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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Question number two tonight in the president's news conference was on the North Korea crisis. The answer was depressing. And the message was clear: we have no policy. The president wants help from the Chinese, South Koreans, Russians, Japanese, etc. etc. etc. Can anybody help? Does anyone have a policy we can borrow? Does anyone have another question? Next question.

Here's the quote of the day from today's Nelson Report ...

It would be difficult to exaggerate the growing mixture of anger, despair, disgust, and fear actuating the foreign policy community in Washington as the attack on Iraq moves closer, and the North Korea crisis festers with no coherent U.S. policy. We get the phone calls and e-mails from all over this Administration, Capitol Hill, the think tanks, and even fellow scribblers. We've never seen anything like it, and we've been here since 1966.
This is a bad situation, getting worse. And the unavoidable truth is that we don't have a policy and because of that we're letting it hang.

Here's a small but important note on the inner-workings of the policy world. For the last two years Hans Riemer has headed up the Social Security Information Project at the Campaign for America's Future. A lot of people and a lot of hard work have gone into blunting and at least temporarily stymieing the Republican drive to privatize the Social Security system. (They've all been helped by the fact that the public -- cooked-polls notwithstanding -- simply doesn't want Social Security privatized.) But I don't think any single person -- or a lot of groups of people, for that mater -- did more to stem the tide than Hans.

His contribution has been that important.

That included mau-mauing the president's hopelessly stacked-deck Social Security Commission and a lot of other stuff ... working the press, organizing events, not letting the GOP run away from or lie about its pro-privatization positions during the last election.

Anyway, Hans is headed off to a new but as yet unannounced gig. So if you get a chance stop by the SSIP site and send him your appreciation. Or if you're a pension fund investment manager who wanted to start managing and drawing fees off that Social Security gold mine, drop him a line and bitch about how you can't buy that new vacation house.

Give a quick read to Chris Suellentrop's piece from yesterday on Ken Pollack. Here's one of several good passages ...

Six months after The Threatening Storm's publication, however, Pollack's book reads as much like an indictment of the Bush administration's overeagerness to go to war as it does an endorsement of it. A more appropriate subtitle for the book would have been The Case for Rebuilding Afghanistan, Destroying al-Qaida, Setting Israel and Palestine on the Road to Peace, and Then, a Year or Two Down the Road After Some Diplomacy, Invading Iraq. In interviews and op-ed articles, Pollack himself still supports the war, saying that now is better than never. But it's fair to say that his book does not—or at least not Bush's path to it.
This point goes too often unmade.

At about 10:20 PM on the east coast this evening, CNN ran a sobering segment on the North Korea crisis which finally detailed what TPM has been telling you for weeks if not months.

You can't really say the administration has a bad policy on North Korea because in fact it has no policy. Why is there no policy? Because the president has not been able to break the deadlock between the (pro-engagement) State Department and the (pro-confrontation) Pentagon and Office of the Vice-President. And that has led to paralysis. Paralysis or purely reactive gestures. They can't even find their way to a well-thought-out bad policy because they're too tied up in organizational incompetence and procedural ridiculousness.

It's been this way since January 2001 and it still hasn't gotten resolved. This is why we're drifting into disaster.

You know it's really gotta be bad when even the Democrats are willing to stand up mouth some criticisms ... Sheesh.

More on the North Korea debacle in a bit.

I got a lot of emails last week responding to the second installment of TPM's interview with Ken Pollack. In particularly, there were a lot of responses to this passage ...

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.
This captures a lot of the extreme discomfort of those like myself who think we should deal with Saddam but have started to wonder at what point the enterprise becomes so terribly botched that the cure becomes more harmful than the disease. E.J. Dionne touched on this in his Post column yesterday, as did the DLC's New Dem Daily.

My column in The Hill this week addresses the point too. As I say in the last line of the column "We’re all hostage to the Bush administration’s incompetence, whether we like it or not."

A quick note on the North Korean interception of an American spy plane over the waters near the Korean Peninsula.

Lest there be any doubt, this is an extremely serious development. It's also a fairly predictable development. You may have been noticing out of the corner of your eye those almost daily warnings out of North Korea: there's going to be a great disaster, we'll repel a US attack, the US will be devoured by flames, the world will be trampled under by a race of gigantic goblins, etc.

We are keeping the North Koreans on the back-burner. But they want to be on the front-burner. So they're continuing with a pattern of escalations and provocations until we put them there. This is simply the first time they've resorted to what can be regarded as a military provocation.

What the North Koreans want is direct talks with the US. Many of us believe that we should have done that a long time ago -- not because of the North Koreans provocations but because it is in our interests to do so, usually a sufficient cause. The combined wisdom of the administration -- on this issue a deeply-divided administration -- thinks otherwise.

Now the North Koreans are moving into really, really dangerous territory to get our attention. Let's stop for a moment to observe just how provocative but also how delicately calibrated this event seems to have been.

The North Koreans not only intercepted the US spy plane, one of the planes apparently "painted" the US plane. That is to say, it locked onto it with its weapons, as though it were preparing to fire.

As a number of news accounts have noted, if the American plane had had a fighter escort, that might well have led them to open fire on the North Koreans. Of course, the American plane did not have one, as the North Koreans well knew. Thus, they could get away with an extremely provocative action, knowing there was nothing we could do about it and that the situation would be unlikely to spin out of control.

The US now says that it will keep flying those spy planes and give them fighter escorts. Given the North Koreans' provocation that is the only possible response. However, we are moving into extremely dangerous territory here. The North Koreans are masters of brinksmanship. But as I once saw former Clinton administration official Wendy Sherman say in a TV interview, "they don't know when to stop."

What's more, the situation is not the same as it was in 1994.

Kim Il-Sung was the founder of North Korea, an extremely experienced hand and a charismatic leader. He had the more or less unquestioned support of the entire North Korean elite. None of those attributes apply to his son Kim Jong-Il. That makes North Korea much less predictable, since he and others who are controlling all this may have to prove their toughness to domestic critics.

The important point is that we need to send those planes up with fighter escorts but we cannot do so and continue to treat the situation there as something on the back burner. It's a delicate, dangerous situation which will require our full attention, and a simultaneous show of military resolution and diplomatic seriousness. One without the other could lead us toward disaster.

Colin Powell's message to the troops over at Foggy Bottom ...

Secretary Colin L. Powell Washington, DC March 3, 2003

Charlotte Beers, a key and vital member of my team, is leaving us shortly for health reasons. Since she arrived in October of 2001, she has brought new energy, new ideas, and new enthusiasm to our interaction with the public in America and throughout the world. Charlotte brought incredible expertise from Madison Avenue to Foggy Bottom. At a critical and stressful time for our nation, she and her team sharpened our policy advocacy and took our values and our ideas to mass audiences in countries which hadn't heard from us in a concerted way for years. She helped us find new ways of making our case to policy makers while expanding our outreach efforts to make connections with ordinary people, particularly in Moslem nations. Her goal of reaching younger, broader, and deeper audiences will remain with us as she departs. I thank her for revitalizing our programs, and wish her good health and success in her future endeavors.

If Beers' departure is really for health reasons, we wish her the best. But it's hard to say our image "particularly in Moslem nations" is on the upswing.

Is Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers out at the State Department? Seems so.

This story is getting a lot of attention, as well it should.

The recently-installed senior director for Near East and North African affairs on the National Security Council, Elliott Abrams, has just canned three government Middle East experts who staffed that desk at the NSC. Presumably, they are to be replaced by others who will more faithfully toe and execute the party line.

It's an important story. But actually an old story. The same thing has been happening throughout the national security bureaucracy for two years, particularly at the Pentagon. It's not a secret. Any other reporter who covers foreign or military affairs knows this.

There's a dynamic -- and hopefully fruitful -- tension which exists between political appointees and civil servants in these cases. The civil servants have to execute the policy decisions of their appointive superiors -- at least they're supposed to. But the civil servants are also supposed to give candid advice and raise the obvious questions.

They're supposed to point out why the Assistant Secretary for such-and-such's idea to do this-that-or-the-other is going to be a complete disaster. If they're smart, the appointees listen, even if they decide to do it anyway.

It's an important ballast in the process of policy formation, even if can be annoying for the politicals. But getting that kind of feedback can be uncomfortable and troublesome. And there's always the temptation to shoot the messenger.

I've never discussed this in any of the articles I've written on national security or defense issues because in any given article discussing it can mean fingering people who are already trying to keep their heads down and avoid retribution.

But on the key issues that matter to this administration, particularly the Middle East, there's been an exodus of government experts out of the executive branch into exile on the Hill, at National Defense University, and various other outta-the-way parts of the national security bureaucracy. A lot of these folks got canned like those Abrams dropped at the NSC. Others just got the message when they were instructed not to pen any reports or tender any advice which conflicted with the administration's favored policies. Everyone who leaves makes one more open seat for a think-tank hack who will tell the politicals what they want to hear.

Let's be clear: this tension always exists. Probably a bit more after a two-term presidency when the incoming crew believes the career bureaucracy has been shaped for a decade by the opposite party. But in this administration it's gone to unprecedented levels.

Career civil servants aren't the be-all and end-all. But without them, the policy-making process can become an echo-chamber of over-confident ideologues, confirming each others' preconceived notions, and blundering into ridiculousness and disaster.

Sound familiar?

It's the battle of the emigre NSC Directors! Today on CNN's Late Edition Wolf Blitzer had on Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. I don't normally do this, but I'm going to quote Brzezinski at length because I think what he said amounts to some of the most sensible stuff I've heard of late on this subject. It's worth reading through.

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special LATE EDITION, Showdown: Iraq. We're talking with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Dr. Brzezinski, how much damage do you believe there will be in U.S.-Turkish relations if the Turkish parliament does not reverse itself and authorize the deployment of some 62,000 U.S. troops to Turkey?

BRZEZINSKI: I think there would be resentment here, obviously, and understandably so.

But one has to take into account that one of the costs of pressing Turkey into this war, in addition to bribing them, which is pretty expensive too, in any case, might be significant political instability in Turkey. And this is another reason why I feel we ought to let inspection and verification run its course. The political costs we're going to be paying for this, whether in Turkey or in Pakistan, probably in much of the Middle East, already in a great deal of Europe, throughout the world in fact, are going to be so high that, unless there is an imminent threat -- I repeat the word "imminent," which we're not using actually -- I think we can afford to let this process go forward.

BLITZER: But you heard Dr. Kissinger say, you have 200,000 U.S. troops, you can't keep them cocked at ready to go forever. And if you start withdrawing, then it's basically all over, and it underscores U.S. weakness in the face of Iraqi defiance.

BRZEZINSKI: You know, admittedly the Middle East is not Europe, and the climatic conditions are more adverse. But the fact is that we kept war-ready troops in Europe, war-ready, poised for war, for several decades, and we have far greater rapid-redeployment capability today than we ever did.

So the argument that we have to go to war because we deployed troops to press the other side to concede, I think, is not a sufficient cause for a war, which could be very costly, very destructive, and which, at least in the near future, is not necessary.

I don't exclude the possibility that, in the long run, we may have to use force. What I am saying is, let's think of the larger picture, the broad geostrategic costs. Let's think of the dangers elsewhere before we take a plunge which could isolate us in the world at enormous cost to our international position.

...

BLITZER: Is this about as bad as you've seen the U.S. relationship with some of these NATO allies?

BRZEZINSKI: I think Henry is right in saying that this is very serious, but I think we have to ask ourselves, how have we conducted ourselves? We have in effect said to them, "Line up." We have treated them as if they were the Warsaw Pact. The United States issued orders, and they have to follow.

Now, let me give you one striking example. The president since 9/11 has uttered the phrase "He who is not with us is against us" -- mind you, "He who is not with us is against us," anyone who disagrees with us is against us -- no less than 99 times. We have a concept of the alliance, inherent in this kind of conduct, which involves giving orders and others falling in line.

The issue of Iraq is a complicated issue. It's related to the whole question of proliferation and global stability. Ultimately, it points even to the issue of North Korea, that we haven't talked about at all.

And how we conduct this problem, how we deal with it is essential to the effective exercise of America's global leadership.

We are literally undercutting it right now. We have never been as isolated globally, literally never, since 1945.

How much of the diplomatic capital we've built up over the last 50 years can we spend down in a few short months? I guess we're about to find out.

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