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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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 ...

Good for John Kerry. A few days ago in New Hampshire, Kerry told an audience "What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States."

Following this, Republicans launched a highly coordinated attack, with blistering fire from all the name Republican leaders and equally heavy fire from their email, fax, and talk radio apparatus.

Here's the text of an email Deputy RNC Chairman, Jack Oliver, sent out to the loyal GOP faithful ...

Yesterday, John Kerry shocked many Americans when he called for "regime change" right here in the U.S. By comparing our commander-in-chief to Saddam Hussein's brutal regime at a time of war, Kerry showed just what he is willing to say to appeal to liberal Democrat primary voters.

RNC, Chairman Marc Racicot quickly responded saying, "Senator Kerry crossed a grave line when he dared to suggest the replacement of America's commander-in- chief at a time when America is at war. Critical analysis offered in the best interests of the country is part of a healthy democracy. But this use of self- serving rhetoric designed to further Senator Kerry's political ambitions at a time when the lives of America's sons and daughters are at stake reflects a complete lack of judgment."

Senator Kerry's shocking comments come just three weeks after he said he would end any criticism if America goes to war, saying, "It's what you owe the troops ... if America is at war, I won't speak a word without measuring how it'll sound to the guys doing the fighting." It appears Senator Kerry is more interested in appealing to a small, radical faction of voters than leading all Americans.

These comments are just the latest example of Democrat leaders blaming America first. Last week, Tom Daschle echoed the French line, blaming our nation for the war, even after the United Nations gave Iraq 12 years to disarm. Joe Lieberman called President Bush a "greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein." Dick Gephardt claimed that President Bush is "bullying" the world.

Do you think these Democrat comments go too far?

Shocking! Did I remember to say shocking? Did I remember to say AMBITIOUS? Shocked many Americans ... Compared Bush to Saddam Hussein! Please ...

I'm just finishing up a study about how one group of people used overwhelming displays of violence to overawe and terrorize another group into docility and obedience. So, even though this is verbal rather than physical violence, I think I have an idea how this works.

The RNC is using the cover of war -- 'using' isn't too strong a term, though 'exploiting' may be better -- to set a standard in which any critical comment about the president uttered by a political rival is greeted by an overwhelming fusillade. The idea is to set the standard for criticism extraordinarily high and scare any Democrat from criticizing the president at all as long as the war or probably even the reconstruction of Iraq goes on. It's reminiscent of the cheap bullying Dick Cheney tried to pull in the months after 9/11.

John Kerry responded thus ...

The Republicans have tried to make a practice of attacking anybody who speaks out strongly by questioning their patriotism. I refuse to have my patriotism or right to speak out questioned. I fought for and earned the right to express my views in this country ... If they want to pick a fight, they've picked a fight with the wrong guy ... I watched what they did to Max Cleland last year. Shame on them for doing it then and shame on them for trying to do it now.
As it happens, I think Kerry's original remarks are precisely on the mark. The 2004 election would always have been an important election. But the events of recent months have made it perhaps one of the most important elections in the last century. And the future of the country depends greatly on President Bush not being reelected.

But more on that point later.

For the purposes of our present discussion, the particulars of Kerry's remark are almost beside the point. This is no better than cheap bullying practiced by the president's hacks. And, in political life as in personal life, there is only one way to deal with bullies: you must fight back against them with at least the ferocity and intensity that they use against you. They understand nothing else and deserve nothing better. There's no reasoning with them, no apologizing to them, no hashing out the particulars of remarks you've made.

Bullying, bluff and aggression have been the signature modus operandi of the president's political operatives in domestic politics for the last two years. How many veterans will get their patriotism questioned by the president's operatives and placemen before we see the mainline pundits say enough is enough? Recently, we've seen Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and now John Kerry get the treatment. The president's operatives are using the presence of an American army in the field -- Americans fighting and dying in Iraq-- not only to land a few easy shots on the president's opponents but to hit them so hard that they're afraid to hit back. Don't miss the point of this: it's to scare anyone out of uttering any criticism. And it's a cheap use of American blood.

It's nice to see Kerry at least putting out word that he won't stand for it. No one should.

I've gotten a lot of response to my article ("Practice to Deceive") in the new issue of The Washington Monthly. But the most interesting response has been the lack of response or criticism from the main advocates of regime change in Iraq. I can't say that I've received a lot of plaudits or thank yous. But it confirms a point I made on a radio show yesterday: there's really no denying any of this because it's really an open secret, if it's even a secret at all. It's been discussed and canvassed and argued over in The Weekly Standard, The National Review and various other publications.

In Los Angeles on Wednesday Jim Woolsey, one of the top regime change advocates, called this effort "this fourth world war [which], I think, will last considerably longer than either World Wars I or II did for us. Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the Cold War." It's a war, he said, against the mullahs of Iran, the "fascists" in Iraq and Syria and al Qaida. Addressing the Saudis and Hosni Mubarak, he said "We want you nervous. We want you to realize now, for the fourth time in a hundred years, this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you -- the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family -- most fear: We're on the side of your own people."

Jim Woolsey is currently in line for a top post in the American occupation government.

This afternoon I'm reading Stanley Kurtz's "Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint" in the new issue of Policy Review. As I noted in the article, there are a number of different flavors of our would-be imperial project in the Arab world. And Kurtz's isn't exactly the same as the one I outlined in the Monthly. But it's part of the same conversation.

I first got a sense of this larger program when I wrote my first article on the Iraq issue ("Bomb Saddam?") but I got the idea to write the new article when I was at a panel discussion a couple months ago and one of the presenters used the phrase "Middle East reform." The phrase rolled off his lips as though it required little explanation. And what he meant was pretty much what the phrase sounded like: the process of reforming the Middle East much as one might reform welfare or some institution that had fallen on hard times. He didn't underestimate the difficulty of doing so, but was convinced that America's security depended on it.

One point that remains implicit in the Monthly article is that there's not that much deception among many of the people who've formulated this idea for launching an imperial project in the Middle East. The deception lies with the public propagandists and those in the administration who've worked to implement the plan without giving the public much of a sense of what they're up to.

More on this soon.

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