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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

For our text, let's use the column by David Ignatius in Tuesday's Washington Post.

The column describes a conversation Ignatius had with new Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in which the president describes his guidelines for peaceful overthrows of autocratic regimes.

That, though, is not what I want to discuss, not specifically at least.

What interests me is the last line of the column: "The Bush administration talks about democratic change. But it's the Saakashvilis, armed with their homegrown how-to manuals, who actually make it happen."

That sentiment is obviously critical, at least to some degree, of the Bush administration's role as an advocate and force for democratization on the international stage. Implicit in that line, however, is an assumption which now permeates much of the debate about foreign policy in this year's campaign.

That is, that however successfully or wisely the goal has been pursued, the Bush administration is the champion of democratization as a strategic goal on the world stage while John Kerry is the advocate of a more traditional foreign policy Realism, which prioritizes stability and alliances with existing powers over democratization and the export of American values.

Indeed, this was the premise of a critical David Brooks column in the Times from June 19th ("Kerry's Cruel Realism").

Perhaps the clearest sign of the ubiquity of this assumption is that it is not only advanced by the president's advocates but -- from a different and more critical perspective -- by his opponents as well. Many of them fault the president for a heedless or ill-conceived neo-Wilsonianism, which will damage US national security by pursuing illusory or improbable goals.

But talk is cheap.

And when you look at the actual record I think there is very little evidence that the assumption is at all valid. I don't mean simply that the Bush administration has been unsuccessful or incompetent in pursuing its plans for democratization. I don't even mean that they've been hypocritical or inconsistent. I mean that democratization as a moral or strategic goal simply doesn't figure into the White House's plans.

Let's start with a review of the administration's record in the 189 UN member states whose governments the US has not overthrown in the last three and one half years.

In Central Asia the administration has strengthened ties with coalescing autocracies like Uzbekistan, supporting and facilitating the intensification of domestic repression. No one even disputes this.

In Libya, the US has reestablished diplomatic ties with the Qaddafi government even though it is widely conceded that we are doing so in the context of a domestic crackdown.

We have just recently awarded Pakistan the title of "major non-NATO ally" despite the fact that that the country is governed by a thinly-veiled military dictatorship, that it is a serious offender by most human rights and democracy measures, and has the added benefits of being both a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and possessing an intelligence service with longstanding ties to al Qaida.

Other cases are less clear-cut. But attention must be given to Russia where Vladimir Putin has slowly de-democratized the state while enjoying undiminished friendship from the Bush administration. In other cases, where on-going projects of democratization hang in the balance -- the Balkans being the clearest, but by no means the only case -- the administration has pursued a policy of, at best, studied inattention.

One might further add that our most serious fallings-out with longstanding allies have been in cases -- like Germany, South Korea, Turkey and perhaps now Spain -- where governments have bucked our policies -- sometimes seeking political advantage in the doing of it, to be sure -- because their populations overwhelmingly oppose our policies.

I don't pretend that all of these decisions were wrong. In the case of Pakistan I think it has been, by and large, the correct and unavoidable course, though I think the "major non-NATO ally" business was perhaps laying it on a bit thick. And to one degree or another many instances of the Bush administration's cozying up to dictators has been the result of the exigencies of its 'war on terror.'

In essence, if you support the US war on terror, how you run your country is your own business.

But pleading broader geostrategic interests as a defense for supporting dictatorships and human rights abusers is irrelevant as a defense precisely because it is always the defense -- and sometimes even a valid one.

American governments have seldom supported autocracies and tyrants simply for the fun of it. In most cases, we have done so because it served our broader geostrategic interests as we understood and defined them at the moment, whether that be 'stability', American economic interests, fighting communism, ensuring the steady flow of oil, etc. The fact that our priority interest is now opposing terrorism is just the newest defining national goal.

Of course, the two cases where the Bush administration's advocates would beg to differ would be those two cases I chose to set aside at the outset: Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, I think that at any time in recent history any American government would have attempted to put in place a government that is at least nominally democratic in any state it overthrew. And the case of sorry inattention to Afghanistan makes a very good argument for the proposition that actual democratization is very lower on the list of the administration's priorities.

The administration's advocates would also note various initiatives put forward by the White House to advance the cause of democracy, particularly in the Middle East. But these have tended to be ineffectual or quickly forgotten.

Remember, the key here is the advancement of democracy not only as a good thing, a humanitarian gesture, a form of state-imposed meta-philanthropy, but as a way of advancing American national security. But for that to mean anything one would have to point to cases where we, or in this case, the administration made short-term geopolitical sacrifices to advance our longterm interest in democratization.

And I cannot think of a single case whether in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Russia or China or Uzbekistan or anywhere where that has happened.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is not to say that the US should, willy nilly, upend friendly non-democracies with an indifference to American strategic interests. But if that's the model the administration is following then there's really, at best, no difference with previous administrations and the whole premise -- so widespread now in our political and foreign policy debates -- that the Bush administration is hawkish on democracy or neo-Wilsonian -- and that this is a departure from previous administrations or a potential Kerry administration -- is just an empty claim embraced by the inattentive and incurious.

Did the BBC fall a bit short on the copyediting in this portion of their brief run-down of John Edwards?

He was born the son of a poor mill owner, and was the first in his family to go to university. He became a successful millionaire trial lawyer who turned to politics after his son, Wade, died in a car-crash.
Maybe the mill was just severely undercapitalized?

I wasn't able to catch the CNN coverage of the Edwards pick after, say, mid-late afternoon. But if reader email is any indication, it got pretty bad again after Wolf Blitzer signed on. They've provided more and more examples of the cowed non-ideological press, which becomes worse than ideological, because of its rudderlessness, as it tries to defend itself against sharp and confidently organized complaint. Worse still, when the habit becomes ingrained and chronic, like the battered dog who cowers and shakes when the abuser gives a passing look. Of course, there's the added matter of cosmopolitan and baby-boomer self-loathing, mixed in with the needy and mercurial status anxiety that afflicts the Washington press corps. Ahh, for a novelist's pen.

CNN's afternoon coverage of the Edwards decision seems better than it was in the morning and early afternoon. Maybe they got an earful from the campaign or just from viewers.

CNN's subservience to the calls they're getting from the RNC oppo research department this morning is really breathtaking. By contrast, it almost reminds you of when it was really a legitimate news operation. Daryn Kagan seemed to outdo herself, at one point harping on a clip from a Kerry town hall meeting last fall or winter in which Kerry quipped that Edwards might have been in diapers when he, Kerry, was out fighting in Vietnam. Kerry then a few moments later thinks better of comment and says he respects Edwards, etc. Kagan then goes on about how this is an example of Kerry as flip-flopper and then gets Bill Schneider to discuss it.

Of course, they could only go on for so long about that until they needed to run the Bush campaign's phony McCain campaign commercial again.

At the end of the day, the intensity of the GOP response is a measure of their anxiety about Kerry's choice of Edwards.

CNN keeps running this ad that the Bush campaign has up on his website, claiming -- not improbably, who knows? -- that John McCain was Kerry's first choice for VP. Does anyone even remotely imagine that this cuts against the Edwards choice in public opinion? I really doubt that the ad will ever even run on television. Saps.

So Edwards is the man.

Great.

Indeed, not only did Kerry manage to make a solid VP pick he was able to take a bit of hide out of the behind of the Murdoch media empire. On the newsstands this morning here in New York City the New York Post's headline boasts their exclusive scoop that Kerry has picked Dick Gephardt.

Oops.

(Actually, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Post, all ideological difference aside, as their editorial page provided one of my few financial lifelines after I struck out on my own in 2000. I wrote a sort of semi-regular column for them -- a token liberal, or rather non-right-winger -- through 2001 and, I think, for much of 2002.)

Actually, the Post might have done better to look at this post on an aviation bulletin board that a TPM reader -- JB -- sent me last night, perhaps the first real solid news that Edwards was the pick.

Some cynical commentary now running on CNN, aping GOP talking points; but that's to be expected.

More posts on this later. But, on balance, I'd say this is a very solid pick on many counts.

Unfortunately, it's not available online, at least not for free. But if you have a chance to pick up the paper copy of the current New York Review of Books, don't miss Amos Elon's review essay of two new books on the current state of what we used to call the 'peace process' and might now term the Israeli-Palestinian mutual embrace of butchery. I don't agree with every strand of the argument; a few points I would dissent from strenuously. But the essay struck me as illuminating as it is pessimistic, and much more sensible and candid than most of what I see on this topic in the American press.

A remarkable turn of events.

We know that the chief architects of the war -- at the White House and the Pentagon -- waged a running battle with the CIA for the eighteen months leading up to the war, both on the WMD front and on their too-skeptical take on Iraq's ties to al Qaida. It was the Intelligence Community that was the proverbial stick in the mud holding up the aggressive posture favored by these other forces within the administration.

But it now turns out that while the White House claimed the CIA was too cautious and naive about the dangers emanating from Iraq, in fact, the Agency was hoodwinking the president into believing the worst about Iraq and keeping him and his advisors in the dark about the weakness of their claims.

You might say that it turns out that the CIA was doing to President Bush what many of us were under the impression President Bush and his advisors were doing to the country.

This is the ironic and tragic tale told by James Risen in Tuesday's New York Times.

Somehow I thought that our best reporters had learned a lesson about peddling self-interested government leaks without applying common sense, context or critical, dissenting voices. But apparently not.

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