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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

This evening we're really happy to bring you the first of two installments of our interview with Ken Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Pollack is currently a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and 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.

A few points of preface. 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.

The questions we get into in this interview are the very specific ones we face right now. For better or worse, now is the crunch time. Now's when the really important decisions are going to be made. Those are the ones I was interested in discussing.

So without more chattering from me, here's Part One of the interview (both sections together will later be added to the TPM Document Collection) ...

BEGINNING OF PART I

TPM: In your book, you were pretty down on the idea of going down the inspectors route again. But having done it, how much is there an argument that even if this is a bad process, that we signed on to it? I saw your Times column but this is one of the questions I'm most curious about.

POLLACK: Yes, I think that's right. I think it was a mistake to have gone this route. But now that we've gone down it we've got to find a way to deal with it. That said, that doesn't necessarily mean we have to allow the inspections to play out forever. That would not be a logical conclusion. Just because you've signed up for it doesn't mean you've signed up for it forever. In point of fact, I think that the Blix Report has given the administration the best out that we can [have]. When I wrote the OpEd, when Martin [Indyk] and I wrote it, we were expecting that Blix would be much softer on the Iraqis and a lot of what we were saying was about how the administration ought to handle the aftermath of what we expected to be a pretty bad Blix Report. In point of fact the Blix Report was kind of stunning. It was an incredible indictment of Saddam Hussein. He said flat out: they are not cooperating. They are giving us cooperation only on process. They are not giving us any cooperation on substance. And there is no indication that any of this is going to change, which is a tremendous advantage for the administration in terms of getting out of that trap.

TPM: So in a sense the Blix Report -- with less fireworks -- is sort of the equivalent of when the inspectors go up to some building and Iraqi guards won't let them in, which is what people have been looking for, that moment when the Iraqis clearly make a breach and we can say, 'Okay, you're not cooperating. And that's it.'

POLLACK: Absolutely. That's exactly right. Blix handed the administration the smoking gun that they were unlikely to get in terms -- as you just laid it out -- of the Iraqis actually blocking an inspection or we find a Scud or something along those lines. In many ways it's even better than that in the sense that I think even [if we found] a Scud the people who oppose war would have just latched on to that and said 'See, the inspections are working.' In point of fact we're already seeing that. They did catch this Iraqi scientist with 3000 pages of documents on how to enrich uranium. That should have been a smoking gun. But instead the reaction from the rest of the world was, 'Good, this is the inspections working.'

TPM: In the president's speech last night, when he first made the turn toward talking about Iraq, he had what I thought was a very good point: that if you go back two or three years the UN is on record saying they had X and Y. The Iraqis now say they don't have it. And they have no records of having destroyed it. So by definition, they're not complying. Just on that basis.

Now I went back and looked at the transcript and the actual language - and I take it this is the UN language - is something like 'materials requisite to make' such and such amounts of anthrax, whatever. Can you clarify that particular point? If that means they have a lot of petri dishes that's meaningless. If it means they have something basically as good as having that much anthrax it means a lot more. Can you clarify that point? Because I've had a lot of readers ask me that.

POLLACK: I'm not a technical expert so I don't want to push too far. The way that I've had technical experts explain it to me is these are substances you would basically only use, would only import, if you wanted to make these different chemical substances. For example, the precursors to VX, they're very specialized chemicals. They only have certain uses. The fact that they bought so much of these specific chemicals, and the fact we know they were producing VX, it's pretty easy to put these two things together. And again these are prohibited chemicals. They're not supposed to have them without the UN being able to monitor what they're doing with these specific chemicals, because they're dual use. So even if they'd gotten permission to import them, the UN would have to be watching what they're doing.

The fact is they have imported these chemicals. We know that they've imported the chemicals. But they haven't explained what's happened to them. And so you've got people who've imported all the ingredients for VX. We know they have been making VX, that they were lying about not having VX, [that they] were [then] forced to admit that they did make VX. And they won't account for it. This is exactly right. It goes back to another piece that Martin and I wrote in the Los Angeles Times, a while back, where we were saying this is exactly what the administration should do. They need to concentrate on these gaps, on the fact that the UN has previously identified these as key gaps and the Iraqis simply refused to explain the gaps. People are constantly saying ... they use this silly courtroom analogy of innocent till proven guilty. And of course it is silly because this is not an analogous situation. This isn't a courtroom. There's no court of law here.

But you can actually turn that around and say 'Look, if this were Columbo or Perry Mason they would have an incredibly damning case to make. Imagine Saddam Hussein on the witness stand. And you put it to him exactly the way the president did last night. 'Saddam Hussein, you have admitted that you manufactured VX. We also have receipts that show that you purchased the following chemicals which have very limited uses, one of which is making VX. Where are those chemicals?'

The UN resolutions required that [he] account for those chemicals and for twelve years Saddam has just been looking us in the eye and saying 'I don't know what you're talking about. I refuse to answer the question.' Imagine what that would look like if this were Law and Order and if this were Jack McCoy asking that question again and again. And after each presentation of the evidence and question to Saddam, 'What have you done with those materials.' And the Iraqi response is 'We're not answering that question.' That's a pretty damning indictment.

TPM: Now here's my other question - or one of my other questions [laughter]. One of the things that stood out to me about your book was that we have this catch-all phrase 'weapons of mass destruction', but in strategic terms and - just putting it more crudely -- in body-count terms, there's really a substantial difference between nuclear weapons on the one hand and most every chemical weapon and all but a very few - maybe smallpox would put it into a different category - biological weapons. Everything in the president's speech yesterday where they had really compelling facts on their side was all about chemical and biological. The stuff about nuclear struck me as much more hypothetical and even in some cases hyperbolic - in the sense of time frames and stuff like that. Is what I've said basically accurate? In terms of what we know now? Not what intentions are, but the best we know about what they have now, what their capabilities are now?

POLLACK: In some ways. To some extent it's that the gaps are biggest and the information that we do have about things the Iraqis are cheating on is greatest on the chemical and biological front. It's easiest to make the arguments there. We do have a lot of evidence, or a lot of information, about both the missile and the nuclear programs. The problem is that it's much harder to operationalize. It's been much harder to use in terms of what the UN has found, what they've been able to do with the Iraqis. As a result, the administration seems to be - and this is probably the smart thing to do - they're using the chemical and biological issues as surrogates. They are the places where the evidence is strongest, where we are most able to trip the Iraqis up, to expose their cheating.

The problem is that we haven't got the goods to quite the same extent on the missile and nuclear programs. We've got enough to indicate that they are cheating as much on those programs as they are on the chemical and biological. It's just that it's harder to make that kind of a case, to really demonstrate that the Iraqis are cheating with the nuclear and the missile fronts.

TPM: Now my understanding is that back in the early 1990s the one area where we had some confidence that we had dismantled a lot of their operation was on the nuclear front. And from reading and talking to various people I have at least been given the impression that a nuclear program - whether it's based on uranium or plutonium - is just intrinsically more difficult to conceal and therefore more readily inspectable. Is that your perception or is that not really the case?

POLLACK: Yes and no. I will say flat out [that] I was under the same impression: that we had a very good grip on their nuclear program and there really wasn't much of a nuclear program well into the 1990s. I was constantly being assured that by the IAEA and by the intelligence community. And then all of a sudden we had a slew of defectors come out in the mid- and late 1990s and what they told us was that everything that we had thought was wrong. You know Khidhir Hamza is the only one who's gone public. So he's the only one I can really talk about. But in 1994 we really thought the IAEA had eradicated their nuclear program. And the IAEA really thought that they'd eradicated their nuclear program. And they were telling us they'd eradicated their nuclear program. And Khidhir Hamza comes out and says 'No, the nuclear program in 1994 was bigger than it had ever been before.'

In point of fact the Iraqis had found all kinds of ways to hide what they were doing. It introduced inefficiencies in what they were doing. For example, they talk about these short track cascades. Normally the cascade is enormous. The way we do it it's three football fields long. That's the most efficient way to do it. The Iraqis figured out ways to do short cascades, which didn't require as much energy, which weren't as big and therefore were much more easily concealed. They were more inefficient. They didn't produce the enriched uranium nearly as well. But nevertheless they were able to do it.

TPM: So when you look at this you have no great confidence that they may not be as well along on the nuclear front as we know from very solid evidence that they are on chemical and biological stuff?

POLLACK: I'd put it slightly differently, Josh. I don't think they're as far along. Obviously, on the chemical front they've got everything they need. There is not a single chemical weapon they would want to procure beyond what they've got. On the biological front there are still some things out there. We don't think that they have smallpox. We don't think that they have plague. There are a few other agents out there which they'd like to be getting. So I don't think it's quite the case that they're as far along. It's just that I believe that they're working just as hard on the nuclear and ballistic missile side as they are on the chemical and biological side. It's just been my experience that every time the IAEA says 'We've got this thing under control. We know exactly what they have' we find out later that they absolutely didn't. Again, one of the things that has been most important to me is talking to the inspectors., the inspectors who were responsible for this program during the 1990s. Every one of which I've spoken to believes that the Iraqis somewhere have a clandestine centrifuge program. And that's very meaningful to me because the experts, the guys who are in there doing it themselves, they also believe that the Iraqis are still pursuing this. It's just that we can't find what they've got. On the chemical and biological side it's not that we can find what they've got. It's just that we've got some evidence on the discrepancies. We do have this document that the inspectors briefly held in their hands which showed that the Iraqis had expended far fewer chemical munitions during the Iran-Iraq war than they had claimed to us, a disparity of over 6500 weapons. And so you can look at that and say, where are those 6500 weapons? And that's exactly what Hans Blix did on Monday.

END OF PART I

Stay tuned for Part Two of TPM's interview with Ken Pollack ...

Well, this is exciting. I've just signed on to write a weekly column for the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill. And here's the inaugural column.

The subject of this column is the Republican party's recent inability to decide whether the North or the South should have won the Civil War, and other fun matters. "The problem," I write toward the end of the piece, "is that too many Republican officeholders still believe it’s important to keep the GOP a congenial home for all manner of unreconstructed yahoos and even downright racists."

The column will be running every Wednesday. And there's even a clean-shaven photo of the proprietor of this website!

A few comments on the speech. Up until the Iraq stuff, it seemed well-delivered but lackluster. It was actually weaker than I'd expected. Not bad, just uninspired.

The Iraq stuff was different. And in the early portions, I thought it was quite good. (The line contrasting 'process' and 'result' was powerful, even if I thought the point he was trying to make was a partly flawed one.) The president made an excellent point: the UN is on record cataloguing great quantities of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq's possession. What happened to it all? The Iraqis say they don't have it. And they've provided no evidence that they destroyed it. Where is it?

The point here, the point of US policy, the point of the UN resolutions, is that Iraq has to disarm. That lack of an accounting means, pretty much by definition, that Iraq's not disarming. The onus is on them.

Having said that, the hard evidence the president was able to set forth was focused on pretty garden variety chemical and biological weapons. Scary stuff, to be sure. But nothing much about nuclear weapons.

And after that good beginning, to my mind, he slid into questionable assertions and hyperbole. The failure to disarm is probably a casus belli. But what we're looking for isn't a pretext for war, but a rationale for going to war now. On that count I don't think things look much different than they did few hours ago.

I must confess that the current state of affairs on Iraq fills me with equivocation and no small bit of uncertainty. This is one reason I'm eager to hear what Ken Pollack has to say in the interview TPM will be running with him later this week. (As you know, Pollack is the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, which TPM reviewed quite favorably here in The Washington Monthly.)

Here, I think, is what we know about the current situation.

1. Iraq isn't complying with the relevant UN disarmament resolutions. It's doing the minimum necessary to avoid an open breach with the UN. There's a big difference.

2. The conversation we're having is about "weapons of mass destruction." But this term of art -- WMD -- obscures the vastly important distinction between chemical and biological weapons on the one hand and nuclear weapons on the other. As I said in my review of Pollack's book "One theme running through this book is Pollack's belief--no doubt accurate--that nuclear weapons are the real issue, with chemicals and bioweapons running several laps behind. Frightening as they are, it is simply very difficult to kill large numbers of people with chemical or biological weapons."

Nuclear weapons capacity is intrinsically more difficult to conceal than chemical and biological weapons capacity. Therefore inspections are a more credible response. And from what we knew going in and even more from what we know from the IAEA inspections, it seems very unlikely that Saddam currently has a serious nuclear weapons programs in place now. I don't say that as a matter of certainty because I don't have all the evidence at hand. But from everything I know about the subject it's what I think is true. Does Saddam want nukes? Absolutely. If left to his own devices would he eventually get them? More than likely. But to the extent that we're talking about today, and the certainty that Saddam hasn't given up his WMD programs, I think we're really talking about chem and bio. That doesn't exonerate Saddam but it speaks to the question of timing.

3. Waiting indefinitely isn't necessarily as easy as it sounds. One of the arguments I found most convincing in Pollack's book was that Saddam's ability to play the inspections game is inherently more elastic than ours. His freedom of action is far greater and far more sustainable.

Simply put, he's there. We're not. Or, at least, not in strength. Here's the argument: We've now mobilized a big force to the region. And as long as we're there with our finger at the trigger, he's going to lie very, very low -- as he's doing now. But we can't keep those troops there indefinitely. For money and preparedness reasons we'll eventually have to draw down. Then Saddam can start gaming the system again because our ability to retaliate will be greatly diminished. Then we build up again and Saddam draws back again. That could go on forever. Unfortunately, it's easy for Saddam to go back and forth, but very hard for us. We can't just send a quarter million drops back and forth to the Gulf a couple times a year. It's easy for him but it'll eventually bleed us dry.

Eventually, we'd just have to say, 'Okay, this is lame. We're going to have to settle this once and for all.' Folks like Pollack, certainly the hawks in the administration, and possibly now Colin Powell too, think we're already at that point. And I'm not at all certain they're wrong.

4. It's hard to ignore the fact that Norman Schwarzkopf isn't convinced we should go to war right now. And believe me, he speaks for lots of career officers at the Pentagon whose job it rightly is -- since they're still in uniform -- to give candid advice in private but follow the orders of their civilian superiors.

5. We signed on to inspections. Like it or not, we did. It's very hard for us to say the process has run its course. Hard to say primarily since it's not true. That just raises a problem of consistency for the US. The point of going this route is to push the process hard enough that -- in concert with good data from US intelligence agencies -- the inspectors either find something or we get to some point where the Iraqis stand in the doorway of some factory or building and don't let them do their work. Then the process has broken down. There are reasons I've noted above that weigh heavily against waiting. But for the moment I think it leaves us with a problem of logic if not of policy. If we've got evidence from our intelligence sources that will advance the ball and prove our contentions -- and I'm sure we do -- we need to go as far as we can to make it public.

This list isn't meant to cover all the bases or arrive at any conclusions. It's just meant to address some basic points. I think we're still back to the same basic point. If the issue is whether Saddam is an immediate threat, we've got time and there's no need to act now. Forget Ken Adelman's hokum about a mushroom cloud over an American city. But if we've made the decision that Saddam is a longterm threat to the region and that we have to remove him, maybe it's no time like the present.

I'll stand on what I wrote in this article a few months back.

In the January 25th issue of The Economist, in article on Republican 'outreach' to minorities, the author notes that "the Democrats will fight like hell to hold on to minority voters, who are the only people saving the party from oblivion."

One hears this line a lot, phrased in a variety of ways. And it is unquestionably true, so far as it goes. But what precisely does this mean? I'd figure that taking away 20% or 30% of a party's voters would pretty much always knock it on its heels. What's the subtext of this remark?

I don't think that I've ever heard anyone say that white men from the South and Mountain states are the only thing keeping the GOP from slipping to third party status. Have you heard that? I doubt it.

Even if it's not meant this way, I think the obvious subtext is that the Democratic party can't come close to winning elections in the white electorate and has to make up the margin with minority votes. I don't want to press the point too far. But I can't help feeling like the idea here is that minority votes are in some sense, well, how else to put it?, second-class votes. It's as though a party's political viability and health are best judged by how it fares in the white electorate.

We're going to be getting back to the Confederacy, treason and other related matters. But first we wanted to share with you an email we received this afternoon from Jim B.

Mr. Marshall,

Perhaps the denizens of Washington, D.C. will take no offense at your diatribe regarding the South and the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the subject article(s), but those of us who are Southerners, with ancestors who served the Confederacy certainly will. Judging from your picture and the derived age of the person photographed, you probably never received any instruction in our countrys history other than the revisionist garbage now taught in our wonderful, diverse education systems. Slavery was certainly an issue that led to the War of Northern Aggression (who invaded who?), but it was not until lincolns second run for the presidency that it took the fore-front. I'm betting you've never read any of lincolns personal correspondence. He was a racist of the worst sort. So, please don't tar us with the racist brush. After all, it was you yankees that imposed Reconstruction, put thousands of blacks in judgeships, state houses, and positions of authority. Positions they largely were totally unsuited for. In the South, blacks used to be part of the family. Now we are enemies; enemies because you yankees imposed your views and values to the benefit of no one but yourselves. It was not and is not illegal to secede. In fact, the Constitution specifically mentions that we as citizens can turn out the government when it becomes oppressive. Mr lincoln decided the Souths secession was illegal. That's the reason for the war. But, you will never read or research or examine facts and conditions that led to that unfortunate war. You've got your pious, one-sided view and that's that. You know, you would have served well in the Catholic Church during the Inquisition.

So, lay off. You yankees have a history of racism and disrespect for blacks which far exceed that in the South. If anything, your legacy is much more shameful because your racism was calculated and cloaked in 'the law of the land'.

Finally, the Sons of Confederate Veterans is not racist. We do demand that you not label us or restrict the public display of our ancestors flags and symbols. And that's a fair demand. Oh, by the way, what the heck is a neo-confederate?

Jim [** last name suppressed by the editor **]

Alas, the unfinished work of Reconstruction ...

Please pardon the paucity of posts of late. The 17th century is monopolizing much of TPM's attention this week. We should be back to the normal frequency after the weekend. For the moment, don't miss this article on Colin Powell and Iraq policy in today's Post. Interesting reading. Also, don't miss the Post's article on what -- to TPM's lights -- is an especially nasty angle the administration is adopting on prescription drug benefits. Want a prescription drug benefit? No problem. Just give up your Medicare coverage in exchange for entering an HMO! Finally, with Iraq again moving to center stage, next week will be bringing you an interview with Kenneth Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

Well, it just goes to show you can't trust a fly-by-night website to get its facts right on an important news story! You may have heard of the operation: Time.com.

A few days ago TPM picked up a Time.com story about President Bush's resumption of the tradition of sending a wreath to a commemoration of the Confederate war dead -- an apparent pay-off to presidential friend and neo-confederate Richard T. Hines. Now there's a story in Washington Times saying the tradition never stopped under either the first President Bush or President Clinton. Now it was a little unclear to me from the Times story whether Time.com and the Times were actually talking about the same event. Vague as it was, the Times seemed to be talking about something general while Time.com was talking about a specific commemoration tied to Jefferson Davis. Given that, I was inclined to trust Michael Weisskopf and Karen Tumulty at Time.com. But when I went back to read the Time.com story I noticed it's been yanked off their site, with no apparent explanation, though the press release announcing the story is still up.

What gives?

Late Update: Time.com has now retracted the story. That's web journalism for ya! Sheesh ...

Busily working away as I was yesterday writing about seventeenth century New Englanders, land distribution, Indians and warfare, I already had the post about Don Rumsfeld forming in the back of my mind. About two weeks ago, in response to a question about reinstituting the draft, Rumsfeld said draftees had added "no value, no advantage really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time."

It's a standard part of the political game. You say something stupid. Your political foes call you on it and seek political advantage by demanding an apology. But sometimes what you've said is really so stupid and so offensive that you've really gotta apologize. At this point in the post I was going to say, Don Rumsfeld's gotta apologize.

I see in tomorrow morning's Post that he has.

Hundreds of thousands of military draftees served over the years with great distinction and valor -- many being wounded and still others killed. The last thing I would want to do would be to disparage the service of those draftees.
There's a bit of wiggle toward the end of the letter.

I always have had the highest respect for [draftees'] service and I offer my full apology to any veteran who misinterpreted my remarks when I said them ... [italics added]

Let's at least admit one thing. If a Democratic Sec Def had said such a thing there's a very good chance it would have cost him his job. (The outrage expressed yesterday in a letter from three congressional Democrats -- Evans, Daschle, and Kerry -- was undoubtedly sincere.) It was always kind of clear what Rumsfeld meant: draftees get relatively little training and are then cycled out of a conscript army relatively quickly. (There's an argument -- and not at all an unreasonable one -- that on these grounds the all-volunteer army is more efficient -- other issues of equity, and civic values notwithstanding. See a contrary argument here.) But Rumsfeld's words were clearly more than a simple slip of the tongue.

At a minimum they demonstrated a serious lack of sensitivity and respect for not only the sacrifice but the heroism and valor of hundreds of thousand of American draftees who've died in the service of the nation. (Remember World War II? Conscript armies didn't do half bad in that little skirmish, did they?) That's of course not to mention even more who've been wounded and the lucky ones who managed to get through their years of service in one piece. (The official percentage of draftees in WWII, Korea and Vietnam actually understates the effect of conscription since many guys enlisted knowing they'd soon get drafted anyway.) I think the best you can say is that this was a case in which Rumsfeld's sometimes entertaining and sometimes admirable shoot-from-the-hip, no-nonsense style did him, the country, and millions of vets a serious disservice. It's almost unimaginable, for instance, that Colin Powell would have ever made a similar statement.

At least he apologized.

One thing you can say for Rumsfeld is that unlike so many other members of the hawkish wing of this administration, Rumsfeld is himself a veteran. A real one. He served as a Navy Aviator in the mid-1950s and then in the Navy Reserves for a couple decades after that.

Like I said, at least he apologized. To me, I'd say it's the end of the story. But then, I've never served a day in uniform, voluntary or otherwise. So I'm going to leave it to others to judge.

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