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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I'll put together a verbatim transcript later this afternoon. But two points struck me from Michael Ledeen's comments from this morning at AEI. The first was his argument that Americans are a "warlike people" who have a high tolerance for casualties so long as they're well-led and fighting in a just cause. He referenced the speech from the beginning of the movie Patton -- you know, the one where Patton's standing in front of the big American flag.

The other point was on the definition of terrorism. Ledeen argued that the record of the war thus far has confirmed Saddam's practice of terrorism. His point was a reference to the Iraqis' practice of having soldiers try to blend in with civilians by taking off their uniforms and putting on civilian clothes, false surrenders, ambushes, and stuff like this.

Now, I don't defend this stuff for a minute. These are clear violations of the rules of war. But this isn't 'terrorism.' It's called guerrilla warfare. And guerrilla fighters, almost by definition, seldom follow the rules of war. This is something that's almost always practiced -- for better or worse -- by forces that are vastly outnumbered by their opponents.

It's amazing that anyone would not have expected that, and disingenuous to class it as terrorism.

Nothing seems as important right now as the possibility of a civilian uprising in Basra. If it plays like the hawks have long predicted it would, it would prove a major victory for the whole military endeavor.

Here's the key, as I see it, to the current situation. Nothing that has happened is really that troubling from a purely military point of view. The US-UK forces have advanced to the edge of Baghdad in just a few days. This isn't really good or bad, really. As we've noted before, the story will be told when we fight for Baghdad itself.

The problem isn't with the military strategy. It's rather that what we've seen so far on the military side of the equation has thrown into some doubt our political strategy.

We can subdue Iraq militarily. That's really not a question. But if we have to subdue it in that sense our political strategy will be in a shambles. The strategy which the administration is following amounts to a grand politico-diplomatic carom shot. We can ignore the protests from around the world, they argue, because we assume that when we've finished with our plan the results will prove our diplomatic opponents wrong.

In other words, if we get into Iraq and we find tons of WMD and the Iraqis are praising us to the stars for liberating them, then France and Germany and Russia will have egg on their face. It really won't matter how much they griped on the way in because we'll be retrospectively justified. And with a pro-American Iraqi civilian population we'll go about setting up a democratic polity which will be the envy of the Arab world.

On the other hand, if we have something more like an angry and restive civilian population, then, from a political standpoint, we're really up the creek. We won't have happy Iraqis making our case for us to the world community. And it will be very hard for us to set up a democratic government while we're ruling the place with our fists.

The real outcome will almost certainly fall between these two extremes. But the Bush administration's approach to changing the regime in Baghdad banked almost everything on a picture perfect response from the Iraqi people.

This reminds of a phrase they repeat over and over again in the Army: "Hope is not a plan."

I just got back from a briefing from what we might call -- with a nod to the Civil War lexicon -- the Army of the Potomac. That is, the key regime-change boosters from the DC foreign policy establishment. This morning at the American Enterprise Institute, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen and James Woolsey gave a briefing on the progress of the war. I'm going to write more about this later this evening. But I thought I'd write a little now from my filing station here at Starbucks just to give my first impressions.

There was a definitely a sense that things weren't going as well as had been expected. But the general tenor of the presentations was 'Let's wait and see; we never said it would be easy, etc.'

To the extent there was any second-guessing it was from Ledeen, who said it was a bad idea to have "made the battle for Iraq almost entirely a military battle when there were so many political elements operating in our favor..." This is something we may be hearing a lot more of -- basically, the neos saying we should have taken the US military-cum-'Iraqi opposition' approach.

There was some discussion of the much broader conflict or war of which Iraq is supposed to be only the first battle. But of that, more later.

Speaking in strictly military terms, it's far too soon to say how this war is going or how good a strategy the US is pursuing. But there is one man in particular who comes to mind whose professional reputation very much rides on the outcome. His name is Eliot Cohen and he's the author of a much-discussed book called Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.

The thesis of Eliot's book is that the best wartime leaders are those who heavily involve themselves in military planning. They don't just leave it to the generals. They question and prod and, when needed -- and that's fairly often -- overrule them. A key premise of Cohen's argument is that generals and admirals are often overly risk-averse, trapped in the thinking of the last war, and sometimes overly devoted to the institutional agendas of their particular service.

Any quick description of a book will to some degree be an over-simplification. But this captures the main outlines of Cohen's argument.

The book made a big splash in Washington policy circles. And what made the book so important was that it provided grist for a debate which was going on in Washington last year between the Pentagon's civilian political appointees and those in uniform.

Was Rumsfeld and Co. right to tell the Joint Chiefs how to do their business? Were the staff officers on the Joint Staff just too unimaginative or maybe just too afraid of taking casualties? Did the uniforms really grasp the impact of new technology on the conduct of war? Or did the folks in uniform maybe know something that Rumsfeld and Co. didn't?

For those who supported Rumsfeld and Co., Cohen's book provided much-needed ammunition. If you didn't want to fight a war in Iraq the way the military wanted to fight it, Cohen provided a reading of history which justified ignoring a lot of the career officers' advice.

That debate is now coming back with a vengeance as a lot of retired Army commanders are coming forward with a big "I told you so." (For a number of reasons, this debate centered most heavily on the Army.) This second-guessing from retired generals isn't coming from nowhere. They've been saying this for 18 months. And the degree of tension and acrimony in that debate became quite intense. (I discussed some of this in an article about civilian-military relations at the Pentagon last year in Salon.)

The Pentagon's political appointees were buoyed by the progress of the war in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld and Co. pressed the uniformed services to adopt a much more rapid and aggressive approach than they wanted to take. And it worked. By the early spring of last year, in part because of the success in Afghanistan and the discussion generated by Cohen's book, it had become conventional wisdom in certain circles in Washington that the career officers at the Pentagon were really just a bunch of fuddy-duddies who needed to be told what to do.

That's the backdrop to retired Army General Barry McCaffrey's remarks yesterday to Reuters. McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division in the first Gulf War, was asked whether he thought Don Rumsfeld had misjudged the nature of this war, particularly by sending in the Americans without enough force on the ground ...

Yes, sure. I think everybody told him that ... I think he thought these were U.S. generals with their feet planted in World War II that didn't understand the new way of warfare.
There's a lot more to tell here. (One part of the story is Rumsfeld's practice of appointing military leaders who are not known for standing up to, or giving bad news to, their civilian superiors.) But if it does turn out that we don't have enough men and materiel on the ground in Iraq, that's the direction this debate is going to go.

Here's another post for the foreign policy incompetence file. As we've noted here several times before, the administration thought muscling the Turks would pay off for the United States -- a strategy that backfired terribly. I don't even think I imagined, however, they'd be this clumsy. Buried in the last graf of this article in Saturday's Washington Post comes this ...

But one senior U.S. official acknowledged that U.S. pressure in recent months has backfired, saying that at one point Pentagon officials insinuated to Turkish politicians that they could get the Turkish military to back the request for U.S. troop deployments in Turkey. "It was stupid stuff. These are proud people," he said. "Speaking loudly and carrying a big stick wins you tactical victories from time to time, but not a strategic victory."
The backdrop here is that the military pushed out an Islamist government only a few years back. Going over the civilians' heads to the Turkish General Staff would inevitably raise the spectre of a repeat of those events.

It's the sort of tough guy tactics that's worked for the Bushies at home but failed miserably abroad.

What I wouldn't give to know who at the Pentagon tried this? Could someone with the initials HR possibly be involved? And who's the "senior U.S. official" who said this to the Post? What I wouldn't give ...

Special thanks to TPM Reader JW for bringing this article to my attention.

Looking over the day's news, my strongest impression is a curious sort of deja vu. Military planners have been thinking this through for years. And when I spoke to a number of them last year to write an article about a war against Iraq, I tried to draw them out on precisely this issue. What will be easy? Which parts will be hard? Which parts of doing this worry you the most?

Most everyone agreed that we'd roll up the south pretty quickly. (Despite all the rough news of the last couple days, that's pretty much been borne out.) And then we'd come up to Baghdad with a massive coalition army. And then the big question would be answered. Would the regime fold? Or would Saddam have enough loyal Republican Guards to pull us into a really ugly fight for Baghdad?

That's always been the question and it looks like we're about to learn the answer.

This was always the question that worried military planners. I also did my best to put this question to the more zealous hawks.

Jim Woolsey was pretty straightforward. He thought we might possibly avoid a pitched battle for Baghdad, but thought the possibility was very real and that such a confrontation would be very bloody. This from my interview with Woolsey last April ...

It could well end up that Baghdad will be a big battle ... This could be a bloody and very bad thing ... It may be that the uprising will spread even among the Republican Guards and he'll lose out very quickly. But I think we would have to count on having to fight for Baghdad ...And that could be a bloody undertaking. But it was a bloody undertaking to fight the Battle of the Bulge and for the Russians to take Berlin in 1945 and I don't really see any alternative.
Richard Perle was a good deal more cagey. I had a very hard time pinning him down on what would happen if Saddam's government didn't collapse before we got to Baghdad, or for that matter really any of the serious downside possibilities. He never seemed to accept the premise. This from my interview with him, also from last April ...
I don't think you have to go to Baghdad. At least it's not certain that you have to. I think if you've initiated activities, or at least his opponents have in the north and the south, he either accepts the loss of that territory -- which I think he is loathe to do -- or he sends that same Republican Guard out to try to reverse the situation. And when he does it is exceedingly vulnerable to American air power.

[At this point, I asked Perle why Saddam would ignore textbook military doctrine which would counsel him to fight on ground on which he was least vulnerable, i.e., in Baghdad. I also pressed him on the necessity of having some plan in place if Saddam didn't fold or send his Republican Guards out to meet us on the barren desert.]

Well, first of all, his revenues would shrivel, which is to say he would have none. His ports in the south would be gone. What does he do? Just hold up in a palace near Baghdad? Try to assert authority over the country as a whole or does he accept that he now rules the Baghdad area but that's all? I think we can put him in a situation where he's got to try to assert authority over his own territory. And when he does he's highly vulnerable, his forces are highly vulnerable. There are other ways of doing this. It's certainly not up to me to decide what strategy we pursue. But I think there are strategies that do not entail an inevitable result on Baghdad.

Soon enough, this will cease to be a matter of conjecture.

Over the weekend, I've only been able to keep up on press reports sporadically. But what caught my eye over the last two days was the failure to take the southern city of Basra. It made me think that things weren't going quite as well as the initial reports implied.

Now, in this case, it's very important to give some context to words like 'failure' or things going better or worse than expected. Over the last year I've spoken to many US military planners. And what's happened so far seems well within the range of what they considered expected outcomes. It's only that the best case scenario does not so far seem to be materializing.

Let's take Basra first. Part of the lightning approach the US is following here is to set everything aside in pursuit of getting to Baghdad and decapitating the regime. On that thinking, it's fine just to seal off Basra -- and its military capabilities -- and move on to Baghdad. One needs to be sure that it's sufficiently secured so as not to allow Iraqi units to circle back and attack the relatively vulnerable US supply lines on the way to Baghdad. But that's probably not too big a worry. The Iraqi Army's real bite, if it has one, is going to be in defensive actions, particularly in urban settings. The issue is not that Basra's resistance is a problem in itself. It's what it may portend for Baghdad, Tikrit and other Iraqi cities.

Basra is in heavily Shi'a southern Iraq. And it's garrisoned by the regime's least reliable troops. So if the regime's military were going to fold quickly or be overwhelmed by restive civilians, you'd expect it to be there. The fact that it hasn't makes it much less likely that that sort of happy outcome will happen in Sunni central Iraq, among the Special Republican Guards, Saddam's Tikriti tribesmen, and others closely associated with the regime. In short, Saddam seems to have a good number of troops who are willing to fight and die for what appears to be a doomed regime.

Here's a key passage from an article in today's Washington Post ...

The Iraqis holding out in Basra are members of the Iraqi army's 51st Division, not the elite Republican Guard who have been moved to defend Baghdad and were expected to put up the stiffest resistance the U.S.-led invasion. That regular soldiers have stood so long and fought has surprised some who were predicting that Basra could be taken on the first day of fighting, to provide the American-led coalition a quick victory and deliver an early psychological blow to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Now, the failure of a rapid capitulation in Basra doesn't necessarily mean the Basrans want to fight the US soldiers. It may mean there is a sprinkling of Republican Guards and still-fearsome security forces in the city who have been able to keep a reign of terror in place which has prevented any slide toward capitulation. In a sense, though, the fact is more important than the 'why.'

This is why the uniformed military wanted to do this operation with a massive number of US troops (as we do have there now) rather than pursuing the so-called 'Afghan model.' It was always possible that the regime would just fold. But if it didn't, they wanted to have on hand overwhelming force to crush such resistance very quickly.

Inspiring, chilling, haunting words out of one of the first towns of liberated Iraq ...

All through the day here, as American and British tanks and troop carriers rumbled through the town on their drive on the nearby city of Basra, the town of Safwan seemed to celebrate the collapse of Mr. Hussein's local rule with a glance over its shoulder.

Only hours before, they said, the Mukhabarat, Mr. Hussein's security force, had held Safwan in a state of near permanent terror. Even now, the villagers said, Mr. Hussein's agents were still among them, waiting, as they did twelve years ago, for their moment to return.

"There, there are Saddam's men, and if you leave me they will kill me right now," said a trembling Najah Neema, an Iraqi soldier, who said he had torn off his uniform and thrown down his gun and ran away as the American army approached at dawn.

Like many townspeople here, Mr. Neema feared that the Americans would lose their will, as they had in 1991, when an American-encouraged uprising across southern Iraq fell before a withering assault by Mr. Hussein's regime that drew no American riposte.

This from a late article by Dexter Filkins in the Times ...

Well, I was ambling through Union Square in New York City this afternoon when I happened across an ANSWER rally against the war. I stopped and listened long enough to hear about US support for the feudal conditions in Saudi Arabia and the grand educational opportunities for women in Iraq. I guess this is one of those cases of running afoul of that whole 'the truth, THE WHOLE TRUTH, and nothing but the truth' thing.

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