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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Does it matter whether or not you bait-and-switch a nation into a good cause?

For the purposes of my hypothetical, let's set aside for the moment whether or not it was a good thing to invade Iraq to topple a bad-acting regime and build a democratic state in its place. In fact, let's stipulate for the sake of argument that it was not only a good thing but a worthwhile expenditure of national resources.

In the lead-up to the war, I argued repeatedly that it was a mistake to gin up phony or exaggerated reasons for our invasion of Iraq, even if the effort itself was justifiable on other grounds. It was wrong not only because it's bad practice to bamboozle the public but because such deception has very practical consequences.

Now we're seeing some of them.

David Warren is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and, among other things, a main proponent and perhaps originator of the 'flypaper' hypothesis.

In an article today he asks whether Americans will have the stomach and sticktoitiveness to stick it out in Iraq. And he comes to the conclusion that they probably won't. This is really a wretched argument, more wretched because it mirrors the communications strategy coming from the White House and many war-hawk circles in Washington.

To the extent that there is war-weariness -- and that's a complicated, fluid reality -- it's not so much because of casualties as the administration's own pervasive dishonesty in building the case for the war.

(Actually, dishonesty before the fact, mixed with incompetence after the fact, which is a really bad combination.)

Before the war, I had many conversations with war-hawks who said something like this. "If this is a good war, it really doesn't matter if you hype up the arguments to get the country into it. It's a good thing. And a little rallying the country is okay, if the goal is a good one and a necessary one."

The thinking was that once you've got the country into Iraq you can rely on American gumption to stick it out till the job is done, even if you weren't completely honest about what that job really was going in.

But there's a problem with that kind of thinking. Once it becomes clear what sort of enterprise you've gotten the country into, it may turn out they really don't have the stomach for it. And then what do you do?

Or, actually, that's an unfair way to put it. Let's try this instead ... Once it becomes clear what the stakes really were and what the costs really are, you may find out that the country doesn't think it's a good bargain and doesn't support it.

The reasoning of many war-hawks on this point was extremely cynical. In essence, it went like this: Once we're in, we'll have the wolf by the ears and it really won't matter what people think. We'll have created a fait accompli. They'll have no choice.

Of course, there's another possibility. The public might start wanting to pull the troops out when the effort has barely even begun.

Today those same war-hawks are arguing that it's a moral failing for the public not to want to follow through on the enterprise that they bamboozled the public into.

Now, let's draw back and make a few points ...

The war still has a lot of public support. And the situation is far from irretrievable. War-hawks want to portray the situation as something akin to the late stages of Vietnam, with a defeatist press and establishment, a war-weary public, and a few brave souls who've read their Churchill and remember the lessons of Munich wanting to stick it out.

But that's not where we are. What you've got is a lot of people who are unhappy about the administration's dishonesty, an equal number who don't think the current plan is working, and a pretty broad consensus that we need to make some course corrections if we're going to be successful.

So let's make those course corrections and give ourselves a shot at an outcome which is good for us and the Iraqis.

One thing we shouldn't do is give those liars a chance to question people's moral fiber for not signing on to their latest fairy-tale, the never-ending-story about why we did all this in the first place. Let's write those folks out of the conversation entirely.

A few days ago there was a small stir over an article in the Washington Post describing Paul Bremer's efforts to start recruiting members of Saddam's intelligence services (particularly his foreign intelligence service, the Mukhabarat) to bolster US intelligence capacities in Iraq in order to stem the rising tide of terrorism.

This development raises any number of very valid concerns. But what strikes me about it is less the immediate issue of whether we should be using Saddam's ex-secret police to help control the country than another broader issue.

In the run-up to war, in the debate between neoconservatives and what's left of the foreign policy establishment, the neocons' primary argument was about the moral and strategic poverty of their opponents' policy of supporting corrupt authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Not only was that policy obnoxious to our values, they argued. But it was also bad news in strategic terms since corrupt, illegitimate regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt were simply breeding grounds for al Qaida recruits who attacked us on our own territory.

Now we're seeing the other side of the coin.

It's awfully difficult to build a new state and society around the democratic opposition, when the democratic opposition really doesn't exist. You can say it exists, but once you're in the country it's liable to become clear that the democratic opposition is really just a program at AEI. However that may be, it's very hard not to fall back on at least some of the baddies from the old era because they end up being the people who have a lot of the skills you need. This is one of the reasons, after all, why we ended up working with a lot of Nazis during the occupation of Germany, the broadly successful program of de-Nazification notwithstanding.

My point is not to justify hiring Mukhabarat agents today or ex-SS officers half a century ago. I'm only trying to note how difficult these enterprises are and that it's usually impossible to avoid making at least some deals with bad-actors from the old regime. The key is not making no deals but making them judiciously so that the structure of the old regime, as opposed to a few individuals, doesn't return.

The broader point, however, is that this should have been friggin' obvious from the start. In those earlier debates you can almost imagine (and frankly I've heard) grizzled CIA operators saying, "Wow, and all this time we were tossing Mossadeq, keeping Mubarak in power, and making nice with the Saudis, we could have just built western democracies instead. Why didn't we think of that?"

I don't want to give too much of a pass to the Agency types. We have seen a lot of boomerang effects (or 'blowback' as the term of art has it) from our coddling of dictators and foreign repression. But it's not like the neos were the first ones to come up with the idea of exporting democracy. The history of US foreign interventions in the last century is filled with stories in which the US first tried to build liberal institutions in this or that country, saw it was going to be either really tough or unsustainable, and then settled for dictators or autocrats who were thought could secure our interests for the time being.

That's not great. But it's even worse to blunder into a situation blinded by an arrogance you mistook for idealism and then end up falling back on the same old bad-guy-empowering tactics anyway.

Of course, a lot of these guys never believed their own mumbo-jumbo to start with. But that's another story for another post.

From a story today on the Reuters newswire ...

Operating in growing numbers, the Taliban and their allies have succeeded in destabilizing large parts of Afghanistan and creating conditions that could undermine the U.S. military and central government. Aid and reconstruction is suspended across swathes of territory in the center, south and southeast, giving Afghans the impression the international community has abandoned them now the Taliban has been formally ousted.


Speaks for itself. Read the whole piece.

A few grafs from Michael Wolff's piece about a recent conference/political powwow in Aspen ...

There was a party on the second day for Clinton at the Aspen version of Nobu, and then, later that evening, a discussion between Clinton and President Kagame, hosted by the William Morris Agency, at Whiskey Rocks Bar in the St. Regis Hotel (Michael Eisner, the Disney CEO, while not a conference attendee, slipped into the room).

This turned out to be the pivotal moment of the conference—even the primal one. When Clinton took questions, a young man from a technology company who identified himself as chairman of Bush-Cheney 2004 in California said he was offended by Clinton’s partisanship. To which Clinton, without hesitation, and with some kind of predatory gleam in his eye, said, “Good!” From there, Clinton went on, with emotion and anger, at a level seemingly foreign to most everyone here, to rip to shreds the motives, values, and legitimacy of the Republicans.

It was all anyone could talk about the next day. People seemed genuinely taken aback (some people kept offering that since it was late at night, in a bar, it didn’t quite count) that one of their own might have violated the accepted codes of lofty liberal behavior. There was a little current of fear at the sudden recognition that testosterone could fuel politics. It was a shock, apparently, that we might be this close to real feelings. That politics could actually be personal.



Find the whole article here.

That should go over well.

Back during the British mandate period, there was a pipeline that shipped oil from Kirkuk to the Israeli port city of Haifa. The pipeline is still there. But, for what are probably obvious reasons, it's sat unused since 1948. As we reported in late April, the possibility of reopening the pipeline was being actively discussed in Israel, by members of Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, and by certain persons in the US government.

Now Ha'aretz has reported that the Israeli Prime Minister's office has asked for and received from a "senior Pentagon official" a telegram asking the Israelis to investigate financial and technical questions relating to refitting and restarting the pipeline. According to Ha'aretz, the Prime Minister's office "views the pipeline to Haifa as a "bonus" the U.S. could give to Israel in return for its unequivocal support for the American-led campaign in Iraq."

Now, given that one of the Iraqis' big suspicions is that we're after their oil, you might think that rerouting almost half of the country's oil through Israel, and using a pipeline last used when Palestine was ruled by the British, might at least create some perception problems.

But that doesn't seem to be all of it. That oil from the Kirkuk oil fields is now transhipped through Turkey. And folks in government circles in Jerusalem seem to think that these American hints about the Kirkuk to Haifa pipeline are, as Ha'aretz says, part of an "attempt to apply pressure on Turkey."

This deserves more attention. Why are we even remotely considering this scheme to send half of Iraq's oil through Israel? And why do we seem to be trying to sow discord between two of our most important allies in the region?

A few nights ago, over drinks, a friend asked me what the rationale for a Clark candidacy would be. Not the substantive rationale, mind you, but the political one. How could he win? What point would his entry into the race have at this point, and so forth?

The political rationale is, I think, straightforward and strong.

Here's how I'd describe it.

Howard Dean is now by many measures the front-runner in the Democratic primary campaign. Though he lags in the national polls, he's at least in the hunt in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He's raising money at a faster clip than any of the other candidates. And he's clearly generated the most excitement.

But Dean is an insurgent candidate, often campaigning explicitly against Washington and the party establishment. By many measures he's campaigning to various left-leaning elements in the Democratic party base -- notwithstanding his previous record as a fairly centrist governor of Vermont. I say this all not with any judgment attached, just as a description of the developments in the race, as nearly I can ascertain them.

Now, by the normal laws of political gravitation, Dean's sustained surge should have forced a coalescence around one of the several more-centrist-minded establishment candidates -- Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, Lieberman. With Dean catching fire, those who aren't comfortable with his candidacy should be getting behind one candidate in order to beat him. But that clearly has not happened.

In some ways this is a more striking development than Dean's rise itself.

Now, why hasn't that coalescence taken place? I think the answer is elementary. None of the current candidates has passed the audition for the job. Lieberman's campaign is generally believed to be moribund (and I like the guy). Edwards has gone absolutely nowhere. Gephardt has bet everything on getting the support of organized labor. But if he gets it, it'll basically be a mercy ... well, I don't want to be off-color. But, you know what I mean. Kerry is basically the establishment front-runner at the moment. But it's an extremely anemic frontrunnerdom. He's basically the front-runner by default because all the other potential frontrunners who haven't caught fire are doing even worse than he is.

What this all tells me is that there is a vacuum with a lot of political forces pushing to fill it. And yet none of the current candidates has been capable of becoming the vehicle for those forces. I know these are some convoluted metaphors. But I trust my meaning is relatively clear.

Now, there are all sorts of reasons why late-entering, draft-so-and-so type candidacies never end up winning. But the vacuum I've just described is one Clark could potentially fill. At least he could get in the game and give it his best shot.

Clark's other potential strength is that he combines outsider status and a thorough critique of the president, with impeccable national security credentials and domestic policy positions with a seemingly broad appeal.

Words matter. Often, that's just a conceit of people in the word business. But it's also true.

A few moments ago I was in a cab heading toward the DC train station. On the radio, the president was commenting on the recent troubles in Iraq and the broader war on terrorism.

He said something to this effect: We're in a war on terrorism. When the civilized world expands democracy it's a challenge to the terrorists' totalitarian vision. And so they strike back with increasing terror. They're hoping the civilized world will flinch. But we're not going to flinch, and so forth.

I understand what the president's saying. I recognize a general truth in it.

But the generality, vagueness and abstraction is the problem. They are becoming the engines of policy incoherence and the cover for domestic bad-actors who want to get this country into fights few Americans signed up for.

We've heard critiques of this phrase, the 'war on terror,' ever since 9/11. But only now, I think, are we seeing the full effects of its mystification. We're at war with al Qaida and any and all radical Islamist groups who threaten mass casualty terrorism against America or her vital interests abroad. We are at war, even if it's a war fought by non-conventional means against non-conventional, non-state entities. That's who we're at war with: a loose-knit network of radical Islamist groups who practice mass-casualty terrorism against us.

Radical Islamist revisionism is a primary foreign policy challenge for the US and probably will remain so for a very long time. That understanding should (and already has) decisively shape our policies toward the various states in the Middle East. But we're not at war with it any more than we were or could be 'at war' with right-wing or left-wing extremism in the second half of the 20th century.

Just as vague and abstract language makes for bad prose, it is also the handmaiden of bad policy and the abettor of buck-passing.

All this talk about civilization, totalitarianism, fascism and terror is just preventing us from looking at what's happening and recognizing what our own interests are. They also make it possible for some people to convince themselves that it's not a screw-up that we've turned Iraq into a terrorist magnet. After all we're at war with 'the terrorists' and it makes sense that 'the terrorists' would attack us anyway, if only in a new venue. And we always knew it would be a long fight, a long twilight struggle, and yada, yada, yada and the rest of it. Same with the mumbo-jumbo about totalitarianism.

Look at the difference thus far between Afghanistan and Iraq. In the first place, we drained the swamp. In the second, we've made the swamp.

It's really that simple.

Admittedly, that's an odd development from an administration so generally inimical to wetlands. But, you know, ironies abound.

Bear in mind that the author of these words is a fairly convinced Wilsonian, a strong supporter of our interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, someone who's convinced that our values cannot be divorced from our national security interests, a believer in the power for good of American military might, and someone who thinks progressives who recoil at this administration's excesses should avoid the safe-harbor of foreign policy Realism (creeping Scowcroftism).

But the White House is being run by men and women who've already made a lot of really stupid mistakes that are going to cost a lot of American lives, money and credibility. And now they're trying to hide from accountability in their own idiot abstractions.

A not-so-subtle message, picked up on in this article on the Reuters wire.

Deputy Secretary of State Dick Armitage went on Al Jazeera yesterday and warned states bordering on Iraq about allowing militants and jihadists to make their way into the country. What stands out is the list of countries and how Armitage seemed to equate them.

Thus Armitage ...

"The borders are quite porous, as you'd imagine, and the fact that we've captured a certain number of foreign fighters in Baghdad and around Iraq indicates that the ways that these people are getting into the country is from Iran and from Syria and from Saudi Arabia ... I'm not in any position to assert that the governments of Iran or Syria or Saudi Arabia are in any way responsible. But, as a minimum, I can state that they're not -- these fighters -- are not being stopped at the borders, and this is something that causes us a great deal of concern."


First, this was an interview for a Gulf Arab audience. Second, Iran and Syria are hostile states which the US now frequently (explicitly or not) threatens with military force.

Armitage seemed to go out of his way to place Saudi Arabia on a par with these other two as neighboring, trouble-making states.

I'm not sure precisely what this means. But it means something.

From the annals of artful verbal construction ...

"Iraq is turning out to be a continuing battle in the war on terrorism."

-- George W. Bush
August 22nd, 2003


Sarcasm fails me ...

"Time to Unite" is a typical -- or, in other words, excellent -- column by The Washington Post's David Ignatius. Pique, anger, resentment, schadenfreude, hidebound ideology -- everyone must set aside everything in order to cooperate on finding a practical solution to solving the crisis in Iraq and stablizing the situaiton. As Lincoln said, we must all disenthrall ourselves. Ignatius seems more optimistic than I am that the administration has seen the light on this one. But, in this case, I'd be very happy to be proven wrong.

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