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Today the President defended

Today, the President defended the <$Ad$>decision to bar NATO allies France and Germany from bidding on Iraqi reconstruction contracts.

"If these countries want to participate in helping the world become more secure, by enabling Iraq to emerge as a free and peaceful country, one way to contribute is through debt restructuring," the president said.

Now, along these lines and the Baker mission, once in a blue moon, TPM runs a guest post. And this is one of those cases. The following is from someone whom, after some lengthy negotiation, I've agreed to call a 'former high-level Democratic executive branch appointee.'

Here's this person's take on the Baker mission ...

Aspiring to the light touch under dire circumstances, perhaps we can say of Iraq what Casey Stengel said about one of his Mets third basemen: “He’s got third base so screwed up, nobody can play it right.” Iraq is the site of so many mistakes, who can the Administration call on to win the game?

The answer is, as so often before in Bush Family history, Jim Baker. Only the naive can think his mission – special part-time job (so conflicts of interest will not need to be disclosed), with plane, staff, and direct report to President – is about renegotiating Iraq’s debt obligations, as if he were restructuring a company’s balance sheet. This company is deep into chapter 7. It loses vast sums of money a day. Its few, severely impaired assets have been spoken for many times over. Its employees are impoverished and barely working. Its political liabilities are burgeoning: indeed it is the principal risk to the parent company’s future. If Iraq could be liquidated, it would be. But instead the proprietors need to abandon it.

Finding a way to separate Bush and the United States from Iraq is this latest, and hardest, of the Baker rescue missions.

Of the many skills of Jim Baker, one is to assess a problem realistically and solve it ruthlessly and effectively. This is the same person who contrived to devalued the dollar at the Plaza Hotel in 1985, and thereby cunningly put the banana peel under the world’s second leading economy, letting Japan slip into boom and bust from which it is only now emerging.

So Baker knows – as does presumably the vigilant Rove who has perhaps arranged this supplanting of Rumsfeld, Powell, Bremer, and Rice – what it will take to get this Administration out of Iraq. Baker has to pull off a trifecta: (1) involve Europeans (and perhaps Indians) in an indefinitely long occupation of a country they did not want invaded, (2) bring in enough non-American troops to create an appearance of stability by next summer, and (3) enable President Bush to announce with a straight face at the Republican Convention next September that ‘progress’ will permit him to withdraw virtually all American troops soon after his second inauguration.

This deal will be as much appearance as substance. In return for playing their part in the President’s re-election, our ‘allies’ naturally will ask for a great deal of….money.

Billions of dollars, currency exchange ratios, and trade concessions are the ways Baker will buy his deal. Think of this as the Plaza Accord redux: this time America will weaken not its dollar but its whole economy in order to extend the Administration. The foreign soldiers we bring into Iraq might seem akin to mercenaries, but such cynicism is a virtue in Baker’s way of thinking. In any event, the deal will not be nearly as unseemly as the Middle Eastern swaps of the 1980s that an overlapping band of American politicians used to arm their friends in Central America.

Iraq, the country that we are supposedly building, won’t have much of a stake in the deal. The neo-con vision of a western Iraq reforming the Arab world is, with Baker’s appointment, pretty much finished. Perhaps the United States may end up with an airfield in one of the more deserted areas of the sad desert land of Iraq, but perhaps not; that’s negotiable.

What about the liberal dream of an Arab democracy that entranced many Democratic opinion-makers to support the Iraq war? Elections, in Baker’s experience, are not about fairly casting and counting votes; they are about who gets to rule. If a fair election was an indulgence not appropriate in Florida 2000, certainly Iraqis are not going to be allowed to vote for a freely chosen self-government in 2004. For that matter, we cannot be sure that the United States will have a fair vote count in 2004. You never know what exigencies may arise in a close election.

Support for the Dean-Gore campaign shows that much of America already understands that Iraq has been a calamity for America as well as for Iraqis. The Baker mission shows that someone in the Administration also understands that third base needs a sure-handed veteran, in a hurry. So, again, a Bush’s political fate is in Baker’s hands.



As I've said over the last couple days, I have mixed opinions about Baker's mission. I have no doubt that much of the aim is political -- gaming US politics, rather than Iraqi politics. But Baker actually knows what he's doing. And at this point things are so screwed up so that that's something we could really use.

Three members of Congress

Three members of Congress write Condi Rice asking why the US has spent hundreds of millions in an almost certainly fruitless search for WMD in Iraq and almost nothing making sure Iraqi weapons scientists don't sell their know-how to other countries.

See the letter here.

In addition to foreign

In addition to foreign policy moralism and a belief in the necessity and efficacy of the use of American military power, another salient feature of contemporary neoconservatism would seem to be a tendency to make certain statements and then ridicule others as insane when they quote you as making those statements.

(From a clinical standpoint, this tendency is abetted by a lazy press corps and perpetuated with a seeming indifference to the existence of certain widely accessible electronic databases.)

One more example to add to the list. Last week The Weekly Standard ridiculed Wes Clark as a tin-foil-clad conspiracy freak for claiming that articles in the neoconservative press supported the idea of forcible regime change not only in Iraq but in multiple Arab countries and that there was even a plan (perhaps he meant this?) to this effect circulated among political appointees at the Pentagon ...

Does Gen. Wesley Clark Subscribe to The Weekly Standard? Commentary, maybe? Because he seems to know a lot about, as he puts it, the "neoconservative press." Yesterday on CNN's "Late Edition," for example, Clark said--not for the first time--that the Bush administration's war plans extend far beyond Iraq.

"I do know this," Clark told Wolf Blitzer. "In the gossip circles in Washington, among the neoconservative press, and in some of the statements that Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Wolfowitz have made, there is an inclination to extend this into Syria and maybe Lebanon." What's more, Clark added, "the administration's never disavowed this intent." ...

Clark has made his charge a central plank of his presidential campaign. Clark writes in his book, "Winning Modern Wars," that in November 2001, during a visit to the Pentagon, he spoke with "a man with three stars who used to work for me," who told him a "five-year plan" existed for military action against not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also "Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan." Clark has embellished this story on the campaign trail, going so far as to say, "There's a list of countries."

Clark's proof? None. He never saw the list. But, the general recently told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "You only have to listen to the gossip around Washington and to hear what the neoconservatives are saying, and you will get the flavor of this."

Matthew Continetti
"Wesley Clark's Conspiracy Theory:
The General Tells Wolf Blitzer about the Neoconservative Master Plan"
The Weekly Standard
December 1st, 2003


As it happens, among other publications, Clark may indeed have been referring to Commentary ...

The best-case scenario is that Bush will eventually come to grips with the reality that Afghanistan and Iran are far from the only countries in the Middle East where "reform" is not enough to bring about the actions he has called upon all of them to take. In other words, as in Afghanistan and Iran, changes of regime are the sine qua non throughout the region.

...

The regimes that richly deserve to be overthrown and replaced are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil. At a minimum, the axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as "friends" of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority, whether headed by Ararat or one of his henchmen.

There is no denying that the alternative to these regimes could easily turn out to be worse, even (or especially) if it comes into power through democratic elections. After all, by every measure we possess, very large numbers of people in the Muslim world sympathize with Osama bin Laden and would vote for radical Islamic candidates of his stripe if they were given the chance.

To dismiss this possibility would be the height of naivete. Nevertheless, there is a policy that can head it off, provided that the United States has the will to fight World War IV--the war against militant Islam--to a successful conclusion, and provided, too, that we then have the stomach to impose a new political culture on the defeated parties. This is what we did directly and unapologetically in Germany and Japan after winning World War II; it is what we have indirectly striven with some success to help achieve in the former Communist countries since winning World War III; and it is George W. Bush's ultimate aim in World War IV.

Norman Podhoretz
"In Praise of the Bush Doctrine"
Commentary
September 2002


Or quotes from others ...

"We need to be more assertive," argues Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, "and stop letting all these two-bit dictators and rogue regimes push us around and stop being a patsy for our so-called allies, especially in Saudi Arabia." Hopefully, in Boot's view, laying down the law will be enough. But he envisions a worst-case scenario that would involve the United States "occupying the Saudi's oil fields and administering them as a trust for the people of the region."

Joshua Micah Marshall
"Practice to Deceive"
The Washington Monthly
April 2003


Neocons versus Nexis, the next great struggle ...

Read this lede from

Read this lede from an article in the Times and tell me with a straight face that these guys have any idea what they're doing ...

President Bush found himself in the awkward position on Wednesday of calling the leaders of France, Germany and Russia to ask them to forgive Iraq's debts, just a day after the Pentagon excluded those countries and others from $18 billion in American-financed Iraqi reconstruction projects.

White House officials were fuming about the timing and the tone of the Pentagon's directive, even while conceding that they had approved the Pentagon policy of limiting contracts to 63 countries that have given the United States political or military aid in Iraq.


I mean, it defies ridicule <$Ad$>(what will I do?). The tone? How were they supposed to sugar-coat it?

Please ...

Clearly, we need to come up with a new executive branch foreign policy appointee, someone whose job it would be to coordinate all this stuff, who could make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, someone who could ride herd over interagency disputes.

Ideally, that person would work out of the White House.

We could call the new post the National Security Coordinator or maybe the National Security Advisor. Something like that.

Just a thought.

And you wonder why they're bringing Jim Baker into the mix? Forget about Rove's phone records. I want the last month's phone records between Dubya and pops ...

Lets put together a

Let's put together a calendar for next spring in Iraq.

Under the current plan, the US occupation authorities will hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government on July 1st 2004.

It seems reasonable to suspect that the month or two before that date (i.e., May and June) would be prime moments for the insurgents to up their attacks in order to throw the new government off balance and kill it (or at least its efficacy) in the cradle. However you want to define it, for all sorts of reasons, late spring next year looks like a window when the insurgents can use demonstrative violence most effectively to achieve their ends.

Indeed, the top US commander on the ground in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, says "We expect to see an increase in violence as we move forward toward sovereignty at the end of June."

But look at what else is happening at just that time.

From February through May, the Pentagon will cycle out almost all the troops now serving in Iraq -- 130,000 will be pulled out and 118,000 will replace them.

That means that at more or less precisely the time when you can predict there's going to be a maximum effort on the part of the insurgents to destabilize the new government and the process of handover, those insurgents will face US troops who, in almost every case, will have just arrived in the country.

Add to that the fact that April and May marks the onset of the hot season in Iraq, and that a lot of the military's attention at that crucial point will be focused on the logistics of cycling the troops.

There are good reasons why the US military now cycles troops out in units rather than individually. We have little choice but to rotate out the troops that are currently there --- many of whom will have been in the region for well over a year by next spring. And our options are now sufficiently narrowed that there aren't a lot of good options for working our way out of this bind.

But taken together the confluence of events amounts to a mammoth failure of foresight and planning. There's simply no other way to describe it. And the reason is fairly clear: the key decisions which got us into this box were made up on the fly over the last six months or so in response to exigencies which were widely predicted but which the planners of the war chose not to believe.

Reuters is reporting that

Reuters is reporting that the Pentagon is delaying rolling out the tenders for Iraqi reconstruction contracts -- the ones which barred bids from countries like Germany, France and Russia, and which kicked up a storm of protest around the world today.

It seems unclear, as yet, whether the controversial restrictions are the cause of the delay or whether it's something else. And if it is the cause, is this Baker's influence already being shown?

Whatever you think of Baker and his potential role in all this, he is nothing if not competent. I had lunch today with a fellow who's worked with Baker in a pretty tense international crisis and he told me there was no one in the world he'd rather have next to him in a foxhole than James Baker --- that tough, etc.

So, as I've said, I have some real questions and concerns about just what Baker's agenda is going to be as the grand dealmaker. But at least it won't be amateur hour.

And at this point, boy, that ain't no mean thing.

Hmmmm. I wasnt quite

Hmmmm. I wasn't quite clear that the Wolfowitz Directive limiting contracts to companies from coalition countries had such a prospective, rather than simply retrospective, aim.

I went and looked at the actual document this evening (or, I guess, actually this morning) and I keyed in on this passage. I start from the section that's been widely quoted. But look at what comes after (italics added)...

4. It is necessary for the protection of the essential security interests of the United States to limit competition for the prime contracts of these procurements to companies from the United States, Iraq, Coalition partners and force contributing nations. Thus, it is clearly in the public interest to limit prime contracts to companies from these countries.

5. Every effort must be made to expand international cooperation in Iraq. Since May 2003, Coalition forces other than those from the United States have increased from 14,000 to 23,700. U.S. force levels, accordingly, have decreased by approximately 12,000. Limiting competition for prime contracts will encourage the expansion of international cooperation in Iraq and in future efforts.

6. Coalition partners share in the US vision of a free and stable Iraq. The limitation of sources for prime contractors from those countries should encourage the continued cooperation of coalition members.


This raises a number of <$Ad$>questions in my mind. One is how much the reasoning represented here is the actual reasoning behind the directive and how much this is simply a bureaucratic fiction designed to satisfy some regulatory requirement in order to get a desired policy put through.

What I mean is this: Is this actually what they're thinking? What they're trying to accomplish? Or did the relevant regulations make them have to say this in order to get to the desired end of barring bids from French and German companies?

That question aside, what it sounds like is that we're trying to use the contract bonanza to leverage more foreign troops into Iraq for next year. You Dutch guys want contracts? You Kuwaitis? You know the price ...

The line about "future efforts" rather begs the question of whether there are going to be any "future efforts."

Frankly, this raises more questions for me than it answers. But I think this plays into the issues we've been discussing about Baker's mission and the question of Iraq's debt.

Okay let me elaborate

Okay, let me elaborate on my reactions to Gore's endorsement of Dean.

And let me premise the following by saying that I don't think this is the only possible outcome, just the one that is more likely than any of the others I can see, given what we know now.

Gore's endorsement clearly helps Dean a lot. But it also helps Clark. In fact, I think it sets up a Dean/Clark dynamic in which the odds strongly favor Dean, but in which Clark still has real advantages.

Various thoughts lead me to this conclusion. But the chief reason is just a process of elimination.

Let's start with this.

Who's really still in this race? I think there are five candidates. Clark, Dean, Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman. Edwards may not know it yet. But (pace John) he's no longer in the race.

As Koppel noted tonight, his standing in the polls barely distinguishes him from Sharpton, Kucinich and Braun.

Of those five, Gephardt and Kerry can be effectively knocked out of the race by losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively -- eventualities which now seem quite likely.

They're not toast. But they're in the toaster. Snuggly.

Lieberman isn't closely tied to success in either of those states. But his campaign has just never taken off. I'm not sure, frankly, whether the Gore thing really hurts Lieberman (except for personally). But that's largely because he was in such bad shape anyway.

Plus, Lieberman is the only major candidate in the race for whom there is a significant core of Democratic primary voters who find him an unacceptable nominee. Unlike Gephardt and Kerry, there's no totally clear cut reason why Lieberman doesn't end up contesting this with Dean. But I just don't see it.

(I actually like Lieberman. But that's just how it is.)

In any case, that leaves Clark.

Add to this two other factors.

1. Clark is raising money at a better clip than any of the other candidates beside Dean.

2. Clark has a clearer raison d'etre for his campaign than that of any of the other candidates, save Dean: namely, his national security credentials as a retired general. (You can tell his campaign sees this because Clark made this point explicitly tonight.) Many presidents have been governors with no prior foreign policy experience. So Dean's in good company. But it's a clear distinction between Dean and Clark in what is sure to be a general election fought heavily on national security issues.

As I said yesterday, I think Gore's endorsement of Dean will accelerate the process of narrowing this race to Dean and one or two other candidates. More likely than not, one. And, as I've argued above, I think various dynamics point to that other candidate being Clark.

This doesn't mean the other candidate is an "anti-Dean" in some heavily weighted sense, as both Dean's avid admirers and detractors tend to think. It is simply a reflection of the not-unreasonable reality that not every voter will gravitate to Dean. And as the field narrows, those voters will gravitate towards another candidate.

At the moment what I'm looking at is the increasingly narrow margin separating Kerry and Clark in New Hampshire. In truth, the convergence is as much Kerry's decline as Clark's rise. But it's both. And if Clark draws even with Kerry or pulls ahead of him that would further accelerate the process I've described above.

Of course, if Gephardt reverses the trend and wins Iowa that would change things substantially. If Kerry pulls out of his tailspin that would change things a lot too. But neither of those seems that likely.

The climb is an uphill one for Clark if what I've sketched out above transpires. Candidates who bag on the early primaries and then hope to come back swinging in the South or midwest never seem to pan out.

And Clark still has some wobbly moments. He's improved a lot over the last couple months. But it's not clear to me he quite yet has the ease and command in debate settings that he'll need in a narrowed down race.

(I watched about three quarters of tonight's debate. Clark's first answer was a bit shaky. The next few were strong. And he hit quite effectively on his national security credentials.)

If Dean were still clearly an outsider with the major party institutions arrayed against him that polish might not be so necessary. But the Gore endorsement combined with the AFSCME and SEIU nods changed the equation.

(For more on how Dean plays across the range of Democratic voters, see Ruy Teixeira's analysis of the new Gallup poll, particularly on Dean's disproportionate appeal to party liberals versus moderates.)

So, as I said, this contest has a lot of moving parts. And outside of New Hampshire and Iowa the primary electorate seems very much in flux. That's just, as I said, what seems to me as the most likely scenario given what we know now.

Just looking now at

Just looking now at the headlines on a number of the big news sites, it's clear that the Pentagon's decision to bar French, German and Russian companies from bidding on Iraqi reconstruction contracts is getting a lot of attention.

But as I noted earlier, the bigger story is that the administration can't even get its story straight. Are we trying to get retribution toward these countries by stiffing them on the contracts or are we trying to come to some sort of agreement with them to refinance and restructure Iraq's mammoth foreign debt?

It pretty obviously can't be both.

One reader suggested to me today that perhaps the Wolfowitz directive banning the bids from these three countries is a bargaining chip we're putting on the table as part of Baker's negotiation strategy.

But, believe me, it's not. It's just that everybody is pursuing their own policy and nobody's coordinating anything.

And then there's the Baker appointment.

One might say that if we didn't have James Baker to turn to to handle international debt crises, we might have to invent the Treasury Secretary.

I mean, this doesn't just fall under the Treasury Department's general purview. It's one of its main responsibilities.

In an insightful column in Newsweek, Richard Wolffe makes the point we've been hinting at for the last few days ...

Unless Baker is about to declare Iraq’s independence, there are only two explanations for his appointment. Either the president feels that Powell, Snow and the rest of his cabinet are incapable of dealing with Iraq’s debts. Or the president is giving Baker a far broader role in resolving Iraq’s future. Both explanations are deeply unsettling for his much-vaunted foreign policy team and for the rest of the world. When Baker travels to European and regional capitals, the world’s leaders will think that Baker—not Powell, Donald Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Rice—has the influence with the president to get things done in Iraq. Yet we, and they, can’t be sure of that. After all, in official terms, Baker is just talking about Iraq’s debts.


In fact, I think it's both. It signals a lack of confidence in his team and Baker has a much larger brief than we're being told.

As I've tried to argue over the last couple days, in the current context, handling the Iraqi debt issue inherently takes you well beyond technical matters of debt refinance.

This is another tacit admission of the failure of the president's policy in Iraq. We went into Iraq to overturn the geopolitical dynamics of the region. Now Baker, an opponent of everything the architects of the war stand for, is being sent in to reach an accomodation with the status quo powers to pave the way for our departure.

Some insider insider insider

Some insider, insider, insider scuttlebutt on Dean's trade policies from Chris Nelson in this evening's Nelson Report ...

12. With the endorsement by former VP Al Gore, Howard Dean's chances of being the Democrat's presidential nominee are looking increasingly realistic. That means we all have to start looking at his policy pronouncements for substance, and not just as political maneuverings.

-- a friend attended a small, very private fundraiser for Dean recently…and despite going in fairly skeptical about Dean on substantive grounds, came away impressed on several levels.

13. Our friend asked Dean two trade related questions: first, would Dean have made a different decision on the steel 201's? (Yes…he would have kept them in place); and how does Dean see the issue of managing U.S.-China trade problems. (That's more complicated.)

-- "Dean gave a long, actually somewhat over-long answer, but one which clearly showed he had thought this all through, and wasn't just reciting staff-generated talking points," our friend reports.

14. Dean said that he would have kept the steel 201's in place, and that he will support a tougher trade enforcement stance on China, and other U.S. trading partners, not to raise barriers in the U.S., but to encourage China and other, lesser developed trading partners to "raise their standards".

-- Dean said that he originally supported NAFTA and China's WTO membership precisely because he feels that, in the long run, free trade "helps create a middle class", and that, "eventually" it will in both Mexico and China. The problem for now, which is to say, the problem for the political process, is that "the U.S. has not got time to wait" due to the trade deficit, and job losses which will never be replaced by adequately paying employment.

15. Dean made a point of saying that he often talks about all this with Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and claimed that he and Rubin "are on the same page" about U.S. economic and trade policy, at least in terms of "how to get there."

-- our friend, an experienced financial and political observer, came away "frankly impressed" that Dean "can position himself well to take advantage of Bush on the 201's, and to address the job loss issue."

16. Stylistically, our friend said, "Dean is very, very intense", which sometimes is risky for TV, but that if Dean can keep his temper under control, "he seems likely to be able to reach out to 'emotional moderates' who are dissatisfied with Bush and worried about the future".

-- as to worries that Dean is "another McGovern", our friend noted recent polls showing that whereas McGovern was very unpopular with lots of Democrats, Bush is just as unpopular, now, with many Democrats. The point…cross-over voting by Democrats in 2004 is not likely to hurt Dean, as it killed McGovern in 1972….and current polls show that Bush is close to even with leading Dems.


No comment from me. Just passing it along ...

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