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On the off chance

On the off chance that you woke up this morning in too buoyant a mood and need to get depressed really quickly, then you won't want to miss this piece ("Officials Argue for Fast U.S. Exit From Iraq") in Monday's Washington Post.

As the title implies, the article is built around blind quotes from various senior administration officials arguing that we should, after all, try to get out of Iraq as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

It's true that this is the kind of piece you put together by going to every administration official who's eager for an early exit. But the fact that the author apparently got so much material from 'senior' administration officials is a very bad sign.

Here's just a listing of some of the choicest quotes and snippets ...

Senior administration official on the post-war plan: "I don't think it has to be expensive, and I don't think it has to be lengthy. Americans do everything fairly quickly."

...

Senior administration official: "The president's goal is to leave Iraq on the road to prosperity and security and democracy -- or at least give them a fighting chance of it."

...

Former Sec Def James R. Schlesinger: "This is going to be a very tricky course that we are on. Many people who have the right vision about what should be accomplished do not, as of now, recognize how much of a commitment in time as well as money this is going to require."

...

Pentagon and White House officials disagree with such warnings. One senior defense official questioned whether 75,000 troops would be needed even in the near future, saying the U.S. military force that deposed Hussein's government was not much larger. Some government functions could be turned over to an interim Iraqi government in a matter of months, the official said. Even the need for a new Iraqi military force could be obviated by moving U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters south toward Baghdad, the official suggested.

You only have to study Iraq for about an hour and a half to understand that the idea of turning the policing of Baghdad over to Kurdish peshmergas is just a tragic joke.

The subtext of the whole piece is, "It's gonna cost a lot more than we thought, it looks really complicated, so let's just give them a good running start, send over a few water purifiers, and then get the hell out."

What's so depressing about this article is that none of the difficulties which are now carted out as excuses for pulling out quick were at all unexpected. For months, reluctant hawks were saying, 'Yes, go in, but only if you're willing to commit to the sort of long, expensive effort that can insure a good outcome.'

At least some senior administration officials seem willing to toss aside all the grand rhetoric just a couple weeks after the major battles stopped. Just to complete the morality tale, the ones now holding out for a concerted push for reconstruction and democratization are the folks at the State Department -- the ones the hawks at the Pentagon long accused of opposing efforts to democratize Iraq.

It's hard to read this article and not get the sense that at least some big players in the administration had never really thought seriously about what they were getting us into. Or, if not that, that they're cynical almost beyond measure. I always feared that we'd get into Iraq on the sparkling vision of Paul Wolfowitz and then govern it with ethics of Richard Perle and the parsimony of Mitch Daniels.

If this article is any sign ... well, you know the rest.

At a Passover seder

At a Passover seder a few days ago I was talking to an Israeli emigre who told me there was a long-abandoned oil pipeline connecting the Iraqi city of Mosul to the Israeli port city in Haifa. The pipeline was built by the British in the 1930s and 1940s. But it was shut down in 1948 when the Brits quit Palestine and the state of Israel was born. It's sat unused for more than half a century.

The implications of reopening such a pipeline under the auspices of a pro-American Iraqi government were obvious to me immediately. But I didn't know if the idea had yet gotten much serious attention.

It turns out that it has. Quite a lot, actually. The issue was first raised by Israel's Minister of National Infrastructure at the end of March. His comments were reported in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. Here's a more recent piece from Janes (the British defense industry news publisher) and another in Sunday's Guardian.

The Guardian piece not only confirms that this is being actively discussed in Israel, but also that the Israelis are discussing it with US administration officials as well as members of Ahmed Chalabi's INC. (Add to this, Richard Perle's statement last month that Chalabi "and his people have confirmed that they want a real peace process, and that they would recognize the state of Israel. There is no doubt about that if they come to power."

This captures what's at the heart of my deepest misgivings about this whole endeavor we're now embarked upon: fatal overreach on the part of American policy-makers. It's an overreach with multiple causes, none of which will lead to anything good.

I'd like nothing better than to see a pro-Israeli government in Baghdad. It would be great if they could start pumping oil from Mosul through Jordan to Haifa. Same goes for a "real peace process." But what is the chance of any of these things happening in the short term and the new government of Iraq actually being democratic?

What sort of government in the Arab world, born of what is at best the iffy origin of an American invasion, would kick things off by establishing warm relations with Israel and opening a pipeline to sell Iraqi oil to the Israelis? The answer, I'd imagine, is one that won't last a second longer than American troops are on the ground.

There are those who think that Arab hostility toward Israel is largely the product of corrupt, authoritarian governments that divert popular unrest into rage against Israel. I think there's a degree of truth to that argument. But even if you grant the point, which I do only to a limited degree, it's still quite possible that that antipathy will persist long after the corrupt, authoritarian governments who fed it leave the scene.

It's already clear that our credibility and Arab perceptions of our motives are extremely poor. To make this democratization project work, we will really have to be, as the old-timers say, purer than Caesar's wife. If we treat Iraq simultaneously as a democratization project and as grab-bag to fill out our geopolitical wish list, then we're heading for disaster.

We hear a lot, and rightly so, that this effort is going to require patience. Usually that's meant in the sense of patience to stay involved in Iraq's affairs for a very long time. But we're just as much in need of patience to achieve our most desired ends in the region. If we don't have it, if we try to squeeze this orange for every quick advantage, we really are heading for disaster.

There is a role

"There is a role for the Islamic religious parties, including Shia religious parties," said Ahmed Chalabi this morning on ABC, "because they have some constituencies. But they are not going to be forcing any agenda or any theocracy on the Iraqi people."

Some constituencies ...

I don't how large the Shi'a parties' constituencies are. The answer likely turns largely on definitions. Are we talking about Shi'a parties based largely on group identification or those committed to the imposition of a theocratic state?

Whatever the answer to that question, what's clear is that they have some constituency in the country and that Ahmed Chalabi has no constituency in the country -- so long as you exclude the several hundred who flew into the country a couple weeks ago. And yet he's the one we're hearing from.

To the extent that he gains a constituency it will likely be by leveraging his connections to American capital and political players. (The fairly consistent report from journalists on the ground is generalized Iraqi resistance to leadership by exiles who've spent most of their lives outside of the country -- a phrase that is quickly becoming a code-word for Ahmed Chalabi.)

Ironically, this is a replay of the last dozen years. Through the 1990s, Chalabi had very little support in the Iraqi exile community -- let alone in Iraq. The key exile groups maintained their membership in Chalabi's group, the Iraqi National Congress, largely because he was a conduit for money and access to the US government. The INC billed itself as the umbrella group representing the breadth of the opposition, when in fact it had become little more than a shell. The other groups, nominally joined under the INC umbrella, began meeting in separate ad-hoc arrangements for precisely the purpose of sidelining Chalabi.

Chalabi advocates claim this was the work of the State Department, trying to undermine Chalabi. And there's some truth to this. But to the degree it was true it was largely because they believed he was an obstacle to getting the rest of the groups together to actually do something beside lobby Washington (we'll discuss later why State and the CIA don't like Chalabi).

Now the US media (and perhaps various players in government circles) seem to be falling into the old trap -- giving disproportionate weight to Chalabi because he speaks good English (and talks -- more broadly -- the language of the West) and has a thick 202 area code rolodex.

Just a short note

Just a short note on the WMD search. Here's a clip from an article at Time.com ...

The failure to turn up anything to date raises two possibilities, neither one good, says Joseph Cirincione, chief of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "It may be that there aren't as many weapons as the President said, in which case we have a major intelligence failure, a huge embarrassment for the President and a huge blow to U.S. credibility—and that's the good news," he says. "The other option is that there are as many weapons as the President feared, and they're no longer under anyone's control."
That sounds like a distressingly good point. But as these searches go on it seems to me that it would be terribly misguided not to bring the UN inspectors back into the country. Since we fought a war to get at Iraq's WMD there's no reason why we shouldn't run the search entirely to our own liking and dictates and to suit our own needs. But having the UN inspectors there along for the ride, as it were, will serve a critical function: namely, giving the search credibility.

Now that we've had a few false alarms with would-be WMD finds, when we do come up with something there will be lots of people around the world who will think we planted whatever we find. Frankly, not a few people in this country will be suspicious. Whether that's fair, or reasonable, or rational is really beside the point. If and when we find this stuff it will be critical to our interests and goals that as many people as possible believe us. At the moment, having some of the UN inspectors involved seems like a good way of accomplishing that. And I haven't yet heard what the downside would be -- save for pique and payback.

Here is a key

Here is a key part of America's strategic vision for Iraq coming into focus. According to this article in The New York Times, the Pentagon is expecting to secure long-term access to four key Iraqi military bases. One's near Baghdad; the others are near Nasiriya, the pipeline leading to the Jordanian border, and in Iraqi Kurdistan. As we've noted earlier, Iraq is quite literally in the center of the Middle East. It borders almost every major country in the region. And isn't that far from the two others -- Israel and Egypt. (Remember, we've also secured a series of robust basing arrangements with several of the tiny emirates that line the Arabian Peninsula.

Consider how this changes our reliance upon and stance toward the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In addition to their oil, much of our security relationship with the Saudis has been based on our need to project force against and counterbalance Iraq and Iran. With the Iraqi government out of the picture, our need to counterbalance them disappears. And if you want to project force against or counterbalance Iran, Iraq is a much better place to do it from than Saudi Arabia.

What this adds up to is that most, if not all, of our geostrategic interest in Saudi Arabia evaporated over the last month. If the Saudis give us grief or won't cut off terror money to various bad-actors we have a much freer hand to squeeze them.

Of course, they still have the biggest amount of oil, which is no small matter. But even some of that leverage may be fleeting. I'm not writing from home this evening. So I don't have access to the precise percentages. But Iraq's known oil reserves are quite large. And it is widely believed that if the country's oil industry (which has been in a dilapidated state for many years) was opened up to more modernized, state-of-the-art technology, those reserves could actually turn out to be much greater than is currently known.

What this means is that while Iraq's reserves may never be as great as Saudi Arabia's, they may be large enough to diminish some of the Saudis' commanding hand over the international oil market.

Now, combine all this with the fact that many in the Bush administration (and out of the Bush administration, for that matter) think that Saudi Arabia is the ground zero of international terrorism, the terror purveyor state par excellence. To this point, our ability to muscle the Saudis on the terror question or even undermine the regime itself has always been limited by our need for their assistance geostrategically. But if the administration gets what it wants in Iraq, all of that changes.

Let me make a

Let me make a few quick points about the response to my article "Practice to Deceive."

A number of critics (some friendly, some not-so-friendly) have criticized my contention that there was anything deceptive or disingenuous about how the White House brought the nation into this war.

A number have made the specific argument that I can hardly claim that there's a 'secret plan' or a 'conspiracy' afoot when I buttress my argument with on-the-record quotes from various of the players -- Richard Perle, Ken Adelman, Max Boot, et al. This argument is neatly summed up in a comment yesterday by James Taranto and even more crisply in a single sentence last week from Jonah Goldberg.

"If this is a secret plan," says Goldberg, "how did Josh Marshall stumble on it? Marshall's proof that there is a secret plan afoot actually derives from on-the-record quotes and public statements."

The only problem with this logic is that I never used phrases like "secret plan" or "conspiracy." So the logic of Goldberg's point amounts to trying to catch me out on the contradictions between what he and others say I said and quotes of what I actually said. If there's a contradiction, somehow the barb seems to point toward them and not me.

As a general matter, calling an argument like mine a 'conspiracy theory' is sort of a poor-man's way of knocking an argument down a few pegs without providing any rationale for why it should be knocked down a few pegs. Goldberg peppers his critique with asides to how I say this is all the work of a secret cabal or that I say the president is a dupe, when in fact there's nothing in the article which supports any of that. Taranto bases a substantial portion of his interpretation of my argument on the title of the piece and the cover design of that issue of The Washington Monthly. That makes no sense. Every journalist knows that an author seldom gets much say over the title of his article and none at all on the magazine's cover art. That doesn't mean I have any beef with either, just that you interpret an article's meaning based on the text of the article, period.

However that may be, I think the whole argument that I'm wrong on the deception point actually collapses under the crushing weight of its own insubstantiality. The great need to refute this argument virtually confirms the impossibility of its refutation.

Here's why. What if I said, 'The President passed a huge tax cut. But he kept from everyone that he thinks it'll spur economic growth!!' Or maybe, 'Sure the president wants to build a national missile defense, but he's not telling anyone that it's intended to knock down limited missile attacks from rogue states!!' No one would respond. And they certainly wouldn't get bent out of shape about it. They wouldn't even care. Why? Because no one feels accused if they're alleged not to have told people something that everyone actually already knows.

An informed citizen may not have the access to the president's advisors to gauge their strategic vision. But the public at large is extremely well-placed to judge what the president has or has not shared with the public.

The most common critical response to my piece has been like that put forward yesterday by Taranto in Wall Street Journal Online: basic agreement on what I argue is the broader plan of which the Iraq war is one part, but sharp disagreement on whether or not this has been made clear to the public. He makes references to statements that he says show the president being quite open about all of this. He cites, for instance, the president's February speech on Iraqi democracy at the American Enterprise Institute in which the president said (the ellipses are Taranto's) ...

A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. . . . The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. . . . A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.
Frankly, I don't think even statements like that count for much, as vague as they are, and as drowned out as they were by discussions of Iraqi WMD and the regime's alleged ties to al Qaida. But as I said above, I think the very need to find such quotes makes my case rather than refutes it.

Last week I went

Last week I went to a lunch meeting in DC on the same day that statue of Saddam came crashing to the ground.

At the lunch a well-known conservative columnist introduced one of speakers, a well-known liberal columnist, on what he called "the day [the liberal's] worldview was collapsing." By that measure I assume that today's news that, as The Washington Post puts it, "Tens of thousands of Iraqi Muslims took to the streets of Baghdad after Friday prayers ... to demand the departure of U.S. and other foreign troops and the establishment of an Islamic state" should cause at least some creaking in the conservative columnist's worldview as well, no? He was good-hearted about it, but good-hearted in the sort of way that people who know they're right can afford to be good-hearted.

Don't get me wrong. Iraq is a country of some twenty-four million people. It shouldn't surprise us that a few tens of thousands can be mobilized to support the withdrawal of American troops and the creation of an Islamic state. (Their chants were "No Bush, No Saddam, Yes to Islam," and "No to America, No to Secular State, Yes to Islamic State".) Nor is that fact at all incompatible with a successful conclusion to our efforts to build a democracy in the country.

But it should be a sober reminder to everyone that none of this is going to be settled by one day of good or bad photo-ops. The die is cast. Like it or not, the fate of America and Iraq are now fastened together for at least several years. I don't pretend to know how it's going to turn out. But the one thing I think we can be confident of is that none of us are going to emerge from this with our hubris intact.

For anyone who thought

For anyone who thought the Iraq war had cowed the North Koreans into compliance, today's news may come as a rude awakening. As TPM noted yesterday, China's role in the trilateral talks about to start in Beijing looks as much like that of a host as that of a participant. And now, prior to the talks getting underway, the North Koreans are pressing just that point.

A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said today that "at the talks the Chinese side will play a relevant role as the host state and the essential issues related to the settlement of the nuclear issue will be discussed between the DPRK and the U.S [italics added]." In other words, having gotten us to sit down to talks with a multilateral fig leaf, the North Koreans have now snatched the fig leaf back.

Indeed, China seems to be seconding that reading of the talks. This from the AP ...

China's ambassador in Seoul said North Korea and the United States should resolve their nuclear dispute themselves, and Beijing does not plan to mediate between them during talks.

"I don't think China plans to mediate," Ambassador Li Bin told South Korea's MBC Radio in an interview recorded Thursday. "Although China can play a constructive role, it is the two parties concerned that should resolve the problem. How much the problem could be resolved is up to how the two parties work."

Far more ominously, the North Koreans now say they've actually begun reprocessing those spent nuclear fuel rods. And in a comment sure to raise questions and speculation, the North Koreans are saying that they informed the US and "other countries concerned" last month.

Much is being made

Much is being made of North Korea's apparent decision to accede to Bush administration demands for multilateral, rather than bilateral, talks over their nuclear weapons program. Now, as I said earlier, there are still lots of details to be ironed out. The beginning negotiating positions are still very far apart.

But, contrary to most press reports, these new talks themselves at least arguably amount to as great a climbdown for the United States as for North Korea. I say that because this plan -- or something very near to it -- has been on offer since mid-January.

Just to review, the North Koreans wanted bilateral talks with the US. The US wanted multilateral talks -- talks, including the United States, North Korea and China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

On January 14th, the Chinese offered to host talks between the United States and the North Koreans in Beijing. At the time, the US basically demurred. According to an article that appeared the next day in The New York Times ...

the White House said it welcomed China's involvement and appeared receptive to talks with Pyongyang, though officials insisted that an end to North Korea's nuclear plans was not negotiable. There was no immediate response to the offer from the Pyongyang government.
I'm not certain whether the North Koreans ever made a formal response. But, at the time, the US response was taken as a polite 'no, thank you.' It wasn't how the White House wanted to proceed. But it also, rightly, didn't want to offend the Chinese by swatting down the proposal. By some, China's offer was even seen as slightly demeaning to the US, since it is usually the role of a great power to host or sponsor talks between lesser states -- such as our role in the Middle East peace process, for instance.

Now we are having those talks in Beijing, only the Chinese are now participants rather than mere hosts.

Now, diplomacy is a game of subtle, but symbolically significant distinctions. And this is such a distinction. But, as distinctions go, this is, shall we say, rather subtle.

The truth is that the rapid victory in Iraq created incentives for both sides to get to the negotiating table (more on this soon). And that's why they're about to get there.

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