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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Hmmm. That's not a great sign.

Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim tells MSNBC that a prolonged US military occupation of Iraq could be met with a "religious war." And he's one of our guys, the head of one of the Iraqi exile groups we're relying on to help rebuild the place.

One could jump from this to a few good whacks against the Bush administration. But I think that would miss the point. al-Hakim's statement just underscores the sheer immensity of the task we're setting ourselves up for.

First, a little background. al-Hakim is the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed Shia exile group which the Bush administration has cautiously courted in its efforts to bring some unity to the Iraqi opposition.

The MSNBC article, I think, overstates al-Hakim's and SCIRI's importance. "Among the half-dozen Iraqi opposition groups," says the author, "Hakim’s council is the most significant." This may be true in one respect. Some of the opposition groups we support are so pitiful that they have little if any actual presence in Iraq. But though Shias make up the majority in Iraq, it's not at all clear that al-Hakim's brand of Iranian-backed fundamentalism has a big audience.

However that may be, his statements point to a big problem. Even our would-be supporters in regime change don't want to be associated with an occupation by a foreign (and non-muslim) power. And yet there's almost no way we're going to achieve our objectives without a long occupation which is deeply-entrenched and so overwhelming numerically that it can throw a blanket of enforced peace over all the tensions, divisions and rage that Saddam's tyranny has both created and held in check for three decades.

The real problem is that we're embarking on an enterprise which does not admit of half-measures. As Fouad Ajami notes in this article, an American invasion of Iraq will at first almost certainly be viewed as a neo-Imperialist attempt to take over an Arab country, secure its oil wealth, and do various other bad things.

Certainly, this will be the case outside Iraq and probably inside as well. There's a good chance it will always be seen that way. But the only chance of changing the equation is to undertake the sort of thorough-going internal transformation of the country that we managed in Germany and Japan. But as I say, the situation doesn't admit of half measures. You can go in, topple Saddam, turn it over to some oppositionists and wish'em the best. Or you can go for a massive military occupation and thorough reconstruction of the society. (The Army Chief of Staff told a Senate committee yesterday that the numbers needed would total several hundred thousand soldiers.) Anything in between seems doomed to disaster since you'll get all the down-sides of being a non-muslim occupying power and none of the (possible) upsides of installing a quasi-democratic regime. You'll get the fruits of all the region's deep-seated pathologies and no chance to uproot them.

For my own part, I think proponents of the root-and-branch approach miss an important part of why Germany and Japan worked. It's called World War II. One of the reasons the Germans and the Japanese stood still for what we accomplished in their countries is that we had just spent a couple years thoroughly bludgeoning their countries. Day and night bombing against major population centers, the disruption of the economies, the very real threat that if it wasn't us it'd be the Russians taking over, etc.

By 1945, we had pretty much destroyed the Germans' and Japanese' will to fight. And they were pleasantly surprised when they discovered how relatively benign our rule was. The same set of circumstances won't apply to Iraq. And that should be a cause of real concern.

Believe it or not, this isn't meant to say we shouldn't try to accomplish this. Once the decision for war is made it is really the only policy we can pursue. But the scope of enterprise is awe-inspiring.

One of the small, ugly ironies of all this haggling at the UN is this line of reasoning that the UN's credibility and future are on the line in all this. To a significant degree, I think this is true: The Security Council said Saddam had to disarm. Now they really need to make sure he does. But the people in the administration who are pressing this argument about the UN's credibility are also people who have more or less unconcealed contempt for the institution in the first place and would probably just as soon see it trashed anyway. As John Judis notes, they haven't worked with the UN. They've bullied it.

With so much sound and fury and just plain old crap being written about Iraq, be sure not to miss John Judis' new article about the Bush administration's three contending factions on the Iraq question and how they brought us to this current point. It's one of the most clear-minded and enlightening pieces I've read on the topic in some time.

Cover-ups are so easy when no one chooses to pay attention. Yes, we're talking about GOP Marketplace and the phone-jamming scandal.

(Click here to see the "You are not authorized to view this page" sign where GOP Marketplace's website used to be)

The New Hampshire Republican party has always claimed that the $15,600 it gave GOP Marketplace was supposed to be used for get-out-the-vote calls, not the sabotaging of the Democrats' phone-banks for which it was actually used. In fact, members of the New Hampshire state GOP professed to be so irate that they were demanding a refund. "If we don’t get it back," State party Election Law Committee member Richard Kennedy, R-Hopkinton, told The Manchester Union Leader, "you might see a theft of services charge."

Now, if you're interested in getting to the bottom of these sorts of hijinks you want to see dust-ups like this because if things get ugly -- and especially if they go into the courts -- you know all the details are going to come out.

But now it seems the New Hampshire Republican party isn't quite so interested to see that happen. Late last week, the head of the New Hampshire GOP, Jayne Millerick, told the Union Leader that she's decided not to seek any refund after all, preferring instead to "move forward."

That's what's called the other shoe dropping.

As most of you know, the standard six degrees of separation mumbo-jumbo seldom applies to the political world, since you can usually connect up most things with two or perhaps three degrees tops.

Like Miguel Estrada -- would-be conservative ideologue in residence at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals and the still too-little-noted phone-jamming scandal in New Hampshire.

How do they connect up? Let's go to the tape ...

According to this press release, the Republican Leadership Council (RLC) is now running Spanish-language TV ads in California, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico attacking Democratic Senators who are part of the filibuster of Estrada's nomination.

Now, as you -- the loyal Talking Points reader -- will well remember, the Executive Director of the RLC, Allen Raymond, is also the president of GOP Marketplace, the Republican phone-bank chop-shop which sabotaged Democratic phone banks in New Hampshire last election day and is now being investigated by state and federal authorities.

Now, my mistake here was to imagine that the eight Republican Senators who are on the board of the RLC would have blanched a bit at the head of their organization getting caught hatching political dirty tricks which also seem to violate state and federal laws. But apparently it's not that big a deal. Last week I spoke Dave Lackey, a spokesman for Maine Senator Olympia Snowe (R). He told me they didn't have any comment. And if I had any questions I should take it up with the RLC, i.e., not their problem.

I'll call some of the other Senators' offices tomorrow and see what I come up with.

Some stuff you just can't make up.

Until a few months ago Saddam Hussein was sending his Mig-21 jet engines abroad for refits and upgrades. That wasn't all. The sanctions-busting company doing the refits was also apparently working with the Iraqis on converting some of their jet trainer aircraft for remote piloting. This would have made them into so-called 'poor man's cruise missiles,' capable of delivering thousand pound munitions up to 900 miles.

Where was this factory?

Germany?

Pakistan?

North Korea?

The island in the South Pacific Osama bin Laden is setting up as a new Shariah-based version of Fantasy Island?

Nope

Try a section of Bosnia (Republika Srpska) under the jurisdiction of the United States military.

Oops ...

Check out this new article in The Washington Monthly for all the ugly details.

I've had a number of readers write in to take me to task for the quote which leads off the second half of the interview with Ken Pollack. I told a few folks who wrote in to look more closely and see that it was Pollack's quote, not mine. When I looked back at how I framed it, though, I realized that that wasn't as clear as it should have been. In any case, that's Pollack's quote (see below), not mine.

"I've always felt that we had to go to war against Iraq sooner rather than later. But I didn't necessarily think it had to be this year. And there were always a whole bunch of things that I wanted to do to make sure that we were ready to go when we did go. But the problem that I face now is that I think we are so deep into this - we are so far down this road - that it is now or never. I think that if we don't go to war this time around I don't think we will ever go to war with Saddam Hussein until he's acquired nuclear weapons. And then he picks the time and place of going to war ... if given my preference I would prefer not to be in the position we're in. But I can't turn back time. And we're in the position we're in. And at this point in time, as messy as it may be, I think that it is now or never. And now is a much better option than never."

Those are the lines from my interview with Ken Pollack that most captured and confirmed the mix of resolution, ambivalence and anger I feel about the situation we're currently in with Iraq.

As regular readers know, TPM interviewed Pollack at the end of January and we published part one of the interview on January 29th. Tonight, we're happy to bring you part two.

(If you'd like to read parts one and two together -- which is probably the best way to read them -- we've added the entire interview the TPM Document Collection.)

Just to recap, Ken Pollack is the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq and currently a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as a high-level government official in various capacities over the course of the 1990s, dealing with Iraq specifically and the Middle East generally.

There are a number of very important issues that we didn't get into in this interview -- many of them the big questions, like whether or not this whole thing is a good idea or not. That question is touched upon implicitly and indirectly, of course. But these issues are covered at great length in Pollack's book. You can get a copy here from Amazon (which I strongly recommend), read my review of it in The Washington Monthly, or read Pollack's earlier article in Foreign Affairs, upon which much of the book is based.

Finally, keep in mind that the interview took place on January 29th. So certain key points and questions have evolved with the events of the last three weeks.

BEGINNING OF PART II

TPM: A lot of people who are on the fence on this whole issue probably think the evidence is there, but they want the administration to show it. Why the reticence about putting out a lot of what we have? To make this more than a matter of taking our word for it?

POLLACK: Again, this is one of the problems of going the inspections route, of putting all of our eggs with the UN in this basket. We were inevitably going to find ourselves in the position of having to produce evidence which we were unlikely to have. And, again, the perverse thing about it is that we're not supposed to be the ones producing the evidence. It's the Iraqis who are supposed to be producing the evidence. So it's just bad all around. Now the administration is saying that they think they have the evidence. And if it's true then that's fantastic. Then they've hit the jackpot right there. If they can actually produce the evidence then all of this becomes easy. What Martin Indyk and I put in the piece that we did in the Los Angeles Times was basically making the argument that they are unlikely to have the evidence and instead what they need to do is to make the case differently.

And basically there are two broad approaches to that.

One: Make the point that everyone has basically agreed that the Iraqis need to come clean. And they're not coming clean. And that is something that you can demonstrate. And Blix really made that effort much easier with his report. And the second thing is to basically go to the Security Council members and in private say to them, 'Look, you know the Iraqis have it, we know that the Iraqis have it.' In some cases we can show them more information that we wouldn't necessarily show to the public. You can show governments things that you wouldn't necessarily want to make public, assuming you can trust the government. And there what you could do is to construct an argument and build the legitimacy of your case based on the number of countries who were willing to come forward and say 'Yes, we agree with the Bush administration. We agree with the United States that the Iraqis have not fully disarmed.' And our own feeling was that if you could get enough countries coming forward and saying that, that would be proof.

I think most Americans - I think most people in the world - are just looking for someone other than George Bush to be able to say that. And I think that if you had two or three dozen countries coming forward and saying 'We too are convinced of this. We too are convinced that Iraq has the stuff,' then that coalition, that group of people would in and of itself legitimize the effort. But, again, if the administration can actually produce the smoking gun, that's by far better, given where we are.

TPM: But your sense and I guess Martin's sense too, from having been on the inside, is that it may not be that easy to do?

POLLACK: Right. Absolutely. This was always the problem we had with the Iraqis. We knew they had this stuff, but we didn't know where they were hiding it. And therefore the likelihood that you were going to get something like Adlai Stevenson going to the UN and showing photographs of missiles was highly unlikely. And the Iraqis knew that. They know what our intelligence capabilities are and they were never going to put a missile out there where we could take a photograph of it. That was always the inherent problem.

TPM: When you and I talked months ago, one of the big issues was the back and forth between the civilians and the people in uniform at the Pentagon, about how you were going to do this, in operational terms, and also which countries you would need on board. Where is that part of this debate right now?

POLLACK: It seems like it's mostly being resolved. First, on the pure military plan, it looks like the Pentagon - that is, the uniform services - have won out and that it is going to be the big military operation. And that seems to be part of what's going on is that it's going to take us a number of weeks more until we've got the forces in place to actually mount the big military operation. [That's] rather than Secretary Rumsfeld's initial desire for this rolling start that was mostly reliant on airpower. The big thing there is this issue of when the United States actually starts military operations. I can imagine scenarios where for political reasons President Bush decides he wants to move sooner. And if he moves sooner we may not have all of those troops in place. And we may have to start with something like the rolling start. On the other hand, the longer that the current diplomacy goes on the more likely it is that we're going to have the troops in place ready to go.

Basing is still out there as an issue. Look, we've got Kuwait. We've got Bahrain. We've got Qatar. We've got Oman. Those are the absolute necessities. And we've got those. We've also, it looks like, got Saudi permission to use their airspace and to use Prince Sultan airbase which - again - those are the minimums and it's good that we've got them.

The issues that are remaining out there are Turkey and in particular putting ground troops in Turkey and if we can do anything more with the Saudis and particularly whether the Saudis will allow us to put ground troops in Saudi Arabia. It looks unlikely. I think that unless we both got a new UN resolution and the administration were willing to do something on the peace process I think it'd be hard for the Saudis to come around on that issue. If we got the second resolution, maybe. But I think the Saudis would still want to see progress on the peace process before they actually gave in to a US military presence on the ground in the Kingdom.

TPM: So overall it sounds like no one is happy about it. But despite their unhappiness we have the bare minimums that we need.

POLLACK: Exactly. What we've got is good enough. It could be much better. But it's good enough. On Turkey, the Turks have made it clear they'll allow us to use their airbases. The question is ground troops and how many ground troops. My guess is that actually there we will get to bring in maybe a division's worth of troops. And in that case that will be better than good enough. A division of ground troops really is exactly what we'd want up in Turkey.

TPM: And this is to get in there in the north and make sure that things don't spin out of control when everything is happening?

POLLACK: There is the ostensible reason of wanting to threaten Baghdad from the north and wanting to pin down Iraq's forces in the north. And those are good reasons. And they're certainly true. But they're not the most important reason. The most important reason is that we can be on the ground to prevent the Kurds and the Turks from coming to blows.

TPM: My last question is this: People who aren't familiar with the region and also don't talk to people in the region always see this seeming disjuncture between what one sees and hears from various Saudi officials on TV, for instance, and what they actually seem to be saying behind closed doors. And from your column in the Times one of the main issues we're confronting now is that these leaders aren't crazy about how we got to this point, but that they'll be really pissed if we bring it to this level and then don't do anything.

POLLACK: Yeah, I mean, beyond pissed. This is one of the problems I have. As you well know, Josh, I've always felt that we had to go to war against Iraq sooner rather than later. But I didn't necessarily think it had to be this year. And there were always a whole bunch of things that I wanted to do to make sure that we were ready to go when we did go. But the problem that I face now is that I think we are so deep into this - we are so far down this road - that it is now or never. I think that if we don't go to war this time around I don't think we will ever go to war with Saddam Hussein until he's acquired nuclear weapons. And then he picks the time and place of going to war. And this is exactly what I'm hearing: There are a whole variety of different issues out there. There's the military issues. There's the domestic political issues. There's the international political issue in terms of we've spun up the entire world for this thing. Don't think we're going to do this again in the future. We've spun up the whole country. And don't think we're going to do this again. We're moving all of these divisions out there. We don't have replacements for these divisions. If they come back home it's going to be a while before they can go back out there.

But I think the biggest issue right now is the Gulf Arab states who are feeling extremely exposed and extremely unhappy. And it's exactly as you put it: they're not wild about how we got to this point. They wish we would have done things differently. But now we've built up these forces. We've publicly committed ourselves to doing it. We have forced them to publicly take positions and they're taking a great deal of heat from their own people and from other countries in the region. The last thing they want is to go through this again. And I'll put it even more strongly: They've seen the United States commit itself to a major effort against Iraq - to toppling the Iraqi regime - and seen us pull our punches and back away from it too many times. And what they're saying is, 'Look, we really thought at the end of the Clinton administration that you guys weren't going to go after Iraq. And then 9/11 happened and President Bush indicated he was serious and we took him at his word . If you guys don't go this time we don't think you will ever go. We think you'll do the same thing to us next time. You'll build up again and at the last minute you'll find a way to back out. And once again you will leave us out on a limb. And we're not going through that again.'

TPM: So to characterize where you are on this: If we could rewind to where we were a year ago it sounds like you very much wouldn't want to be where we are right now. But now that we are here - with the options we have and with everything as it is right now - we really don't have much choice but to move ahead.

POLLACK: Right. I think that if you could have turned back time we could have handled this a lot better than we actually did. But we are where we are. And I do want to give the administration some credit. They actually have addressed a number of issues out there. There are some things that I actually think they've handled quite well. Jordan was one. I had a great deal of concerns about what was going to happen with Jordan. And I don't think the administration has absolutely solved the problem. But they've taken some very important steps to make sure that the Jordanians are shielded from the brunt of this war. That's really important.

TPM: Does that mean the economic brunt of it?

POLLACK: Yeah. They've made a number of arrangements with countries to make up for the Iraqi oil. And that's huge. That's something that we in the Clinton administration could never make happen. And so I give them credit there. But I think there are a whole bunch of other things which this administration has not handled particularly well. There are a number of other issues out there which have not been addressed fully. And, yeah, if given my preference I would prefer not to be in the position we're in. But I can't turn back time. And we're in the position we're in. And at this point in time, as messy as it may be, I think that it is now or never. And now is a much better option than never.

TPM: As long as we're on this subject, what are the other areas - as far putting this all together - that the administration has handled well.

POLLACK: I think the military plan, as I said, I think they've gotten to the right place on that. It was a fitful process. But I think they have gotten it to the right place. I think they've also done a pretty good job in terms of the 'day after'. I think you probably saw the piece by David Sanger and Eric Schmidt in the New York Times a couple weeks ago. That does really reflect, as best I can tell, where the administration is. And that's a pretty good approach to handling the 'day after'. They've given up their early ideas that we would just install a new dictator, or that we would install one of the Iraqi oppositionists, or that we just walk away from the problem the way we did in Afghanistan. They recognize this is going to be a big issue and that we have to be committed.

They're still arguing over whether the reconstruction should have a US head or a UN head. But even there I think they're leaning in the direction of the UN. And I think that that's the right answer. So I think they've addressed the 'day after' properly. I think there's still an issue out there of whether they will actually follow through on the 'day after'. But just in terms of the planning and doing everything necessary I think they're well on the road. So that's another one where I tend to give them some credit. I think that they've handled that one pretty well.

The Congress is another one. When I first wrote the book it was a time when you had administration figures coming out and saying 'We don't need anything from Congress. We've got all the authority that we need.' And [yet] they went to the Congress. And they got the war resolution, which I think was very important. To some extent the UN as well. You've heard me say any number of times that I wish they hadn't pursued this route with the UN. But, again, when I wrote the book they were in the mode of 'We don't need the UN. We've got all the authority we need to go ahead and do this.' And instead they recognized that that was a mistake. And they have gone to the UN. Unfortunately the route they took may have cost them as much support as it built them. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that they at least made the effort.

Just to cap it off, there are at least two big areas that we haven't talked about where I don't think that the administration is as far along as I would like to see them. Those are a Middle East peace process and the war on terrorism. On the Middle East peace process I think they've singularly failed. They haven't even put out their road map. I think this is a big issue. And I think that if we have problems in the Middle East as a result of the war they will largely be because the administration refused to really engage on getting negotiations resumed between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I think they've missed some real opportunities there. I hope that the war goes smoothly enough that this doesn't come back to bite us. I'm afraid that it will though.

And then the other issue is the war on terrorism. I think the administration is fighting as hard as they can. I don't have too many complaints about how they're doing it. It's just that I think that there is the risk that when we go to war with Iraq it will reduce some of the pressure on al Qaida. The administration will be focusing on Iraq. It will be making its biggest efforts there. These are very important things. There are countries out there - many counties in the world like Saudi Arabia - that are going to say to us 'Whatever your top priority is, we'll make that our top priority too. But you only get one priority.' And if that priority is Iraq we're not going to get the same level of cooperation from them on terrorism than we would if terrorism were our highest priority. So my preference would have been that we'd be further along on the war on terrorism, that al Qaida would be weaker when we go into Iraq than they are today.

Now I think the president's right. I think that we've won some important victories against al Qaida. And I think to a certain extent they are scattered. They are on their heels. They're trying to knit themselves back together. But they're not out. They might be down. But they're not out.

END OF PART II

"'I'm proud to call him friend,' Mr. Bush said of Mr. [Zell] Miller, who has said he will seek re-election next year. 'And I'm proud of the fact that he is going to sponsor the tax relief plan I'm going to tell you about.'"

That's from a piece about Zell Miller by David Stout in today's Times.

Now, I assume this was just an editing error. But didn't Miller just announce about a month ago that he wasn't seeking re-election? Sheesh ...

A number of readers have written in to disagree with my earlier post which said the Democrats apparently "have no public figure of sufficient credibility and expertise who can publicly sound the alarm when the president marches off into another bout of foreign policy ridiculousness."

They've written in to suggest this person or that person ... Bob Graham, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, Sam Nunn, Dick Holbrooke and a slew of other worthies. Now as I've said earlier, I think the Dems do have a serious problem on national security questions. But a number of those folks and others are very impressive figures.

I think, however, that the people who wrote in only focused on the first part of what I said without noting the second: "who can publicly sound the alarm."

That's the key.

Over the last two months the foreign policy consensus has slowly crept toward a realization that the administration's handling of the North Korea situation has been, at best, a matter of persistent negligence. More likely I'd say it's been a record of blustering incompetence with intermittent bouts of negligence. But let's allow the benefit of the doubt.

In any case, which Democratic foreign policy type help drive this recognition? Which of them wrote a trenchant opinion column on the issue? Which pushed the issue in a series of TV interviews? I've followed this issue pretty closely and frankly I can't think of any. Where was Joe Lieberman? (I think he put out a press release after the tide had begun to turn. Who knew TPM would have to lecture Joe Lieberman about pursuing his own political self-interest!!! -- Late Correction: I'm reminded that what I'd remembered as a press release was actually a column in the Post. Overall, though, the same point applies.)

Once a week I do a brief spot on the Hugh Hewitt Show. Hugh's an awfully conservative talk radio host and we've come to virtual blows several times over the Korea issue. In one of our first 'set-to's back in early January, at the end of a long back and forth, Hugh said, 'If you're right about Korea, why isn't any elected Democrat out there saying the same thing?'

Now, the lesson Hugh drew from this was that I had it wrong. I didn't agree of course and I think the last six or seven weeks have vindicated my position. But frankly, at the time, it was a pretty damn good question and it wasn't an easy one to answer.

There was a good case to make. Dems were just too lame or too wary of getting out into the public square to make it.

Next up: why blaming the problem on the press doesn't cut it.

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