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

Speculation is rife about

Speculation is rife about whom John Kerry will choose as his running mate. Newsweek reports that Kerry "is engrossed in the final shortlist of veep picks. Kerry sources say the choice is narrowing to Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, and that the candidate remains personally uncomfortable with Sen. John Edwards." I have no idea whether this report is accurate, but if it is, the Democrats are in trouble.

There are different criteria Kerry and the Democratic convention delegates should use in choosing a running mate, but they should not include whether the candidate is "personally comfortable" with whomever he chooses. If John F. Kennedy had used this criterion in 1960, Richard Nixon would have won the election. If Ronald Reagan had used it in 1980 and chosen his friend Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt rather than his leading challenger George Bush, Reagan might have lost that election. Gore did use this criterion in 2000, and it's one reason why he lost. In the final tally, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman didn't bring Gore a single electoral college vote. Kerry has to choose a running mate who, above all, will help him win states in the Midwest and South that he may not be able to win on his own.

Among those prospects currently being discussed, there are only two who are sufficiently battle-tested and who could help Kerry where he may not be able to help himself. These are Edwards and Gephardt. In the primary, Edwards showed a Clintonesque ability to appeal to both of the constituencies with whom Kerry is going to have trouble--the white working class voters who used to be described as "Reagan Democrats" and the independent upscale suburbanites who have been trending Democratic, but are leery of the party's leftwing. Edwards could help Kerry be competitive in Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Ohio. (In a Mason-Dixon poll last month pairing Bush and Cheney against Kerry and Edwards in North Carolina, Bush was only ahead by 46 to 45 percent.) He could force the Bush campaign to expend resources in regions it would have liked to take for granted. Gephardt might help Kerry with white working class voters in Missouri, Iowa, and Ohio. But Gephardt's appeal may be more limited than Edwards'. Gephardt is very popular among labor leaders, but, as this year's primary made clear, not necessarily among the rank and file or among non-union workers. He would also reinforce Kerry's image as a Washington insider, making him less attractive to upscale suburbanites.

There is another reason to hope that Kerry puts aside his "comfort level" and picks Edwards. In 2004, 19 Democratic Senate seats are being contested, compared to only 15 Republican ones; and five of the nineteen are in Southern states where Democrats are retiring. Republicans could conceivably win all these seats. If they won even three of them, Democrats would have an almost impossible task of winning back the Senate in 2004, and would face an uphill challenge in 2006 when more Democratic than Republican seats are again up for grabs. Democrats have an interest in fielding a presidential ticket that has credibility, if not popularity, in the South. With Edwards as the vice presidential candidate, the Democrats could put forward a Southern face. If Kerry picks another Northern liberal like himself, Democratic candidates in the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana and Georgia will be put on the defensive and forced to dissociate themselves from the national ticket. My advice to Kerry: forget chumminess, choose Edwards.

The Justice Department attempted

The Justice Department attempted to dissociate itself from an August 2002 memo condoning the torture of prisoners. But it didn't dissociate itself from the memo's author, former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee. As TPM reader Hope P. reminded me, George W. Bush nominated Bybee as a judge on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Seventeen Democrats, citing Bybee's opposition to gay rights and his highly restrictive views of the First Amendment, opposed his nomination, but he was confirmed by the Repbulican Senate in March 2003. This man, who advocated that the United States ignore international law--and some might say, commit war crimes--now holds a lifetime appointment on the federal bench.

Business schools like to

Business schools like to analyze the reasons for famous flops, such as Ford's Edsel or the merger of AT&T and NCR. Perhaps in the future, foreign service schools will study the Bush administration's flop in Iraq. What they'll find is an administration utterly blinded by ideological illusions. To find precedents, one has to look at the Soviet Union after the revolution or perhaps China of the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution, where, as in Iraq, many people were killed on behalf of bizarre theories of historical change.

In a week, chief administrator Paul Bremer will leave his post in Baghdad. In his appearances before Congress, Bremer projects an air of rational purpose. He was, it seemed, faced with an impossible task in Baghdad. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Bremer, who worked under the supervision of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, was living in a kind of neoconservative dream world and had no understanding of the obstacles he faced.

Bremer arrived in Baghdad in May after the Pentagon fired General Jay Garner. According to Garner, the Pentagon objected to his plan to hold early elections before Iraq's economy had been privatized. Bremer's mandate was, above all, to privatize. In June, as Bremer returned to Baghdad aboard a U.S. military transport plane after speaking at an international economic conference, he discussed his plans for Iraq with Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran. According to Chandrasekaran, Bremer spoke of privatization "with such fervor that his voice cut through the din of the cargo hold." "We have to move forward quickly with this effort," he said.

Bremer's economic program wasn't confined to selling off state enterprises. Bremer saw privatization as part of the broader conservative economic agenda that Reagan had endorsed in the 1980s. It would include supply-side tax cuts and elimination of import duties. And he proceeded to get his way. In September 2003--against the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention that require occupying powers to respect existing laws--Bremer got the Iraqi Governing Council to issue an order privatizing state companies and abrogating Iraqi laws that prohibited private ownership of "national" resources and the "basic means of production." Later, he also got his way on taxes and import duties.

You might think that in the face of the continued insurgency, the absence of electrical power, and of elementary safety on city streets, Bremer would have seen these measures, in the words of the poet Blake, as "sand thrown up against the wind." But this month, as he was about to leave his post, Bremer told Chandrasekaran that "Iraq has been fundamentally changed for the better" by the occupation. He said that "among his biggest accomplishments ... were the lowering of Iraq's tax rate, the liberalization of foreign-investment laws and the reduction of import duties."

Is this daffy? Set aside for a moment the actual condition of the country. If Iraq's streets were safe and lighted, and its pipelines pumping oil to Western Europe, it would still be better off with the kind of managed economic approach that worked in East Asia rather than the kind of economics that Reagan recommended for post-Carter America. But Bremer's schemes weren't even relevant, let alone appropriate, to the country he was supposed to be administering. What does reducing tax rates do in a country that lacks income and profits and is entirely dependent on foreign aid to run its basic institutions? What good does it do to offer up businesses for sale when no foreign company would dream of investing capital in the current Iraq? The only businesses that have profited in Iraq are those like Haliburton that are funded by American taxpayers. Reading Bremer's reflections on his tenure makes one wonder whether, even in the face of chaos and possible civil war, post-Saddam Iraq wouldn't have been better off without the Bush administration's bureaucrats and the Pentagon's military in charge.

During the Cold War

During the Cold War, American officials discovered that one of the best ways to promote democratic capitalism at the expense of communism was by luring foreign students to American colleges. Some of these foreign graduates returned home to become the leaders of reform movements in their countries. Others stayed in the United States and contributed their skills to the great postwar boom. The same reasoning that prevailed during the Cold War should prevail during the war on terror. The United States should be eager, one would imagine, to expose students from abroad to democracy and religious pluralism, as well as to take advantage of their skills. But not the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. They are oblivious to any foreign policy measures that aren't repressive. Their response to anti-Americanism is to wall off America from its potential critics.

In the wake of September 11, the Bush administration tightened visa rules for foreign students. Prospective students have had to pay a $100 fee to file a visa application. And it has taken up to eight months to process the applications. As a result, foreign applications to American colleges have plummeted. According to the Financial Times, graduate school applications have declined 32 percent this year. "The word seems to be out that you can't get a visa to come and study in the US, so why bother," said Liz Reisburg, who helps recruit foreign MBAs.

Undoubtedly, some aspects of this new visa program were unavoidable in the light of how the September 11 terrorists entered the country. But one would hope that the Bush administration would be trying to streamline the program, and to reduce the delays, so that students would once against be drawn to American universities, as they were during the high-tech boom of the 1990s. Instead, the administration is on the verge of putting still another and greater obstacle in the face of foreign students.

The legislation establishing the Department of Homeland Security included a provision creating "Sevis." a database for keeping track of international students. Each student would have to register with the Sevis. Last October, the Department of Homeland Security proposed that in addition to the $100 visa fee, every prospective student would have to pay another $100 to fund Sevis. The payment would have to be through a credit card or dollars. Universities have not objected to the program itself; but they have objected strenuously to imposing another fee on foreign applicants. "Having yet another thing students have to do to come to the US that they don't have to do in any other part of the world will drive more people away at a time when enrollments are declining," said one official from the Association of International Educators.

The universities, of course, are understandably worried about declining enrollment, but what is most disturbing about the administration's program--and about its general approach to foreign students--is its hostile attitude toward the outside world. It's fortress America applied to educational policy. Such an approach won't necessarily prevent terrorist attacks, but it will in the long run encourage the anti-Americanism on which al Qaeda and other terrorist groups feed.

Hello TPM readers. This

Hello, TPM readers. This is editorial assistant Zander Dryer with a quick update. As Spencer announced below, John B. Judis will take over guest blogging later today. He'll be followed tomorrow afternoon by Ruy Teixeira. Hosting two great political minds in two days is an honor for TPM, and Josh is delighted to have John and Ruy fill in for him during the remaining few days he's away. He has said that they are two of the people whose political analysis he respects most.

As for Josh himself, he sends his greetings from Antigua. He is having great luck learning to snorkel, but he managed to embarrass himself in front of the locals by getting seasick on a deep sea fishing exploration. He'll be back at the keyboard soon. In the meantime, enjoy our guests.

One final word about

One final word about "Shakir," and thanks to reader R.S. for pointing this out to me. The al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist known as Hambali--Riduan Isamuddin, the commander of Jemaah Islamiyah--is not, as I mistakenly wrote, dead. This jihadist murderer was captured last August and turned over to the tender loving care of U.S. interrogators. That means we have three actual attendees of the January 2000 Kuala Lumpur terrorism summit in custody, whose accounts of "Shakir" we should be able to use to determine Saddam Hussein's links, if any, to the meeting.

Anyway, TPM readers, this will be my last post. It's been a blast, and I'd like to thank Josh for providing me with the opportunity to guest-host. Thanks as well to TPM behind-the-scenes wizard Zander Dryer, who ensured that I did no lasting technical damage to the site and fixed my mistakes. Thanks especially to all of you who wrote in with your kind words and your criticism. I hope to see you over at my TNR blog, IRAQ'D.

I leave you in the extremely capable hands of my TNR colleague John B. Judis. Judis is occasionally willing to gamble with his formidable reputation by collaborating with me, so let me show my gratitude by sneaking in a plug for his truly excellent forthcoming book. It's called The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and it examines both the historical precedents for our occupation of Iraq and how two great American presidents dealt with and learned from them. You can read an excerpt in the just-released issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Take it away, John...

Stories out today by

Stories out today by Newsday's Knut Royce and The Washington Post's Walter "A13 but should be A1" Pincus and Dan Eggen (as well as yesterday by Jonathan S. Landay of Knight Ridder) have more on Shakir. According to these three pieces, sourced to anonymous intelligence and senior administration officials, the Shakir identified in recovered Fedayeen documents is unlikely to be the individual who met with the 9/11 hijackers in Kuala Lumpur. Royce quotes an administration official as saying the CIA concluded "a long time ago" they weren't the same people: for starters, their names are different. (Laura Rozen has a handy chart to help clarify this.) The individual identified as a Fedayeen lieutenant colonel is Hikmat Shakir Ahmad, while the individual identified as present for the Kuala Lumpur meeting is Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi.

The Post quotes John Lehman, who floated the prospect that new evidence indicates Hikmat Shakir Ahmad was a "very prominent member of al-Qaeda" as saying the issue "needs to be run into ground." He seems to discard the importance of Ahmad as a Fedayeen officer, one of the components of the prospective connection in Steve Hayes's account. As Lehman says, "The most intriguing part of it is not whether or not he was in the Fedayeen, but whether or not the guy who attended Kuala Lumpur had any connections to Iraqi intelligence. . . . We don't know."

But, as I wrote this morning, this is something we probably can know. We have three individuals in custody who either were directly present at the Kuala Lumpur meeting or pulled its strings: 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Kuala Lumpur attendees Khallad bin Attash and Yazid Sufaat. Between them, the 9/11 Commission stands a good chance of finding out what, from al-Qaeda's perspective, Azzawi was doing at the meeting--i.e., whether he was an emissary from Saddam Hussein. This is something we should be able to run into ground, as Lehman put it. What do their debriefings indicate? Have they been interrogated on this connection? If they haven't, can they be re-interrogated? The 9/11 Commission has a month and four days before it has to deliver its final report (and then go through what one commissioner told me would be one of the Commission's "battles of Armageddon" with the administration: declassifying it for the public). With the "Shakir" story taking on surprising importance; with the administration determined to hew to elusive Iraq-al Qaeda links as a central justification for the Iraq war; and with the 9/11 Commission probably being the last opportunity for such a broad and comprehensive exhumation of al-Qaeda's history of planning against America, that needs to be enough time to settle the question once and for all.

Buried at the end

Buried at the end of a Saturday New York Times piece is a blind quote that carries a lot of explanatory heft when it comes to the Bush administration's attempts to keep the Iraq-al Qaeda link alive:

One outside adviser to the White House said the administration expected the debate over Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda to be "a regular feature" of the presidential campaign.

"They feel it's important to their long-term credibility on the issue of the decision to go to war," the adviser said. "It's important because it's part of the overall view that Iraq is part of the war on terror. If you discount the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, then you discount the proposition that it's part of the war on terror. If it's not part of the war on terror, then what is it--some cockeyed adventure on the part of George W. Bush?"

Now, the absence of a Saddam-bin Laden link doesn't make Iraq ipso facto irrelevant to the war on terrorism. In fact, as Josh among others has documented, the Bush administration has argued that the establishment of a democratic Iraq will have a transformative effect throughout the Middle East, where radical Islam presently stands as the most compelling and accessible alternative to the region's ossified tyrannies. This is what Bush means when he says,"A free Iraq will stand as an example to reformers across the Middle East." Of course, with Iraq lapsing more and more into Hobbesian chaos, Bush's talk about establishing stable democracy there makes me want to ask him for a urine sample. And it's much more concrete to talk about "contacts" between al-Qaeda and Saddam to frame the Iraq war in the context of the war on terrorism. But, as the 9/11 Commission's fifteenth staff statement reported, Iraq's furtive contacts with al-Qaeda do not appear "to have resulted in a collaborative relationship." So for the Bush administration to cling to "contacts" that don't appear to have gone anywhere as its reason for placing Iraq in the context of the war on terrorism, it will be deemphasizing its strategic rationale for launching the invasion in favor of an easier to understand but more tenuous argument.

But that seems to be the war the administration is going. Which brings us to the case of Ahmed Hikmat Shakir.

If you haven't heard of Shakir, that's because the administration has never brought him up publicly. The most prominent attention given to Shakir has come from Stephen F. Hayes of The Weekly Standard. Shakir, an Iraqi, was a greeter for Malaysian Airlines, a job that, according to Hayes, he boasted of landing thanks to a contact at the Iraqi embassy. In early January 2000, the four al-Qaeda operatives originally intended by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to carry out what would become the attacks met in Kuala Lumpur with jihadist colleagues Hambali and Yazid Sufaat. According to Hayes, Shakir escorted Khalid al-Mihdhar into a car at the airport, then accompanied al-Mihdhar--one of the 9/11 pilots--to the terrorist meeting. Shakir was picked up by Qatari authorities in October 2001, reportedly with contact information for al-Qaeda operatives and associates in his possession, but he was released. Later that month, en route to Iraq, Jordanian intelligence detained him. According to Hayes, the Jordanians and the CIA tried to get Shakir to spy on Baghdad for them, but Shakir never reported back when he was allowed to return to Iraq. Hayes goes on to report that in February of this year, Christopher Carney, one of Douglas Feith's deputies in the Pentagon's policy shop, discovered Shakir's name on a recovered list of officers in the Fedayeen Saddam, identified as a Lieutenant Colonel.

On Sunday, 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman told Tim Russert that since the 9/11 staff statement asserting no operative link between Iraq and al-Qaeda was written, "new intelligence [has been] coming in steadily from the interrogations in Guantanamo and in Iraq and from captured documents. And some of these documents indicate that there is at least one officer of Saddam's Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al-Qaeda. That still has to be confirmed." Why this intelligence should just be coming to the 9/11 Commission now is unclear. According to Hayes, Carney found Shakir on the Fedayeen officers list in February, and it would stand to reason that Carney would find that information pertinent enough to deliver to the 9/11 Commission, which is mandated by law to review all documents in the possession of the bureaucracy relating to the 9/11 conspiracy. It could be that new information suggesting Shakir "was a very prominent member of al-Qaeda" has recently been found. I don't pretend to know. But Lehman's disclosure on Meet The Press was the first public, on-the-record reference to Shakir as a possible link from Baghdad to al-Qaeda.

There were, however, off-the-record references floated by the Bush administration. Newsweek's Mike Isikoff and Mark Hosenball reported the tale of Shakir's imprisonment and release (though not that the Jordanians and CIA tried to flip him) in an October 7, 2002 story. They obtained an intelligence document putting Shakir at the Kuala Lumpur meeting. The story carried a quote from an administration official: "Shakir connects to both Iraq and 9-11." But the reporters cautioned, "It's a startling claim--though far from proven." As best as I can tell, the administration didn't return to Shakir as a prospective link between Iraq and al-Qaeda until Feith sent his famous memo to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in October 2003. Leaked to Hayes shortly thereafter, the memo said Shakir "facilitated the arrival of one of the Sept 11 hijackers for an operational meeting in Kuala Lumpur (Jan 2000). Sensitive reporting indicates Shakir's travel and contacts link him to a worldwide network of terrorists, including al Qaeda. Shakir worked at the Kuala Lumpur airport--a job he claimed to have obtained through an Iraqi embassy employee."

Again, I don't know what intelligence the 9/11 Commission has obtained about Shakir. Nor do I know why the Commission is still receiving new intelligence about him now--specifically, whether it's just getting all the information about Shakir now, or whether it's now getting new information indicating Shakir is, as Lehman said, "a very prominent member of al-Qaeda." Now, there would have to be some additional information on Shakir to indicate that he's an al-Qaeda member, as nothing public to date indicates that he is. It's possible. But, even assuming that Saddam authorized Shakir to attend the Malaysia meeting, which we don't yet know, it's also possible that Saddam was trying to gather intelligence on terrorist operations.

But even without Shakir in custody, it should at least be theoretically possible to advance our understanding of his connection to the plot, to Saddam, and to Saddam's heretofore-elusive connections to al-Qaeda: While three of the attendees of the meeting are dead (al-Midhar, fellow hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hambali), and Shakir's whereabouts are unknown, two other attendees, Sufaat and Khallad bin Attash are in custody. If Shakir was acting as Saddam’s delegate to the meeting, theoretically Sufaat and Attash would know, though I freely concede that this might not necessarily be the case. Perhaps if they were kept in the dark, the al-Qaeda operative who arranged the meeting would know: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. KSM, as he's known, was captured in Pakistan in 2003. The 9/11 Commission, staff director Philip Zelikow told me in January, has had full access to debriefings of his interrogations, and clearly they've informed the staff reports. (KSM has told interrogators that Iraq was not in any significant way tied to al-Qaeda.) It would stand to reason that at least one of these three detained terrorists involved with the Kuala Lumpur meetings would know if Shakir attended on behalf of Saddam Hussein--after all, is it really plausible that Saddam was involved with the meeting if the terrorists involved were unaware who, if anyone, Shakir was working for? I suppose it's possible, but it would seem a stretch. Lehman told Russert that Shakir's link to al-Qaeda "still has to be confirmed." It may be possible to get an answer to this question based on detainees to whom the 9/11 Commission supposedly has access. The quote from the informal Bush adviser suggests that the White House isn't going to let the Iraq-al Qaeda connection go quietly into that good night, and Shakir appears to be at the heart of the newest White House push to demonstrate ties of any significance. An answer, or at least more of an answer, to the question of Shakir should be possible by the Commission's final report next month.

(One last thing: As I write this, Steve Hayes is on The Daily Show. Congratulations, dude! You're famous! You have an important advantage over me in the Iraq-al Qaeda debate: My girlfriend just pointedly asked me, "So why don't you get to go on The Daily Show ?")

A valuable addition from

A valuable addition from reader J.:

<$NoAd$>There are many indigenous forces that push for liberalization and democratization [in the Middle East]. These range from the moderate Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, to the old leftists--most of whom are quite tired by now--and the newer, human rights-oriented generation of activists and sympathizers. There are, in other words, plenty of people who are willing to make the sacrifices for democracy that this process will require, and are doing so now.

Perhaps because of distance, one tendency is to go for name recognition. ... In the case of the Arab world, Saad Eddin Ibrahim has come to fill that role. And he has a certain heroic air about him in the U.S. in particular. But it should be made clear that he is primarily disliked not for heroically espousing freedom, but for accepting funding from foreigners and then apparently espousing their causes. This is more like U.S. congressmen and women accepting special interest funding and then moving legislation through government that benefits those interests. Ibrahim is linked especially to the deeply unpopular American policies that have had enormously negative impact on the lives of millions of Arabs.

At one point, while I was an impoverished graduate student here in Cairo, I freelanced as a translator for an NPR reporter who was asking people their opinions about the imprisonment of Saad Eddin. Nobody would speak to us. In fact, one man became enraged, saying, "why are you focused on Saad Eddin, go report on what is happening to the Palestinians." This point isn't worth more effort than this, but I just want to argue that people ... should perhaps consider not making Saad Eddin Ibrahim the poster boy of democratization and liberalization. Shirin Ebadi of Iran is much more convincing as a poster girl, if we need such a person. Others exist, as well and should be given, as you say, very discreet support by people who are genuinely sympathetic to them and to their causes, not by intelligence types who are hoping to use them as wedges to crack open their respective societies.