Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I'm reviewing a book on the president's foreign policy. And there's a reference late in the book to a May 3rd article in the New York Times. If you want to get a sense of just how unprepared this administration was for what they were getting themselves into, you can't do much better than rereading this piece.

(Unfortunately, the Times no longer posts their archives.)

The plan at that time was to quickly draw down the American troop presence in Iraq until they numbered about 30,000 by the fall of 2003. Needless to say, the fall of 2003 is pretty much now.

Just think how wide of the mark these guys were.

Not that any of this was a surprise, of course. Just before the outbreak of war, then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki told a Senate committee that he thought "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would be necessary to pacify and stabilize post-war Iraq.

He had some experience. He'd led the peace-keeping operation in Bosnia. And he'd dedicated much of his tenure as Chief of Staff to preparing the Army for peace-keeping and other non-traditional and low-intensity combat deployments.

A few days later Paul Wolfowitz went up to the Hill and said Shinseki had no idea what he was talking about. His estimate was "wildly off the mark," Wolfowitz said.

Obviously it was Wolfowitz who had no clue what he was talking about.

And now we have this: according to a new Congressional Budget Office study, the US will only be capable of maintaining our current troop strength in Iraq till next March. By this time next year, says an AP story about the study, "the 180,000 American troops now in and around Iraq would have to be drawn down to [between] 38,000 to 64,000."

Let's walk through what this means.

Virtually every independent observer believes our forces in Iraq are stretched too thin. The issue isn't only numbers. But it's a key, probably the key part of the puzzle. People who work at the pleasure of Don Rumsfeld say differently. And so do a few mumbo-jumbocrats on the right. But no one else.

Large areas of Iraq remain quiet and peaceable. But key sections of the country appear to be teetering either on the edge of chaos or a sort of endemic violence that will be hard to pacify. And those sections are arguably some of the more pivotal in the country -- Baghdad, Najaf, etc.

We may be moving toward a situation in which intra-ethnic and intra-religious rivalries break out into open, if low-level, violence -- a sort of slow-motion civil war.

I doubt we're close to that yet. But even seeing it on the horizon is ominous. Because were that to happen our difficulties would grow almost immeasurably.

Absent a substantial increase in the size of the Army, or lengthy deployments and reserve call-ups which most experts consider unsustainable, we clearly need others to come in and lend a hand. Now we find out that we can only sustain current levels for roughly six months. How much leverage do you figure that gives us with the countries we'd like to have send in their own troops? How much leverage does that give us with France, Russia and China?

Right. Not much.

News tonight says that we're about to make a big push for greater UN involvement -- perhaps circulating a new resolution as early as tomorrow. Unfortunately, this request comes not at a moment of strength for us but in the face of four car-bombings in a month and a palpable sense that we are not in control of the country we are nominally occupying. Add that to the fact that we're already stretched thin and, according to our own government study, can't maintain the current force for much more than six months. Again, put that all together and then ask, how much leverage do we have?

In real life we have a word for this sort of situation: a jam. We've managed to leverage our mammoth strength into an improbable weakness. And so much of it was not only predictable, but predicted.

Consider an analogy. When a heart surgeon loses an occasional patient, that's simply the price of inherently dangerous work. When a heart surgeon tries a risky procedure for a patient who will die without it, and the patient dies, that's just a tragic end to an unavoidable risk. When a dermatologist cracks open a patient's ribs to try out a new approach to open heart surgery which most cardiac surgeons say will never work, and the patient dies, that guy probably gets sued or kicked out of the profession or maybe thrown in jail. Maybe all three.

True enough, the patient hasn't died. As Fareed Zakaria says in this superb piece in Newsweek, "It might already be too late to achieve a great success in Iraq. But it is not too late to avoid a humiliating failure."

All true enough. But the real question is, who gets fired over this mess? And when?

A couple days ago I mentioned my new article in the Washington Monthly, an effort to put together a general theory of the administration's pervasive mendacity or what Barron's columnist Alan Abelson recently called their "regrettable aversion to the truth and reality when the truth and reality aren't lovely or convenient."

The heart of the matter, I think, is the administration's revisionism.

Revisionists are by their nature always at war with established expertise, whether it's orthodox Marxists picking apart mainstream economics and anthropology as the creations of 'bourgeois ideology' or Frenchified academic post-modernists who 'deconstruct' knowledge in a similar fashion, revisionist ideologues always seek to expose 'the facts' as nothing more than the spin of experts blinded by their own unacknowledged biases.

Across the board, the history of the last thirty months has been one of often open warfare between ideology and expertise in the executive branch. Of course, the history of early 20th century Progressivism shows that the cult of expertise is itself capable of excesses. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's the article.

TPM man of principle pop quiz. Who said this?

One way to make sure that the manufacturing sector does well is to send a message overseas, (to) say, look, we expect there to be a fair playing field when it comes to trade ... See, we in America believe we can compete with anybody, just so long as the rules are fair, and we intend to keep the rules fair.

Dick Gephardt? Dennis Kucinich? How about George W. Bush?

Where we are.

From Robert Kagan's piece in today's Post ...

There are good reasons why the administration is not sending more troops to Iraq, of course. But they are not the reasons outlined by U.S. commanders. Those generals are saying we have enough troops in Iraq chiefly because they know full well they dare not ask for more. The price of putting another division or more of American troops into Iraq will be high. It means mobilizing more reserves and using more National Guard forces. It either means pushing the Army to the breaking point or making the very expensive but necessary decision to increase the overall size of the American military, and fast. Right now administration officials don't want to think the unthinkable. Unfortunately, they may be forced to in a month or two. And, unfortunately, by then it may be too late.

I don't think I share Kagan's full pessimism about the assistance to be gained from an effective internationalization (see column). But the picture he paints of the state of US forces and our ability to handle expanded deployments sounds disturbingly accurate.

I watched John Kerry on Meet the Press this morning. I didn't catch all of it. But I think I saw the most important parts.

Russert had his standard line of baiting, gotcha questions. But what struck me was how well Kerry held up under the questioning. He struck the right notes about the administration's ideological rigidity, lack of preparation, and constant state of being at war with itself. And he was cool enough and quick enough on his feet to show how many of Russert's gotcha questions -- meant to show contradictions or flip-flops -- really showed no such thing.

One dig against Kerry is that he's waffled on Iraq. In an article tomorrow, the Washington Post says that "he has come under fire for sounding ambivalent on the Iraq war and for failing to connect with the antiwar, anti-Bush voters dominating the nominating process."

But I thought his explanations of his stance rang true. An evolving position isn't the same as a waffling or indecisive one. After all, we already have a president who is dogmatic and inflexible and confuses those qualities for leadership. And look where that's gotten us ...

I am more and more often visiting this website, a blog run by University of Michigan Islam and Middle East scholar Juan Cole. The presentation is a bit more jumbled than I'd like. But the quality of the content more than makes up for that minor shortcoming. This evening Cole has a long post discussing the Imam Ali Shrine bombing. He makes a seemingly persuasive conjectural argument that the perpetrators were Saddam loyalists.

Lies and fun. What a combination. And the Washington Monthly's got it.

The up-coming issue of The Washington Monthly includes 'The Mendacity Index,' a compilation of expert opinion on the comparative rates of dishonesty for the last four presidents -- Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush. In the words of the Monthly's editors ...

We asked a nominating committee* of noted journalists and pundits to pick the most serious fibs, deceptions, and untruths spoken by each of the four most recent presidents. We selected the top six for each commander-in-chief, then presented the list to a panel of judges** with longtime experience in Washington. Panel members were instructed to rate each deception on a scale of 1 (least serious) to 5 (most serious). Then we averaged the scores for each deception and for each president. We believe their validity rests somewhere between the Periodic Table and the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.

Take a look at how each of the four made out. And then head over to BeliefNet (which is partnering with the Monthly on this project) to rate each president's top six deceptions.

Paired with the Monthly's Mendacity Index is my next article in the Monthly, 'The Post-Modern President: Deception, Denial, and Relativism: What the Bush administration learned from the French,' my attempt to put together a grand unified theory of the Bush's White House difficulties with the truth.

The article is out in the soon-to-be-released September issue. And we'll be posting a pre-release link in the next day or so.

When she's right, she's right.

Maureen Dowd from the Sunday Times ...

It has also now become radiantly clear that we have to drag Dick Cheney out of the dark and smog. Less Hobbes, more Locke.

So far, American foreign policy has been guided by the vice president's gloomy theories that fear and force are the best motivators in the world, that war is man's natural state and that the last great superpower has sovereign authority to do as it pleases without much consultation with subjects or other nations.

We can now see the disturbing results of all the decisions Mr. Cheney made in secret meetings.

For more on this Cheney meme, see this article from a few months back.

Bob Drogin article in Thursday's Los Angeles Times put me in the mind of something I came across a year and a half ago when I was researching my first long article on Iraq -- a murky moment from Ahmed Chalabi's past, which played a key role in making him an object of deep distrust and animosity for many at the CIA.

In case you haven't read the earlier posts, Drogin's article says that US intelligence has concluded that a number of defectors with stories about Saddam's WMD programs were probably either double-agents or dupes who unwittingly passed on disinformation from Saddam. (One might also suppose they simply saw the rewards in store for any Iraqi defector who told the Americans what they wanted to hear ...) The piece went on to say that the Agency was applying renewed scrutiny to many of those defectors and implied that that scrutiny would also be applied to the man who was the conduit and handler of many of those defectors: Ahmed Chalabi.

Here's the incident I'm talking about ...

In the Iraq hawks' version of the events of the last dozen years, a key turning point was the failed CIA-backed coup attempt against Saddam in 1996. The coup was run out of Amman, Jordan; it centered on a group of Iraqi army defectors. And it came apart in a particularly humiliating manner: Saddam's agents used the radios the Agency operatives had given the plotters to radio them back and tell them they'd foiled the coup and that the plotters would be executed.

From any perspective it was a pretty low moment.

But, again, back to the Iraq hawks' version of events.

In early 1996 - a few months before the plot unraveled - Chalabi came to Washington to warn the US that the CIA's coup plot had been compromised and should be called off. Chalabi went to Richard Perle - already the eminence grise behind the INC's shadow war in Washington - who arranged a meeting with then-CIA Director John Deutch, his then-deputy George Tenet, and the CIA's Director of Operations for the Near East, Steve Richter.

According to the INC, Chalabi warned the three of what he had discovered --- that the plot had been compromised. But his warnings went unheeded. That meant the CIA brass was doubly responsible for the plot's eventual failure: Not only was the operation poorly run, but they refused to call it off even when they'd been warned that the plot had been compromised.

In September, a couple months after the coup attempt went bust, Deutch was called to testify on Capitol Hill about whether Saddam had bested the United States with the thrust into northern Iraq he had just made. (This move back into northern Iraq came after a series of US setback earlier in the year and came after Saddam was able to sow division between the two main Kurdish factions.) Before Deutch went to testify, Perle went to him and put that earlier meeting to good use, bullying Deutch into, in essence, breaking with the administration on Iraq. "Richard Perle got a hold of him and really busted him up," one source familiar with both meetings told me. With the knowledge of the earlier tip-off meeting, this source told me, "Richard had even more ammunition come September."

When Deutch appeared before the Senate he broke with the administration's position and agreed that Saddam was, in fact stronger, than he had been before the thrust North.

INC sources tell this story as an example of how they used the CIA's incompetence as a tool to advance their own agenda in Washington.

In any case, that's their version of events.

The CIA had a very different take on what had happened with the 1996 coup debacle. Many at the Agency thought that Chalabi, rather than warning that the plot had been compromised, had in fact been the source of the compromise.

The key thing about the 1996 coup attempt, after all, was that it didn't include Chalabi --- but rather the rival umbrella group, the Iraqi National Accord, an assortment of Sunni military defectors. And Chalabi had a history of scuttling anti-Saddam plans that didn't involve him.

Most believed that Chalabi had intentionally compromised the plan, though some thought he might have unwittingly done so or that his group had been infiltrated by Iraqi agents. (These suspicions at the Agency were noted obliquely in this May 16th column by David Ignatius.)

Let's make clear that the CIA also wasn't an unbiased observer to all this. The plot had gone south. It was their operation. And they weren't crazy about Chalabi to begin with. It's not unreasonable to question whether these operatives were just looking for a convenient person to blame the whole mess on. Without all sorts of security clearances, it's almost impossible to judge the basis of their suspicions, though senior people at the Agency implied that their evidence was more than circumstantial.

However that may be, the fact that many folks at the Agency believed Chalabi had leaked word of their plot and gotten a number of US assets executed helps explain why their distrust and animosity toward him runs so deep.

If the CIA is now taking another look at Chalabi's organization, suspecting it may have been infiltrated by or used by Iraqi double-agents, will this earlier incident come in for more attention?

It certainly should be. And given the hostility between the CIA and Chalabi, you'd expect they would if for no other reason than bureaucratic payback.

But according to one former Agency employee, quite the opposite might happen. The CIA, this source told me recently, is in full circle-the-wagons mode. They've got their hands full a) trying to find some WMD and b) investigating why so many points in their pre-war intelligence analysis seemed to be wrong. Looking back to the mid-1990s might dredge up some facts that would sully Chalabi's reputation. But it would probably bring up many of the Agency's errors too. At the moment, they're trying to keep the self-examination and investigation limited to only the most recent events. They've already got more problems than they can deal with.

A real investigation into this long sordid history is what we need. Not just one into the White House's handling of the lead-up to war, but everything. The CIA, the INC, the Clinton administration, the defectors, the WMD evidence or lack thereof. Everything. We've got many of the big players in custody now and lots of the former regime's archives. They may not be telling us what we want to hear about weapons of mass destruction. But there are any number of other questions and mysteries they should be able to clear up. The point wouldn't be to find bad-acting, mistakes or incompetence (though I'm sure we'll find plenty of each), but to get as close as we can get to a reliable understanding of our Iraq policy since the close of the Gulf War. No agency involved in this history is going to be capable of the objectivity and distance required to do the job right.

There's a lot of buck-passing mumbo-jumbo afoot right now coming from the chief war-hawks. But I think we can already see the makings of what we might call the big buck-pass --- a 21st century version of the 'stab-in-the-back' charge German militarists used against the fledgling republic which replaced Kaiserdom in the aftermath of World War I.

It would go something like this: To the extent that we're facing reverses in Iraq, we're not facing them because the plan was flawed or incompetently executed. We're facing them because the plan was sabotaged - by its enemies at home.

The saboteurs were the folks at the State Department and the CIA who stymied effective collaboration with the pre-war Iraqi opposition and members of the defeatist press who have a) demoralized Americans by exaggerating the problems with the occupation of Iraq and b)encouraged the mix of jihadists and Baathists, by creating that demoralization, to keep up their resistance and bombing by giving them the hope that America can be run out of the country.

For my part, I doubt it'll work. But I think that's where we're going.

One other point: if you have any doubt that the new neocon line that we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis really means turn it over to Ahmed Chalabi and the INC, read this column today by Bernard Lewis in the Wall Street Journal.

Thus reads the key graf ...

Fortunately, the nucleus of such a government is already available, in the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmad Chalabi. In the northern free zone during the '90s they played a constructive role, and might at that time even have achieved the liberation of Iraq had we not failed at crucial moments to support them. Despite a continuing lack of support amounting at times to sabotage, they continue to acquit themselves well in Iraq, and there can be no reasonable doubt that of all the possible Iraqi candidates they are the best in terms alike of experience, reliability, and good will. It took years, not months, to create democracies in the former Axis countries, and this was achieved in the final analysis not by Americans but by people in those countries, with American encouragement, help and support. Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress deserve no less.

Chalabi, Chalabi, Chalabi ...