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David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

From TPM Reader ML:

There's this chimera (some might call it a meme) floating about that hasn't been properly considered, and the dangers of not doing so are stark. There's this belief that the Iraqis have to know that they're responsible for their own fates, and with that burden, they'll at least make strides towards whipping themselves into shape. So the US should set the timetable or get out or whatever, so the Iraqis have the felt exigency of just getting along. (Of course, this has been pedalled by Friedman, the same one convinced that 'moderate' Muslims are capable, through their overweening moderation, of stopping lunatic extremists.) But take a step back and see what's being said and who it's being said about before we start down another dangerously deluded road, making the same mistakes and presumptions as before. Is this not the same couple of groups with a 1400 year-old blood feud? Are these not embers that have ignited into war repeatedly between small groups and nation states in the region? What, aside from its a priori attraction, should we possibly make of the argument that sovereignty or the threat of it will calm these rivalries? I'm open to suggestion as to how that might work, but my gut tells me it's dangerously misguided wishful thinking.


ML hints at a point I've been meaning to get to for some time. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a hundred times--from politicians in both parties and from countless commentators: If we give the Iraqis a timetable for withdrawal, they will have to stop relying on our good graces (look where that's gotten them) and take responsibility for their own destiny.

Let's call it neo-toddler foreign policy. With the right balance of rewards and punishments, we can re-direct misbehavior in the short term and instill long-term discipline.

Where does this notion come from?

It's long been a component of American foreign policy (though the neo-conservatives seem to feature it), but is there some historical basis for this approach, or is it, as I suspect, just a blatant manifestation of our paternalistic approach to most of the rest of the world?

This approach--reducing politics to competing bad or good behaviors, rather than, say, competing self-interests--infects most of our current dealings in the Middle East. We can't talk with Syria or Iran because that would be a reward for bad behavior. We can't stay in Iraq indefinitely because that would be overprotective. Instead, the Iraqis need to be weaned from our presence.

That may be an effective parenting technique for toddlers (or maybe just a way to patch and fill through a difficult phase they eventually grow out of). But even setting aside how patronizing and condescending it must sound to foreign peoples and countries (and therefore self-defeating for us), it is a desperately impractical approach to foreign policy.

Signaling to Iraqis that we're leaving by a date certain in hopes of forcing them to pick up the pieces of their broken country and put it back together is more of the same grand-scale wishful thinking that led us into this mess in the first place.

On my suggestion for what to do about Rep. Bill Jefferson, TPM Reader JC disagrees:

Right on all points, wrong on the conclusion.

Jefferson is, by all accounts, dirty and odious. But the only thing worse for the House Democrats than sending a message of "we don't tolerate corruption" is sending the message that "we'll ignore the will of the voters, and abandon the principle of 'Innocent until proven guilty,' for political posturing."

Like it or not, Jefferson's constituents elected him, knowing that he's under investigation. Unless there is evidence of election rigging, he must be seated. The Democrats can of course change the House rules and then deal with Jefferson, or wait until he is indicted and then remove him.

But your suggestion, while well-intended, is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

As long as we're engaging in useless exercises, is it time for an Afghanistan Study Group?

The AP has obtained a list of 30 rules/directives handed down by the Taliban, the most troubling of which target teachers and those who cooperate with international aid organizations:

The Taliban gunmen who murdered two teachers in eastern Afghanistan early Saturday were only following their rules: Teachers receive a warning, then a beating, and if they continue to teach must be killed.

. . .

Taliban militants early Saturday broke into a house in the eastern province of Kunar, killing a family of five, including two sisters who were teachers.

The women had been warned in a letter to quit teaching, said Gulam Ullah Wekar, the provincial education director. Their mother, grandmother and a male relative were also slain in the attack.

The two sisters brought to 20 the number of teachers killed in Taliban attacks this year, said Education Ministry spokesman Zuhur Afghan. He said 198 schools have been burned down this year, up from about 150 last year.

The 30 Taliban rules also spell out opposition to development projects from aid organizations, including clinics, roads and schools.


Under our watch, the Taliban has burned down more than 300 schools in the past two years. Did anyone ask Robert Gates during his confirmation hearing whether we're winning the war in Afghanistan?

The federal investigation of political corruption in Alaska, centered on state Senate President Ben Stevens, son of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), appears broader than at first reported, according to today's Anchorage Daily News:

The director of a Juneau-based salmon fishing group said last week he has been ordered by a federal grand jury investigating Alaska corruption to turn over lobbying and consulting records involving state Senate President Ben Stevens and former congressional aide Trevor McCabe, an Anchorage lawyer.

The grand jury subpoena, issued last month, also seeks records on the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, a nonprofit federal-grant distribution corporation set up by Ben Stevens' father, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

The executive director of the Juneau salmon group responding to the subpoena, Robert Thorstenson Jr., serves on the marketing board. Thorstenson said he and a partner, Juneau and Seattle lawyer Rob Zuanich, rent space to the board for its Juneau office.

In a telephone interview Thursday from Seattle, Thorstenson said the subpoena to Southeast Alaska Seiners Association arrived last month after he was contacted by agents from the FBI and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The subpoena said the grand jury was investigating felony crimes, Thorstenson said.

The subpoena appears to document a widening of the federal corruption investigation in Alaska, which burst into public view in August with dramatic raids of the offices of six legislators, including Ben Stevens. Agents returned to search Stevens' offices Sept. 18.


The article also suggests, without saying so explicitly, that the indictment this week of state Rep. Tom Anderson, an Anchorage Republican, for alleged extortion, bribery, conspiracy and money laundering, is connected to the Stevens investigation. Anderson has pleaded not guilty.

What will the House Democratic Caucus do about Rep. Bill Jefferson?

The subject of a federal criminal probe and a House Ethics Committee investigation, Jefferson overwhelming won re-relection yesterday, after being forced into a runoff against fellow Democrat Karen Carter.

Saying that Jefferson is the subject of a federal criminal probe hardly seems to do the man justice. By all appearances, the only thing standing between Jefferson and a multi-count federal grand jury indictment for bribery and related unsavory activities was the power-drunk GOP majority in Congress, which, perhaps fearful of investigations into its own corrupt activities, tried to turn the FBI's raid of Jefferson's Capitol Hill office into a constitutional crisis.

Had it not been for the howls of protest over the FBI raid and the legal wrangling that followed, it appears very likely that Jefferson would already be under indictment by now. But the GOP majority is gone. The Democrats, having vaulted into control of Congress in significant part due to voters' disgust with entrenched Republican corruption, have made ethics a top priority. And Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has already staked out a strong and laudable position on Jefferson's conduct in removing him from the powerful Ways and Means Committee even before the mid-term elections.

So Jefferson will return to Washington as a living, breathing embodiment of political corruption at the very moment that Democrats are trying to implement ethics reform. Nice, uh?

So what to do? My own preferred solution would be a two-fer. The House should refuse to seat Jefferson and Rep.-elect Vern Buchanan (R-FL). Buchanan was elected to Katherine Harris' old seat thanks to 18,000 undervotes in the Sarasota area, without which his Democratic opponent Christine Jennings almost certainly wins.

Republicans are already gearing up for a partisan bloodbath if the Democratic-controlled House refuses to seat Buchanan, the certified winner of a flawed election. What better way to take some of the wind out of those arguments than by simultaneously refusing to seat Jefferson, the flawed winner of a certified election?

Undemocratic, you say? The people have spoken? Perhaps. But the people's elected representatives in the House can democratically say that a member is unfit to serve. Is anyone other than his most compromised defenders seriously arguing that Jefferson is fit to serve?

Refusing to seat Jefferson right off the bat would be as bold a stroke as the introduction of any reform package within the first 100 days, and it would dramatically distinguish this Congress from its sorry predecessor.

Feds unlikely to prosecute former Rep. Mark Foley for his behavior with congressional pages, ABC reports.

More on Jack Abramoff's HUD connection: HUD still maintains that Abramoff had no lobbying contacts with the department, but billing records from Abramoff's old firm tell a different story. Special cameo appearances by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), a former HUD secretary and the president's choice to chair the Republican National Committee, and current Secretary Alphonso Jackson. This angle to the Abramoff iinvestigation has been percolating for a while.

We should know later tonight whether Rep. "Dollar Bill" Jefferson (D-LA) is able to win re-election while the target of a federal bribery investigation. The polls close in his runoff at 9 p.m. EST.

Update: Jefferson ahead 56%-44%, with less than 25% reporting.

Late update: With 33% of precincts reporting, Jefferson leads Karen Carter 60%-40%.

Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid (D-NV), following Friday's Oval Office meeting with the President on Iraq: "I just didn't feel there today, the president in his words or his demeanor, that he is going to do anything right away to change things drastically. He is tepid in what he talks about doing. Someone has to get the message to this man that there have to be significant changes."

More here, including the President's now standard fallback position when challenged: "I am the commander in chief." I doubt that is the sort of management technique he was taught at Harvard Business School. It's more like something Steve Carell's character in The Office would come up with.

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