Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Read this lede from an article in the Times and tell me with a straight face that these guys have any idea what they're doing ...

President Bush found himself in the awkward position on Wednesday of calling the leaders of France, Germany and Russia to ask them to forgive Iraq's debts, just a day after the Pentagon excluded those countries and others from $18 billion in American-financed Iraqi reconstruction projects.

White House officials were fuming about the timing and the tone of the Pentagon's directive, even while conceding that they had approved the Pentagon policy of limiting contracts to 63 countries that have given the United States political or military aid in Iraq.

I mean, it defies ridicule <$Ad$>(what will I do?). The tone? How were they supposed to sugar-coat it?

Please ...

Clearly, we need to come up with a new executive branch foreign policy appointee, someone whose job it would be to coordinate all this stuff, who could make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, someone who could ride herd over interagency disputes.

Ideally, that person would work out of the White House.

We could call the new post the National Security Coordinator or maybe the National Security Advisor. Something like that.

Just a thought.

And you wonder why they're bringing Jim Baker into the mix? Forget about Rove's phone records. I want the last month's phone records between Dubya and pops ...

Let's put together a calendar for next spring in Iraq.

Under the current plan, the US occupation authorities will hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government on July 1st 2004.

It seems reasonable to suspect that the month or two before that date (i.e., May and June) would be prime moments for the insurgents to up their attacks in order to throw the new government off balance and kill it (or at least its efficacy) in the cradle. However you want to define it, for all sorts of reasons, late spring next year looks like a window when the insurgents can use demonstrative violence most effectively to achieve their ends.

Indeed, the top US commander on the ground in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, says "We expect to see an increase in violence as we move forward toward sovereignty at the end of June."

But look at what else is happening at just that time.

From February through May, the Pentagon will cycle out almost all the troops now serving in Iraq -- 130,000 will be pulled out and 118,000 will replace them.

That means that at more or less precisely the time when you can predict there's going to be a maximum effort on the part of the insurgents to destabilize the new government and the process of handover, those insurgents will face US troops who, in almost every case, will have just arrived in the country.

Add to that the fact that April and May marks the onset of the hot season in Iraq, and that a lot of the military's attention at that crucial point will be focused on the logistics of cycling the troops.

There are good reasons why the US military now cycles troops out in units rather than individually. We have little choice but to rotate out the troops that are currently there --- many of whom will have been in the region for well over a year by next spring. And our options are now sufficiently narrowed that there aren't a lot of good options for working our way out of this bind.

But taken together the confluence of events amounts to a mammoth failure of foresight and planning. There's simply no other way to describe it. And the reason is fairly clear: the key decisions which got us into this box were made up on the fly over the last six months or so in response to exigencies which were widely predicted but which the planners of the war chose not to believe.

Reuters is reporting that the Pentagon is delaying rolling out the tenders for Iraqi reconstruction contracts -- the ones which barred bids from countries like Germany, France and Russia, and which kicked up a storm of protest around the world today.

It seems unclear, as yet, whether the controversial restrictions are the cause of the delay or whether it's something else. And if it is the cause, is this Baker's influence already being shown?

Whatever you think of Baker and his potential role in all this, he is nothing if not competent. I had lunch today with a fellow who's worked with Baker in a pretty tense international crisis and he told me there was no one in the world he'd rather have next to him in a foxhole than James Baker --- that tough, etc.

So, as I've said, I have some real questions and concerns about just what Baker's agenda is going to be as the grand dealmaker. But at least it won't be amateur hour.

And at this point, boy, that ain't no mean thing.

Hmmmm. I wasn't quite clear that the Wolfowitz Directive limiting contracts to companies from coalition countries had such a prospective, rather than simply retrospective, aim.

I went and looked at the actual document this evening (or, I guess, actually this morning) and I keyed in on this passage. I start from the section that's been widely quoted. But look at what comes after (italics added)...

4. It is necessary for the protection of the essential security interests of the United States to limit competition for the prime contracts of these procurements to companies from the United States, Iraq, Coalition partners and force contributing nations. Thus, it is clearly in the public interest to limit prime contracts to companies from these countries.

5. Every effort must be made to expand international cooperation in Iraq. Since May 2003, Coalition forces other than those from the United States have increased from 14,000 to 23,700. U.S. force levels, accordingly, have decreased by approximately 12,000. Limiting competition for prime contracts will encourage the expansion of international cooperation in Iraq and in future efforts.

6. Coalition partners share in the US vision of a free and stable Iraq. The limitation of sources for prime contractors from those countries should encourage the continued cooperation of coalition members.

This raises a number of <$Ad$>questions in my mind. One is how much the reasoning represented here is the actual reasoning behind the directive and how much this is simply a bureaucratic fiction designed to satisfy some regulatory requirement in order to get a desired policy put through.

What I mean is this: Is this actually what they're thinking? What they're trying to accomplish? Or did the relevant regulations make them have to say this in order to get to the desired end of barring bids from French and German companies?

That question aside, what it sounds like is that we're trying to use the contract bonanza to leverage more foreign troops into Iraq for next year. You Dutch guys want contracts? You Kuwaitis? You know the price ...

The line about "future efforts" rather begs the question of whether there are going to be any "future efforts."

Frankly, this raises more questions for me than it answers. But I think this plays into the issues we've been discussing about Baker's mission and the question of Iraq's debt.

Okay, let me elaborate on my reactions to Gore's endorsement of Dean.

And let me premise the following by saying that I don't think this is the only possible outcome, just the one that is more likely than any of the others I can see, given what we know now.

Gore's endorsement clearly helps Dean a lot. But it also helps Clark. In fact, I think it sets up a Dean/Clark dynamic in which the odds strongly favor Dean, but in which Clark still has real advantages.

Various thoughts lead me to this conclusion. But the chief reason is just a process of elimination.

Let's start with this.

Who's really still in this race? I think there are five candidates. Clark, Dean, Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman. Edwards may not know it yet. But (pace John) he's no longer in the race.

As Koppel noted tonight, his standing in the polls barely distinguishes him from Sharpton, Kucinich and Braun.

Of those five, Gephardt and Kerry can be effectively knocked out of the race by losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively -- eventualities which now seem quite likely.

They're not toast. But they're in the toaster. Snuggly.

Lieberman isn't closely tied to success in either of those states. But his campaign has just never taken off. I'm not sure, frankly, whether the Gore thing really hurts Lieberman (except for personally). But that's largely because he was in such bad shape anyway.

Plus, Lieberman is the only major candidate in the race for whom there is a significant core of Democratic primary voters who find him an unacceptable nominee. Unlike Gephardt and Kerry, there's no totally clear cut reason why Lieberman doesn't end up contesting this with Dean. But I just don't see it.

(I actually like Lieberman. But that's just how it is.)

In any case, that leaves Clark.

Add to this two other factors.

1. Clark is raising money at a better clip than any of the other candidates beside Dean.

2. Clark has a clearer raison d'etre for his campaign than that of any of the other candidates, save Dean: namely, his national security credentials as a retired general. (You can tell his campaign sees this because Clark made this point explicitly tonight.) Many presidents have been governors with no prior foreign policy experience. So Dean's in good company. But it's a clear distinction between Dean and Clark in what is sure to be a general election fought heavily on national security issues.

As I said yesterday, I think Gore's endorsement of Dean will accelerate the process of narrowing this race to Dean and one or two other candidates. More likely than not, one. And, as I've argued above, I think various dynamics point to that other candidate being Clark.

This doesn't mean the other candidate is an "anti-Dean" in some heavily weighted sense, as both Dean's avid admirers and detractors tend to think. It is simply a reflection of the not-unreasonable reality that not every voter will gravitate to Dean. And as the field narrows, those voters will gravitate towards another candidate.

At the moment what I'm looking at is the increasingly narrow margin separating Kerry and Clark in New Hampshire. In truth, the convergence is as much Kerry's decline as Clark's rise. But it's both. And if Clark draws even with Kerry or pulls ahead of him that would further accelerate the process I've described above.

Of course, if Gephardt reverses the trend and wins Iowa that would change things substantially. If Kerry pulls out of his tailspin that would change things a lot too. But neither of those seems that likely.

The climb is an uphill one for Clark if what I've sketched out above transpires. Candidates who bag on the early primaries and then hope to come back swinging in the South or midwest never seem to pan out.

And Clark still has some wobbly moments. He's improved a lot over the last couple months. But it's not clear to me he quite yet has the ease and command in debate settings that he'll need in a narrowed down race.

(I watched about three quarters of tonight's debate. Clark's first answer was a bit shaky. The next few were strong. And he hit quite effectively on his national security credentials.)

If Dean were still clearly an outsider with the major party institutions arrayed against him that polish might not be so necessary. But the Gore endorsement combined with the AFSCME and SEIU nods changed the equation.

(For more on how Dean plays across the range of Democratic voters, see Ruy Teixeira's analysis of the new Gallup poll, particularly on Dean's disproportionate appeal to party liberals versus moderates.)

So, as I said, this contest has a lot of moving parts. And outside of New Hampshire and Iowa the primary electorate seems very much in flux. That's just, as I said, what seems to me as the most likely scenario given what we know now.

Just looking now at the headlines on a number of the big news sites, it's clear that the Pentagon's decision to bar French, German and Russian companies from bidding on Iraqi reconstruction contracts is getting a lot of attention.

But as I noted earlier, the bigger story is that the administration can't even get its story straight. Are we trying to get retribution toward these countries by stiffing them on the contracts or are we trying to come to some sort of agreement with them to refinance and restructure Iraq's mammoth foreign debt?

It pretty obviously can't be both.

One reader suggested to me today that perhaps the Wolfowitz directive banning the bids from these three countries is a bargaining chip we're putting on the table as part of Baker's negotiation strategy.

But, believe me, it's not. It's just that everybody is pursuing their own policy and nobody's coordinating anything.

And then there's the Baker appointment.

One might say that if we didn't have James Baker to turn to to handle international debt crises, we might have to invent the Treasury Secretary.

I mean, this doesn't just fall under the Treasury Department's general purview. It's one of its main responsibilities.

In an insightful column in Newsweek, Richard Wolffe makes the point we've been hinting at for the last few days ...

Unless Baker is about to declare Iraq’s independence, there are only two explanations for his appointment. Either the president feels that Powell, Snow and the rest of his cabinet are incapable of dealing with Iraq’s debts. Or the president is giving Baker a far broader role in resolving Iraq’s future. Both explanations are deeply unsettling for his much-vaunted foreign policy team and for the rest of the world. When Baker travels to European and regional capitals, the world’s leaders will think that Baker—not Powell, Donald Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Rice—has the influence with the president to get things done in Iraq. Yet we, and they, can’t be sure of that. After all, in official terms, Baker is just talking about Iraq’s debts.

In fact, I think it's both. It signals a lack of confidence in his team and Baker has a much larger brief than we're being told.

As I've tried to argue over the last couple days, in the current context, handling the Iraqi debt issue inherently takes you well beyond technical matters of debt refinance.

This is another tacit admission of the failure of the president's policy in Iraq. We went into Iraq to overturn the geopolitical dynamics of the region. Now Baker, an opponent of everything the architects of the war stand for, is being sent in to reach an accomodation with the status quo powers to pave the way for our departure.

Some insider, insider, insider scuttlebutt on Dean's trade policies from Chris Nelson in this evening's Nelson Report ...

12. With the endorsement by former VP Al Gore, Howard Dean's chances of being the Democrat's presidential nominee are looking increasingly realistic. That means we all have to start looking at his policy pronouncements for substance, and not just as political maneuverings.

-- a friend attended a small, very private fundraiser for Dean recently…and despite going in fairly skeptical about Dean on substantive grounds, came away impressed on several levels.

13. Our friend asked Dean two trade related questions: first, would Dean have made a different decision on the steel 201's? (Yes…he would have kept them in place); and how does Dean see the issue of managing U.S.-China trade problems. (That's more complicated.)

-- "Dean gave a long, actually somewhat over-long answer, but one which clearly showed he had thought this all through, and wasn't just reciting staff-generated talking points," our friend reports.

14. Dean said that he would have kept the steel 201's in place, and that he will support a tougher trade enforcement stance on China, and other U.S. trading partners, not to raise barriers in the U.S., but to encourage China and other, lesser developed trading partners to "raise their standards".

-- Dean said that he originally supported NAFTA and China's WTO membership precisely because he feels that, in the long run, free trade "helps create a middle class", and that, "eventually" it will in both Mexico and China. The problem for now, which is to say, the problem for the political process, is that "the U.S. has not got time to wait" due to the trade deficit, and job losses which will never be replaced by adequately paying employment.

15. Dean made a point of saying that he often talks about all this with Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and claimed that he and Rubin "are on the same page" about U.S. economic and trade policy, at least in terms of "how to get there."

-- our friend, an experienced financial and political observer, came away "frankly impressed" that Dean "can position himself well to take advantage of Bush on the 201's, and to address the job loss issue."

16. Stylistically, our friend said, "Dean is very, very intense", which sometimes is risky for TV, but that if Dean can keep his temper under control, "he seems likely to be able to reach out to 'emotional moderates' who are dissatisfied with Bush and worried about the future".

-- as to worries that Dean is "another McGovern", our friend noted recent polls showing that whereas McGovern was very unpopular with lots of Democrats, Bush is just as unpopular, now, with many Democrats. The point…cross-over voting by Democrats in 2004 is not likely to hurt Dean, as it killed McGovern in 1972….and current polls show that Bush is close to even with leading Dems.

No comment from me. Just passing it along ...

Department of intra-administration coordination, subdivision of one hand knowing what the other's doing ...

As we noted yesterday, Bush family fixer James A. Baker has been given the task of cajoling states that are owed money by Iraq into either forgiving or generously restructuring Iraq's debts.

Near the top of that list of state creditors are France, Germany and Russia.

Now we hear that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has just signed a directive barring French, German and Russian companies from competing for the $18.6 billion of Iraqi reconstruction contracts for "the protection of the essential security interests of the United States."


Luckily, Baker and Wolfowitz are such close pals and ideological soul-mates. So I'm sure they'll be able to work it out.

Last night I quoted the famed historian Edmund Morgan as writing (in rough paraphrase): History never repeats itself. It only seems like it does to those who don't know the details.

Today a number of readers have written in asking me for the citation for the quote since they seem to like it so much.

Unfortunately, I don't know the precise citation.

When I was getting my doctorate I read literally hundreds of books and articles about early American history. So there's a chance I've misremembered the author. But I'm fairly certain it's Morgan and I'm pretty sure that the quote comes from a published collection of essays entitled The Challenge of the American Revolution.

For those who aren't familiar with his work, Morgan is one of the most esteemed and influential early American historians of the second half of the 20th century, both for his own work (which continues) and for that of his legion of students.

For my money, though he made his name with pathbreaking work on Puritanism, his masterpiece remains American Slavery,American Freedom, a history of the first decades of settlement of Virginia, which I heartily recommend to every TPM reader.

Now, apparently I'm a <$NoAd$>Lieberman supporter. Below a letter from a reader with an active imagination ...

Dr. Marshall,

You’d better serve your candidate if you simply openly endorsed him. You write extensively of the offensive dishonesty of shills of special interests posing as journalists ( Washington Monthly ).

How much of your own pain do we find in the interview with Senator Lieberman? I’m not sure how many folks you’re trying to make look bad.

Al Gore is free, we would assume, to support the person he believes best suited to lead the Democratic party and the nation. There will be a lot of good reasons why Al chose Howard over the others.

But we won’t learn about them from you.

Maybe these reasons don’t mean much to a principled journalist or a partisan political operative.

Andrew Sullivan devotes more space to the question.

Think about that.

Paul H.

Rabid and foolish. A rough combination.