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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

We'd like to announce the debut of the new Talking Points Memo for Prize for Stunningly Deft Diplomacy (TPMPSDD). And the first winner is ... well, who else could it be? Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, of course.

Back last September things were looking pretty bleak for the House of Saud. The Saudi exile and renegade Osama bin Laden (that's no relation to AEI's Michael Ledeen, mind you) had organized a largely Saudi band of Islamist terrorists and misfits which succeeded in killing some 3,000 Americans, destroying in a matter of hours the second and third tallest man-made structures in the United States, and scored the first successful foreign attack on a mainland United States military installation since the War of 1812.

Saudi relations with the United States were already on the rocks before September 11th. And in a signal of the mess they saw they were in, the Saudis sent a message to the administration immediately after the attacks saying in no uncertain terms that whatever the disagreements were on September 10th, that was all in the past.

Only it wasn't. Or not completely. For a number of years the Saudis had built up a record of not being completely helpful or forthcoming in US investigations into various terrorist plots. And after September 11th, there were unsettling signs that the Saudi hierarchy wasn't quite unanimous in its condemnation of the bin Laden attacks. Right or wrong, the Saudis quickly developed a reputation in the US for crypto-bin-Ladenism, paralytic corruption, and serial bad-faith.

Then out of the blue a number of neo-con writers and intellectuals realized that rather than being our buds in the region, the Saudis were, well ... (how to put it?) whacks!

After a generation of imbibing the notion that Shi'a Islam was the scary fundamentalist branch of Islam and that the Sunnis were the safe, normal guys, Americans learned that the Saudis were advocates of the Wahabi sect of Islam. Wahabism is a puritanical strain of Islam which arose more than two hundred years ago in the Islamic heartland of Arabia. And there's a very good argument that Wahabism is inherently fundamentalist or even extremist while Shi'a Islam has only been made to appear that way in the West by the extremist variant today practiced in Iran and parts of Lebanon. Even the uber-slick, permanent Saudi Ambassador to the United States -- Prince Bandar -- was looking a bit down at the mouth.

In any case, by late last Fall, if you were a Saudi prince -- aside from vast personal wealth, your pick of comely blonde concubines from the Caucasus, Russia and other similar locales, a private jet, and miscellaneous other fun knick-knacks -- things weren't looking very good.

That was when Abdullah sprung into action. So let's see how the Crown Prince pulled off the coup that helped him win the TPMPSDD. But first a momentary philological digression ...

In Arabic, 'Abdullah' means Slave of God. Abd means slave or servant; so abd`Allah means Slave of God. (Arabic names compound in funny ways and I'm a bit rusty, so perhaps some Arabist can hook me up here if I've left some vowel out of place. But this is the essence of it.) In any case, three or four months after US-Saudi relations hit their nadir, Abdullah has got things to the point where perhaps the Arabs should start calling President Bush Abd'Abdullah.

But again, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Abdullah's series of masterstrokes began back during Vice President Cheney's trip to the Middle East last winter. If we're to believe Howard Fineman, Cheney's brief was to play a mix of Henry Kissinger and classic good cop/bad cop. On his tour of Mideast capitals, Cheney was supposed to tell the various sheiks and presidents-for-life that President Bush was really mad and if they didn't want to catch a bit of his whup-ass themselves they'd better sign on for the administration's latest coming attraction, the War on Iraq.

For a couple decades neo-cons at AEI and other choice DC spots had been pumping up the notion that moral clarity and determination gets results abroad like nothing. And Cheney played this for all it was worth. But according to reliable reports, the response, particularly from the Saudis, was something like "We're really mad too. So get the **** out of here."

Cheney was supposed to roll the sheiks. But they rolled him.

About the same time, something even more stunning occurred. At the Arab Summit in Beirut, Abdullah not only introduced his own Mideast peace plan, he also helped engineer the first rapprochement between Iraq and the Gulf States (including Kuwait) since the the Gulf War.

In other words, Cheney had gone to the Middle East to get the Arabs to line up behind the US against Saddam and a few days later they were lining up with Saddam against the US. And Cheney was somewhere in Israel wondering why his voice was suddenly so many octaves higher than it used to be.

In the intervening time, of course, the situation on the West Bank spun out of control and the administration finally started getting its hands dirty in the endlessly vexing work of Middle East peace and learning the lesson -- theretofore arrogantly ignored -- that genuine accomplishments like the one President Bush pulled off in Ramallah this week aren't so much victories as small, hard-won successes which keep the situation miserable rather than letting it descend into the truly horrible.

In any case, who helped Bush pull off this praiseworthy effort? Right, Crown Prince Abdullah. And this of course is after the pretty humiliating episode last week in which Abdullah met the President in Crawford, Texas with the heavily-leaked intention of slapping the president a bit and telling him what he'd have to do to avoid a major breach with America's Arab allies.

Today in the New York Times we hear that Bush and Abdullah have come up with their own new joint plan to restart the Mideast peace process. Bush will lean on Ariel Sharon and Abdullah and other Arab leaders will lean on Yasir Arafat.

Two points seem worth noting here. Crown Prince Abdullah (who, it's worth noting, is technically not even a head of state) is now our co-sponsor of the peace process. And he really is the co-sponsor. We used to call the Russians a co-sponsor. But that didn't mean anything. The Russians didn't do jack. We were basically just throwing them a bone because they used to be a superpower.

But you can make a pretty good case that Abdullah has the initiative here, not us.

Plus, look at Abdullah's position in the context of Arab politics. You may remember this guy named Hosni Mubarak. He used to be the President of Egypt. And maybe he still is. But it's actually pretty hard to tell. And even harder to discern whether it even matters. When was the last time you heard Mubarak's name mentioned in any significant way regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Right, a pretty long time ago. It's Abdullah-all-the-time.

So at the end of the day, what have you got? Six months ago the Saudis vital strategic partnership with the United States looked weaker than it had at any point since the early 1970s. The Bush administration was heating up the engines for a war against Iraq and was preparing to make the Saudis an offer they couldn't refuse. Today, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia looks more central to US policies in the Mideast than ever before.

Maybe there's some good legal rationale for this. But from a public relations standpoint you've got to figure it was a bit ill-advised for Cardinal Law of Boston to argue in a legal filing in the big child sex abuse case that the "negligence of the Plaintiffs [i.e., the victim and his parents] contributed to cause the injury or damage [i.e., the six year old being raped by Father Paul Shanley]."

This article in the Boston Globe points out that the language is "boilerplate legal defense language." But as the paper also notes, you've got to be a pretty big idiot not to realize that that filing might have done with a bit of editing.

I must confess that I don't understand this. The Embassy of Saudi Arabia (whose website looks like the Embassy of Jamaica or something) produced some slick TV ads saying they're our allies in the war on terrorism. But a slew of cable networks have refused to run them. In fact, even though they're willing to pay top dollar, the Saudis don't seem to be able to find any cable networks to run their ad.

On the merits, I'm pretty skeptical of the Saudis. But who cares? Why can't they run their ads?

The ads seem quite upfront about who's behind them, who's paying for them, and so forth. So why can't they put their message out there?

Is it better that they hire mercenaries and sharks to make their case and throw around money in the halls of Congress?

Lots of people say they're revealing the darkest secrets of Washington DC. But here's one of the darkest, which you've maybe not heard: rats. And considerably worse than in other major cities.

Not small ones, mind you, but huge rats that roam the DC streets at night like marauding urban toughs keeping law-abiding folk off the streets. I go on walks in my neighborhood late at night and I'm often approached by members of this clan of crude urban rodentia, though thankfully I've never come to blows with one, or truly been accosted. (TPM is a bit imposing himself.)

There's a steady rain tonight in the capital. And it was around 4 AM when I walked into my bedroom to go to sleep. Or so I thought. I walked to my bedroom window and looked down the four stories to the brick-paved alleyway behind my apartment and there I saw two huge rats, in my clear sight for 30 or 40 seconds, chasing each other down the alley amidst the spattering rain. I live in a fairly nice part of the city and I'm not talking about mice but massive rats that it took me a few moments at a distance of 70 or 80 feet to distinguish from dogs or cats.

(I'd say their bodies alone had to be almost a foot long -- though this page says the kind of species we're getting overrun by, the Norway rat, averages a body length between 7 to 9 inches.)

For years the city government has been saying they're going to crack down on the problem. But, as the conservatives would probably want to say, this is a problem Washington just can't seem to solve.

A reader writes in to suggest that the Catholic cardinals' original not-quite-zero tolerance policy issued in Rome may have been intended to prevent the possibility of a single -- quite possibly false -- accusation being able to sink the career of a good priest -- a false accusation leveled in spite, revenge, or simple sickness on the part of the accuser.

False accusations of child sexual abuse are not simply a theoretical matter. It's a very serious issue; they're often abetted by over-zealous or uninformed prosecutors; and it does happen -- as the notorious McMartin case tragicomically demonstrated.

Still this doesn't seem to be the issue at play in the cardinals' original statement coming out of Rome. I think we all agree that when we say one instance of abuse and you're out we don't mean one accusation. Beyond a reasonable doubt is probably not the standard for the Church to apply when investigating accusations of abuse against priests, but presumably we mean a single accusation that by some fair, orderly and regular investigative process is found to be true.

Friday's Boston Herald reported that the Pope was searching for a position at the Vatican for Cardinal Bernard Law. What the article also mentioned was that it would happen quickly, before the Cardinal's scheduled deposition in early June -- the idea, as the article noted, was that the Cardinal would be out of the country and thus beyond the reach of the court by the time the deposition occurred.

I'm struck by the irony of this and how little apparent notice it's generated. Isn't the pattern of managing hasty reassignments and transfers for priests to keep them a step ahead of the law and accountability just what's gotten the Church into trouble?

That may sound snarky and snide. And I admit that to a degree it is. But not entirely or even mostly. It really is the same pattern -- though obviously Law's seeming lapses can't be compared to those of the priests he reportedly covered for.

But the whole thing does make me wonder whether this crisis doesn't point to some deeper issue about the way the Church views its relationship with the civil authority. It's not that the clergy thinks it's "above the law" -- though that seems a reasonable accusation in some cases. It's more that there seems to be a sense that it's separate from this law, the secular law. Given the long and complicated history of the Catholic Church and the Church's -- and particularly the clergy's -- relationship to civil authority perhaps this is not that surprising.

Did TPM really say that there were no Republicans at the Crossfire relaunch party on Wednesday night? And doesn't this conflict with TPM's earlier report identifying John McCain as an attendee?

Well, yes, John McCain was there and so was Chris Shays, for that matter. But like I said, no Republicans.

A little backstory is in order here.

Republicans, particularly GOP chair Marc Racicot, have been whining about the new Crossfire, saying Begala and Carville are too rough, too mean, whatever. And they've been hinting they might boycott the show. Now when one of the Crossfire flacks called me on Monday to check to see if I could come, she told me how busy she was with invites to a lot of White House people. But I didn't see any of them there.

Now let's start with a few qualifiers. Despite TPM's status as the ultimate DC uber-insider, he doesn't know what every player in DC looks like. What he disproportionately knows are the faces of Democrats -- particularly at the staffer level. So all of these factors make for a significant sample bias. No doubt there were other Republicans there who I a) don't remember, b) didn't recognize, or c) never saw. Still, I know a lot of faces. And here's who I saw.

John McCain (proves my point...), Chris Shays (proves my point...), David Drier (who knows?), Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing (Crossfire media hounds, don't count...), Mary Matalin (host's wife, doesn't count...), Cliff May (legitimate exception to my rule, but also a touch of a Crossfire hound)

I saw lots of Dems (Clinton administration officials, members of Congress, staffers, consultants, etc.), but beside Matalin no one who I recognized from the White House.

Were they afraid Jim and Paul would slap them around and that Mary wouldn't defend them?

What's wrong with this picture? New budget numbers out today point to a $100 billion dollar federal deficit this year. That's not quite in the neighborhood of the bad old days of the Bush I presidency. But it's getting pretty close.

At the same time, Congressional Democrats can mount no more than a languid and ineffectual fight against making the Bush tax cut and the estate tax repeal permanent -- something which will even further balloon these numbers.

At the Crossfire party night before last, one of the Democratic party's shrewdest strategists -- for my money, the shrewdest actually -- told me that he thought that the Democrats' inability to make a more effective argument against the estate tax repeal cuts to the heart of their current problems.

I couldn't agree more.

PS. More later on the Republicans' ridiculous and pitiful threats to boycott the new Crossfire and why there weren't any Republicans at the Crossfire party.

Well, I have just been to the belly of the beast of the Washington schmoozacracy. Tonight CNN -- or maybe it was AOLTimeWarner? -- threw a coming out bash for the new Crossfire starring Jim Carville, Paul Begala, Tucker Carlson and Bob Novak. The party was held at Carville's restaurant West Twentyfour, which as you can see actually has its own website. I know this because there were little Crossfire goody-bags for guests as they left and somehow in my then-state of semi-drunkenness it occurred to me that it was somehow a terribly good idea to take two goody-bags instead of just one. So now I have two Crossfire mugs, two Crossfire baseball hats, two CNN pens, two one-week memberships to some health club and two postcards for Carville's restaurant which have the restaurant's website.

Normally I wouldn't mention this or feel particularly guilty. But Walter Isaacson, the head of CNN, was there. And the parent company just reported today that it lost $54.2 billion last quarter so probably he didn't want to spend any more on the goody-bags than he absolutely needed to. And I don't want him to get called on the carpet by the bigs at AOL or anything. I mean, Isaacson's got enough to worry about getting slapped around by the likes of Tom DeLay and Trent Lott up on the Hill to have to worry about this sort of thing.

Anyway, what surprised me is that you'd at least think there would be some sort of bizarre cajun food served given the owner and so forth. But no dice! No crawdads, no spicy, slimy things in big bowls, no po'boys, nuthin! It was garden variety seemingly-catered lunch meats, so-so cheeses, and bottles of Budweiser, among other things.

Anyway, I tried to chat up Lloyd Grove, the gossip columnist for the Washington Post, to see if he'd give me any insights on how to write up this sort of event. But he was clearly keeping all the professional secrets pretty close to the vest. So that wasn't much help.

I also spent quality time people watching with my talk radio host friend Victoria Jones who somehow got left out in the cold in a recent schedule reshuffle by those idiots at WMAL radio in DC. And that was a lot of fun.

McCain was there, Chris Shays, John Dingell of all people, Walter Isaacson, a few White House folks, more than a few Clinton folks, a slew of other people and an array of late twenty- and early-thirty-something Washington types hitting on each other and chatting each other up. Your standard coven of press secretaries and TV producers.

The people who were most eager to talk to me were the ones trying to get me to spill the beans on who my sources were for the article on Al Gore that I wrote in Salon a couple weeks back. Just a note to my treasured sources: needless to say I did not rat you out, even in the face of various blandishments.

What was striking was how many Gore 2000 veterans there tonight told me the piece was right on the mark, which is telling on many levels.

(On the other hand, take a look at this new Zogby poll which shows that Gore's recent round of speeches and appearances has pushed him back into a commanding lead over his 2004 Dem rivals. This is both a sign of Gore's strength and the inherent slipperiness of these numbers at such an early point in the cycle.)

Beside that it's all a blur of cheap red wine, Budweiser and prosciutto.

I'm not a Catholic, but I have a great deal of respect for Catholicism and the Catholic church. Having said that, though, the news out of Rome is disappointing and more than a touch bizarre. I think the statement that said it all came when the cardinals said they were "considering a zero-tolerance policy" for priests who sexually abuse children. Doesn't this get at the problem the church is struggling with. Considering? We already have a zero-tolerance policy in this country for child sexual abuse -- i.e., state criminal statutes. There's just some basic disconnect here that is difficult to fathom. I think Andrew Sullivan has it right when he writes "Abuse of children or minors is not a peccadillo. It's horrifying in anyone, appalling in the priesthood."

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