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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Here is a key part of America's strategic vision for Iraq coming into focus. According to this article in The New York Times, the Pentagon is expecting to secure long-term access to four key Iraqi military bases. One's near Baghdad; the others are near Nasiriya, the pipeline leading to the Jordanian border, and in Iraqi Kurdistan. As we've noted earlier, Iraq is quite literally in the center of the Middle East. It borders almost every major country in the region. And isn't that far from the two others -- Israel and Egypt. (Remember, we've also secured a series of robust basing arrangements with several of the tiny emirates that line the Arabian Peninsula.

Consider how this changes our reliance upon and stance toward the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In addition to their oil, much of our security relationship with the Saudis has been based on our need to project force against and counterbalance Iraq and Iran. With the Iraqi government out of the picture, our need to counterbalance them disappears. And if you want to project force against or counterbalance Iran, Iraq is a much better place to do it from than Saudi Arabia.

What this adds up to is that most, if not all, of our geostrategic interest in Saudi Arabia evaporated over the last month. If the Saudis give us grief or won't cut off terror money to various bad-actors we have a much freer hand to squeeze them.

Of course, they still have the biggest amount of oil, which is no small matter. But even some of that leverage may be fleeting. I'm not writing from home this evening. So I don't have access to the precise percentages. But Iraq's known oil reserves are quite large. And it is widely believed that if the country's oil industry (which has been in a dilapidated state for many years) was opened up to more modernized, state-of-the-art technology, those reserves could actually turn out to be much greater than is currently known.

What this means is that while Iraq's reserves may never be as great as Saudi Arabia's, they may be large enough to diminish some of the Saudis' commanding hand over the international oil market.

Now, combine all this with the fact that many in the Bush administration (and out of the Bush administration, for that matter) think that Saudi Arabia is the ground zero of international terrorism, the terror purveyor state par excellence. To this point, our ability to muscle the Saudis on the terror question or even undermine the regime itself has always been limited by our need for their assistance geostrategically. But if the administration gets what it wants in Iraq, all of that changes.

Let me make a few quick points about the response to my article "Practice to Deceive."

A number of critics (some friendly, some not-so-friendly) have criticized my contention that there was anything deceptive or disingenuous about how the White House brought the nation into this war.

A number have made the specific argument that I can hardly claim that there's a 'secret plan' or a 'conspiracy' afoot when I buttress my argument with on-the-record quotes from various of the players -- Richard Perle, Ken Adelman, Max Boot, et al. This argument is neatly summed up in a comment yesterday by James Taranto and even more crisply in a single sentence last week from Jonah Goldberg.

"If this is a secret plan," says Goldberg, "how did Josh Marshall stumble on it? Marshall's proof that there is a secret plan afoot actually derives from on-the-record quotes and public statements."

The only problem with this logic is that I never used phrases like "secret plan" or "conspiracy." So the logic of Goldberg's point amounts to trying to catch me out on the contradictions between what he and others say I said and quotes of what I actually said. If there's a contradiction, somehow the barb seems to point toward them and not me.

As a general matter, calling an argument like mine a 'conspiracy theory' is sort of a poor-man's way of knocking an argument down a few pegs without providing any rationale for why it should be knocked down a few pegs. Goldberg peppers his critique with asides to how I say this is all the work of a secret cabal or that I say the president is a dupe, when in fact there's nothing in the article which supports any of that. Taranto bases a substantial portion of his interpretation of my argument on the title of the piece and the cover design of that issue of The Washington Monthly. That makes no sense. Every journalist knows that an author seldom gets much say over the title of his article and none at all on the magazine's cover art. That doesn't mean I have any beef with either, just that you interpret an article's meaning based on the text of the article, period.

However that may be, I think the whole argument that I'm wrong on the deception point actually collapses under the crushing weight of its own insubstantiality. The great need to refute this argument virtually confirms the impossibility of its refutation.

Here's why. What if I said, 'The President passed a huge tax cut. But he kept from everyone that he thinks it'll spur economic growth!!' Or maybe, 'Sure the president wants to build a national missile defense, but he's not telling anyone that it's intended to knock down limited missile attacks from rogue states!!' No one would respond. And they certainly wouldn't get bent out of shape about it. They wouldn't even care. Why? Because no one feels accused if they're alleged not to have told people something that everyone actually already knows.

An informed citizen may not have the access to the president's advisors to gauge their strategic vision. But the public at large is extremely well-placed to judge what the president has or has not shared with the public.

The most common critical response to my piece has been like that put forward yesterday by Taranto in Wall Street Journal Online: basic agreement on what I argue is the broader plan of which the Iraq war is one part, but sharp disagreement on whether or not this has been made clear to the public. He makes references to statements that he says show the president being quite open about all of this. He cites, for instance, the president's February speech on Iraqi democracy at the American Enterprise Institute in which the president said (the ellipses are Taranto's) ...

A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. . . . The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. . . . A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.
Frankly, I don't think even statements like that count for much, as vague as they are, and as drowned out as they were by discussions of Iraqi WMD and the regime's alleged ties to al Qaida. But as I said above, I think the very need to find such quotes makes my case rather than refutes it.

Last week I went to a lunch meeting in DC on the same day that statue of Saddam came crashing to the ground.

At the lunch a well-known conservative columnist introduced one of speakers, a well-known liberal columnist, on what he called "the day [the liberal's] worldview was collapsing." By that measure I assume that today's news that, as The Washington Post puts it, "Tens of thousands of Iraqi Muslims took to the streets of Baghdad after Friday prayers ... to demand the departure of U.S. and other foreign troops and the establishment of an Islamic state" should cause at least some creaking in the conservative columnist's worldview as well, no? He was good-hearted about it, but good-hearted in the sort of way that people who know they're right can afford to be good-hearted.

Don't get me wrong. Iraq is a country of some twenty-four million people. It shouldn't surprise us that a few tens of thousands can be mobilized to support the withdrawal of American troops and the creation of an Islamic state. (Their chants were "No Bush, No Saddam, Yes to Islam," and "No to America, No to Secular State, Yes to Islamic State".) Nor is that fact at all incompatible with a successful conclusion to our efforts to build a democracy in the country.

But it should be a sober reminder to everyone that none of this is going to be settled by one day of good or bad photo-ops. The die is cast. Like it or not, the fate of America and Iraq are now fastened together for at least several years. I don't pretend to know how it's going to turn out. But the one thing I think we can be confident of is that none of us are going to emerge from this with our hubris intact.

For anyone who thought the Iraq war had cowed the North Koreans into compliance, today's news may come as a rude awakening. As TPM noted yesterday, China's role in the trilateral talks about to start in Beijing looks as much like that of a host as that of a participant. And now, prior to the talks getting underway, the North Koreans are pressing just that point.

A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said today that "at the talks the Chinese side will play a relevant role as the host state and the essential issues related to the settlement of the nuclear issue will be discussed between the DPRK and the U.S [italics added]." In other words, having gotten us to sit down to talks with a multilateral fig leaf, the North Koreans have now snatched the fig leaf back.

Indeed, China seems to be seconding that reading of the talks. This from the AP ...

China's ambassador in Seoul said North Korea and the United States should resolve their nuclear dispute themselves, and Beijing does not plan to mediate between them during talks.

"I don't think China plans to mediate," Ambassador Li Bin told South Korea's MBC Radio in an interview recorded Thursday. "Although China can play a constructive role, it is the two parties concerned that should resolve the problem. How much the problem could be resolved is up to how the two parties work."

Far more ominously, the North Koreans now say they've actually begun reprocessing those spent nuclear fuel rods. And in a comment sure to raise questions and speculation, the North Koreans are saying that they informed the US and "other countries concerned" last month.

Much is being made of North Korea's apparent decision to accede to Bush administration demands for multilateral, rather than bilateral, talks over their nuclear weapons program. Now, as I said earlier, there are still lots of details to be ironed out. The beginning negotiating positions are still very far apart.

But, contrary to most press reports, these new talks themselves at least arguably amount to as great a climbdown for the United States as for North Korea. I say that because this plan -- or something very near to it -- has been on offer since mid-January.

Just to review, the North Koreans wanted bilateral talks with the US. The US wanted multilateral talks -- talks, including the United States, North Korea and China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

On January 14th, the Chinese offered to host talks between the United States and the North Koreans in Beijing. At the time, the US basically demurred. According to an article that appeared the next day in The New York Times ...

the White House said it welcomed China's involvement and appeared receptive to talks with Pyongyang, though officials insisted that an end to North Korea's nuclear plans was not negotiable. There was no immediate response to the offer from the Pyongyang government.
I'm not certain whether the North Koreans ever made a formal response. But, at the time, the US response was taken as a polite 'no, thank you.' It wasn't how the White House wanted to proceed. But it also, rightly, didn't want to offend the Chinese by swatting down the proposal. By some, China's offer was even seen as slightly demeaning to the US, since it is usually the role of a great power to host or sponsor talks between lesser states -- such as our role in the Middle East peace process, for instance.

Now we are having those talks in Beijing, only the Chinese are now participants rather than mere hosts.

Now, diplomacy is a game of subtle, but symbolically significant distinctions. And this is such a distinction. But, as distinctions go, this is, shall we say, rather subtle.

The truth is that the rapid victory in Iraq created incentives for both sides to get to the negotiating table (more on this soon). And that's why they're about to get there.

No Aaron Brown. Had to cancel on short notice. More later.

TPM on Aaron Brown tonight on CNN at 11:30 PM Eastern.

In Korea and Arabia, the Bush administration is poised to make decisions that will tell us a lot about the policy it intends to pursue and just who's calling the shots. In the post below, I note that the North Koreans have come toward the Bush administration position -- but with several significant barbs that may nullify the effect of the opening. The president now has to decide whether he's interested in talking or not. (NB: This is being presented as an administration victory -- and, to an extent, it is. But we shouldn't forget that the multilateral talks position is still a significant climb-down from the administration's original stance.)

There's a similarly telling moment with Syria. (I have a column coming out about this tomorrow. So I don't want to say too much about it now.) I doubt very much that we're about to move militarily against Syria. This strikes me as a brush-back pitch. It is critical to our efforts in Iraq that Syria not try to Lebanize Iraq. Those are the minimum ground rules. And we need to make that crystal clear to them right now.

Our military might looks extremely credible at the moment. Also, note that Syria is now surrounded by the United States and two of its allies -- Turkey and Israel, Lebanon being effectively Finlandized and Jordan a minor military power.

The critical question is, how far do we press our advantage? Do we warn the Syrians off any interference with our work in Iraq and put them on notice about chemical weapons? Or do we press on our whole bill of particulars -- cutting off support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, opening up to some sort of chemical weapons inspections, closing down offices of terrorist organizations in Damascus, a more compliant stance toward peace with Israel, etc. The devil will be in the details. But those details will tell us a lot about whether we're pursuing a minimalist or maximalist plan for remaking the Middle East.

On a related matter, there's a lot of chatter about how much we may or may not be coordinating with Israel on all this. Here's one good example that we're not -- or at least not that well, if we are. Because if we really were coordinating so closely with Israel we wouldn't let anything like this happen that made it look like we were coordinating so closely.

Israel's hawkish Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Israeli daily Maariv, "We have a long list of issues that we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians, and it is proper that it should be done through the Americans." In various press reports I've seen this translated both as "through the Americans" and "by the Americans." In the context, that subtle distinction in meaning is rather important. So I'd be curious to know more about how he phrased it in Hebrew. The long list of issues included ...

... removing the threat of Hezbollah in south Lebanon; distancing long-range rockets; moving Hezbollah away from the south, up to dismantling [Hezbollah]; stopping Iranian aid to Hezbollah via Syrian ports; and halting the granting of the cover of respectability to the terror headquarters of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad based in Damascus, from which they dispatch orders and funding to Palestinian terrorist organizations.
Now each of these would be great to have happen. But this reads like something out of the more conspiratorial wing of the Arab press: Israel comes up with a list of demands for Syria. Israel gives the list to the United States. The United States masses troops on Syria's borders and forces the Syrians to comply with the list of Israel's demands.

If nothing else we want to do a bit better on appearances.

Multilateral? Well ... kindalateral. Bush administration Korea policy got an apparent boost a couple days ago when the North Koreans suddenly (a couple days after the fall of Baghdad) announced they were willing to engage in multilateral talks over their nuclear weapons program so long as the US was "ready to make a bold switch-over in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue." On Sunday, the president crowed -- not without some justification -- that his tough policy against Iraq had made the North Koreans cave.

But now there seems to be a catch.

The North Koreans say they're okay with multilateral talks. But, according to an article in today's Korea Herald, North Korea -- and China -- say they don't want the Russians or the Japanese at table.

We probably don't mind not having the Russians there. But according to Chris Nelson, at The Nelson Report, the US would find excluding Japan from multilateral talks "unacceptable under any circumstances."

The rationale for the exclusion, according to the article is that the UN, China, North Korea and the United States were the only signatories to the original 1953 armistice agreement. So Russia and Japan are just not relevant to a new conference that would move beyond the armistice agreement and toward a non-aggression pact -- the North Koreans key, and apparently still operative, demand.

That may work as an purported rationale. But it doesn't really wash as the actual reason.

And there's one other party the North Koreans and the Chinese would like to have at the table: the European Union.

The Korea Herald article quotes a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul saying that "the North wants the European Union (EU) to participate in the multilateral forum in an apparent hope that the EU may play a leading role in providing economic aid to Pyongyang." But it's hard not to see some extra-economic motivations behind the desire of the Chinese and the North Koreans to pull up a chair for the EU.

Here's a good Reuters piece -- moved before the news about Russia and Japan -- on the hard-bargaining to come. There are some particularly good quotes from Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum, a branch of the DC think-tank CSIS. Cossa's predecessor at the Pacific Forum was none other than James A. Kelly, the State Department point man on East Asia and the North Korea issue. (I think Cossa worked under Kelly as Executive Director before Kelly moved on to State in 2001.)

Assuming some agreement can be worked out over who's a party to the negotiation, the question now is whether the president will have the courage to say 'yes' and test the North Koreans' willingness to make a deal or whether he'll follow the lead of those on his right flank who say that war with North Korea is essential and inevitable -- the only question being whether we pull the trigger now or wait a few years.

This from an article in The Guardian ...

We now also learn that before Blair departed for the March 18 Iraq debate, Downing Street had drawn up contingency plans for the withdrawal of British troops from the build-up in the Gulf and also for Blair's resignation, should the votes have gone against him. That is how serious it was.
One of the fascinating things over the next weeks and months and years will be to find out more and more of the hidden details about the lead-up to this war.

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