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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

Are those 'foreign fighters' in Iraq Saudis?

As the fighting winds down in Iraq, the US has started muscling Syria on a number of issues -- 1) having its own stocks of chemical weapons, 2) giving sanctuary to members of the Saddam Hussein regime, and 3) facilitating or at least not preventing Syrian nationals from going to fight against US forces in Iraq.

This evening CNN has been running live coverage of a firefight in which several snipers or paramilitaries were firing on US Marines near the Palestine Hotel. The CNN reporter on the scene is Rula Amin.

Just after 6:00 PM on the East Coast, Amin was having a back and forth with Wolf Blitzer about those foreign volunteers in the country to fight the US. During that conversation she said that the Saudi volunteers were a bigger deal or there in greater numbers than the Syrians. I don't have down the precise language she used. But the basic point was clear: there are more Saudis there fighting us than Syrians.

(Wolf, buddy, why no follow-up?!?!)

Now, obviously I don't listen to all the coverage out of Iraq, but I don't think I've heard any word of Saudis there fighting against us (though it's hardly surprising) and certainly not that they're the most numerous group in the country. Amin's only one reporter, of course. But her beat is the Middle East; you'd expect reporters on the ground to have the best handle on such an issue; and she said it like she was pretty sure.

This raises some interesting questions. Certainly, we don't want any foreign fighters there shooting at our troops. But to the extent that they're there and we find that they're Syrians, that gives us reason and (figuratively speaking) ammunition for going after Syria. That, of course, is where the administration is looking right now. Finding Saudis there -- from a geopolitical perspective -- is much less helpful. If we were finding them there, it would not surprise me that we wouldn't be making a big deal out of it. There are many folks in the administration -- particularly at the DOD and OVP -- who think the Saudis are at the heart of the problem we have in the region. But for the moment we need the Saudis and they know that. On the other hand, some of their allies outside the administration aren't so constrained. So I'm curious if we'll hear about this from those quarters -- in the standard outlets where we hear from those guys.

This article up on the Time website says that in the trashed remains of Saddam Hussein's son Uday's pied-a-palace on the banks of the Tigris, reporters found email print-outs addressed to udaysaddamhussein@yahoo.com. They were apparently from Iraqi emigres pledging to come back and fight. The most recent was dated March 5th.

I've always been fascinated by the mix of alienness and similarity one finds in the leaders of countries like Iraq -- really across what we used to call the Third World. Some of this is just the story of globalization -- leaders and elites on the hand in death struggles with the global 'center' and on the other very much a part of it, invested in its culture, its modes of communication, its idioms. One sees examples of it in all the stories of raided palaces and homes of Saddam's top lieutenants. (So now we know that Tariq Aziz sometimes barked on TV about how the Iraqis would bury us in the sands of southern Iraq and then went back to his pad and popped Sleepless in Seattle into the VCR.) On the one hand, Uday Hussein was a hideously violent thug, born and bred into Saddam's Ba'athist police state, steeped in a virulent strain of Arab nationalism. On the other hand, he was using a free Yahoo! email account.

"I was willing to fight with a gun, but not to commit suicide." That's the best quote from an article by Anthony Shadid in Sunday's Washington Post. It's about a 22-year-old member of the Saddam Fedayeen who finally deserted several days ago in Baghdad. He fought under threat of death, though perhaps not altogether unwillingly, and then finally bailed when his superiors selected him for a suicide mission. Reading this piece you start to get the details of the picture of how the paramilitary resistance was at first unexpectedly stiff and then rapidly collapsed.

I really haven't done the sort of systematic reading of different reporting by different reporters that would make me comfortable saying whose has been the "best." But I've been consistently struck by the quality of Shadid's, most of all the depth of the detail (which is the essence of good reporting), the material that goes beyond the standard stock interviews and anecdotes. I'm sure he'll win tons of awards for it. Deservedly.

So far, much of the discussion of WMD has been focused on whether war-advocates or war-opponents will be vindicated retrospectively by how much is found. This way of framing the question, however, may miss the real issue -- what we may never find and why. Think about the ways people might dispose of WMD or WMD precursors if they were in a big, big hurry. It's not a comforting thought.

"My sons are 25 and 30," Representative Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming) said on the House floor a few days ago. "They are blond-haired and blue-eyed. One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean if you go into a black community, you cannot sell a gun to any black person, or does that mean because my ... "

At this point, Representative Mel Watt (D-North Carolina) cut Cubin off and demanded her remarks be stricken from the record for implying that blacks are presumptive drug addicts. Cubin declined to retract her remarks, while she said she did "apologize to my colleague for his sensitivities [italics added]." The House later voted 227 to 195 against striking Cubin's remarks from the record on the basis of their being inappropriate. No Republican voted in the affirmative.

I've been so taken up with the war that I haven't had time to make any mention of this yet. But I'm far from the first to express bewilderment that it hasn't gotten more attention. Indeed, the Washington Post -- not exactly some scrappy lefty blog -- has an editorial on it in today's paper ("Where's the Outrage?").

And really, where is the outrage? It's difficult to see how anyone without pretty *#$%ed-up views on race could have said that, even as a slip. But what's really important as far as the public square is concerned is not so much the rancid views people may have in their hearts but that they keep their mouths shut and publicly repudiate this stuff when it slips out. This Cubin seems completely unwilling to do. And her colleagues seem in no rush to make her. According to the Post, Speaker Denny Hastert said her remarks "clearly left the wrong impression."

Clearly ... And so do Hastert's. The Post is right: where's the outrage? If I were Trent Lott, I'd ask for a rehearing of my case, because the rules for this sort of thing seem to have loosened considerably.

What about the looting, the mayhem, and the fires? It's clearly a bad situation. And these things get to a tipping point where they can go from looting and mayhem to something far deeper and darker which is very hard to put a stop to. Having said all this, though, I think we shouldn't be too quick to ask why the invasion force didn't have some sort of constabulary or plan in place to stop this. If it's still like this in a week, it'll be a good question to ask. But I think it is virtually inevitable that you're going to have some period of rupture -- a window of time when there's an utter vacuum of authority -- when a government like this falls under military assault.

One reason is historical, another is operational. The first is just, as we've noted before, the steel beam under compression finally snapping. It's a judgment call; but to some degree it's probably better to ride this tumult in the short-term rather than squelch it. There's a lot of rage and clamor to be let off and better not to turn too much of it toward US soldiers trying to keep everyone in check.

The more important issue, however, seems operational.

One moment you're in very active battle for a city. The last thing you want is thirty-thousand lightly-armed or unarmed policemen and American aid facilitators hanging around to get shot, or taken hostage or just get in way. The next moment you're not at war and you've got thousands of US soldiers and marines who are -- for a host of reasons -- in no position to police anything but the most egregious sorts of crimes. Add to this, of course, the fact that even that dividing line isn't so clear. We have mainly a liberated/conquered city where large-scale hostilities are at an end and the old regime is gone. But we still have irregulars or foreign fighters or holdouts shooting off occasional shots. And that makes it hard to send anything but heavily armed folks out into the field.

Add to this one final complexity. Part of the problem is that you're dealing with a former regime that was so shot through with state-terror that it's hard to see how many people who ever wielded "hard" authority under the old regime are going to want to show their heads again even in an interim capacity. The Army is putting out the call for police and firefighters and the people who ran the phones and water and electricity to come back to work. In the latter cases, that'll probably work. But what about the police? I'm not sure there were people in Iraq who would fit our rather benign definition of "police." I'm sure there were low-level folks in the security apparatus who were decent people compromised by a bad system. But I can imagine those folks wouldn't want to show their faces just now. And do we want them keeping order for us?

It's a tough situation, and an ugly one that we've got to get a handle on. Morally and under international law, we're responsible for restoring order when it was our tanks that smashed the old, albeit hideous, order. (Isn't this a case of the troop strength, again, being too small? Yes, I suspect so, to a degree. But even if there were a lot more troops immediately at the ready, I think you'd still have an interval of chaos like this since the sort of troops you use to fight your way in to the city just aren't equipped for policing duties. We need to see how it looks in a week or two.) The real danger over the long-term is the sort of deeper inter-communal blood-letting which reared its head yesterday in Najaf -- of which we'll say more later. But I think we should recognize that in the short-run this sort of ugliness may have been close to unavoidable.

Following up on the earlier post, here's an article with an inventory of the ransacked house of longtime Saddam crony Tariq Aziz. It's a litany of artifacts which are mostly striking in their ordinariness and Western-ness. My picks for best tidbits are the the marked-up copy of Princeton Review's "Cracking the GMAT" or perhaps the Britney Spears posters on the walls in the kids' room. Also, here's my most recent column in The Hill, from two days ago, on the fate of Iraq's battlefield dead.

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