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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Yesterday when the American flag went up on the face of the soon-to-fall statue of Saddam, I wondered the following: Clearly Centcom and the folks at the Pentagon are rightly cautious about giving any symbolic evidence or sign that this an American occupation rather than a liberation. The best example of that is the hoisting of American flags, as we already saw in Umm Qasr a week or two ago. So why do the US soldiers and marines seem to have all these American flags on the ready to hoist up?

A post that went up on the BBC this morning gives a clue.

We've just learned from the US marines that the US flag that was put on the face of Saddam yesterday - it was replaced by an Iraqi flag when the people shouted for that - was the flag that was flying over the Pentagon on September 11.

For a lot of the American marines, they think this war is all about defeating terrorism, they will tell you that over and over again. There is also a connection in the minds of the American public between the regime of Saddam and what happened on September 11, and apparently the flag that was draped over this face was flying over the pentagon when the plane crashed into it.

So apparently this wasn't just any flag.

It was still a slip-up. But this puts it in a different, deeper context. It's also one of those gives-you-faith-in-America moments to find out that the Marine who hoisted the flag -- Cpl. Edward Chin -- is apparently Chinese-American.

LATE UPDATE: He's more on Chin from Abcnews.com ...

"And the flag — it was on the Pentagon when it got hit on 9/11. That was the same flag, and me being from New York, it kind of all goes together a little bit. It was a team effort, which made it even better, you know," he said.

Chin, 23, and his family are ethnic Chinese from Myanmar, formerly Burma. The family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when Chin was just a week old. Chin, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, joined the Corps in 1999 and was assigned to the First Tank Battalion at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., before being shipped off to Kuwait in January.

More soon...

Two questions face us in the reconstruction of Iraq. Many more than two, of course. But, for the moment, let's discuss these two. One is whether we should try to set up a full-fledged democracy in Iraq or fall back on the older approach of installing some sort of well-meaning strongman who can hold the country together and move slowly toward something like democracy. Then there's the question of whether we should back Ahmed Chalabi and the INC or some other group or mix of groups. There are many people who argue that these two questions are really just one question: that supporting Chalabi means supporting full-fledged democracy and opposing him means supporting something beside democracy. This equation is simply false on a host of levels. We'll be talking more about this, not least of which the CIA's relationship with Chalabi. But for the moment don't miss this piece by Gideon Rose in Slate.

Given the events of the day, I can't help wondering whether maybe we really did get Saddam when we bombed that restaurant the other day. The regime really did seem to snap right after that, at least in Baghdad. And it seems like more than just a coincidence. On what was yesterday morning in Baghdad -- i.e., the morning of the day that ended with the statue toppling -- the reporters noted what then seemed like an eerie silence in the city. Even if he wasn't killed, perhaps Saddam committed what amounts to political suicide -- deciding it was time to just vanish. (Al Jazeera reported rumors that he had sought and received refuge in the Russian embassy.) Regardless of the details, something seems to have happened after that raid.

Yet another "man on the street" in the Arab world wire story, actually from the Washington Post Foreign Service, to add to the previous two posts. On this one the dateline is from Cairo, and the testimonies are more negative. But I think they're all part of the same picture -- a mix of shock, surprise, changed opinion, relief, humiliation, shame, suspicion, hope, anger. I'll say more about this later. But tonight is set aside for paying work.

Apropos of the previous post, quotes from around the Arab world in this AP article are worth reading ...

"Why did he fall that way? Why so fast?" said Yemeni homemaker Umm Ahmed, tears streaming down her face. "He's a coward. Now I feel sorry for his people."

...

"We discovered that all what the (Iraqi) information minister was saying was all lies," said Ali Hassan, a government employee in Cairo, Egypt. "Now no one believes Al-Jazeera anymore."

...

However, Tannous Basil, a 47-year-old cardiologist in Sidon, Lebanon, said Saddam's regime was a "dictatorship and had to go."

"I don't like the idea of having the Americans here, but we asked for it," he said. "Why don't we see the Americans going to Finland, for example? They come here because our area is filled with dictatorships like Saddam's."

Those are just the most positive snippets, others are more dark and ominous. But, in the AP article at least, they are in the majority and they set the tone. Take a look at the whole thing.

This is heady, heady stuff. I woke up this morning to the scenes of US troops pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. This is joyous stuff, scenes of oppressed people tearing down the symbols of oppression. The question I have -- it's the critical question, I think -- is how these scenes play in the rest of the Arab world. Of course, whether such scenes continue ranks pretty high up there too. But we'll deal with that later. (Here's a great Reuters story with on-the-street reactions around the Arab world: "Arabs Watch Hussein's Demise in Disbelief.") More broadly, how will it play in Europe and elsewhere? (We don't, after all, live in Iraq. We live in the world.) Will they see this the way we do? Will it be reported in Germany and France, Riyadh and Cairo the way it's being reported here? In one of the interviews I did for my "Practice to Deceive" article, I spoke to a neoconservative very close to the White House who described the great hope thus: if Iraqis welcome their liberation and you have a stream of books penned by Iraqis coming out over the next several years on how horrible Saddam's regime was, perhaps the collision between this testimony and the certainties of Arab nationalist anti-Americanism will force a basic rethinking, perhaps it will break the back of those orthodoxies. If the testimonies are so clear, he supposed, perhaps Egyptians will ask themselves what could have led them to defend Saddam from a US invasion when he was oppressing Arabs more awfully than anything the Israelis ever did to the Palestinians.

The above-noted Reuters article contains at least one quote reconcilable with that view. An Egyptian engineer told Reuters: "It seemed that Iraqis were all with Saddam, now it looks like many didn't like him. Maybe those destroying the statue are rebels against Saddam's rule."

This is a very good day for that hope. And if that hope is vindicated it will be a wonderful thing. I don't think we'll know today or tomorrow or next month or even next year. The challenges in the way of our success are vast, challenges that could quickly snuff out all of this, challenges that I don't believe many who are guiding this effort truly understand. But today was a good day.

This evening on CNN Nicholas Kristof talked to Aaron Brown about what he had seen in his first trip into southern Iraq. (I believe he said Basra, but it could have been elsewhere.) Contrary to folks on the left who think we'll be treated as conquerors and folks on the right who think we'll be greeted as liberators, Kristof found a marvelous diversity, as we should probably all expect. Most are glad Saddam is gone. Many are glad we're there. Others aren't so happy about it. (See this Times article for a mix of appreciation and ambivalence in Baghdad.) But there seems to be a widespread suspicion -- even among those who are glad we've overthrown Saddam -- that we may be there to take their oil.

Which brings me to an op-ed column in today's Times. A couple weeks ago, my friend Steve Clemons (check out Steve's site to see his other articles and commentaries) came up with a novel, ingenious idea: why not divide up Iraq's oil wealth like the state of Alaska does?

Back in the early 1970s Alaska set up the Alaska Permanent Fund, which holds the revenues from oil leases as a public trust, with a portions of the interest paid out every year to every citizen of the state.

Now, obviously this model couldn't be applied directly to Iraq. After all, I imagine you've got a certain percentage of the population -- those Bedouins our troops saw occasionally while they were streaking north -- that isn't part of the cash economy. But the concept is one that really merits attention. After all, if we give the Iraqis their oil in the way the Saudis have theirs -- i.e., hoarded by a few moguls -- how much will it mean? So we shouldn't just be careful not to give any sign that we're grabbing up Iraqi oil revenues -- by cutting in all American companies, say -- but actually go a whole step further and really spread the wealth in a way it's never quite been spread around in all the Middle East. That could be truly revolutionary. (On the general issue of not squandering our apparent military victory with foolish triumphalism, see this excellent column by Robert Kagan in Wednesday's Post.)

As Steve notes, giving all Iraqis a very concrete, material stake in the new regime would go a long way to securing a political constituency for the new order. Doing something analogous in post-war Japan played a key role in the success of our democratization efforts there. In its own way, pulling oil wealth out of the hands of parasitic states and oligarchic princelings could have as positive an effect as bringing something like democracy to Iraq.

Again, it won't be easy. The Alaska model would be very hard to introduce. And it would probably need to be adapted to Iraqi conditions. But you can say pretty much the same things about bringing democracy to Iraq. And we've already signed on for that. So, really, why not?

In National Review Online, Stanley Kurtz has an interesting critique of my recent Washington Monthly article "Practice to Deceive" and a critique of ... well, I guess of me. Let me just take a moment to respond to three of Kurtz's points.

The first is regarding the concept of deception, which is central to the article. Kurtz says that none of the democratizing vision of the neocons is a secret. It's actually been written about widely in the conservative press. Yes, I agree. And I've said as much repeatedly. Kurtz implies that my saying it in TPM means that I'm backtracking from my argument. But this isn't true. The argument I am making is that there are many thoughtful and intelligent people who believe this is a good thing to do. Go back and read the last year of The Weekly Standard and see. Neoconservatives in the administration share these views but also know that such a grand plan would be almost impossible to sell to the American people, so they really haven't tried. Instead they've sold regime-change in Iraq along the more modest lines of Saddam's WMD and his relationship to terrorists. It's good sleight of hand to say I'm accusing people of a "conspiracy" because, by common consent, people who believe in "conspiracy theories" place themselves beyond the pale of purely rational argument at some level. Kurtz is using the phrase, not me. I'm saying something more prosaic and direct: the administration hasn't been honest about its intentions or goals. That may be true or false. But it's a direct allegation, not a conspiracy theory.

The second issue is what we might call Bush White House Kremlinology. Has President Bush really signed on to the maximalist democratizing, regime-change vision? Aren't there more moderate neoconservative voices, sometime-Realists like Condi Rice, and even those like Colin Powell who never bought into the idea in the first place? Yes, of course there are. Frankly, that's one of my great hopes. Such as it is. Indeed, Kurtz too expresses some concern about the aims of the more maximalist democratizers. The reason I think it is both accurate and fair to focus on those with the maximalist position is that it is this group that has consistently played the winning hand in pretty much every key intra-administration debate leading us to where we are today. So when we look at the future and where we're going with this I think it's more realistic to look at Cheney, Rumsfeld and their advisors rather than positing a point equidistant between Cheney and Powell and believing that that point is our final destination. I hope for the latter. But it's a hope not based on experience.

The third point is more broad-ranging. Kurtz wants to portray my position on the war as a symptom or example of a deeper Democratic malady. To put it metaphorically, he's saying that in the heart of even a seeming Joe Lieberman lurks a secret Ron Dellums. Not so fast. This is another way to polarize and thus simplify the argument, setting up straw men, and so forth. And Kurtz is only able to do it by asserting that I say things I've never said: that I'm indifferent to the issue of nuclear or other WMD proliferation, that I'm possibly a down-the-line UN man, or just generally that because I didn't think we should start this war when we did that suddenly I'm Teddy Kennedy or Walter Mondale and have recanted views expressed on Iraq and other issues over the last two years. (If I wanted to be snarky I guess I could note that my indifference to nuclear proliferation is rather belied by my repeated insistence that North Korea's resumption of plutonium production must be confronted immediately -- hopefully through diplomacy, but through war if necessary -- even as the administration has repeatedly expressed openness to the idea of allowing North Korea to become a nuclear power.) None of this is true. I just didn't think we should pull the trigger when we did or, under the circumstances then prevailing, perhaps ever. It was a tough call, which I'm content to live with. Subsequent events may show I was right or wrong. Either is certainly possible. But the decision hardly makes me a dove.

More broadly, Kurtz is saying I'm in the camp of those who think nothing really changed after 9/11, that the nexus of terrorism, WMD proliferation, high-technology, globalization and the rest of it can just be handled by the same old-fashioned strategies we used ten, twenty or forty years ago.

This isn't true, of course. But let me finish on this point of 'everything changing.' Much did change with 9/11 and more generally with the less visible changes that preceded and presaged it. But neither neoconservatives nor neoliberals have really changed all that much. Many of the same formulas and approaches the neocons now advocate are ones they advocated a half a dozen years ago when the bete noirs were China and others -- greater skepticism toward Europe, more comfort with unilateral assertions of force, skepticism about the whole concept of deterrence, and so forth. The more things change, etc. The 'everything changed' argument often really boils down to 'everything we were always for turns out to be right' and if you don't agree then you're not serious about 9/11.

Neoconservatives and neoliberals just have different basic ways of approaching foreign policy -- neither necessarily more hawkish or dovish. That was true before 9/11 and it's true now. Who's right has to be hashed out on the merits. Just referring to WMD or 9/11 won't do.

Now that we've gotten most of the invasion done with, it's time to get down to the real battle: whether or not to install Ahmed Chalabi as the next king of Iraq.

As you've probably heard, a couple days ago the Pentagon airlifted Chalabi and a slew of his troops into southern Iraq for purposes which weren't entirely spelled out. Pentagon critics assumed it was to give Chalabi a leg up on other oppositionists.

The striking thing was that this didn't just seem like a surprise to the press, but also to much of the US government. Here's some more interesting reporting from UPI about an internal government report the CIA circulated last week detailing their arguments against Chalabi's suitability to be the "Iraqi Karzai."

The weird thing about Chalabi is that -- whatever you think of him -- he has a way of getting different arms of the US government fighting against each other. As a sympathetic Washington-based Arab journalist told me last year, "The problem with those guys [i.e., the hawks] is they're so fascinated by Ahmed. They want to wind a policy around Ahmed. Find a policy. And let's see where Ahmed fits in it. And at the same time, you have the State department, the opposite side, they want to make a policy but make sure he's not involved in it."

Let me comment briefly on Lawrence Kaplan's new article in TNR about the Rumsfeld position. This is basically a brief for the Rumsfeld, or Pentagon appointees' position. But it's a good brief, certainly the most sophisticated and convincing I've seen. Still I think Kaplan conflates several issues and sets up at least one straw men.

The heart of Kaplan's argument is contained in this paragraph ...

There is a kernel of truth here. But few of these critics bothered to entertain a simpler and legitimate rationale for the war plan—namely, that it was drawn up with an eye toward political as well as military goals. Principal among these goals was the need to fight the war as a "war of liberation," which meant placing an extreme emphasis on minimizing Iraqi civilian casualties. Rumsfeld's plan also had to contend with the danger of large-scale American casualties and thus precluded a months-long massing of American forces in Kuwait, where they would have been vulnerable to Iraqi attack. Finally, to limit Saddam Hussein's ability to launch missiles, torch oil wells, and create mischief in southern Iraq, it called for a rapid advance to Baghdad and, hence, a smaller force. The alternatives being proposed by the generals today may arguably have enhanced the military effectiveness of the campaign. But they also might have led to political catastrophe.
There are several points here -- either explicit or implicit -- that are very worthwhile. The first is that Rumsfeld and the Army have built up quite a record over the last two years. So there's a lot of pre-existing hostility in the air. What's more, there is a natural tendency for the military to see wars in more purely military terms, i.e., in terms of securing military objectives and force protection rather than in terms of broader political aims.

So, to take an extremely crude, overstated formulation of this viewpoint, military planners might say that instead of a lightning strike, we should have mounted more lumbering, overwhelming force, a long run of bombing, and just crushed all resistance wherever it was before we sent our guys in. If there was one town where a lot of fedayeen were, just pulverize it and sort out the details later, rather than having a bunch of Marines have to get into a bunch of nasty firefights.

I'm not saying anyone was actually suggesting this. But this is the sort of trade-off Kaplan is talking about. We have enough power to just crush the place. But if we bring all our power to bear we'd end up ... well, crushing the place. And that would be terrible for our actual political objective, which is to have most Iraqis feel like, on balance, our invasion was a good thing.

This is a good argument. And I don't doubt that there were some planners -- focusing on force protection and the need to mobilize more overwhelming force -- who pushed for a more military and less political strategy, with a more massive and devastating use of force.

But I'm not sure how on-point this is.

As nearly as I can tell, the main argument from the retired military folks was not that our rules of engagement were too stringent or that we didn't hit with enough force. The argument was that our ground forces were stretched too thin or that there was too little armor. They had a hard time protecting supply-lines, beating down resistance in the South, etc. Frankly, these seem like two separate issues, don't they? The prime argument was simply that we had too few troops on the ground. Would having the 4th ID there on the ground in Iraq have led to a more punishing, politically-counter-productive war or just greater flexibility and an ability to react to the resistance from paramilitaries which eventually developed?

Another argument Kaplan puts forward is the massing of large concentrations of troops in Kuwait and whether that would have left them vulnerable to some sort of preemptive WMD attack from Iraq. If true, this would be a good argument for going in with a minimum of troops at first and then bringing in more later. What's not clear to me about this argument, however, is whether having, say, one-hundred-thousand more troops on hand would have made them that much more vulnerable. A slow build-up of big numbers of concentrated troops is an invitation to various sorts of asymmetric attack. But we already had more than a couple hundred thousand sitting there around or in the general vicinity of the southern border. Would a third more have presented that much more tempting of a target? It doesn't seem that way to me. But I put this forward only as a supposition. It does seem like a key issue to resolve to evaluate the overall good plan/bad plan debate.

On balance, Kaplan makes some very strong points. But there seems to be an apples and oranges issue at the center of his argument.

More later on this ...

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