Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Okay, in case you haven't heard, Mike Allen has a story in the Post tomorrow. And the lede is that the big yummy Turkey President Bush was photographed taking to the troops wasn't actually going to get eaten. It was some sort of display Turkey, seemingly gussied for the photo-op.

On the one hand, who cares? The Clinton-test would lead me to that conclusion.

But you go down into the article and the other malarkey starts to add up.

Next there's the issue of the made-for-TV-movie British Airways fly-by that never happened. The White House, as we noted yesterday, changed the story. But British Airways says the new story isn't true either.

I love this bit of snide understatement from Allen's piece ...

"I don't think everybody was clear on exactly how that conversation happened," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

British Airways said it has been unable to confirm the new version. "We've looked into it," a spokeswoman said from London. "It didn't happen."

Unable to confirm ... didn't happen. I think we get the idea.

Then there's the choicest selection in the whole article ...

White House officials do not deny that they craft elaborate events to showcase Bush, but they maintain that these events are designed to accurately dramatize his policies and to convey qualities about him that are real.

"This was effective, because it captured something about the president that people know is true, that he really cares about the soldiers and gets emotional when he sees them," Mary Matalin, a former administration official, said about the trip to Baghdad. "You have to figure out how to capture the Bush we know, even if it doesn't come through in a speech situation or a press conference. He regularly rejects anything that is not him."

The explanation is worse than what's being explained. Fake scenes are good becaue they capture deeper truths about the president "that people know [are] true." That's classic. Sorta like how the Santa Claus story captures the deeper meaning of Christmas or that other story about the Stork.


I had thought that the "Geneva Accord", an unofficial peace plan authored by Yossi Beilin (a prime architect of the Oslo accords) and Yasser Abed Rabbo (a Palestinian moderate and former PA cabinet minister), would end up as just one more well-intentioned irrelevancy that provided some momentary diversion from the butcher shop which is now Israel and the West Bank.

But now I don't think so.

First is the context in which this is happening.

For all those who have eyes to see, a sea change has been taking place of late in Israeli public opinion. It's not that they are abandoning Sharon (not yet at least) or embracing Arafat. But there is a coalescing sense that the current situation isn't so much a get-tough policy as a state of perpetual bloodshed, which itself may be setting the stage for something far worse. Sharon has been just as hardline as he promised. And even more Israelis are dying than before, not to mention Palestinians.

The change has been most conspicuously signaled by a series of statements by current and former senior members of the Israeli military and security services arguing that the current policies simply aren't working.

The other significance of the Geneva Accord, as Michael Moran explains very ably in this piece, is that -- in a certain sense -- they put the lie to the purported intractability of the current situation. For all the rancor and hatred that has built up over the last three years (and it wasn't exactly a bed of roses before that) everyone pretty much knows what the final deal looks like -- and pretty much everyone knows that it looks a lot like what's included in the Geneva Accords.

So, it's not that it'll be easy to make this deal. But, in a certain sense, the two sides aren't really that far apart.

The other thing which I take some heart from is that Arafat and Sharon clearly feel threatened by this plan that has been put on the table. There have been demonstrations against it on the Palestinian side. Sharon has condemned it. And Ehud Olmert, the Vice Prime Minister, who represents almost all of what is immoderate and narrow-minded in Israeli politics, has been publicly scolding Colin Powell for considering meeting with Beilin and Rabbo.

And now, to his -- and the administration's -- credit, Powell is going to do just that.

And Paul Wolfowitz -- who also deserves great credit -- will be meeting with Beilin and Rabbo too.

We'll return to the significance of the Wolfowitz meeting in a subsequent post.

Madeleine Albright, and a host of other American, NATO and European officials have testified at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague. Each has done so in open court.

Wesley Clark has been called to testify later this month.

But the Bush administration is insisting that his testimony take place in near complete secrecy -- which is entirely unprecedented for high government officials and is normally reserved for individuals who fear retribution for their testimony.

(Court rules allow high-ranking government officials to have representatives of their governments' on hand who can step in and have particular questions answered in secret if they believe they may compromise national security interests or touch on classified information.)

Two explanations suggest themselves. One is more administration payback against Clark -- an effort to keep him out of the spotlight for political reasons. But a more likely and prosaic explanation is the administration's contempt for international law and legal institutions.

Administration officials demanded a similar level of censorship on possible testimony from Richard Holbrooke last year. And court officials, for now at least, decided not to call him at all.

So many bad motives to choose from, right? In this case, for them, it's probably a twofer.

Revising and extending the president's remarks. And revising ... and extending ... And ...

During the president's quick trip to Iraq on Thanksgiving, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett told the press of a scene straight out of a Harrison Ford movie in which a British Airways pilot made an in-flight identification of Air Force One and then had to be warned off the ID by some quick thinking officials on the airborne White House.

Well, that turned out not to have really happened.

Now the story is that a British Airways pilot radioed London, not Air Force One. But British Airways seems to be saying that that story isn't true either.

Can't we just cut to the chase and agree that it was on board the plane, as it streaked through the darkness over the misty depths of the Atlantic, that Bartlett decided that it would be a cool story to have appear in Woodward's next book?

I don't think anyone will come forward to dispute that.

Here are two provocative and compelling pieces on what's happening in East Asia during our period of distraction. One by Fareed Zakaria in Tuesday's Post and another by Jane Perlez in Wednesday's Times.

According to the Washington Post, US civilian and military authorities in Iraq have agreed to create an Iraqi paramilitary force numbering just under 1,000 men, composed of equal contributions from the militias of the five largest political parties in the country.

I hesitate to criticize this decision too readily because I can see the very difficult range of options we're dealing with. And I can see advantages of pursuing such a course: namely, having a corps of trained Iraqis to help put down the insurgents who are killing our soldiers and preventing any progress toward stabilization and democratization.

I'm convinced that the choice to disband the Iraqi Army was a bad idea, about which we should have known better. This, on the other hand, may be a bad decision that we must take because all the other options are worse.

But with all those qualifications put out on the table, I have to tell you that just instinctively this strikes me as a very bad idea.

As Ghazi Yawar, an independent member of the Council tells the Post: "This is a very big blunder. We should be dissolving militias, not finding ways to legitimize them. This sends the wrong message to the Iraqi people."

The reasons for not doing this are almost endless -- not least of which is the fact that these militias aren't exactly pure as the driven snow operations, and they are based in most cases on rival political factions that would probably be fighting each other if we weren't still there with a hundred and fifty thousands of our guys and gals. (Add to this the fact that the leaders of several of these parties are reaching for almost any expedient to perpetuate their power into the post-occupation period -- and this looks like an awfully good way to do it.)

At a deeper level, however, the issue here is one of power and the direction in which it is flowing.

The idea behind a successful occupation, reconstruction and democratization process -- whether it be in Japan or Germany or Kosovo or Bosnia -- is that you control not only the power of overwhelming force but the more granular and immediate forms of power we associate with police authority and basic civil administration.

It is only with that sort of control that you can hope to manage the sort of social and political reconfigurations -- always matters of the greatest difficulty -- that can ensure a more democratic and stable future for the country in question.

(Call this imperialism, or any other catch phrase, but if it's done competently and under the appropriate auspices I have no problem with it.)

But what is quite evidently happening here is that we don't have that sort of power. So we're having to go to other sources of force, authority and patronage to find it.

Only the groups we're going to -- in most cases factions based either on hucksters, or charismatic leaders or ethnic or sectarian loyalties -- are the ones whose power we're trying to curb or who themselves embody tendencies in the society which we are trying to reform. In such a state of affairs it becomes very difficult to see whether we're coopting them or they're coopting us.

When I first started reporting on Iraq almost two years ago I had a long conversation with a well-known Iraqi emigre who told me that thirty years of what he called Saddam's "excessive dictatorship" had so ground down all the elements of civil society and public life in Iraq that the only associations that remained were the most elemental ones -- those of ethnicity and sect, the hardiest weeds, which were the only ones that could withstand the scorched earth policy which was Saddam's rule. The truly national institutions and the other rudiments of civic life had simply been destroyed.

Ideally, a period of occupation or international administration can create a period of breathing space where such national and cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian institutions could emerge and provide a counterweight to these more destabilizing, centrifugal forces.

But instead of our mastering them, they appear to be mastering us.

As is happening on so many fronts the initiative is slipping from our hands, even though we try to portray the process as the product of our own policy and decision-making.

In case you needed any more evidence that Ralph Nader has become the enemy of any hope of progressive change in this country, visit the new Nader 2004 Exploratory Committee website. Not much up there yet, but what more do we really need to know?

Or you can send your comments to the Exploratory Committee at this email address (info@naderexplore04.org) to let Nader and his associates know whether you think his potential candidacy would contribute to a good outcome in the 2004 election.

And if you want some dark comedic entertainment, see the Nader FAQ, which lamely tries to argue that Nader didn't help throw the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

Villainy, wrapped up in mendacity, with a little bow of hypocrisy on top -- always a delightful package ...

LATE UPDATE: Alas, as of Wednesday morning, they've taken down the FAQ -- I guess they didn't find it convincing either ...

Juan Cole has some noteworthy observations about the ambush and subsequent firefight this weekend in Samarra. I've been puzzling over this for days now. It seems clear that this was a major development, but the facts remain terribly obscure. And without the facts, it's hard to know just what happened or what significance it has in the larger story.

What struck me first about the firefight were the reports that the insurgents were wearing the uniforms of the Saddam Fedayeen -- one of Saddam's more vicious paramilitaries. If true, that seems like a very big deal.

Guerillas seldom have much to gain by wearing readily identifiable uniforms, save for the psychological message it sends, both to their enemy (i.e., us, in this case) and Iraqi civilians. And the message seems one of audacity -- that they're willing and capable of confronting us as organized paramilitaries and not just by sniping and setting off bombs.

The initial reports suggested it was a pretty poor decision on the insurgents' part since the Army opened up with the full force of Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and killed three or four dozen of the attackers.

But the more we hear about what happened the muddier the story gets. (See particularly the letter appended to Cole's post.)

In initial accounts the Army said that either 46 or 54 insurgents were killed. But battlefield estimates of how many of your enemy you kill are notoriously inaccurate --- and most often inflated. And the local hospital says it counted only 9 dead, most of them civilians.

As Cole notes, some of the discrepancy must be due to insurgents carrying their dead or wounded away after the engagement. But it's hard to figure that this accounts for all the difference. And in recent statements, the Army has downplayed the original reports that the insurgents were wearing the Fedayeen uniforms.

One other point that I haven't yet seen discussed in much depth is the precision and specificity of the information the attackers seem to have had about the mission to deliver those new bills into the city. I've heard some chatter --- though nothing as yet I've been able to nail down --- about suspicion in the Army about the security of information given to the CPA and/or the IGC.

In any case, this is a post about questions rather than answers.

I just don't think we have much of an idea what happened in Samarra. The initial reports seem to have come from soldiers who went into a very rough situation, found themselves in the midst of a horrific firefight, opened up with what are basically battlefield weapons and then pieced together what had happened from observations they collectively made while all of that hellishness was going on.

At this point, neither the Army's initial account of the number of dead or those provided by the local hospital seem particularly credible.