, I think that does pretty much sum up what the president and the White House are telling the public. But it's important to draw back and recognize that up until this point that argument has largely worked. Now, however, I think people are beginning to question the argument.

By most objective measures, economic and international indicators of national well-being have been fair to bad for most of George Bush's term of office. But for much of that time we were in either the immediate aftermath of 9/11, building up to war, or in the aftermath of war.

If you were to plop down in late 1943, for instance, you could point to all sorts of negative signs -- rising deficits, crises abroad, etc. But Franklin Roosevelt would have said, quite plausibly, that we'd been attacked at Pearl Harbor, we were fighting a two front war across two oceans, and that things might well get worse before they got better.

Now, I don't think that's a remotely reasonably analogy. But it is the argument the Bush White House has been making for some two years. And it's had a lot of success with it. Everything that's bad has been framed as fall-out from 9/11 or our response to 9/11.

What we're seeing now is that these two things -- 9/11 and the current state of the country -- are coming unhinged in the public mind. If they stay unhinged, President Bush looks less like a 'war president' than a president who just won't take responsibility for anything that happens on his watch.

Thus the new ads, the message of which might fairly be summed up as "It's midnight in America. But if the Democrats were in, the sun might never come up!"

Is it possible that

Is it possible that Larry King has the worst election panel in the history of the universe?

I mean, imagine having the benefit of the variety of perspectives and ideological viewpoints represented by Larry, Bob Dole and Bob Woodward -- each repeating the mind-numbingly obvious with that extra little something.

Anyway, enough of that.

I flipped on the TV this evening around 9 PM and caught the bulk of John Kerry's speech, in effect, accepting the Democratic nomination.

I thought it was a very solid speech, principally because he took on issues like the gay marriage amendment head-on -- not on the president's terms, but on his own. The president is desperate, he argued, and because he can't run clearly on the economy or foreign policy he's opting to muck up the nation's founding political document for narrow and momentary political purposes.

Certainly, that message won't resonate with confirmed Bush supporters. But I believe it will resonate even with many who strongly oppose gay marriage. That's because it plays to what should, and I believe will, be a central theme of this election: that the Bush administration has been a for-the-moment and for-itself operation, burning through the resources of tomorrow and the hard-acquired inheritance of the past to service the political needs -- its political needs -- of the present.

One more thought about Kerry.

I've long been an admirer of John Kerry's. And let me explain one of the sources of that admiration, or one of the experiences that formed it.

In 1996 I was a graduate student in Rhode Island. And given the puny size of Rhode Island and the way the media markets work in the region, that basically meant I was in a Massachusetts media market for Kerry's reelection campaign that year against then-governor William Weld.

Now, Massachusetts is certainly a congenial state to run in for Democrats, especially in federal elections. But to understand the dynamics of that race it's crucial to understand that Kerry has never been an institution in Massachusetts politics and that Weld, at the time, was extraordinarily popular.

I don't have the exact stats in front of me. But he won reelection two years earlier, in 1994, by I believe something like 71% of the vote.

The Kerry-Weld race was supposed to be, and in many respects was, the fight of Kerry's political life. And going into it there was good reason to believe that Kerry would lose. But he kept in it and fought and fought and fought and eventually won the race. His persistence and tenacity were impressive.

By national standards, it was a pretty clean race. But it was extraordinarily hard-fought. And since then Kerry's always struck me as someone who was a fighter, someone who'd never give up, give in, let himself get hit without fighting back or flag in the home stretch.

That gives me some confidence about this race.

Another source of confidence I have stems from a briefing of sorts I heard last week summarizing the White House's outlook and strategy for the coming campaign. After hearing it, I came away thinking that they're in a serious state of denial about how this election is shaping up.

Just a thought on

Just a thought on these horrific coordinated bombings today in Iraq.

Americans have become numbed over the last eight months or so by the sheer regularity of the carnage from the various suicide bombing attacks in Iraq.

The Ashura attacks today have been major news in the United States. But they haven't driven various other stories from the headlines. And I think it's easy to understate their significance.

Just consider one crude measure.

We don't know yet the exact death toll from these attacks. And it may be some time before we do. But the New York Times has an estimate tonight placing the number of dead at 170.

Iraq has a population of just under 25 million. The United States is home to a tad over 290 million. In other words, there are well over ten times as many Americans as Iraqis.

So, to get a feel for the impact of these attacks on the country, the number of people who lost loved ones, know others who did, and so forth, multiply that death toll by 11 or 12 times in order to get a feel for the number in American terms.

A good ballpark point of comparison is what it would be like to have around 2000 people killed in one day in this country. And, of course, that's not that different from the 3000 who were killed here on September 11th.

Out of the mouths

Out of the mouths of babes.

Or not so babes ...

If the Democratic policies had been pursued over the last two or three years, the kind of tax increases that both Kerry and Edwards have talked about, we would not have had the kind of job growth that we've had.


That was Dick Cheney today <$Ad$>on how much worse things would have been if the Democrats had been in instead of Bush.

Now, where to start on this?

First of all Cheney seems to be caught in some sort of weird mental causality loop since what Kerry and Edwards support is a repeal of the 2001 Bush tax cuts (or most of them). So if their policies had been pursued over the last three years that means that the cuts simply never would have happpened at all, not that there would have been big tax increases.

More to the point, did Cheney really intend to say that without the President's policies "we would not have had the kind of job growth (i.e., negative job growth) that we've had."

Will someone ever straighten this guy out?

Drats So close and

Drats! So close, and yet so far.

I had some hope that we might break through half a million unique visitors on TPM in February. But we came up just short.

Unique visitors 496,527; unique visits 2,077,729; page views 2,832,707.

There's always next month.

(As always, a sincere thank you to all the site's readers.)

Friends Im just checking

Friends, I'm just checking my emails here late on Monday afternoon and I've noticed a number of them asking whether I'm okay and if anything is amiss since there've been no new posts for the last three days.

In brief, nothing is amiss.

At the moment, I'm hurtling down the Northeast corridor on an Amtrak train bound for DC and will be getting back to TPM world headquaters mid-evening.

It took me about thirty-five years to get around to it, but this weekend I went skiing for the first time in my life. Why I'd never done it before I'm not precisely sure, since I grew up in a part of Southern California where there were skiable mountains no more than a fifteen minute drive from my house. Maybe it was a family thing or that we just didn't have much money. But I'd just never given the idea too much thought until my girlfriend suggested it about a month or so ago.

In any case, before getting even my ski boots on the snow I had half sketched out in my head all manner of self-mocking riffs about spending the weekend falling down in place trying to stand on my skis, with some frustrated, hapless ski instructor trying to explain to me how it was all done.

But, improbably enough, I ended up being halfway decent at it and managed -- on my last run on the second day -- to go down the entire mountain without falling one time.

Now, having grown up in Southern California, it's a little hard to call this thing we were on a 'mountain' and, sure, the trails I made my way down on were the ones marked green for feeble beginners. But those are secondary details we really don't need to go into or concern ourselves with.

In any case, once I learned to control my rate of descent -- something which I heartily recommend to the president, by the way -- I found myself really liking it.

More later this evening on the turning tide on Capitol Hill, the latest intel revelations, and more.

LiveWire