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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

It's about 12:30 AM on Friday morning and on CNN there's live coverage of a huge number of Iraqi soldiers, ex-soldiers really, walking south toward Baghdad along an open two-lane road. The landscape looks like it might in the eastern, flatter part of Colorado or New Mexico. What's being reported is that these were Iraqi conscripts who were stationed in positions in the north and as the Iraqi army dispersed and disintegrated they just hit the roads and headed south. They deserted. Their officers deserted them. Various other possibilities. They're walking toward Baghdad, which is more than one hundred miles away, and then they think down toward southern Iraq where they're originally from. Many of them are sandal-clad or even bare-footed. They don't seem to have water or food or money. Mostly, they're wearing civilian clothes.

It's not even clear how much of this is true, or just who these men are. But whoever they are, there are hundreds, actually thousands of them walking south down a road toward Baghdad.

There's all sorts of talk now of who was right and who was wrong about this or that, what will come next, and so forth. But watching this you just see the magnitude of the whole situation, the number of people on the move, displaced, with new hope, with no plan.

It's not an analogy. But the image it brings to my mind is of slaves at the end of Civil War who headed out onto the roads looking for relatives who they'd been separated from.

It defies analysis or quips or quick insights (imagine that for TPM!). In their own way these are the most staggering images yet.

We heard a lot about "Shock and Awe" in the lead-up to this war -- that is, the hammering concussions of American air power that were supposed to cow the Iraqi military if not the regime itself into submission, the swift whack of a bat that was supposed to shatter the hold of the brittle regime.

That didn't work, of course. Loyalists and militiamen were more finely meshed into the civilian population than we thought. It took the 'old-fashioned' combination of armor on the ground and precision munitions from the air to grind away the Iraqi army.

But "Shock and Awe" wasn't a misplaced phrase. We just had the date wrong. It came yesterday, with the collapse of Baghdad. And it came not in Baghdad or Kirkuk or Basra but in Cairo, Beirut, Riyadh, Amman and other capitals around the Arab world.

It's far from the case that everyone applauded what they saw. But it seems hard to find man-on-the-street interviews that don't carry a large measure of shock and in many cases something very like awe. (Yesterday I discussed an interview with a neoconservative in which he described the great hope of this invasion as the confrontation that it could bring about between testimonials of Iraqi liberation and the pieties and orthodoxies of anti-American arab nationalism. It was an on-the-record interview. So I can say that the neo in question was David Frum. And yesterday was a pretty good day for David's predictive ability.) What I take most from these man-on-the-street interviews is the mix of surprise and humiliation. From Jordan there are a slew of interviews with Jordanians expressing contempt for the Iraqis dancing in the streets in Baghdad. There is something very like a sense of betrayal. This was presaged in an article from an issue or two ago in the New York Review of Books in which the author was interviewing Iraqis and Jordanians in Amman or some other Jordanian city. The Jordanians were against an invasion. The Iraqis, though regretting it, hating the prospect of civilian casualties, and insisting the Americans shouldn't stay long, supported it. There's a moment in the interview when the author asks one of the Iraqi women to explain the divergence of views and she says something like, "they didn't have to live under Saddam."

Beyond that, in these various interviews from yesterday, you see questions like: What happened to the Republican Guard? Why were we so weak? Were we lied to? We supported Saddam in spite of ourselves, knowing he was a bastard because we thought maybe he could take the Americans down a notch, strike a blow for Arab pride, and so forth. Now we're doubly humiliated. Why are they celebrating? What happened? Why was there so little resistance? Why did Baghdad fall so quickly?

Then you see these statements which mix excitement that Saddam has fallen with shame or humiliation that it took American armor to do it and, secondarily, that perhaps they should have been more serious about the need for his fall in the first place. I think we should see very clearly the toxic potentialities of that sense of humiliation and shame.

Positive or negative, however, almost all the statements bespeak fractured if not shattered certainties. Now, it seems to me that there are a few things important to note about this. If there is one thing that history and social psychology tell us it is that ingrained idea systems can be extremely resistant and often impervious to new facts. Indeed, they can rapidly regroup and accommodate new and what may seem utterly contradictory new data. (Indeed, as good as yesterday looked and was, we should be equally careful to judge all of this on its own terms as much as we can and place these events as little as possible into the conceptual architecture of our preconceptions and imaginations.)

All of this is simply a long-winded way of saying that the window of opportunity, the window of changing expectations could prove exceedingly brief. We're already seeing a host of things, even happening today, which could provide the building blocks of a very different image, indeed a very different reality. As the foreign media is already starting to note, the number of people who attended the statue-toppling yesterday was actually rather small -- not thousands or tens of thousands, but maybe a couple hundred. Then today there is news that two Shi'a clerics were literally cut to pieces by a crowd of rival Shi'a in Najaf at the Ali Shrine. This is the steel beam in compression that the people who know this subject best have long predicted. This doesn't necessarily nullify what happened yesterday. But it should show us how hard this is still going to be and how a very different set of images and realities could quickly push aside all the consternation those of yesterday created. Anti-war types shouldn't let their preconceptions blind them to the palpable feelings of relief and happiness many Iraqis are feeling today. But hawks shouldn't fool themselves into ignoring how ephemeral those images could prove.

A couple weeks ago I wrote that one of the pre-conditions for the success of democratization in post-war Japan and Germany was the shattering impact of overwhelming military defeat and the resulting shattering of confidence in the pre-war elites and ideological systems that had led the two countries into war. This could be a potentially equally shattering event. But all seems in flux and much of what is not in flux remains uncertain. The end result depends mightily on subsequent events and actions -- some of which we control, some of which we don't

Yesterday when the American flag went up on the face of the soon-to-fall statue of Saddam, I wondered the following: Clearly Centcom and the folks at the Pentagon are rightly cautious about giving any symbolic evidence or sign that this an American occupation rather than a liberation. The best example of that is the hoisting of American flags, as we already saw in Umm Qasr a week or two ago. So why do the US soldiers and marines seem to have all these American flags on the ready to hoist up?

A post that went up on the BBC this morning gives a clue.

We've just learned from the US marines that the US flag that was put on the face of Saddam yesterday - it was replaced by an Iraqi flag when the people shouted for that - was the flag that was flying over the Pentagon on September 11.

For a lot of the American marines, they think this war is all about defeating terrorism, they will tell you that over and over again. There is also a connection in the minds of the American public between the regime of Saddam and what happened on September 11, and apparently the flag that was draped over this face was flying over the pentagon when the plane crashed into it.

So apparently this wasn't just any flag.

It was still a slip-up. But this puts it in a different, deeper context. It's also one of those gives-you-faith-in-America moments to find out that the Marine who hoisted the flag -- Cpl. Edward Chin -- is apparently Chinese-American.

LATE UPDATE: He's more on Chin from Abcnews.com ...

"And the flag — it was on the Pentagon when it got hit on 9/11. That was the same flag, and me being from New York, it kind of all goes together a little bit. It was a team effort, which made it even better, you know," he said.

Chin, 23, and his family are ethnic Chinese from Myanmar, formerly Burma. The family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when Chin was just a week old. Chin, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, joined the Corps in 1999 and was assigned to the First Tank Battalion at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., before being shipped off to Kuwait in January.

More soon...

Two questions face us in the reconstruction of Iraq. Many more than two, of course. But, for the moment, let's discuss these two. One is whether we should try to set up a full-fledged democracy in Iraq or fall back on the older approach of installing some sort of well-meaning strongman who can hold the country together and move slowly toward something like democracy. Then there's the question of whether we should back Ahmed Chalabi and the INC or some other group or mix of groups. There are many people who argue that these two questions are really just one question: that supporting Chalabi means supporting full-fledged democracy and opposing him means supporting something beside democracy. This equation is simply false on a host of levels. We'll be talking more about this, not least of which the CIA's relationship with Chalabi. But for the moment don't miss this piece by Gideon Rose in Slate.

Given the events of the day, I can't help wondering whether maybe we really did get Saddam when we bombed that restaurant the other day. The regime really did seem to snap right after that, at least in Baghdad. And it seems like more than just a coincidence. On what was yesterday morning in Baghdad -- i.e., the morning of the day that ended with the statue toppling -- the reporters noted what then seemed like an eerie silence in the city. Even if he wasn't killed, perhaps Saddam committed what amounts to political suicide -- deciding it was time to just vanish. (Al Jazeera reported rumors that he had sought and received refuge in the Russian embassy.) Regardless of the details, something seems to have happened after that raid.

Yet another "man on the street" in the Arab world wire story, actually from the Washington Post Foreign Service, to add to the previous two posts. On this one the dateline is from Cairo, and the testimonies are more negative. But I think they're all part of the same picture -- a mix of shock, surprise, changed opinion, relief, humiliation, shame, suspicion, hope, anger. I'll say more about this later. But tonight is set aside for paying work.

Apropos of the previous post, quotes from around the Arab world in this AP article are worth reading ...

"Why did he fall that way? Why so fast?" said Yemeni homemaker Umm Ahmed, tears streaming down her face. "He's a coward. Now I feel sorry for his people."

...

"We discovered that all what the (Iraqi) information minister was saying was all lies," said Ali Hassan, a government employee in Cairo, Egypt. "Now no one believes Al-Jazeera anymore."

...

However, Tannous Basil, a 47-year-old cardiologist in Sidon, Lebanon, said Saddam's regime was a "dictatorship and had to go."

"I don't like the idea of having the Americans here, but we asked for it," he said. "Why don't we see the Americans going to Finland, for example? They come here because our area is filled with dictatorships like Saddam's."

Those are just the most positive snippets, others are more dark and ominous. But, in the AP article at least, they are in the majority and they set the tone. Take a look at the whole thing.

This is heady, heady stuff. I woke up this morning to the scenes of US troops pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. This is joyous stuff, scenes of oppressed people tearing down the symbols of oppression. The question I have -- it's the critical question, I think -- is how these scenes play in the rest of the Arab world. Of course, whether such scenes continue ranks pretty high up there too. But we'll deal with that later. (Here's a great Reuters story with on-the-street reactions around the Arab world: "Arabs Watch Hussein's Demise in Disbelief.") More broadly, how will it play in Europe and elsewhere? (We don't, after all, live in Iraq. We live in the world.) Will they see this the way we do? Will it be reported in Germany and France, Riyadh and Cairo the way it's being reported here? In one of the interviews I did for my "Practice to Deceive" article, I spoke to a neoconservative very close to the White House who described the great hope thus: if Iraqis welcome their liberation and you have a stream of books penned by Iraqis coming out over the next several years on how horrible Saddam's regime was, perhaps the collision between this testimony and the certainties of Arab nationalist anti-Americanism will force a basic rethinking, perhaps it will break the back of those orthodoxies. If the testimonies are so clear, he supposed, perhaps Egyptians will ask themselves what could have led them to defend Saddam from a US invasion when he was oppressing Arabs more awfully than anything the Israelis ever did to the Palestinians.

The above-noted Reuters article contains at least one quote reconcilable with that view. An Egyptian engineer told Reuters: "It seemed that Iraqis were all with Saddam, now it looks like many didn't like him. Maybe those destroying the statue are rebels against Saddam's rule."

This is a very good day for that hope. And if that hope is vindicated it will be a wonderful thing. I don't think we'll know today or tomorrow or next month or even next year. The challenges in the way of our success are vast, challenges that could quickly snuff out all of this, challenges that I don't believe many who are guiding this effort truly understand. But today was a good day.

This evening on CNN Nicholas Kristof talked to Aaron Brown about what he had seen in his first trip into southern Iraq. (I believe he said Basra, but it could have been elsewhere.) Contrary to folks on the left who think we'll be treated as conquerors and folks on the right who think we'll be greeted as liberators, Kristof found a marvelous diversity, as we should probably all expect. Most are glad Saddam is gone. Many are glad we're there. Others aren't so happy about it. (See this Times article for a mix of appreciation and ambivalence in Baghdad.) But there seems to be a widespread suspicion -- even among those who are glad we've overthrown Saddam -- that we may be there to take their oil.

Which brings me to an op-ed column in today's Times. A couple weeks ago, my friend Steve Clemons (check out Steve's site to see his other articles and commentaries) came up with a novel, ingenious idea: why not divide up Iraq's oil wealth like the state of Alaska does?

Back in the early 1970s Alaska set up the Alaska Permanent Fund, which holds the revenues from oil leases as a public trust, with a portions of the interest paid out every year to every citizen of the state.

Now, obviously this model couldn't be applied directly to Iraq. After all, I imagine you've got a certain percentage of the population -- those Bedouins our troops saw occasionally while they were streaking north -- that isn't part of the cash economy. But the concept is one that really merits attention. After all, if we give the Iraqis their oil in the way the Saudis have theirs -- i.e., hoarded by a few moguls -- how much will it mean? So we shouldn't just be careful not to give any sign that we're grabbing up Iraqi oil revenues -- by cutting in all American companies, say -- but actually go a whole step further and really spread the wealth in a way it's never quite been spread around in all the Middle East. That could be truly revolutionary. (On the general issue of not squandering our apparent military victory with foolish triumphalism, see this excellent column by Robert Kagan in Wednesday's Post.)

As Steve notes, giving all Iraqis a very concrete, material stake in the new regime would go a long way to securing a political constituency for the new order. Doing something analogous in post-war Japan played a key role in the success of our democratization efforts there. In its own way, pulling oil wealth out of the hands of parasitic states and oligarchic princelings could have as positive an effect as bringing something like democracy to Iraq.

Again, it won't be easy. The Alaska model would be very hard to introduce. And it would probably need to be adapted to Iraqi conditions. But you can say pretty much the same things about bringing democracy to Iraq. And we've already signed on for that. So, really, why not?

In National Review Online, Stanley Kurtz has an interesting critique of my recent Washington Monthly article "Practice to Deceive" and a critique of ... well, I guess of me. Let me just take a moment to respond to three of Kurtz's points.

The first is regarding the concept of deception, which is central to the article. Kurtz says that none of the democratizing vision of the neocons is a secret. It's actually been written about widely in the conservative press. Yes, I agree. And I've said as much repeatedly. Kurtz implies that my saying it in TPM means that I'm backtracking from my argument. But this isn't true. The argument I am making is that there are many thoughtful and intelligent people who believe this is a good thing to do. Go back and read the last year of The Weekly Standard and see. Neoconservatives in the administration share these views but also know that such a grand plan would be almost impossible to sell to the American people, so they really haven't tried. Instead they've sold regime-change in Iraq along the more modest lines of Saddam's WMD and his relationship to terrorists. It's good sleight of hand to say I'm accusing people of a "conspiracy" because, by common consent, people who believe in "conspiracy theories" place themselves beyond the pale of purely rational argument at some level. Kurtz is using the phrase, not me. I'm saying something more prosaic and direct: the administration hasn't been honest about its intentions or goals. That may be true or false. But it's a direct allegation, not a conspiracy theory.

The second issue is what we might call Bush White House Kremlinology. Has President Bush really signed on to the maximalist democratizing, regime-change vision? Aren't there more moderate neoconservative voices, sometime-Realists like Condi Rice, and even those like Colin Powell who never bought into the idea in the first place? Yes, of course there are. Frankly, that's one of my great hopes. Such as it is. Indeed, Kurtz too expresses some concern about the aims of the more maximalist democratizers. The reason I think it is both accurate and fair to focus on those with the maximalist position is that it is this group that has consistently played the winning hand in pretty much every key intra-administration debate leading us to where we are today. So when we look at the future and where we're going with this I think it's more realistic to look at Cheney, Rumsfeld and their advisors rather than positing a point equidistant between Cheney and Powell and believing that that point is our final destination. I hope for the latter. But it's a hope not based on experience.

The third point is more broad-ranging. Kurtz wants to portray my position on the war as a symptom or example of a deeper Democratic malady. To put it metaphorically, he's saying that in the heart of even a seeming Joe Lieberman lurks a secret Ron Dellums. Not so fast. This is another way to polarize and thus simplify the argument, setting up straw men, and so forth. And Kurtz is only able to do it by asserting that I say things I've never said: that I'm indifferent to the issue of nuclear or other WMD proliferation, that I'm possibly a down-the-line UN man, or just generally that because I didn't think we should start this war when we did that suddenly I'm Teddy Kennedy or Walter Mondale and have recanted views expressed on Iraq and other issues over the last two years. (If I wanted to be snarky I guess I could note that my indifference to nuclear proliferation is rather belied by my repeated insistence that North Korea's resumption of plutonium production must be confronted immediately -- hopefully through diplomacy, but through war if necessary -- even as the administration has repeatedly expressed openness to the idea of allowing North Korea to become a nuclear power.) None of this is true. I just didn't think we should pull the trigger when we did or, under the circumstances then prevailing, perhaps ever. It was a tough call, which I'm content to live with. Subsequent events may show I was right or wrong. Either is certainly possible. But the decision hardly makes me a dove.

More broadly, Kurtz is saying I'm in the camp of those who think nothing really changed after 9/11, that the nexus of terrorism, WMD proliferation, high-technology, globalization and the rest of it can just be handled by the same old-fashioned strategies we used ten, twenty or forty years ago.

This isn't true, of course. But let me finish on this point of 'everything changing.' Much did change with 9/11 and more generally with the less visible changes that preceded and presaged it. But neither neoconservatives nor neoliberals have really changed all that much. Many of the same formulas and approaches the neocons now advocate are ones they advocated a half a dozen years ago when the bete noirs were China and others -- greater skepticism toward Europe, more comfort with unilateral assertions of force, skepticism about the whole concept of deterrence, and so forth. The more things change, etc. The 'everything changed' argument often really boils down to 'everything we were always for turns out to be right' and if you don't agree then you're not serious about 9/11.

Neoconservatives and neoliberals just have different basic ways of approaching foreign policy -- neither necessarily more hawkish or dovish. That was true before 9/11 and it's true now. Who's right has to be hashed out on the merits. Just referring to WMD or 9/11 won't do.

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