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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The more I think about this Turkish rejection of US troops the bigger a deal it looks like.

Perhaps it can be salvaged next week, though that seems unclear. But if you want some evidence of this administration's diplomatic incompetence, consider this. We publicly sold out the Kurds to get this deal. We really should have made sure we had a deal before we tipped our hands to the Kurds about the price we were willing to pay for it.

Now we have no deal and no Kurds. I don't think we should have sold out the Kurds regardless. But if we were going to do so we should have been clearer with ourselves about who we were in bed with, the Turks or the Kurds.

The administration has a stiff wind of anti-anti-Americanism at its back which has thus far allowed it to weather each of these storms. Every one of the administration's diplomatic debacles is the fault, not of the administration, but of our conniving friends: the Germans, the French, the Turks, the Canadians, Gerhard Schroder, Noam Chomsky, Bono, Elmo, you name it. (The dog ate my homework, and so forth.) But the list of #$&@-ups is really becoming mind-boggingly long.

So far our experiment with Middle Eastern democracy-building isn't going so well. We've just sold out an incipient democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan. And now we can't get an existing democracy in Turkey to go along with our war plans ("Turkey rejects U.S. troop plan").

Meanwhile, we've got some very good news in the war on terrorism, the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This isn't just some capo in the organization. He's about as high up the food-chain as you can get without being bin Laden himself.

This is great news. And I've got no problem with how we pulled it off. But in the democracy-building context, we should bear in mind that we accomplished this by continuing our long-standing policy of using autocratic governments in the Muslim and Arab worlds to do our bidding notwithstanding public opposition.

All of which is to say that exporting democracy and getting everyone to agree with you at the same time is a rather difficult proposition.

And this is the easy part.

Kucinich responds! Or at least to Salon. Jake Tapper has a new interview with Congressman Dennis Kucinich in Salon. In it he has this question and response ...

A rival's campaign has brought an April 1972 Cleveland Magazine article to my attention in which you are accused of using racial politics. The story says that after you arrived in the city council in 1967 you began "playing confrontation politics with the city's black administration as if [you] had invented the game." Care to comment?

My political career goes back to the '60s and those were times of vigorous debates. But race was not a factor in those debates. The debates were on issues, not about race -- there may have been differences of opinion. But they were never about race. When I was running for mayor I said that half of my major appointments would go to members of the African-American community, and they did. I could cite a long, deep connection with the African-American community. I have a very strong constituency in that community. So in the '60s was it possible that there were some differences of opinion? Yes. But it was never based on race. Never. Not a chance. Not even the people I clashed with in major ways would ever say that.

Also of interest is this list of three people's accounts of Kucinich's career. One friend, one foe, one a bit of each.

We have our traffic statistics in for February 2003. Unique Visitors 138,279; Visits 368,900; Page Views 1,000,258.

Thanks so much to all who've visited the site, those who keep returning and those who spread the word. Thank you.

Okay, a number of intrepid TPM readers have gotten to the bottom of the Coldline mystery, noted in the earlier post. (Actually, what am I thinking? No one in his right mind in DC wants to offend the newsgods at the Hotline. They can make buzz or break buzz with a stern look. I just imagine them sitting in some smokey nightclub, with fancy suits and pinky rings, telling me "All I need is your respect and none of this ugliness has to happen.")

Anyway, here's what seems to have transpired. As we speculated in the last post, the story of the Georgia state legislators objecting to the musical South Pacific because it "justifies intermarriage of different races" is true. It really did happen. Only it didn't happen yesterday. It happened fifty years ago yesterday.

Apparently the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, the paper that ran the item the Hotline picked up, often runs fifty-years-ago-today filler-items. Here's one from last week, for instance. Only this time they forgot to add the "Fifty Years Ago Today" moniker and it ran with the appearance of a normal news item. "Georgia Senators Attack 'South Pacific' Themes"

Apparently, the folks at the Hotline caught wind of it and, not surprisingly, thought it was a new story.

Thanks to TPM readers TFW and JS for some above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty sleuthing.

Well, I'm always up for a good story about unreconstructed Republicans making themselves look stupid with racial wackiness. And I thought maybe I had one. The Hotline picked up a story from the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer today which said that two members of the Georgia state legislature had some problems with a certain musical. ("The Broadway musical "South Pacific" is 'offensive to Southern tradition,'" said two GA legislators 2/27".) Here's the item from the Ledger-Enquirer website.

Georgia Senators Attack "South Pacific" Themes

"South Pacific," smash Broadway musical hit, is "offensive to Southern tradition," two Georgia legislators charged yesterday.

Rep. David C. Jones of Sylvester and Sen. John Sheppard of Ashburn said in a written statement they would ask the next legislature for a bill to prevent the showing of "theatricals which have an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow."

Jones said the play "justifies intermarriage of different races" which "produces half breeds which are not conducive to the higher type of society... We in the South are a proud people and have pure blood lines. We want to keep it that way."

Now, as regular readers know, TPM likes nothing better that ridiculing these sorts of yahoos.

But, I'll be honest: this one just seemed a bit too good to be true. So I picked up the phone and called the Georgia House Information Office and the same office on the Senate side. According to them, neither of these men exists. At least, neither is a member of the Georgia House or Senate.

The other items on the page at the Ledger-Enquirer website are from the early 1950s so it seems like this is maybe something that actually happened back then. From the site, it's just not clear. Whatever the case, on this one the Hotline looks like the Coldline.

TPM, preserving the good name of the South one step at a time.

I had intended to write more about Iraq yesterday but I ended up spending the entire evening working through several years worth of notes to come to a final determination about how many English settlers and Indians there were in New England in 1675 and, equally important, how many -- particularly how many Indians -- were left by the end of 1676. As regular readers will understand, this is part of revising the draft of my dissertation which I've mentioned several times over the last few months.

The headline, if you can call it that, is that 1675 and 1676 went really badly for the Indians. But finding out just how badly, and precisely how it went badly, and for how many people, is a complicated matter. At least a thousand New England Indians, and probably many more, were shipped overseas as slaves that year. Most went to the Caribbean. But I've spent a great deal of time trying to piece together as many details as I can about what happened to about 200 of these deportees, from what is now southeastern Massachusetts, who ended up, of all places, in Morocco.

Specifically, in Tangier.

In any case, that took the place of Iraq last night. But back to Iraq.

First a few observations.

I'm struck by how few people have made this point. For about a year the administration's line was that we did not need nor even particularly care if we got support from our European or Arab allies. Then, when we finally went to them for support, they either said 'no' (French, Germans, et al.) or gave it grudgingly (Turks). And this we're supposed to see as a betrayal. That doesn't make any sense. A betrayal implies some earlier agreement, formal, tacit or implied. Not only did we not have this, we spurned it.

Now, I know this is a sort of simplified version of events. But I think it captures the essential truth of what's happened. And I think it gets to the problem some us -- or, I'll speak for myself, I -- think we're facing.

I don't have much truck with those who don't believe Saddam is a threat. He is. Not an imminent threat, but one we needed to face sooner rather than later. A number of readers have sent me this link to a response to Ken Pollack published on the Carnegie Endowment website. Some of its points are good. Others turn on detailed knowledge of intelligence estimates which just aren't available to the public. But the key error I see in the argument is about our ability to sustain containment over time.

I think the authors are right when they say that as long as we've got Saddam under the gun, and with a bunch of inspectors running around the place, he's not going anywhere. He is contained. I'm not worried about him developing nukes as long as those inspectors are there and they're able to work in concert with the leads our intelligence agencies are able to produce. What I doubt is that the current situation is sustainable. I'll say more later about why I doubt it's sustainable. But, for the moment, that's my criticism.

But some necessary actions can be done so disastrously and foolishly that it becomes a serious question whether or not to do them at all.

We're in one of those situations.

If we could turn back the clock a year and we had the choice of a) doing exactly what we've done or b) waiting a year or two for a more favorable moment or until a new team was in place who knew what they were doing, I think option 'b' would unquestionably be the better choice.

Unfortunately, we don't have that choice. The administration has already done massive damage to our standing in the world. And they've managed to create facts on the ground -- intentionally and unintentionally -- which make pulling back arguably more dangerous than pushing ahead. The question is no longer what the ideal thing to do is. It's more aptly described as which of the really bad alternatives is best to choose given the jam the administration has backed us into.

More soon on what the damage is to our standing in the world and what those facts on the ground are.

More coming later this morning on Iraq and other topics.

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