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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Imagine that. Last night we told you about Joe Allbaugh, President Bush's longtime right-hand-man who just opened a company to get into the Iraq contract business. And last week we told you about how Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith's old law firm, Feith & Zell, has now opened a new division specializing in hooking up clients with the sweetest deals in Iraq. Feith & Zell is now Zell, Goldberg & Co, though they haven't yet gotten around to changing their website address, which is still www.fandz.com.

Well, there's more.

Let me introduce you to the Iraqi International Law Group, a new outfit ready to help you secure contracts for rebuilding Iraq. And let me also introduce you to the head of IILG, Salem Chalabi.

Name sound familiar? Related to Ahmed Chalabi? You bet: Salem's Ahmed's nephew.

Now, Salem just got his website up online. And he seems to have gotten some help because up until a couple days ago the site address was registered under the name of Marc Zell. Right, that Marc Zell, Feith's former law partner. And the help continues. According to Chalabi, Zell is working as the firm's "marketing consultant." In fact, at the bottom of the IILG website in the 'contact' section it lists the "Partner for International Marketing" as someone with the email address "mzell@iraqlawfirm.com". And I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that that's an email address for Marc Zell. Call me crazy.

In any case, I'd love to tell you that this latest twist is the product of my own sleuthing. But most of it comes from a very good article in Wednesday's Guardian, passed on to me by a helpful TPM reader (DW). (Well, actually I noticed the email address on the site, so I'll give myself a small pat on the back.)

The contracts are becoming a key lever of power in Washington and in Baghdad. There's much more of this to come.

Okay. I normally make something of a policy of not responding to jabs and cracks from other websites, because there's no end to it. But this one I simply can't resist. Wednesday evening I wrote that "the president's numbers seem to be in something close to free-fall. His approval ratings have fallen roughly 20 percentage points in four months ... the president's rapid descent is undeniable. And it's not clear he's hit bottom."

Au Contraire! says the Wall Street Journal online, referring to my quote above. The WSJ argues that my post represents "a triumph of hope over arithmetic."

Why?

The president's current rate of decline, they note, is "unsustainable" since it would lead to a mere 9% approval rating by May 2004. (They actually provide a chart.)

Continues the WSJ ...

Mathematically, then, Bush's "free fall" has to end at some point, with his ratings at least leveling off. And it seems likely that his "bottom" is a lot closer to the current 49% than to zero, for the simple reason that his own party remains united behind them.


Now, it's true that the finite number of people in the country able to offer support does represent something of a brake on one's ability to keep falling in the polls indefinitely. But somehow, if I were a Republican, I'm not sure I'd find the Journal's analysis that reassuring. My analysis may be a triumph of hope over mathematics. But I'd call theirs an unwitting triumph of mathematics over hope.

A lot closer to 49% than zero!

Is that the new motto? How the mighty have fallen.

File this one under Un-#$%@#*&-believable.

Let me introduce you to New Bridge Strategies, LLC. New Bridge is 'Helping to Rebuild a New Iraq' as their liner note says.

Here's the company's new blurb from their website ...

New Bridge Strategies, LLC is a unique company that was created specifically with the aim of assisting clients to evaluate and take advantage of business opportunities in the Middle East following the conclusion of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Its activities will seek to expedite the creation of free and fair markets and new economic growth in Iraq, consistent with the policies of the Bush Administration. The opportunities evolving in Iraq today are of such an unprecedented nature and scope that no other existing firm has the necessary skills and experience to be effective both in Washington, D.C. and on the ground in Iraq.


A 'unique company'? You could say that. Who's the Chairman and Director of New Bridge? That would be Joe M. Allbaugh, President Bush's longtime right-hand-man and until about six months ago his head of FEMA. Before that of course he was the president's chief of staff when he was governor of Texas and campaign manager for Bush-Cheney 2000.

Allbaugh was part of the president's so-called 'Iron Triangle' -- the other two being Karl Rove and Karen Hughes. And now Allbaugh's running an outfit that helps your company get the sweetest contracts in Iraq? That sound right to you? Think he'll have any special pull?

Visit the site to see their "interactive map of Iraq [which] will show areas of opportunity in the post-war rebuilding effort for specific industries."

It's James Fisk and Jay Gould of Arabia. Unbelievable ...

Okay, a few random thoughts on the debate, just finishing up now in the 9 PM replay. My main reaction is that there are just too many candidates to follow any of them through the debate, any real themes, how they're doing, anything like that. The candidates who stood out to me were Clark, Dean and Kerry (and the order there is intentionally alphabetical). I thought each had a good debate.

Clark had some good moments, his opening statement was very good. Mainly he just didn't make any mistakes and, to my mind, showed a lot of energy. As with the rest, there just wasn't enough time hearing him talk.

The same for Dean. I can see why his supporters like him. He was strong, with those moments of sparkle-in-the-eye candor and wit. At the same time, he was on the receiving end of a lot of attacks, which is the sign of a front runner, but also took some of the edge off his game.

Kerry was sharp, strong and smart.

Many of the other candidates gave good answers and came off well -- Lieberman, Graham, etc. (Lieberman had one extremely funny moment.) But on balance the others just felt irrelevant to the race. That may be unfair to Gephardt who was definitely all over the debate. But on balance that was my impression.

I can't tell you yet what I thought of the Democratic presidential debate because I haven't seen it yet. I'm watching the taped version on MSNBC in a few minutes. But let me say a few things about this issue of Clark and the Republican party.

I went back and looked in the Nexis database to get a sense of what people were saying in 2001 --- that is to say, before people had any interest in spinning one way or another. Also mixed in is my sense of the situation from watching Clark since the Kosovo War in 1999 and more closely since Clark wrote Waging Modern War in the summer of 2001.

So here's my sense of this.

Clark moved back to Arkansas after leaving the Army to get into business and make some money and in all likelihood to get into politics. He got politically involved and basically kept people guessing. Republican scuttlebutt had him running for office as a Republican; Democratic scuttlebutt had him running as a Democrat. He gave this speech to a Pulaski County Republican Committee dinner. But a little context from a May 20th, 2001 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette …

Pulaski County Committee Chairman Greg Racicot invited Wesley Clark as keynote speaker. Former supreme allied commander in Europe and leader of NATO during the recent Kosovo campaign, Clark now lives in Little Rock and works in high-technology venture capital at Stephens Inc. A hot-ticket guest speaker, Clark plans a similar appearance before the Democrats, his wife, Gert, confided.


Then when everyone was sure he was going to run for something, he signed on as a CNN military analyst in late August 2001. Here's a blurb from the time in US News' Washington Whispers …

Just when Arkansas political bigs figured that local-boy-done-good Wesley Clark was set to make a bid for public office, he's surprised them all by signing on as a military and current affairs analyst with CNN, Whispers learns. Clark, a retired Army general who was one of the U.S. military bosses in Bosnia, is expected to be a regular on the cable network as it scrambles to recover viewers who've switched to Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Since retiring, Clark has been a fixture on the Arkansas political trail, speaking at key events normally reserved for campaigning pols. That's led most state politicians to assume he's planning to run for Senate or governor. Clark, however, keeps them guessing. And not just about his future: folks don't even know if he's a Republican or Democrat.


(Signing on as a military policy analyst for CNN a couple weeks before 9/11 does seem to signal an uncanny sense of timing, but I'll leave that for another time.)

Now my sense of Clark's political direction goes like this. I take Clark at his word that he was simply not a partisan when he was in the military. (Spencer Ackerman -- he of busting the WMD intel story wide open fame -- has a really good article in the new New Republic discrediting the idea that Clark was somehow Clinton's crony or one of the 'Clinton generals.' I strongly recommend Spencer's piece.) And as late as May 2001 he was not above saying kind words about the president's foreign policy team. But at the same time, during the first half of 2001, he was writing a book that was very much at odds with the president's foreign policy, in some cases explicitly so. And I think if you read the things Clark was saying as a commentator you can see him getting increasingly disenchanted with the radical direction President Bush was taking the nation's foreign policy in. You can see some signs of this at the very beginning of the administration, as in this exchange from February 2001 on MSNBC, and then progressively more so over time …

HOLT: General, I know this is a political question. But if we knew he had weapons of mass destruction and knew where they were, would you advise an air strike against those sites?

CLARK: Well, I think we're watching this at all times. And I think that the administration will look for that.

You know, we did the Desert Fox strikes two years ago because we thought that he had not agreed to the inspection visit. We knew where some of these weapons of mass destruction facilities were, and we took them out.

And if I were Saddam Hussein, I'd be quite concerned. If he's trying to do this again, he should expect that America and its allies will take the appropriate actions.

HOLT: Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, two names we associate with the Gulf War, now in big leadership positions. Do you think that will change, create more tension, perhaps bring the coalition as we knew it back together?

CLARK: Well, I think that we've got a very effective foreign policy team in this administration. I think they're going to do the right things.

But I think they're going to have to go into the Middle East, work with the allies there, go through the Persian Gulf and talk to people and get their feet on the ground first before they start making major moves.



A good piece I've found on Clark during this period is a column that Jim Pinkerton wrote in Newsday in July 2001. It's about Clark's book, but also about his views of the early stages of President's Bush's foreign policy.

Now, one final point. There's this idea afoot that Clark got into the Democratic party out of some sort of opportunism, and that this happened after 9/11. Frankly, this makes no sense. Is there really any time over the last two years that getting into the Democratic party would have seemed like a good way to get into office or advance politically? Particularly in a state like Arkansas which has been trending Republican? I mean, sad to say, but I don't see it. At the moment, President Bush is looking weaker and weaker. But that's pretty recent. Clark is clearly new to the Democratic party on many levels. But as explanations go, this strikes me as an awfully weak one.

Check out this article by UPI's Eli Lake on the growing split between the US and the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), particularly as that rift came out into the open in New York this week.

This question has so many moving parts -- who should have authority over the ministries, who doles out the contracts, whether the IGC really has that much more legitimacy than Bremer -- that it's awfully hard to make heads or tails of. But I'm quite skeptical that a quick move to devolve control to this IGC would be a good idea.

On this issue, if on few others, I think the administration is right.

Presidents can do a lot worse than 49% approval a year before they face reelection -- as NBC is reporting for President Bush tonight.

In fact, I'm pretty sure the last two presidents who won second terms (Reagan in 1983 and Clinton in 1995) were doing worse a year out. But the key here is that the president's numbers seem to be in something close to free-fall. His approval ratings have fallen roughly 20 percentage points in four months. And both Reagan and Clinton were on the rebound at the time.

Even with all the context which may be fairly provided (like the fact that the 70+ numbers were part of a post-war spike), the president's rapid descent is undeniable. And it's not clear he's hit bottom.

I'm hearing many conservatives say now that the White House political office is off their game. But I see no real evidence of this. The problem is more fundamental. For quite some time this White House has functioned like a heavily leveraged business, an overextended investor that suddenly gets a margin call. To extend the business metaphor, the White House has been surviving not on profits but expectations of future profits or, in other words, credibility. The White House has been able to get the public to sit tight with a lot of objectively poor news (a poor economy, big deficits, bad news from abroad) on the basis of trust.

But a combination of the manifest incompetence of the planning for post-war Iraq and the dishonesty of the build-up for the war have become increasingly difficult to defend or deny. And that's struck a grave blow against the president's credibility.

Credibility of course is unitary. And the erosion has ricocheted from foreign policy to domestic policy and back again in escalating fashion. Suddenly the White House's explanations for why the country has fallen back into half trillion dollar deficits are ringing hollow.

As we've seen recently, a hollowed-out company can push along for some time so long as no one takes a good look at the books or calls in their loans. But when it happens the fall can be dramatic.

More talk, more diversion.

In President Bush's speech at the UN yesterday many took note of his call for a "new anti-proliferation resolution" to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Now it's becoming clear that that was just a throwaway line meant for domestic consumption, one fashioned by speechwriters rather than policy-makers and intended to give Americans the impression that the president was pushing some sort of new UN-friendly, multilateral intitiative.

Not true. Apparently the policy-makers and diplomats knew nothing about it until the words came off the president's lips.

As the AP noted with gentle understatement: "U.S. and British diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were surprised by Bush's call for a weapons resolution and that Tuesday was the first time they had heard about the idea."

(We'll be linking to another story soon with further reporting on this.)

What's more, the actual counter-proliferation experts say such a resolution would be close to meaningless since the key controls and restrictions are already covered by existing treaties.

Needless to say, the folks in the hall knew this. This was for domestic consumption, some padding spun up by speechwriters to balance out the speech.

More talk, more diversion, more denial.

Don't miss this post at Juan Cole's site about the new plan to privatize Iraq's economy.

More on the UN speech and a White House in denial -- my new column in The Hill.

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