Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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An interesting email from one of my favorite New Dem-leaning correspondents in Washington DC.

We'll call him Mr R ...

Hi Josh. Great string of posts this a.m.! Glad to see you're back in the swing.

I thought you might be interested in my recent experience as a Democratic contributor. In the last year I've given $100 each to (1) Joe Lieberman, since he's a New Dem from way back and his DLCish instincts generally match my own, and (2) more recently, Howard Dean, because he's interesting and smart and, while I don't much like his current lefty trendline, at bottom I think he's a moderate.

Well. I got a couple of half-hearted follow-ups from the Lieberman camp last year (I think I sent a brochure to you), but absolutely nothing in the last six months or more, even though now is when they're starting to need the money, and a candidate's prior contributors are the folks he should be putting the strongest touch on. But, from Joe, at least to me, silence. Reminds me strongly of the hapless Gore operation - I gave thousands of dollars to Gore, even going back to his Senate years, and it took his campaign forever even to get my name right and figure out I was a supporter. I wonder if Lieberman has inherited some of the not-too-swift Gore back-office operations.

But from the Doctor! I've gotten half a dozen (correctly addressed!) follow-up letters in the couple of months since I sent him a check, and I'm obviously on his main direct-mail list, all on the strength of one contribution. VERY impressive operation on the technical side, and it certainly makes me more likely to contribute again. Wonder where Dean's people came from? Are these the tech-savvy people who are also staffing his Internet operation?

Anyway, a telling contrast, and I though you should have this report from the political contributors' trenches.

Regards, (Mr R.)

Very revealing about each campaign.

Sheesh! WorldNetDaily isn't usually at the top of my reading list. But they're running a story which, if true, is pretty mind-blowing and, frankly, would answer a lot of questions.

Here are the first three grafs ...

A former Energy Department intelligence chief who agreed with the White House claim that Iraq had reconstituted its defunct nuclear-arms program was awarded a total of $20,500 in bonuses during the build-up to the war, WorldNetDaily has learned.

Thomas Rider, as acting director of Energy's intelligence office, overruled senior intelligence officers on his staff in voting for the position at a National Foreign Intelligence Board meeting at CIA headquarters last September.

His officers argued at a pre-briefing at Energy headquarters that there was no hard evidence to support the alarming Iraq nuclear charge, and asked to join State Department's dissenting opinion, Energy officials say.

Definitely read this piece. It appears well-sourced. And it definitely left me wanting to know more. I'd like to see one of the bigs get on this since they'd probably have the muscle to bust it open a bit more. Though, of course, the real question is, why didn't we hear this story from one of them in the first place?

Alright, I'm a little confused. Articles like this one at MSNBC say that US agents "foiled an international plot" to smuggle a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile into the United States for downing a commercial airliner. But when you read into the article you see that there really wasn't a 'plot' at all. This was really a sting operation. And as in most sting operations, the 'plot' was really something cooked up by law enforcement to snare a malefactor.

What seems to have happened is that Russian intelligence got wind of the fact that a small time arms dealer might be interested in selling these rocket launchers to terrorists. The seller's motives weren't ideological but pecuniary. In other words, the sellers weren't terrorists, just scoundrels. So in cooperation with Russian and British intelligence, the FBI provided this guy with a potential Islamist terrorist buyer, actually an undercover agent. And they picked him up when the deal was sealed.

Now this is an unquestionably good thing for at least two reasons. First, it's a good thing to have behind bars any miscreant willing to make money by selling terrorists the equipment to bring down a commercial airliner. (These guys are arguably more evil than the terrorists themselves. The terrorists at least think they're pursuing some justifiable, even noble, end. These rogues couldn't care less so long as they can make a buck.) Second, and more to the point, you probably can't deter terrorists who are willing to kill themselves anyway. But you probably can deter some people with financial motives from supplying the terrorists with the weapons. And this probably goes some way toward that end.

But still, there was no plot. And the point is more than just semantic. Look at this sentence a few grafs into the MSNBC report: "It was not immediately clear whether the plot was connected to al-Qaida or some other terrorist network."

All the horrors of terrorism aside, that line really brought a smile to my face. There was no plot. So there really wasn't much of a way al Qaida could have been involved, right?

The reporters who covered the story for the Times seemed to have a better handle on this. This line comes at the end of the third graf of their story: "No real terrorists were ever connected to the plot."

On the other hand, the Times piece also contains this line: "Intelligence agencies say Al Qaeda already has dozens of missiles, many of them American-made Stingers left over from the war in Afghanistan in the 1980's when the United States supplied them to Afghan guerrillas seeking to oust Soviet troops from their country. Hundreds of other surface-to-air missiles are reported to be circulating on the black market."

Something new at TPM. We're busily working away on the TPM redesign. The site won't look very different. But it'll have a number of features readers have been asking for for quite some time. A printer friendly function, easier searching, an RSS feed. There may even be a way to get a discount on your prescription drug costs. But we're still working on that. And the financing may be a bit touchy.

In any case, here's something new at the site that we're rolling out before the redesign. TPM reviews books. But there are many books that I'd like to recommend that I either haven't had time to read cover to cover or won't be able to review in a formal way. That's where the TPM Featured Book comes in -- right over there on the left.

Not all of them will be ones I agree with in every respect. I'm actually far from being a doctrinaire civil libertarian -- so there are points and attitudes that I disagree with in the first choice, The War on Our Freedoms: Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism. But airing these issues is critical for as co-editor Richard Leone says in the introduction, "history teaches us that bypassing public deliberation almost inevitably leads to outcomes that the nation ends up regretting."

My feeling on the balance between civil liberties and counter-terrorism is that I'm willing to countenance quite a lot that wouldn't pass ACLU muster if I'm convinced those measures will help prevent terrorist attacks against Americans. (Living in DC in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the anthrax scare tended to focus my attention and priorities in this respect.) What's consistently troubled me about this administration is the eagerness to adopt certain tactics which don't seem to make us measureably safer at all simply because they appeal to a pre-existing and ideologically-driven hostility to civil liberties.

In any case, this is an important book, which I'm glad to recommend. It's got contributions from all the people you'd want to hear from: Alan Brinkley, E.J. Dionne, Tony Lewis, John Podesta and others. Stop by Amazon and take a look.

A week or more back I discussed the similarities and dissimilarities between Clinton-hating and Bush-hating. At the time I said that for political purposes it really doesn't matter which is or was more justified, rational, or whatever. The issue is the political dynamic each creates.

Let me expand on what I mean by that.

Many people wrote in to say that Clinton-hating ended up not profiting the Republican party very much.

That judgment is profoundly mistaken. The vitriolic, organized and often orchestrated opposition to Bill Clinton ended up helping Republicans a great deal. But it's critical to understand just how it did.

Let's go back five years to the late summer of 1998. Bill Clinton hadn't been impeached or acquitted. The various videotaped testimonies had yet to be taken. But, for those with eyes to see, it was already pretty clear how the thing was going to play out. Congressional Republicans were going to pull the country through a protracted impeachment crisis that a clear majority of the public opposed, even though it was pretty clear they weren't going to be able to drive him from office. A few months later that reality was driven home by the party's surprisingly disappointing showing in the off-year elections. Yet the whole carnival proceeded anyway.

The Republican party was consumed by its animosity toward the president. Partly this was genuine grass-roots antipathy by Republican partisans. But that generalized rage was pulled together, organized and focused by bullying party moderates with the threat of retribution by an aggrieved base.

However you slice it the Beltway Republican party had grievously and dangerously alienated itself from public opinion on numerous fronts. Clinton-hating was a big loser with a decisive majority of the electorate -- at least sixty percent. Yet it still played a key role in the 2000 election.

The key was George W. Bush.

In his person, Bush seemed to Republican partisans to be the antithesis of Clinton. He also consistently tapped at the anti-Clinton keywords like honor, and respect for the office and so forth. At the same time, Bush didn't come from Washington (or didn't appear to). And thus he could portray himself as unconnected with the partisan frenzy of the late 1990s. When he talked about 'changing the tone' in Washington he wasn't running against Clinton or Gore. He was running against congressional Republicans in an appeal aimed at swing voters.

What the Bush candidacy provided for the GOP was a candidate who could pocket the 30% to 35% of the electorate animated by anti-Clinton rage, gain from all their energy, and yet also present himself to the political middle and independents as unconnected with the anti-Clinton craziness they found repellent in the congressional GOP. He let the party have its cake and eat it too.

I think the Democrats face a similar dynamic in 2004.

People often talk about the electorate as having a right and a left and a 'middle'. But that's not the best way to understand it. It's really sliced in half in two different ways.

There's the familiar left and right division -- roughly even if you mean Dems versus Republicans. And then there's the politicized (or partisanized) versus the non-politicized. The politicized group is bigger than the non-politicized part of the electorate. But not by that much. Three to two is probably a reasonable measure.

In many ways the partisans on the left and right have more in common than either do with the non-politicized group, though there are a host of very well-paid pollsters in DC working on teasing out all the nitty-gritty of it.

The key for Democrats is that they very much need a candidate who will harness the intense opposition among Democratic partisans to the direction the president is taking the country without being too tightly connected to or identified with that passion. If they don't find one, I think they'll end up having a very mobilized constituency that falls short of securing a majority.

This doesn't mean the candidate has to have watered down policies or be more 'centrist' in policy terms. It also does not and should not mean that he or she doesn't draw clear distinctions with administration policy. (The self-identified centrist leaders who are publicly scornful of the energized anti-Bush Democratic electorate are foolish and shortsighted. And there's more than a few people in the orbit of the standard centrist groups that know that and are trying to rectify the mistake.) What it means is that Democrats need a candidate who can appeal to those two very different slices of the electorate.

I'm not prejudging who that candidate is. I'm just saying that Democrats who are seriously interested in having a new president in eighteen months need to choose a candidate with that double-division of the electorate in mind.

Frank Foer has a very nice piece in the current issue of the New Republic. I've said many times that there's been at least as much self-deception as deception in the Bush administration's myriad endeavors in the Middle East. And Foer's article unpacks one part of this story: conservatives' romantic attachment to exile 'opposition leaders.' At the moment -- or, actually, more like six months ago -- Ahmed Chalabi is the example par excellence. As Foer makes clear, he's just the most recent in a long line going back to the anti-communist insurrectionists of the 1970s and 1980s.

But there is a difference with Chalabi.

Chalabi's supporters would often attack his critics in two ways. First, they'd claim that opposition to Chalabi meant opposition to Arab democracy. Second, they'd imply that Chalabi had been unjustly maligned or demonized by opponents with other agendas to pursue.

I won't deny that there was some small merit in these responses, or that they did not identify some roots of the opposition to Chalabi. What's most revealing about both, however, is how they serve to avoid what was always the paramount criticism of the guy: his general irrelevance to the situation inside Iraq.

There's no doubt that Chalabi would have been better than most of the potential leaders an unreconstructed Iraqi political system could have churned up. But once you cut your reasoning off from any practical sense of how a potential leader might sustain himself as leader of his country or what his basis of support might be, you can come up with an almost limitless number of fantasy candidates -- all of them equally irrelevant to the realities at hand.

Frank quotes Deputy Undersecretary of Defense William Luti calling Chalabi the "George Washington of Iraq." I'll do that one better. There's another neocon at DOD who, I'm told, has often called Chalabi the most important Muslim since the Prophet Mohammed.

As Foer ably notes, there were a lot of folks at the Pentagon who really thought Chalabi could rapidly bestride the Iraqi political scene and take care of many of the problems we're wrestling with today. Today of course there's really no one who imagines he'll be more than a bit player.

The old time right-wing heart-throbs like Jonas Savimbi really did have troops on the ground in their homelands. The problem was that they were often murderous thugs. The problem with the new right-wing-adored opposition leaders -- Chalabi perhaps becoming the archetype -- is not their bad behavior but their irrelevance.

Coming up later: the much-discussed David Kay report.

You heard it here first. Last week TPM reported on the travails of Iraqi nuclear scientist Mahdi Obeidi and why the CIA has him stashed away in Kuwait -- as opposed to letting him come to the US, as promised -- because he wouldn't say the right things about the aluminum tubes and chemical weapons and the rest of it.

Now Newsweek's Michael Hirsch has some more details.

The short and sweet of it. UPI's Martin Walker on the troop strength issue ...

Quite apart from issues of Arab resentment, religion and the remaining bands of Saddam Hussein loyalists, there is one simple reason why the stabilization of Iraq is proving so frustratingly difficult. By comparison with other similar peace-keeping missions in recent years, the place is very seriously under-policed.

Consider the Balkans. In proportion to their populations, three times as many troops were deployed in Kosovo as in Iraq, and in Bosnia twice as many. By Kosovo standards, there ought to be more than half a million troops in Iraq. But maintaining 180,000 British and American troops in Iraq is putting intense strain on the military manpower of both countries. There is no serious prospect of their deploying any more. Reinforcement will have to come from other countries -- and in far greater numbers than the 70 Ukrainian soldiers who flew in Sunday.

On a related note, let's remember that the small omissions are often the most revealing.

In a new article in The Weekly Standard Reuel Marc Gerecht argues against the conventional wisdom that we need to bring in allied troops and assistance to help stabilize and reconstruct Iraq ("Help Not Wanted"). At the front of the article Gerecht rattles off several examples of establishment nay-sayers who argue that we can't or shouldn't accomplish the job alone. The first of those Gerecht mentions is "a recent post-conflict reconstruction report issued under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies."

Does that cover all the facts? Not exactly. That report did go out on CSIS letterhead. But it was requested by and completed at the behest of Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. Somehow that seems like a significant detail.

"The new information indicates a pattern in which President Bush, Vice President Cheney and their subordinates -- in public and behind the scenes -- made allegations depicting Iraq's nuclear weapons program as more active, more certain and more imminent in its threat than the data they had would support. On occasion administration advocates withheld evidence that did not conform to their views. The White House seldom corrected misstatements or acknowledged loss of confidence in information upon which it had previously relied ..."

That's one key graf from this morning's article ("Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence") in the Washington Post, which runs down numerous details in the Iraq-intel-manipulation story. But frankly it's filled with key grafs. Frankly, it's the best single newspaper piece I've seen on the subject to date. Take particular note of Cheney's role -- not so much his deceptiveness as his ingenuousness, his poor judgment.

In aftermath of the bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad we're already starting to see that pattern so familiar from before and after the war: the tendency to fit new data into ideologically familiar and politically convenient packages.

Specifically, we're already seeing suggestions that the bombing is the work of a) al Qaida, or b) Ansar al Islam, the al Qaida-linked Kurdish jihadist group in northern Iraq, or c) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the alleged link between al Qaida and Saddam who worked out of the section of Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by Ansar, and is implicated in the assassination of US diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman last October.

Now, any of these could be true. Indeed, all of them could be true, since they all fold together neatly, one on top of the other.

But there doesn't seem to be much evidence at the moment that any of them is true.

Bernard Kerik was Police Commissioner of New York City on 9/11 and now serves -- in a detail which would make the novel version of this story seem totally cheesy -- as the de facto police commissioner of Baghdad. Here's what he said yesterday, according to an article in the Times ...

No one has taken responsibility for the bombing, officials said. But Mr. Kerik expressed skepticism about reports today that the attack appeared to be the work of Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group formerly based in northern Iraq, or Al Qaeda.

"It's all a guessing game right now," he said. "Nothing is leading us in that direction."

The state of affairs in Baghdad is such at the moment that it might be easier to come up with a list of groups and personages who don't have some possible motive for bombing the Jordanian embassy, rather than those that do. And on the list of those that do, a convenient suspect like al Qaeda probably doesn't even figure at the top of the list. Indeed, there are other potential suspects at least equally high on that list who would be extremely inconvenient from the US perspective.

My only point is that we should not jump to the most convenient conclusions ahead of the evidence. This is especially so since our main problem in Iraq thus far has been our tendency to see the situation on the ground through the distorting prisms of ideology and wishful thinking.