Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

When I was sitting up at the front table at the neocons' panel on Monday, I noticed there was one young woman in the front row whose downtown haircut and style of dress seemed to set her apart from the rest of the more prim, conservatively attired folks in the room -- almost all of whom seemed to be gritting their teeth at me in a vaguely menacing sort of way whenever I spoke.

It turned out to be Michelle Goldberg from Salon, whose byline I've long been familiar with, but had never met in person.

Here's her piece on the neocons' panel from today's Salon. Some fun stuff -- check it out.

For all the back and forth, up <$NoAd$>and down news we're hearing about the 2004 presidential election, this is the most salient piece of information I've seen in some time.

From this week's Cook Report, following up on numbers crumched by the ISI Group ...

The broader dynamics of the current situation strongly suggest this will be a close race. Witness a recent analysis by the Washington office of the investment research firm the ISI Group, pointing out that in Gallup polling one year before the general election, Bush enjoyed the third-highest job approval rating of any modern president among his own party members, trailing only former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. However, Bush had the lowest approval rating among members of the opposition party, even lower than former President Bill Clinton's year-out approval numbers among Republicans. The unusually strong approval numbers among his fellow Republicans builds Bush a very high floor, but the equally strong degree of opposition among Democrats constructs an unusually low ceiling. As a result, if Bush were a stock, he would have an extraordinarily narrow trading range. This, along with the equally divided nation, pushes the race toward a very competitive situation.

That's the fundamental reality of the election.

I think Dan Drezner is on to something at the end of this post when he points to the recent appointments of Bob Blackwill and Jim Baker to different parts of the Iraq portfolio.

Let's call it 'creeping 41ism' -- the slow, but unmistakable trend for the new Iraq appointments to go to old-line Republican foreign policy types from dad's administration.

I made this point with respect to Baker at the neocon panel at Hudson on Monday. And Gary Schmitt responded, rather less than credibly, that Baker has, in fact, now become a neocon. (Who knew?) His evidence was Baker's recent trip to Georgia to warn Eduard Shevardnadze against rigging the Georgian election.

(This follows the new logic that holds that anyone who takes any action in support of non-rigged elections is by definition a neocon.)

In any case, no one believes that James Baker has become a neocon. I have good enough sources to know that that's not what the neocons are saying amongst themselves. And I very much doubt Schmitt himself thinks it's true.

I've had the pleasure and honor of attending a number of dinners and panels and conferences with Schmitt. And he's always struck me as someone willing to discuss the issues of the day candidly and on the merits. I think this was a case of the excitement of the moment perhaps getting the better of him -- sort of like the frenzy you see when a pack of wolves attacks a chicken coop. With, in this case, yours truly as the feathered one.

No complaints. I thought I held my own.

One other point.

In another post commenting on my tete-a-tete with Perle, Drezner writes "I'm not sure how much neoconservatives think or want Perle to be their exemplar. I've expressed my reservations about Perle in the past, so I might be biased here."

I think Drezner's got this right -- and this for another reason which may not be readily apparent. One sometimes sees Perle referred to in the media as the idea-man or the ideologist of contemporary neoconservatism. But that's not really his role, nor is it even how he's seen within that community.

Perle's sway in that community is vast. But he's not the thinker, the shaper of their ideas -- that's Wolfowitz, and a number of others, whose names are less well-known. His role is more analogous to that of a ward-boss, an organizer, a bureaucratic operator and rainmaker, the guy who lines people up with jobs and appointments -- and, of course, working the airwaves.

In Newsweek today there's another nice piece of debunkery by Hosenball and Isikoff. Today, the latest phony 'finding' about Mohamed Atta's ties to Saddam, first published by Con Coughlin in The Telegraph and then picked, with willful credulity, by a host of conservative columnists, including Bill Safire.

As Coughlin, providing no clear word on the provenance of the document, reported on Sunday ...

The first paragraph states that "Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian national, came with Abu Ammer (an Arabic nom de guerre - his real identity is unknown) and we hosted him in Abu Nidal's house at al-Dora under our direct supervision.

"We arranged a work program for him for three days with a team dedicated to working with him... .He displayed extraordinary effort and showed a firm commitment to lead the team which will be responsible for attacking the targets that we have agreed to destroy."

The next day Safire picked up the story in his column thusly ...

Example: Dr. Ayad Allawi, an Iraqi leader long considered reliable by intelligence agencies, told Britain's Daily Telegraph last week that a memo has been found from Saddam's secret police chief to the dictator dated July 1, 2001, reporting that the veteran terrorist Abu Nidal had been training one Mohamed Atta in Baghdad. Nobody disputes that a few months after Atta's 9/11 suicide mission, Nidal was permanently silenced by Saddam's police, the only "suicide" to be found with four bullets in his head.

(We will, hopefully, at a later point get to the small <$Ad$>kernel of dishonesty with his readers that Safire perpetrates in his description of Alawi. But that's for another day.)

Now, Hosenball and Isikoff, run down a series of pretty solid reasons why this 'document' is almost certainly bogus.

First, are intrinsic problems with the make-up of the document itself and the lack of any clear explanation of where it came from. Then there's the always handy detail that it's pretty clear Atta was in the US at the time, not Baghdad.

(In fairness, you probably have to cut the forger some slack since electricity is still spotty in Baghdad. And he probably couldn't get online to check his work with the Atta timeline.)

And then there's the real kicker, the one that should have tipped any sentient mammal to the fraudulent nature of the document, and the detail I think Safire intentionally left out because it would have made clear that he was peddling phony information.

Let's go back to Coughlin to hear the other scoop in this handwritten note written by the former head of Iraqi intelligence...

The second item contains a report of how Iraqi intelligence, helped by "a small team from the Al Qaeda organization," arranged for an unspecified shipment from Niger to reach Baghdad by way of Libya and Syria.

Iraqi officials believe this is a reference to the controversial shipments of uranium ore Iraq acquired from Niger to aid Saddam in his efforts to develop an atom bomb, although there is no explicit reference in the document to this.

Wow, that's really quite a find, isn't it? And all in one document.

So let me see if I can summarize how this document read ...

Atta showed up for his terrorist training here in Baghdad last week. I think he'll help with the catastrophic attack we're planning. Also, the al Qaida dudes came through with the shipment from Niger we were waiting for. And, by the way, remember that Joe Wilson guy? What a moron!

That about covers it, doesn't it?

Take a few moments this morning and consider for yourself whether there's any way Safire really could have been taken in by this new report about Atta, or whether he just used it for the sake of its convenience ...

"The line ... in the speech that draws the most flak afterward is, "The capture of Saddam has not made America safer." But analytically, Dean is right. The people who are safer with Saddam in prison are in Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait. We weren't on the list. I supported the war to punish a scofflaw and put teeth in U.N. resolutions. Bush now defends the war as a rescue mission for oppressed Iraqis. Neither reason has to do with U.S. security." -- Will Saletan, Slate

Daniel Drezner has a piece in Slate in which he says that there are essentially three critiques of Bush administration foreign policy.

They are ...

First, Bush is a crazy fascist madman who will destroy the world but not before making sure Halliburton makes some money off it.

Second, Bush administration unilateralism endangers the medium-term to long-term security of the United States.

Third, the Bush administration is hopelessly incompetent at executing its desired policies.

(Those are my paraphrases, yes. But I think these capture his meaning.)

Then Drezner writes "Process criticisms have begun to appear more frequently in the mainstream media. What's interesting about these critiques is that they come primarily from Bush sympathizers."

Now, before unsheathing the shiv, let me say that I'm a big fan of Drezner and his site (it's one of six blogs that I have on my own personal links page).

But that last line is certainly false. If I wanted to push pride of authorship I could point to this article from over a year ago. But the truth is that the president's center-left critics have been all over the competence issue, like flies on you know what -- which actually isn't such a bad analogy.

And not just in Iraq, but in East Asia and Latin America too. And did I mention Turkey?

So yes, the conservatives that Drezner mentions have gotten on the incompetence bandwagon. (Welcome aboard) But they didn't discover this line of critique. It's just become so glaringly obvious that it's now impossible for even them to ignore.

Later, we'll get to why critiques two and three are intrinsically connected.

LATE UPDATE: My reading was rather limited while I was sick so I had not noticed that on his blog Drezner mentions my hammering of this competence issue. So let me correct that point, though I still think he gives shortshrift to a lot of other center-left commentators who have done the same.

Here's some interesting follow-up on the bombings in Turkey from the Associated Press. According to suspect interrogations, al Qaida operatives initially tried to target US military installations but found them too hardened and heavily guarded.

Instead they turned to civilian targets.

Reports such as these stream through two inherently questionable sources: First, a suspect under questioning who may have any number of reasons for deceit. Second, a foreign intelligence service -- in this case the Turks -- which may have their own reasons for massaging the story.

However that may be, the suspect allegedly told interrogators that the attacks were approved by bin Laden on the condition that they not target Muslim Turks. And the attacks were apparently deemed a failure by high-level al Qaida leaders because it was mainly Muslim Turks who died.

That scruple about killing Muslims seems hard to reconcile with other al Qaida attacks in places like Saudi Arabia. So the report makes me wonder.

One thing I was struck by in my exchanges with Richard Perle at the Hudson Institute panel discussion on Monday was that this didn't seem like someone who had the confidence to discuss the issues at hand without resorting to risible caricatures of the opposing arguments. Having watched Perle's discussions of these issues over the last two years I have the sense that the intensity of the arguments has rather increased as their factual support has, shall we say, frayed.

In any case, to the business at hand.

In his opening remarks Perle noted that he had recently been on a radio program with Independent columnist Robert Fisk (he then made a throwaway line suggesting that Fisk and I were 'pals'). Fisk had said that he thought the capture of Saddam Hussein would strengthen the resistance movement by removing the taint of Saddam and thus allowing it to become a more broadly national or at least pan-Sunni enterprise.

Perle mocked what he took to be Fisk's desperate spin and said it was an example of trying to make the facts fit your ideology, rather than vice versa.

At this point I was sitting in my chair thinking, man, this guy's really the pot calling the kettle black, isn't he?

However that may be, today comes word that another whacked-out left-wing organization had come to a similar conclusion. Who? The US Army.

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer reports that an intelligence report prepared for the US military in Iraq argued that "seizing Hussein could provoke more attacks by making the insurgency more acceptable to Sunni Muslims who were not members of Hussein's Baath Party elite."

Now, another thing occurs to me, which is that at least when he was Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, Perle had access to a pretty wide range of highly classified reports and information at the Pentagon. I assume that that privilege continues even as a mere member of the board.

Certainly, having theoretical access to various reports doesn't mean Perle has read them all. Perhaps the report is only circulating at the CPA in Baghdad, though the Inquirer story did quote two "senior administration officials" who had read it.

Hard to say. But it did make me wonder.

Now, I don't know if that Army report is on the mark or not. Juan Cole advances the theory that taking Saddam out of the picture may embolden the Shi'a. Both reasonings seems plausible enough. But plausibility and logic are poor guides when so many of the underlying facts remain obscure.

Friends, first, thank you very much for all the 'get well' emails. I am hoping to be able to do some posting tomorrow. But for the moment it's all water and chicken soup and sleep. So probably none today, save this one.

A couple weeks ago I agreed to sit on a panel about the future of neoconservatism. The date ended up being yesterday. And under normal circumstances I probably would have cancelled. But I figured it was important to go and have someone there representing the Roosevelt/Truman legacy in foreign policy. So I went.

My main antagonist on the panel was none other than Richard Perle, who ended up in person being about as gentlemanly and fair-minded as his view of foreign affairs and America's posture on the world stage would lead you to expect.

In any case, you can view the panel here on the CSPAN website.

This will be a shorter post than might be expected under the circumstances because I am, shall we say, reporting directly from the official TPM sickbed. Some sort of cold or flu, not sure which, but plenty nasty.

In any case, the big news of the day: the capture of Saddam.

Clearly, this is very big news and very good news on all sorts of levels. In the United States we've long become accustomed to treating Saddam as a symbol, a shorthand involved in all sorts of political arguments in our country.

But on a day like this it's worth stepping back and remembering that this was a man who took what is probably the most educated, cultured, and close to the most wealthy country in the Arab middle east and ground it down almost into dust over more than thirty years of rule (Saddam was the de facto ruler of the country prior to becoming the official head of state.) He tortured and killed untold numbers of his own people and launched two unnecessary and, for his own country, disastrous wars.

(Here's some interesting and surreal material from Saddam's initial interrogation.)

Yet, looking forward from today, there is one fundamental question: was Saddam Hussein central to the guerilla war or resistance fighting in Iraq? Either operationally or as a symbol (the person they were trying to put back in power)?

I've never thought either was true. And if it's not, then his capture should not fundamentally change the situation on the ground in the country.

From the beginning, I think, we've explained to ourselves that the reason the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq hasn't gone according to plan is that the resistance is being run by Saddam or his people or that the Iraqis won't get down to work on rebuilding their country until they're sure Saddam isn't coming back, until the veil of fear is lifted, etc.

In other words, they're not acting like they're liberated because, in a sense, their liberation is not complete.

This after all was the reason for making such a show of the deaths of Saddam's sons -- as a symbol that any sort of dynastic hand-off would be impossible.

That, again, was the idea. But I don't think we've seen any real evidence that it's true.

There's no question most Iraqis hate Saddam. But since the invasion I think Saddam has been mainly a thing of the past. The problems we face on the ground in Iraq are ones of the present.

Along those lines, in this article out this afternoon, Fareed Zakaria argues that Saddam's capture may be part of a more widespread cooperation on the part of Iraqis with US troops, which is garnering more and better intelligence for US forces. That seems plausible. And if better intelligence can be matched up with -- and this remains the heart of the matter -- a better political strategy on the ground in Iraq and internationally, then there may be hope of a good outcome.