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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Now that we've gotten most of the invasion done with, it's time to get down to the real battle: whether or not to install Ahmed Chalabi as the next king of Iraq.

As you've probably heard, a couple days ago the Pentagon airlifted Chalabi and a slew of his troops into southern Iraq for purposes which weren't entirely spelled out. Pentagon critics assumed it was to give Chalabi a leg up on other oppositionists.

The striking thing was that this didn't just seem like a surprise to the press, but also to much of the US government. Here's some more interesting reporting from UPI about an internal government report the CIA circulated last week detailing their arguments against Chalabi's suitability to be the "Iraqi Karzai."

The weird thing about Chalabi is that -- whatever you think of him -- he has a way of getting different arms of the US government fighting against each other. As a sympathetic Washington-based Arab journalist told me last year, "The problem with those guys [i.e., the hawks] is they're so fascinated by Ahmed. They want to wind a policy around Ahmed. Find a policy. And let's see where Ahmed fits in it. And at the same time, you have the State department, the opposite side, they want to make a policy but make sure he's not involved in it."

Let me comment briefly on Lawrence Kaplan's new article in TNR about the Rumsfeld position. This is basically a brief for the Rumsfeld, or Pentagon appointees' position. But it's a good brief, certainly the most sophisticated and convincing I've seen. Still I think Kaplan conflates several issues and sets up at least one straw men.

The heart of Kaplan's argument is contained in this paragraph ...

There is a kernel of truth here. But few of these critics bothered to entertain a simpler and legitimate rationale for the war plan—namely, that it was drawn up with an eye toward political as well as military goals. Principal among these goals was the need to fight the war as a "war of liberation," which meant placing an extreme emphasis on minimizing Iraqi civilian casualties. Rumsfeld's plan also had to contend with the danger of large-scale American casualties and thus precluded a months-long massing of American forces in Kuwait, where they would have been vulnerable to Iraqi attack. Finally, to limit Saddam Hussein's ability to launch missiles, torch oil wells, and create mischief in southern Iraq, it called for a rapid advance to Baghdad and, hence, a smaller force. The alternatives being proposed by the generals today may arguably have enhanced the military effectiveness of the campaign. But they also might have led to political catastrophe.
There are several points here -- either explicit or implicit -- that are very worthwhile. The first is that Rumsfeld and the Army have built up quite a record over the last two years. So there's a lot of pre-existing hostility in the air. What's more, there is a natural tendency for the military to see wars in more purely military terms, i.e., in terms of securing military objectives and force protection rather than in terms of broader political aims.

So, to take an extremely crude, overstated formulation of this viewpoint, military planners might say that instead of a lightning strike, we should have mounted more lumbering, overwhelming force, a long run of bombing, and just crushed all resistance wherever it was before we sent our guys in. If there was one town where a lot of fedayeen were, just pulverize it and sort out the details later, rather than having a bunch of Marines have to get into a bunch of nasty firefights.

I'm not saying anyone was actually suggesting this. But this is the sort of trade-off Kaplan is talking about. We have enough power to just crush the place. But if we bring all our power to bear we'd end up ... well, crushing the place. And that would be terrible for our actual political objective, which is to have most Iraqis feel like, on balance, our invasion was a good thing.

This is a good argument. And I don't doubt that there were some planners -- focusing on force protection and the need to mobilize more overwhelming force -- who pushed for a more military and less political strategy, with a more massive and devastating use of force.

But I'm not sure how on-point this is.

As nearly as I can tell, the main argument from the retired military folks was not that our rules of engagement were too stringent or that we didn't hit with enough force. The argument was that our ground forces were stretched too thin or that there was too little armor. They had a hard time protecting supply-lines, beating down resistance in the South, etc. Frankly, these seem like two separate issues, don't they? The prime argument was simply that we had too few troops on the ground. Would having the 4th ID there on the ground in Iraq have led to a more punishing, politically-counter-productive war or just greater flexibility and an ability to react to the resistance from paramilitaries which eventually developed?

Another argument Kaplan puts forward is the massing of large concentrations of troops in Kuwait and whether that would have left them vulnerable to some sort of preemptive WMD attack from Iraq. If true, this would be a good argument for going in with a minimum of troops at first and then bringing in more later. What's not clear to me about this argument, however, is whether having, say, one-hundred-thousand more troops on hand would have made them that much more vulnerable. A slow build-up of big numbers of concentrated troops is an invitation to various sorts of asymmetric attack. But we already had more than a couple hundred thousand sitting there around or in the general vicinity of the southern border. Would a third more have presented that much more tempting of a target? It doesn't seem that way to me. But I put this forward only as a supposition. It does seem like a key issue to resolve to evaluate the overall good plan/bad plan debate.

On balance, Kaplan makes some very strong points. But there seems to be an apples and oranges issue at the center of his argument.

More later on this ...

Two questions which one keeps hearing: Have we drawn up plans for an invasion of Syria? There are plans and plans, of course. It's in the nature of Joint Staffs to have plans on hand for even most improbable of wars. (If I remember correctly, the US had battle plans even for going to war with Britain as late as the years between the first and second world wars, though perhaps it was earlier than that. Point being, it's the job of the military to have plans on hand for even the most hard-to-conceive eventualities.) But in this case I mean real plans. The second is whether Ariel Sharon will use this moment to strike at Syria -- not an invasion but taking out various stuff from the air. I'm not hearing this from doves or the establishment types, but from the hawks.

There are a slew of reports and images coming out of Iraq tonight, all of which point in one sense or another to the regime crumbling or just melting away. This is not the end of resistance but the end of anything you could credibly call a government in any but a nominal sense. There are some expressions of hostility, many of popular jubilation or simply relief. But some of the most visible images are of what can only be called indifference to our presence: namely, the looting. Looting was always to be expected. This is a country that's been ruled by terror for at least two generations. And even if we had every person in the US military on the ground in Iraq we still wouldn't be able to effectively police the place in the immediate chaos surrounding the fall of the government.

There do seem to be at least some instances of vengeance killings occurring. And there are sure to be many more. But what's really striking is the fairly calm, unhurried looting. This is what happens in a society when everything has been held in check by terror and so many of the bonds which make up society have been slowly ground away.

Some time back I was talking to an Iraqi emigre based in the Washington. (My understanding is that he's now in Kuwait readying to go back into the country.) This is not one of the name "oppositionists," but someone who always struck me as the most authentically democratic of the Iraqis I talked to for my various reporting. He had a much less monochromatic sense of at least the original Baath party than we usually hear today, rightly or wrongly, in the US. And he spoke of the "excessive dictatorship" Saddam Hussein had imposed on the country and the way it had ground away all of what we usually call civil society. Ironically, sanctions had only tightened his grip and still furthered the process, giving the state -- in its thuggish, smuggler, aid-administrator guise -- even greater control over people's lives.

Obviously, "excessive dictatorship" is a funny phrase to hear from someone I'm calling a democrat. But what he meant was this grinding down of institutions and allegiances and affiliations -- everything but the autocratic state and the individual. One of the other distressing points was his description of how this breaking down of civil society had left only those sorts of leaders who could call on atavistic or sectarian loyalties. And this is what you see in most of the Iraqi opposition leaders, the Shi'a Islamists, the Kurdish parties, the various exile groups which have only a very uncertain command over any allegiance inside the country. Many of them, of course, the US essentially created.

The challenge is the lack of national institutions around which you're going to be able or not going to be able to build some sort of unified state.

Even war with all its horrors has its small eddies and backwaters of farce and hilarity. One of those now comes in the stream of press conferences being held by Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahaf, in which he claims that Iraqi troops are beating back American forces, retaking the airport and perhaps even giving the GIs merciless wedgies in more light-hearted moments. These press opportunities, of course, are originating in a city which is now apparently subject to daily incursions by US troops, a jarring contrast of almost Monty Pythonesque dimensions. One almost expects before too long to see Al-Sahaf -- with some embedded reporter's videophone in hand -- broadcasting from an American POW camp, telling listeners that reports of Iraqi battlefield reverses are vastly overstated.

Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer, had a good column on Saturday in the New York Post belying the claims of the Rumsfeld cheer-leading squad ...

Unable to admit that errors of any kind might have been made in planning the war, OSD spokespersons engage in a combination of outright lies, attacks on critics and highly selective memories.

As far as events proceeding according to plan, well, if your plan is vague enough, with a sufficient number of "branches and sequels," as the military puts it, even defeat might be presented as having been anticipated.

Fortunately, we are not faced with failure. The outcome of this war, if not the timing of that outcome, truly is not in doubt. But events did not proceed according to plan.

The much-heralded initial airstrikes failed and are now conveniently forgotten. The ground campaign assumed the lead from the first days of the war - which definitely was not according to the plan. And the number of ground forces permitted to the theater commander was inadequate by any honest measure.

These are some of the more choice comments. But read the whole thing because Peters lays out a strong and broad-ranging argument. And he speaks with authority.

I think I can say with some certainty that Washington is the only city on the planet these days -- at least last night, it was -- where one can go to a party and hear someone do a Karaoke rap about regime change and the grand plan to democratize the Middle East. And, lest there be any question, no, the performer wasn't TPM. Actually, it was pretty good, though I was more than a bit inebriated at that point. So who knows? In any case, I still wasn't convinced, but I was entertained.

Earlier in the evening -- a few hours after getting ambushed on Fox News -- I got asked this question: setting aside the potential deceptions involved in getting the US into this broader conflict and the possible costs, do you believe in the goal? In other words, do you believe a) in the goal of democratizing the Middle East and b) that rooting out illiberal governments in both their authoritarian and fundamentalist forms will strike a fundamental blow against terrorism itself?

It's a tough question on a number of levels. With some equivocation, I said I did. But then, I said, I would have to say I am also in favor of developing warp drive engines. And yet I think that's a case where the investments required are sufficiently steep and the prospects of success so distant that I'm not sure I think we should really get into it too seriously at this point.

I don't want to suggest that democratizing every country in the Middle East is as daunting a challenge as creating the technology for faster-than-light space travel. What I do mean, however, is that agreeing to a goal is only one step in a debate. Do you have any good plan to achieve it? What are the costs? Does the public get a say in the matter? Do the advocates of the liberal experiment themselves have deeply illiberal tendencies?

A colleague of mine and I have had a running conversation going for the last couple months over what a neo-con is, what's the defining trait. Some definitions are biographical and others ideological. Few seem entirely satisfying. And one would want a definition that could be accepted by their supporters and opponents alike -- to make it a basis for further discussions. As I noted in the article in the Monthly, I think one trait is a tendency to let advocacy get the better part of honesty, to privilege, shall we say, morality over facts. But the deeper trait or definition I've come up with is this: Neocons are people who don't like muddling through -- both in the good and bad senses of what that means.

One other point on this running discussion. I mentioned yesterday an article in Policy Review by Stanley Kurtz. Don't miss another article in the same issue: "Rage, Hubris, and Regime Change," by Ken Jowitt. This is a critical appraisal of the Bush administration's foreign policy doctrines, and one I think only another conservative could write. It's entertaining and insightful.

Tod Lindberg is the editor of Policy Review, and he is also one of the people I interviewed at length for my Monthly article. I don't agree with Lindberg's stance. But far from being one of the deceivers, he is someone who I think fully recognizes the difficulty of a years-long effort to reform and democratize the Middle East and entirely frank and the costs and dangers. He just thinks we have no choice. In any case, it's a credit to him and Policy Review to have published this dissenting piece. This is an important debate to have so long as we can have it openly and on its own terms.

At around 5:15 PM EST this afternoon I'll be going on Fox News to debate whether it's okay for anyone to question or criticize Don Rumsfeld's war-planning. We've gotten contradictory intelligence reports so far about whether I'll be greeted as a liberator or an invader over at the Fox studios. So, to prepare for all possible contingencies, I'll be bringing heavy armaments as well as candy for the children. You know, it always makes sense to be prepared: Hope is not a plan.

Everyone is in Kuwait. And I mean everyone. I was talking to a couple ex-CIA sources today, trying to get a handle on what's going on with the Iraqi-occupation-government-to-be. I wanted to figure out who was in and who was out, who was worth trying to get on the phone, and so forth. How about this ex-CIA Iraq-hand? Should I give him a call? Oh, he's in Kuwait working for General X. That anti-Chalabi Iraqi emigre? Oh, him? In Kuwait. He's in the mix too.

Some day, and perhaps some day in the not-too-distant future, someone will write this book. How much of the Washington foreign policy politics of the last decade got compressed into this scrum at the head of the Persian Gulf, how everyone who has a theory about what the next government of Iraq should look like, everyone who wants to make money off it -- in short, the level-headed, the hopelessly idealistic and the utterly craven -- all descended on Kuwait City to jockey for position.

There's the Pentagon and the State department, the three or four different "Iraqi oppositions" the CIA has courted over the last dozen years, the NGOs, the would-be Lawrence of Arabias, the gun-runners, the gentle-minded rule-of-law mavens, the ex-Generals, the constitutional lawyers, the hotheads and the maniacs.

Everyone's there or soon will be. And they're all waiting at the starting line.

Oh yeah, and then there's the Iraqis ...

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