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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Trouble signs out of the Balkans.

A week ago Misha Glenny wrote in The Guardian that we are in danger of squandering NATO's success in stabilizing and ending the bloodshed in the region by failing to secure a permanent territorial and constitutional settlement. The 'we' is slightly misleading since, as Glenny notes, there is common agreement that the EU should take the lead political role in the long-term stabilization of the Balkans.

Today, though, the Financial Times adds another worrisome piece of news. The Pentagon is making a serious push to pull US forces out of Balkans altogether. The Army has always wanted to get those troops out. And administration hardliners have always taken a dim view of the whole enterprise. But the problem today is real. After years of saying our military was overstretched, we are now extremely overstretched. According to that recent CBO report, we are faced with the possibility that we will have no choice but to dramatically reduce our troop deployment in what is very much an active theater of operations.

Their total number is fewer than 4,000. But they're at least of great symbolic value and quite possibly operational value as well.

What distresses me most is a quote like this, which the FT article has from an "administration official": "The Balkans have always been essentially a European challenge more than an American one. Much of Europe seems bound and determined to leave Iraq as primarily an American challenge. Perhaps, therefore, a more clear-cut division of labour is in order."

The pique there is unmistakable. And the one thing we really don't want is to torpedo our successes in the Balkans (which are looking increasingly well-handled in contrast to recent bumbling) with the acrimony over Iraq.

Plus, if you look at that quote, it really does seem to mix the worst of Bush I with the worst of Bush II, doesn't it?

Sage words from one of the sharpest political observers in town. By email this afternoon.

I don't think fundraising is that important now. I'd look for how [Clark] deals with the press. Is he comfortable? Is he brittle? The precedent is not Hart and McCain, but Perot. If he wins over the national press, everything else will fall into line, but if he gets a reputation as touchy or distant or ill-informed, he'll be in trouble regardless of how much money he raises or whom he hires.

Sounds right to me. My only addition to this would be that questions over how his tenure as Commander of the United States European Command ended may show how he'll do in comfort and brittleness terms. My sense is that he's got a good story to tell. But the press is picky, a temperamental beast.

Department of credit where credit is due ...

Today, when asked his opinion on whether Saddam Hussein played any role in the 9/11 attacks, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld said: "I've not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that. We know he was giving $25,000 a family for anyone who would go out and kill innocent men, women and children. And we know of various other activities. But on that specific one, no, not to my knowledge."

Stating the obvious shouldn't win you a prize really. But in these days, a little honesty goes a long way.

So he's in. Gen. Wesley Clark is, according to late reports, going to announce tomorrow in Little Rock that he's running for the Democratic nomination for president. (I have to tell you that I had my ear pretty close to the ground on this one. And Clark really, really kept people guessing.)

I think this has the potential to turn the primary race completely upside-down. The Dean insurgency has almost completely defined the race to this point. At present, you can't even call it an insurgency really since Dean is in fact the front-runner, by most reasonable measures. As I've written before, I think there's a niche waiting to be filled just to Dean's right. And the real mystery of the campaign so far is that none of the other contenders has managed to fill it and coalesce those who don't support Dean behind their candidacy. Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt ... none of them have managed it.

It's an oversimplification, of course, to frame the matter just in left-right terms. It's also a matter of tonality, the kind of campaign Dean is running, the demographic slice of the party he's appealing to, and so on. The folks whom I respect most on this question believe Dean's mix of Vermontly social liberalism and staunch opposition to the war will make it exceedingly difficult for him to appeal to the swing voters who will eventually decide the election in battleground states like Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. But, even beyond that point, strong insurgent candidacies generally force those who oppose those insurgencies to coalesce around a single candidate. And to date that hasn't happened.

Of course, Dean's supporters have an altogether different view of the matter. They believe that he is the only candidate who can beat George W. Bush, and that it is his early opposition to the war, the defiance of his message, and his social liberalism that makes him such a strong candidate.

To them I can only say that, with sincere respect, I disagree with their judgment. Or, at least, I'm deeply skeptical.

Now, what chance does Clark have?

All my experience of conventional, real-world politics tells me that political outsiders and late-entrants end up not winning. And that experience says that Clark doesn't win. But this is already far from a normal or conventional political moment. Howard Dean's extremely impressive run to date, if nothing else, shows that. Add to that the very unsettled international scene, President Bush's wobbly approval ratings, a shaky economy, and the demonstrable inability -- as noted above -- for any of the other candidates to get any traction.

Here's what I'll be watching in the coming days.

How well does Clark do raising money? This is one of the main issues people are talking about when they say Clark is getting in too late: he's so far behind the rest in fund-raising. But I think what the Dean campaign has shown us is that the Internet has made it possible to raise a lot of money quickly -- from a vastly larger potential pool of givers than candidates have in the past -- if you catch fire.

Of course, the 'if' is the big thing. But if Clark doesn't catch fire quickly money won't matter anyway. The problem in the old days was that candidates like a Gary Hart or a John McCain could catch fire and rocket in the polls and yet just not have the time to raise the money needed to sustain that surge. Small donor fund-raising on the Internet by no mean solves that problem for Clark. But I think it at least creates a possible solution to the dilemma of surging in the polls and still not being able to raise money quickly enough to avoid getting crushed by a better financed candidate.

What sort of team does he put together?

How do his opponents come after him? Clark was not universally popular in the Army. And he rubbed some powerful people the wrong way. I have no doubt that this opponents -- both Dems and the Republicans -- will air these issues thoroughly, as is their right. How and how well does Clark respond?

Of course, I have many other questions, many other things I'll be watching for. But there'll be time enough to get to those points later.

We hope to have the new, redesigned TPM up and running by next week. We're now "beta-testing" the redesigned site, trying to get all the glitches and bugs ironed out. And coming up this Thursday we'll be presenting the TPM interview with Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Stay tuned.

I don't know whether to write this post or just put in a call to Jack Shafer, who's been on the case for months. But you really must read Tuesday's article by Judith Miller in the Times about Syria's "ambitious program to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons."

Miller of course has come in for a great deal of criticism, and rightly so, for her long record of highly credulous reporting about Iraq's WMD programs and support for various terrorist groups. Much of that reporting was apparently based on very uncritical sourcing to the usual suspects in the Iraqi exile community and equally dubious sources in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. (Howard Kurtz famously got hold of an email in which Miller lectured a Times colleague about how Ahmed Chalabi was the source for "most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper." For more of the details see Shafer's on-going reporting.)

Now she's back at it again with Syria, with a piece which looks to be based on the same set of sources and clearly takes the same credulous approach.

It seems widely accepted that Syria does possess chemical weapons. And they clearly support terrorist groups in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. But an ambitious program to develop nuclear weapons? Here's what the CIA's most recent public report on rogue state WMD says: "Syria—an NPT signatory with full-scope IAEA safeguards—has a nuclear research center at Dayr Al Hajar. Russia and Syria have approved a draft cooperative program on cooperation on civil nuclear power. In principal, broader access to Russian expertise provides opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons."

That seems rather short of an ambitious program.

The truth is, who knows? Maybe they do have one. But Miller's sources' credibility on this stuff is pretty near shot. And, frankly, so is hers.

Apparently he can't help himself.

Apparently the Vice-President of the United States can't help lying to and deceiving the people he was elected to serve.

A harsh charge? Very. But I don't see how the truth of the accusation can be denied after this exchange this morning with Tim Russert on Meet the Press ...

MR. RUSSERT: The Washington Post asked the American people about Saddam Hussein, and this is what they said: 69 percent said he was involved in the September 11 attacks. Are you surprised by that?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. I think it’s not surprising that people make that connection.

MR. RUSSERT: But is there a connection?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We don’t know. You and I talked about this two years ago. I can remember you asking me this question just a few days after the original attack. At the time I said no, we didn’t have any evidence of that. Subsequent to that, we’ve learned a couple of things. We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the ’90s, that it involved training, for example, on BW and CW, that al-Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems that are involved. The Iraqis providing bomb-making expertise and advice to the al-Qaeda organization.

We know, for example, in connection with the original World Trade Center bombing in ’93 that one of the bombers was Iraqi, returned to Iraq after the attack of ’93. And we’ve learned subsequent to that, since we went into Baghdad and got into the intelligence files, that this individual probably also received financing from the Iraqi government as well as safe haven.

Now, is there a connection between the Iraqi government and the original World Trade Center bombing in ’93? We know, as I say, that one of the perpetrators of that act did, in fact, receive support from the Iraqi government after the fact. With respect to 9/11, of course, we’ve had the story that’s been public out there. The Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack, but we’ve never been able to develop anymore of that yet either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don’t know.



We just don't know ...

Presumably Mr. Cheney is basing the veracity of this statement on the same principle by which he doesn't know that I can't bench press a thousand pounds.

Let's take this one step at a time.

In two years the US intelligence and law enforcement communities have not been able to unearth a single piece of evidence tying the Iraqi regime to the 9/11 attacks.

In Cheney's answer he reels off a series of allegations, most of which have either been positively discredited or remain wholly unsubstantiated. Even if each point were true -- which, for the most part, they aren't -- they are clearly intended to muddy the issue by tossing out a variety of points not directly related to the question of Iraqi government involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

The one supposed piece of 'evidence', of course, is the alleged meeting between Mohamed Atta and a senior Iraqi intelligence official in the spring of 2001. But contrary to Mr. Cheney's claim that "we’ve never been able to develop anymore of that yet either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it," US intelligence officials have thoroughly discredited that report. And it has even been denied by the Czechs. What's more, as al Qaida expert Peter Bergen noted last month when he spoke with TPM, the US now has in custody the two Iraqi intelligence officials connected with this alleged incident.

As Bergen asked, "Don't you think he knows his get-out-of-jail-free card to some degree is saying "Hey I did meet with Mohammed Atta"? He's obviously not saying that, otherwise we'd know about it."

The point is that there is simply no evidence whatsoever connecting the Iraqi regime with the 9/11 attacks. What's more, it's not as though we don't know quite a lot about how the attacks were carried out. We know who the perpetrators were -- both those in the planes and many in support roles. We know where the money came from. We know about their ties with al Qaida and bin Laden. We know a great many details about how this horrific attack happened. And none of them have led us back to Saddam Hussein or the Iraqi regime.

Even applying so low a standard as that by which we judge incidents with four-year-olds and cookie jars, Cheney's statement that "we just don't know" whether Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks is a lie.

Why do 69% of Americans continue to believe that Iraq may have been involved in 9/11? Many reasons. But one of the most important is that their leaders keep lying to them.

Enough already! For a week or more I and others have been getting word that the long-awaited Kay Report -- the systematic investigation into Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction programs -- might be delayed or never even issued at all.

The administration has been telling us for months that it would be released in mid-September. And now, of course, it's mid-September.

Then a couple days ago NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported that Kay's survey had come up short, but implied that a report would indeed be issued when Kay returns to Washington this week.

But this morning the Sunday Times of London is reporting (subscription required) that "Britain and America have decided to delay indefinitely the publication of a full report on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction after inspectors found no evidence that any such weapons exist."

Let's be honest: there's no reason for delaying or refusing to issue this report, save for domestic political concerns in the US and Britain. None.

Do they need more time? Then they should take it. But fourteen hundred scientists, military and intelligence officials have been scouring the country for four months and interrogating most of the Iraqi government officials and scientists involved in weapons procurement and research. That's more than long enough to produce a preliminary report. Indeed, it appears that Kay is delivering a report to George Tenet this week. The only question is whether it is published.

This isn't the roll-out of a new government program or a press campaign that you can start or stop depending on which way the political winds happening to be blowing. This is the official US-UK government investigation in to the reason we invaded and occupied Iraq. Will the administration be embarrassed? No doubt. But they won't be the only ones. Everyone in the US intelligence community thought the Iraqis maintained some WMD capacity. The irony of this whole mess is that the White House took the solid evidence of Iraq's continued illicit weapons programs and hyped them all out of proportion to get the country into war, only to find out that even the 'solid evidence' turns out to have been false or greatly exaggerated.

Are there 'sources and methods' issues involved in releasing the report to the public? Maybe. And of course any report could be redacted. But the 'sources and methods' issue must be at least greatly diminished now since the Iraqi government no longer exists.

Here's the bottom line: the only reason for supressing the Kay Report is to game and stymie the political debate within the United States. That's unacceptable. Congress should demand the release of Kay's report -- even if redacted in some form. No more game playing. Let the chips fall where they may.

I've been slaving over a book review this weekend. So there hasn't been time for too many posts. But take a look at a few of the recent updates on Middle East expert Juan Cole's always informative website, particularly his running commentary on American attempts to arrange for foreign troops and aid.

India now apparently categorically rules out sending her troops to Iraq, UN resolution or no UN resolution. Unless of course we put some very high-end weapons on the table to sweeten the deal, in which case maybe they'll play ball.

Cole also notes an apparent, emerging US strategy of trying to isolate the French on the Security Council by cutting the Russians back in on some of the lucrative business contracts they had with the old Iraqi regime.

The idea seems to be that the French want substantive political concessions, whereas the Russians might be bought off with economic favors -- namely, getting back some of what went down the drain with Saddam.

The whole thing's enough to make your head spin. And if it does, yours will be like a lot of heads at the White House after they saw the string of polls that came out over the last few days -- each of which seems to show a rapid drop in the number of Americans who think the White House has a plan for dealing with Iraq. See this poll run-down in Newsweek, this one in the Post, this one from CNN/Time, and this one from CNN/USATODAY.

I think the Times is on to something in this piece in Saturday's paper. A few days ago I noted that the Democrats' success in blocking the White House's overtime rollback plan in the Senate might mark a small but significant shift in the political winds. It seemed questionable whether the Dems would win at all on this amendment. But they ended up winning by nine votes. In the context, that meant winning handily.

(Union sources tell me that they may also get another bite at this apple in the House on a motion to instruct the conferees who will reconcile the House and Senate bills.)

As the Times notes, the fact that this came just as the president is facing reverses on his Iraq policy and on the economy is no accident. (The Times piece also notes a handful of recent small victories for the Dems.) Basically what happened here is that six moderate Republicans didn't feel the White House could protect them on this one.

Those sorts of calculations have been critical to the president's power, as indeed they are to any successful chief executive. The president's partisans have said that they gave the Senate moderates a pass on this one, figuring there was no reason for them to cause themselves trouble over this vote. And that may be true, as far as it goes. But the real issue is that it was a dangerous vote for them. The president's popularity could no longer give them cover.

In a sense, all that's odd is that it ever should have been otherwise. The issue here is overtime pay for middle class families. Dice it, slice it, shred it, whatever --- it's awfully hard to paint that as part of some counter-culture agenda. It's a kitchen table issue if there ever was one. And yet for the last eighteen months the White House has been able to push through a lot of similar stuff. And all for a simple reason: politicians will do almost anything an extremely popular president of their own party tells them to do.

That sort of power has made the White House cocky. How else to explain their decision to push a cut in overtime pay going into an election year? This is the sort of thing Republicans would often like to do but seldom are foolish enough to try.

Now that's starting to change. It's a small change and perhaps an impermanent one. But I think we may look back on this single vote as the first small signs of the tide turning.

For more on the president's current standing, the backdrop for this vote, and the fall-out from last weekend's speech see this comment from CNN's Bill Schneider on Thursday night …

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): It didn't work. That is the unambiguous conclusion of a poll taken in the days following President Bush's speech Sunday night.

Before the speech, the president's job approval rating was 59 percent in the CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll. After his rating dropped suddenly to 52 percent. That's his lowest rating since -- note the date -- September 10, 2001.

Why the drop? One word: Iraq.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: We knew that it was going to be a lot of money and it was going to take a lot of time. But this was the first strong message that the president put out like that.

SCHNEIDER: Approval of the president's handling of Iraq dropped from 57 to 51 percent.

BUSH: Two years ago I told the Congress and the country that the war on terror would be a lengthy war, a different kind of war, fought on many fronts and many places. Iraq is now the central front.

SCHNEIDER: People don't get that connection. Approval of the president's handling of terrorism remains high. Much higher than his rating on Iraq. And that rating hardly changed.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What President Bush gave the American people on Sunday night was a price tag, not a plan.

SCHNEIDER: The public agrees. Strikingly, after the president laid out his policy, the number of Americans who felt the Bush administration does not have a clear plan in Iraq went up, from 54 percent before the speech to 59 percent afterwards.

And what about that price tag?

BUSH: I will soon submit to Congress a request for $87 billion.

SCHNEIDER: Yikes, said the Democrats.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's costing a billion dollars a week. He needs to get the help from the international coalition that he should have gotten months ago.

SCHNEIDER: Yikes, say the voters, who balk at the prospect of spending $87 billion in Iraq when the U.S. economy is shaky.

Our polls suggest President Bush is in political trouble.

Before his speech Sunday night, he had a 12-point edge over an unnamed Democrat for re-election. After the speech, that lead shrank to 4 points. Too close to call.

(on camera): There is a little good news for President Bush. Nearly 60 percent of the public still says Iraq was worth going to war over. The public hasn't turned against the policy, they've turned against the game plan and the price tag.



After everything that has transpired over the last two years we are back in a political situation very similar to that of September 10th, 2001.

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