Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Now comes the hard part: winning the spin.

John Kerry made a good start of it tonight. But it is absolutely critical for his campaign and his supporters, formal and otherwise, to hit the ground running with a plan to use the grist from the debate to shape perceptions in the final weeks of the campaign.

As I said earlier, I think Kerry did himself the most good tonight simply by belying the Bush campaign's portrayal of him as weak-willed flip-flopper.

But that positive impression could quickly dissipate if the follow-up is not effective. Some of this will involve zinging the president for misstatements he made or knocking him for other similar missteps. But what is critical is for them to burrow into the president's performance and sift out the most damaging impressions he conveyed -- ones that voters may have been troubled by while watching the debate but need to have driven home again and again over the coming week.

The key point I think, the key impression, was of a president who was out of touch. Erratic. Without a plan. In a cocoon. Unwilling to admit mistakes. Unwilling to level with himself or voters about what's happening in Iraq. Lost.

These are broad brush of course. But I suspect these impressions are at least some of the ones that are most damaging for the president coming out of tonight.

There was an air of prickliness and entitlement about the president that Kerry's surrogates should play up too. If you notice, one of the president's major attacks on Kerry through the debate was his claim that Kerry's criticism of the president's own war policy made him unfit to be president.

That's extraordinary -- certainly a set of rules that would put Kerry in something of a bind if he followed them, no?

And that's the best he could come up with: say I've made a mistake in Iraq and you're letting down the troops.

Notice the structure of the president's thinking: The point isn't whether he's made mistakes or screwed things up. But saying he has is bad.

Again, denial. Refusal to see what's happening. Lost. Adrift.

It's a rather technical matter. And I'm not sure how much attention it will garner since the issue hasn't gotten that much attention in the US press. But one of the notable things in the debate was that President Bush didn't seem to have any really clear idea what his administration's North Korea policy even is.

To a degree that's understandable since the policy has been muddled and divided from the beginning. But even taking a charitable view, taking the present policy on its own terms, President Bush couldn't seem to explain it more clearly than to say that it'd be bad to have bilateral talks with the North Koreans because then the Chinese wouldn't help us or else that it wouldn't be fair to the Chinese.

"And I hope it‘s as soon as<$NoAd$> possible. But I know putting artificial deadlines won‘t work. My opponent at one time said, 'Well, get me elected, I‘ll have them out of there in six months.' You can‘t do that and expect to win the war on terror."

That was another throw away line from President Bush in tonight's debate.

Needless to say (and as Sen. Kerry later made clear), Kerry's never said any such thing.

As best I can tell, what President Bush was referring to was this passage from Sen. Kerry's recent speech on Iraq ...

If the President would move in this direction … if he would bring in more help from other countries to provide resources and forces … train the Iraqis to provide their own security …develop a reconstruction plan that brings real benefits to the Iraqi people … and take the steps necessary to hold credible elections next year … we could begin to withdraw U.S. forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.

A bit different, no?

In addition to being unaccustomed to being criticized, President Bush also seemed unused to having people call him on it when he makes up 'quotes' they never said.

"The A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice," President Bush said in the debate tonight.

Brought to justice?


The White House went along with a deal in which Khan was immediately pardoned after making a perfunctory apology for spreading nuclear weapons technology all over the globe.

I guess it's really not about law enforcement.

I've been watching the rerun of the debate. And that's given me a chance to look more closely at the body language and other things I didn't see on the first go through. What jumps out at me in the second viewing are the times when the camera was on Bush during Kerry's responses (obviously some networks had more of this than others.)

Bush looked tense or impatient or peeved or even a bit miffed that he even had to be up there on the stage with Kerry. At other times he just looked lost. Obviously, one can read many things into these expressions or grimaces. But whatever they were they didn't look good.

What occured to me somewhat while I was watching the first time and even more on the second go through was just how long it's been since President Bush had to face someone who disagrees with him or is criticizing him.

Every president gets tucked away into a cocoon to some degree. But President Bush does notoriously few press conferences or serious interviews. His townhall meetings are screened so that only supporters show up. And, of course, he hasn't debated anyone since almost exactly four years ago.

Frankly, I think it showed. It irked him to have to stand there and be criticized and not be able to repeat his talking points without contradiction.

I just flipped off the volume on the TV so that I could try to put down some initial impressions of the debate before being inundated by the spin from both sides and the endless pundit chatter.

For the first ten minutes or so, my pained reaction was, "Where did we get these two guys?"

I'm going from memory here without reviewing the text or anything. But I remember thinking that John Kerry's first answer was awfully meandering and unfocused. A laundry list, playing exactly to the critique of him.

But then President Bush was just as bad in his own way.

Soon enough, though, both guys settled down to their game.

From there I thought Kerry got better, sharper and more focused as the debate progressed. Roughly speaking, I thought he was at his best in the second third of the debate. He was clear. And he hit on some of the central points of criticism against the president -- the lack of a plan in Iraq, the failure to come clean on what's really happening there, turning the president's 'strong leadership' into stubborn obstinacy, etc.

There were certainly no Ronald Reagan moments. But there were several times when Kerry landed solid punches that the president seemed unable to counter.

President Bush hit on his core messages again and again: Kerry changes his positions, perseverance, no mixed messages, etc. His campaign will be glad he kept driving those points home.

But there were a number of times through the debate where the president stumbled through responses and seemed almost lost. More than a few times he appeared to struggle to fill up the alloted time.

Where he was strong were those few times in which he mobilized what I think is one of his true strengths: an ability to keep his ears open to turns of phrase which can be used against his opponent, ones that allow him to cast himself as a no-nonsense tough-guy and his opponent as either feckless or weak. To me, it's an ear for the cadence of a rancid populism. But that's a subjective view. The relevant point is that it is a strength.

Two things stand out to me about the debate.

First, for most of the 90 minutes Kerry kept the initiative and kept the president on the defensive. The president was able to parry many of those challenges, at least in a way that would be convincing to his supporters or those inclined to support his policies. But I was surprised how few times President Bush brought the debate to Kerry or got him on the defensive. The standard bludgeon lines the president and his surrogates have been using against Kerry for months only barely got into play. When they did, Kerry came back quickly.

I remember that when both men came out to shake hands at the outset, President Bush came out quicker and shook hands with Kerry on his own side of the stage. I took this as the president's way of getting in Kerry's face, asserting dominance. But that's not how the rest of the 90 minutes went.

My point isn't that Kerry clobbered the president or anything. But for most of the 90 minutes I thought Kerry held the initiative, keeping the energy of the debate on questions about the president's record.

It's the second point however that is, I think, the really big deal about this debate.

If you look at the dynamics of this race and the small but durable lead President Bush has built up over the last month, it comes less from people becoming more enamored of President Bush or his policies as it has from a steep decline in confidence in Sen. Kerry.

To put it bluntly, the Bush campaign has created an image of Kerry as a weak and indecisive man, someone that -- whatever you think of President Bush -- just can't be trusted to keep the country safe in these dangerous times.

Often they've made him into an object of contempt.

Whatever else you can say about this debate, though, whatever you think of his policies, I don't think that's how Kerry came off. I think he came off as forceful and direct. And I suspect that most people who were at all genuinely undecided came away from the 90 minutes with that impression.

If President Bush's current lead is built not upon confidence in him or his policies but in a simple belief that Kerry isn't solid enough to be president, then I think this performance could help Kerry a good deal.

What happens when mockery can't catch up with reality?

I know we're all waiting for the big debate tonight. But somehow I missed this article in today's Post by Dana Milbank and Mike Allen. And it can't go unremarked upon.

You'll remember that a few days ago I joked about whether Iyad Allawi was actually part of the Bush campaign or registered as a 527.

When John Kerry took Allawi's speech to task for presenting an unrealistic view of the situation in Iraq Dick Cheney and the later the president railed against him for disrespecting a prized American ally.

But, like I said, what happens when mockery just can't keep pace with reality?

It seems they decided not to register him as a 527. According to today's Post, "the U.S. government and a representative of President Bush's reelection campaign had been heavily involved in drafting the speech given to Congress last week by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi."

That's extraordinary. It almost takes your breath away. This whole operation has been saturated in politics from the word go. And the Post piece gives more of the nitty-gritty about Allawi's speech.

But that's really all you need to know. It would be pretty dubious to have the White House writing Allawi's speech. But the Bush campaign itself ...

What more can you say about that?

That puts team Kerry in something of a bind (doesn't it?) if the Bush campaign can send our appointed leader of Iraq up to the Hill to deliver a speech from the Bush campaign and Kerry can't criticize it? Did the Kerry campaign get to have input on the speech too?

The whole Allawi speech was exactly what the most cynical observer would have figured, a cheap Bush-Cheney '04 campaign stunt.

I mean, they won't even go through the motions of avoiding the level of 'coordination' that would make this illegal if Allawi were an independent expenditure group in the United States as opposed to a foreign leader.

Our appointed leader of Iraq is working on behalf of the Bush reelection campaign -- not figuratively, but literally -- which is another reason why, as I've stated before, it's so important for us to democratize Iraq, and quickly. Because once we do, some of them can come back here and re-democratize us.

"The hawks' whole plan rests on the assumption that we can turn [Iraq] into a self-governing democracy--that the very presence of that example will transform politics in the Middle East. But what if we can't really create a democratic, self-governing Iraq, at least not very quickly? What if the experience we had after World War II in Germany and Japan, two ethnically homogeneous nations, doesn't quite work in an ethnically divided Iraq where one group, the Sunni Arabs, has spent decades repressing and slaughtering the others? As one former Army officer with long experience with the Iraq file explains it, the "physical analogy to Saddam Hussein's regime is a steel beam in compression." Give it one good hit, and you'll get a violent explosion. One hundred thousand U.S. troops may be able to keep a lid on all the pent-up hatred. But we may soon find that it's unwise to hand off power to the fractious Iraqis. To invoke the ugly but apt metaphor which Jefferson used to describe the American dilemma of slavery, we will have the wolf by the ears. You want to let go. But you dare not."

"Practice to Deceive"
The Washington Monthly
April 2003

Juan Cole picks up on a key development reported in today's LA Times. Andrew Sullivan does too, if on a more thematic level.

As the Times reports, the US has launched a series of airstrikes targeting rebels in Baghdad's Shi'a Sadr City district. A strike Monday killed four insurgents, according to the US military. But hospital officials said ten people were killed and that the number included civilians. Another attack came Tuesday but the exact number of casualties or fatalities in those raids remains unclear.

Reacting to this the President of Iraq Ghazi Ajil Yawer called the attacks "collective punishment" and compared them explicitly to Israeli raids in the West Bank and Gaza.

There are numerous layers to what is happening here. One is that the US military is trying to reduce the number of casualities its own troops are sustaining, especially during the run-up to the elections -- thus the heavy reliance on airpower. That's understandable; but there are consequences. Even the 'smartest' munitions kill a lot of innocent people if you're operating in heavily populated slums.

Yawer's comparison of these attacks to the IDF's operations in the occupied territories speaks for itself. Perhaps even more important, though, is what remains implicit in Yawer's remarks -- that the 'sovereign' government of Iraq has no control over these operations. Or, to put it another way, that Iraq remains under military occupation. That seems certain to make the interim government into an object of contempt among the country's population -- something Yawer was clearly trying to head off with his comments.

I haven't written as much lately as I usually do about Iraq because it is, quite simply, hard to know quite what else to say.

Anyone who can't now see the Lebanonization of Iraq for what it is will never see it, is incapable of seeing it.

The issue isn't the number of US military deaths or even the number of Iraqi civilians getting killed -- at least not in and of themselves. It is the evident reality -- observable by every measure available -- that we are on the downward side of a slippery slope, that the insurgency is spreading rapidly both in its geographical scope and and its diffusion into the population, horizontally and vertically, you might say. That spread is a sign that if the majority of the population does not quite support the insurgents specifically, they also do not support the occupation, or, in other words, us. And without the support of the population, the cause is more or less lost.

Many have drawn attention to this private letter by Wall Street Journal reporter, Farnaz Fassihi, which has been making the rounds. Let's look at one passage from the letter ...

It's hard to pinpoint when the 'turning point' exactly began. Was it April when the Fallujah fell out of the grasp of the Americans? Was it when Moqtada and Jish Mahdi declared war on the U.S. military? Was it when Sadr City, home to ten percent of Iraq's population, became a nightly battlefield for the Americans? Or was it when the insurgency began spreading from isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most of Iraq? Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.

What strikes me about the stir this letter has caused is not so much what's contained, as its backstory. What's in the letter is not what we're reading in the daily reportage. And why the cleavage? It almost as if a mighty membrane has been built up -- largely because of the election calendar -- to keep out the full force of the reality of what's happening in Iraq. But here in this letter you can see the membrane springing leaks -- and some of the reality bursting through.

And speaking of that membrane, the Post today has another example of the Orwellian moment we're passing through. On Monday the Post ran a story about the sheer scope and spread of the insurgency in Iraq based on data from USAID compiled by the security contractor Kroll Security International.

The response, according to today's Post, is that USAID will stop making the data public.

That's their solution. Just think about for a second. That's their response.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is sponsoring a PR campaign by hand-picked Iraqi-Americans and former CPA officials who will be speaking at US military bases around the country. The memo sent out to base commanders says the presentations will be "designed to be uplifting accounts with good news messages" and that commanders should try to get local news coverage for the speeches since "these events and presentations are positive public relations opportunities."

That's their policy: denial.

I was reading an article a day or so ago (perhaps someone will recognize the anecdote and email it to me) in which a US military officer told the reporter in question that despite all the turmoil the occupation forces had still not suffered one tactical defeat.

The insugents had killed many Americans; but they'd been defeated in every actual engagement. I'm not sure even that is really true because I think the withdrawal from Fallujah has to be seen as a defeat, by that measure. But that aside, the (unnamed) officer went on to say that the only way the insurgents could ever win would be for the US population to decide to give up the fight.

The historical resonances of those comments, I guess, need no elaboration.

But the key is that this argument is both narrowly true and completely irrelevant. One could have said the same thing -- and it certainly was said -- before the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British de facto withdrawal from Iraq in the 1920s, the French from Algeria, and so forth.

Insurgencies can seldom beat big conventional armies on their own terms -- certainly not when the asymmetry is as great as it is here. They are battling to make the cost of occupation intolerably high and secure the support or at least acquiescence of the civilian population. If they can achieve the latter goal, our strategic goal becomes impossible.

The fact that we could probably stay in Iraq just like this for twenty years as long as we don't mind burning through our military (which might come in handy if we ever faced a security threat outside Mesopotamia) and our sons and daughters isn't really the point.

Unfortunately, I don't think we're in a position to just pull up stakes and leave the place. We're in a position something like that a surgeon might face if he started an operation only to realize once he'd cut the patient open that the operation should never have been attempted. But now the patient's gone critical and he's got to stabilize him and close him up without having him die on the operating table.

In that situation, why the operation started in the first place or whether it should have been attempted at all is sort of beside the point. The issue is keeping the patient alive.

Our situation, I think, is a similar one in Iraq. And that's why the thousand soldiers we've lost so far, painful as it is to say, is really the least of our problems.

The one sensible thing that can be said is that old saw about digging a ditch. If you find that you're digging yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. The Bush strategy at this point is to persevere in digging until we get down to the planet's molten core -- and pretend we're going up, not down.

At least until after the election...