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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

Joe Conason:

Many if not most Americans have repeatedly expressed an underlying doubt that either party can still serve the public interest. Those feelings are especially prevalent among the independent voters whose support was critical to the recent Democratic victory. To dispel such cynicism and fulfill the expectations raised by their anticorruption campaign, the new Democratic congressional leaders must quickly deliver real government accountability as well as substantial reorganization of their own institutions. While voters may understand that major changes in healthcare, education and environmental stewardship will be difficult to enact under this administration, they will not have much patience for any evasion on reform of Congress.

Whether Democrats can overcome the old habits that have often made them inarticulate and inert, however, remains to be seen. To put it kindly, the signs are mixed.

I had just about been driven to distraction by the catch-word of the moment: "surge." As in, the President's "New Way Forward" in Iraq calls for a "surge" of additional troops. How can such a ridiculous euphemism makes its way into print past so many editors in one week's time?

But Colin Powell made a good point today about what "surge" really means:

Before any decision to increase troops, "I'd want to have a clear understanding of what it is they're going for, how long they're going for. And let's be clear about something else. . . . There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops."

"That's how you surge. And that surge cannot be sustained." The "active Army is about broken," Powell said. Even beyond Iraq, the Army and Marines have to "grow in size, in my military judgment," and Congress must provide significant additional funding to sustain them.


Suddenly "surge" seems worth co-opting, as a euphemism for ephemeral last gasp.

I don't want to pick on TPM Reader DP, but his email exemplifies the reader emails coming in suggesting that Sen. Harry Reid's support for a temporary increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is either a clever political move or a move that Reid has no choice but to make:

I just want to send my qualified agreement with your readers who say that, as a tactical move, Reid should be supporting this temporary increase in troops. Somehow over the last six years our national debate over matters of life and death have been reduced to stupid slogans and 2 dimensional ideas. That's the "facts on the ground" we have to deal with. Dems have to give the Commander/Decider in Chief every resource he asks for during this "last effort." Opposing it will not prevent it from happening but it will make it harder for Dems to then clearly demonstrate that victory is not going to happen.

In the fantasy world I like to live in, Dems could repeat all the intelligent and nuanced arguments that demonstrate without a doubt that the war is lost and it's time to leave and Bush would back down in the face of the country rising against him. In the real world, if Reid does anything more at this moment than say "I disagree with his tactics but will give him the resources he needs" then it will be much more difficult in three months to force real change. The political reality, as awful as it is, is that Bush had an opportunity after the elections to take a mandate for change and do whatever he wanted with it. He chose a stupid route, but what can we do about it?


There are any number of problems with this reasoning, both politically and substantively, not the least of which is the assumption that Bush will send additional troops (check), it won't work (check), and then he'll be forced to begin a large-scale withdrawal of U.S. forces (right--just like he was going to be forced to do after the Democrats took Congress and after the ISG report).

On the political side, 71% of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq. Why are Democrats still looking for political cover?

Some readers have suggested that Harry Reid's openness to sending more troops to Iraq is a clever political move. I don't see it, and that circle gets harder to square when considered along with Colin Powell's remarks today:

Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell said today that the United States is losing what he described as a "civil war" in Iraq and that he is not persuaded that an increase in U.S. troops there would reverse the situation. Instead, he called for a new strategy that would relinquish responsibility for Iraqi security to the government in Baghdad sooner rather than later, with a U.S. drawdown to begin by the middle of next year.

Powell's comments broke his long public silence on the issue and placed him at odds with the administration. . . .

Speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," Powell seemed to draw as much from his 35-year Army career, including four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as from his more recent difficult tenure as Bush's chief diplomat.

Last summer's surge of U.S. troops to try to stabilize Baghdad had failed, he said, and any new attempt was unlikely to succeed. "If somebody proposes that additional troops be sent, if I was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my first question . . . is what mission is it these troops are supposed to accomplish . . . is it something that is really accomplishable . . . do we have enough troops to accomplish it?"


In what struck me as really odd coming from Mark Shields, he called Don Rumsfeld a tragic figure on the Newshour Friday. Not so, in any sense really. But Powell is truly a tragic figure. The great tragedy of Iraq (in the traditional meaning of the term) is that an entire generation of military men--who were hardened in the crucible of Vietnam as young officers and spent most of their careers building the all-volunteer armed services and warning against repeating the strategic mistakes embodied by that terrible conflict--in the end, at the apex of their careers, made the same mistakes they had spent their professional lives studying and warning against. The fact that their civilian leaders had sat out Vietnam (or in Rumsfeld's case was a half a generation older) only makes the tragedy more compelling.

Despite his grave mistakes as secretary of state, Powell is worth listening to on this.

Harry Reid sips the Kool-aid:

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said on Sunday he would support a short-term increase in U.S. troop numbers in Iraq being weighed by President George W. Bush if it is part of a broader withdrawal plan.

. . .

"If it's for a surge, that is, for two or three months and it's part of a program to get us out of there as indicated by this time next year, then, sure, I'll go along with it," Reid, who will become the majority leader when Democrats take control of the Senate next month, told ABC's "This Week" program.


And if pigs could fly, and money could grow on trees, etc.

The Vice President's declaration at Friday's Pentagon sendoff for Don Rumsfeld that Rumsfeld was the best secretary of defense in U.S. history (which really means since the Department of Defense was created in 1948, not since the Revolution) was widely panned, deservedly.

But the comment that left me shaking by head came from Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace: "Secretary Rumsfeld accepted the responsibility and not once, in public or in private, did I ever hear this man try to shift responsibility to anyone else but himself."

WTF?

I have never seen a public figure as adept at passing the buck, often very slyly, as Don Rumsfeld. It has been one of my biggest pet peeves about Rumsfeld, especially when he lays the blame at the feet of the uniformed military, which he has done repeatedly and shamelessly, since the chain of command mostly hamstrings the military from playing hardball in kind.

So I thought I would gather up some of Rumsfeld's best buck-passers to illustrate the point:

April 1, 2003, on the initial Iraq invasion plan: "I keep getting credit for it in the press, but the truth is, I would be happy to take credit for it but I can't. It was not my plan, it was General Franks' plan, and it was a plan that evolved over a sustained period of time, which I am convinced is an excellent plan."


December 6, 2004, on Iraq: "I don't think anyone would say that the intelligence left anyone with the impression that you'd be in the degree of insurgency you're in today."

"The big debate about the number of troops is one of those things that's really out of my control. I mean, everyone likes to assign responsibility to the top person and I guess that's fine. But the number of troops we had for the invasion was the number of troops that General Franks and General Abizaid wanted."


December 8, 2004, on up-armored humvees: "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. Since the Iraq conflict began, the Army has been pressing ahead to produce the armor necessary at a rate that they believe – it’s a greatly expanded rate from what existed previously, but a rate that they believe is the rate that is all that can be accomplished at this moment. I can assure you that General Schoomaker and the leadership in the Army and certainly General Whitcomb are sensitive to the fact that not every vehicle has the degree of armor that would be desirable for it to have, but that they’re working at it at a good clip."


June 26, 2005, on whether he tried to fight the Iraq War "on the cheap": "[T]his is not a decision I make; this is a decision that's made by the military commanders. General Franks, General Abizaid, General Casey have decided what those numbers are. They've recommended them to me. I've recommended them to the president. I agree with them. I think they're right."
April 17, 2006, on the Iraq war plan: "Of course the implication that there was something wrong with the war plan is amusing almost because of the fact that the war plan’s fashioned by the combatant commanders and it’s reviewed in great detail by the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then it’s recommended to me and the President."
November 10, 2006, on role of other departments in the failure of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan: "Their success has been limited because these activities too often are thought to remain almost exclusively in the responsibility of the Department of Defense," he said. "National security policies can no longer be separate into functions of defense, diplomacy and development."


December 15, 2006, on what happened at Abu Ghraib: "Well, it's pretty clear that on that midnight shift, for a period of some weeks, there were people there who were behaving in a way that was fundamentally inconsistent with the president's instruction to treat people humanely, my instructions that they were to treat people humanely. And they were, for the most part, people involved who weren't doing interrogations."


If you have your own personal favorites, please pass them along.

I know you won't be surprised that the White House has managed to politicize yet another function of government. Still, this is important stuff. Over at TPMCafe, Steve Clemons gives the rundown on the White House's alleged involvement in trying to silence Flynt Leverett, the former government official and scholar who is a prominent critic of Bush foreign policy. The White House claims that Leverett's draft op-ed for the NYT contains classified information, a finding at odds with the CIA's own Publication Review Board. The CIA has bowed to the White House pressure, according to Leverett. All the details here.

Late Friday, the Department of Justice announced that the President had used a recess appointment to name a 34-year-old former White House aide to Karl Rove as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Apparently J. Timothy Griffin made his mark as a Republican campaign operative as opposed to, say, as a lawyer. He replaces current USA Bud Cummins.

The move has provoked the ire of Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark):

Normally, the White House requests names of potential replacements for U. S. attorneys and other positions from the state’s senators or congressmen, and then chooses a nominee from among those names. The nominee then must undergo a background check and Senate confirmation — which could be tough for Griffin in the new Democrat-controlled body. Griffin, a longtime behind-the-scenes Republican operative and political strategist, has worked for the Republican National Committee.

. . .

[Pryor spokesman Michael] Teague noted that an interim appointment could keep Griffin at the helm of the top prosecutor’s post in the state’s Eastern District for the two years remaining in Bush’s term.

“This process circumvents a way to find out about his legal background,” Teague said. “We know about his political background, which is unbalanced. If he’s just interim for the next two years, every decision he makes during that time is going to be somewhat suspect.”

The state’s only Republican congressman, John Boozman, said last month that he hadn’t been asked to submit names to replace Cummins.


Go read the whole article. It's textbook patronage politics. I hope we're not about to see a flood of recess appointments to get the White House through the rest of the President's term with minimal advice and consent from the Democratic Senate.

Late Update: As an emailer noted, a recess appointment now may not be effective for the remainder of Bush's term. More here.

You may recall some of the dandy investigative reporting on Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) turned in by Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV during the midterm election campaign. At issue was whether Murphy was illegally using his congressional staff for campaign purposes. Now it looks like the feds are investigating. KDKA has the latest.

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