Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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What happens when mockery can't catch up with reality?

I know we're all waiting for the big debate tonight. But somehow I missed this article in today's Post by Dana Milbank and Mike Allen. And it can't go unremarked upon.

You'll remember that a few days ago I joked about whether Iyad Allawi was actually part of the Bush campaign or registered as a 527.

When John Kerry took Allawi's speech to task for presenting an unrealistic view of the situation in Iraq Dick Cheney and the later the president railed against him for disrespecting a prized American ally.

But, like I said, what happens when mockery just can't keep pace with reality?

It seems they decided not to register him as a 527. According to today's Post, "the U.S. government and a representative of President Bush's reelection campaign had been heavily involved in drafting the speech given to Congress last week by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi."

That's extraordinary. It almost takes your breath away. This whole operation has been saturated in politics from the word go. And the Post piece gives more of the nitty-gritty about Allawi's speech.

But that's really all you need to know. It would be pretty dubious to have the White House writing Allawi's speech. But the Bush campaign itself ...

What more can you say about that?

That puts team Kerry in something of a bind (doesn't it?) if the Bush campaign can send our appointed leader of Iraq up to the Hill to deliver a speech from the Bush campaign and Kerry can't criticize it? Did the Kerry campaign get to have input on the speech too?

The whole Allawi speech was exactly what the most cynical observer would have figured, a cheap Bush-Cheney '04 campaign stunt.

I mean, they won't even go through the motions of avoiding the level of 'coordination' that would make this illegal if Allawi were an independent expenditure group in the United States as opposed to a foreign leader.

Our appointed leader of Iraq is working on behalf of the Bush reelection campaign -- not figuratively, but literally -- which is another reason why, as I've stated before, it's so important for us to democratize Iraq, and quickly. Because once we do, some of them can come back here and re-democratize us.

"The hawks' whole plan rests on the assumption that we can turn [Iraq] into a self-governing democracy--that the very presence of that example will transform politics in the Middle East. But what if we can't really create a democratic, self-governing Iraq, at least not very quickly? What if the experience we had after World War II in Germany and Japan, two ethnically homogeneous nations, doesn't quite work in an ethnically divided Iraq where one group, the Sunni Arabs, has spent decades repressing and slaughtering the others? As one former Army officer with long experience with the Iraq file explains it, the "physical analogy to Saddam Hussein's regime is a steel beam in compression." Give it one good hit, and you'll get a violent explosion. One hundred thousand U.S. troops may be able to keep a lid on all the pent-up hatred. But we may soon find that it's unwise to hand off power to the fractious Iraqis. To invoke the ugly but apt metaphor which Jefferson used to describe the American dilemma of slavery, we will have the wolf by the ears. You want to let go. But you dare not."

"Practice to Deceive"
The Washington Monthly
April 2003

Juan Cole picks up on a key development reported in today's LA Times. Andrew Sullivan does too, if on a more thematic level.

As the Times reports, the US has launched a series of airstrikes targeting rebels in Baghdad's Shi'a Sadr City district. A strike Monday killed four insurgents, according to the US military. But hospital officials said ten people were killed and that the number included civilians. Another attack came Tuesday but the exact number of casualties or fatalities in those raids remains unclear.

Reacting to this the President of Iraq Ghazi Ajil Yawer called the attacks "collective punishment" and compared them explicitly to Israeli raids in the West Bank and Gaza.

There are numerous layers to what is happening here. One is that the US military is trying to reduce the number of casualities its own troops are sustaining, especially during the run-up to the elections -- thus the heavy reliance on airpower. That's understandable; but there are consequences. Even the 'smartest' munitions kill a lot of innocent people if you're operating in heavily populated slums.

Yawer's comparison of these attacks to the IDF's operations in the occupied territories speaks for itself. Perhaps even more important, though, is what remains implicit in Yawer's remarks -- that the 'sovereign' government of Iraq has no control over these operations. Or, to put it another way, that Iraq remains under military occupation. That seems certain to make the interim government into an object of contempt among the country's population -- something Yawer was clearly trying to head off with his comments.

I haven't written as much lately as I usually do about Iraq because it is, quite simply, hard to know quite what else to say.

Anyone who can't now see the Lebanonization of Iraq for what it is will never see it, is incapable of seeing it.

The issue isn't the number of US military deaths or even the number of Iraqi civilians getting killed -- at least not in and of themselves. It is the evident reality -- observable by every measure available -- that we are on the downward side of a slippery slope, that the insurgency is spreading rapidly both in its geographical scope and and its diffusion into the population, horizontally and vertically, you might say. That spread is a sign that if the majority of the population does not quite support the insurgents specifically, they also do not support the occupation, or, in other words, us. And without the support of the population, the cause is more or less lost.

Many have drawn attention to this private letter by Wall Street Journal reporter, Farnaz Fassihi, which has been making the rounds. Let's look at one passage from the letter ...

It's hard to pinpoint when the 'turning point' exactly began. Was it April when the Fallujah fell out of the grasp of the Americans? Was it when Moqtada and Jish Mahdi declared war on the U.S. military? Was it when Sadr City, home to ten percent of Iraq's population, became a nightly battlefield for the Americans? Or was it when the insurgency began spreading from isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most of Iraq? Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.

What strikes me about the stir this letter has caused is not so much what's contained, as its backstory. What's in the letter is not what we're reading in the daily reportage. And why the cleavage? It almost as if a mighty membrane has been built up -- largely because of the election calendar -- to keep out the full force of the reality of what's happening in Iraq. But here in this letter you can see the membrane springing leaks -- and some of the reality bursting through.

And speaking of that membrane, the Post today has another example of the Orwellian moment we're passing through. On Monday the Post ran a story about the sheer scope and spread of the insurgency in Iraq based on data from USAID compiled by the security contractor Kroll Security International.

The response, according to today's Post, is that USAID will stop making the data public.

That's their solution. Just think about for a second. That's their response.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is sponsoring a PR campaign by hand-picked Iraqi-Americans and former CPA officials who will be speaking at US military bases around the country. The memo sent out to base commanders says the presentations will be "designed to be uplifting accounts with good news messages" and that commanders should try to get local news coverage for the speeches since "these events and presentations are positive public relations opportunities."

That's their policy: denial.

I was reading an article a day or so ago (perhaps someone will recognize the anecdote and email it to me) in which a US military officer told the reporter in question that despite all the turmoil the occupation forces had still not suffered one tactical defeat.

The insugents had killed many Americans; but they'd been defeated in every actual engagement. I'm not sure even that is really true because I think the withdrawal from Fallujah has to be seen as a defeat, by that measure. But that aside, the (unnamed) officer went on to say that the only way the insurgents could ever win would be for the US population to decide to give up the fight.

The historical resonances of those comments, I guess, need no elaboration.

But the key is that this argument is both narrowly true and completely irrelevant. One could have said the same thing -- and it certainly was said -- before the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British de facto withdrawal from Iraq in the 1920s, the French from Algeria, and so forth.

Insurgencies can seldom beat big conventional armies on their own terms -- certainly not when the asymmetry is as great as it is here. They are battling to make the cost of occupation intolerably high and secure the support or at least acquiescence of the civilian population. If they can achieve the latter goal, our strategic goal becomes impossible.

The fact that we could probably stay in Iraq just like this for twenty years as long as we don't mind burning through our military (which might come in handy if we ever faced a security threat outside Mesopotamia) and our sons and daughters isn't really the point.

Unfortunately, I don't think we're in a position to just pull up stakes and leave the place. We're in a position something like that a surgeon might face if he started an operation only to realize once he'd cut the patient open that the operation should never have been attempted. But now the patient's gone critical and he's got to stabilize him and close him up without having him die on the operating table.

In that situation, why the operation started in the first place or whether it should have been attempted at all is sort of beside the point. The issue is keeping the patient alive.

Our situation, I think, is a similar one in Iraq. And that's why the thousand soldiers we've lost so far, painful as it is to say, is really the least of our problems.

The one sensible thing that can be said is that old saw about digging a ditch. If you find that you're digging yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. The Bush strategy at this point is to persevere in digging until we get down to the planet's molten core -- and pretend we're going up, not down.

At least until after the election...

Distributed spin from the GOP on tonight's debate, as reported by CBS News Market Watch.

Do the Dems have something similar? And if so, are they trumpeting it, as the Repubs are, to demoralize their opponents?

From the Cincinnati Enquirer during <$NoAd$>the Republican National Convention (article link) ...

Frank Luntz, who will conduct nationally televised focus groups for MSNBC today and Thursday in Cincinnati, donned his other hat Tuesday at the Ohio breakfast at the Republican National Convention - as a Republican consultant trying to win Ohio for the president.

• Don't use the phrase trial lawyers, he told delegates. Use "personal injury lawyer." Use "lawsuit reform," rather than "tort reform." Use "careers" rather than "jobs."

"Tort reform is something you serve in a French bakery," he said.

• Stress how many taxes an Ohioan pays every day.

• Men older than 50 hate Hillary Clinton, he said: "She reminds them all of their first wife."

• Luntz said the swift boat ads had single-handedly lowered Kerry's ratings, thanks to a very powerful word: "betrayal."

"This is why people are turning against John Kerry in the last 10 days," he said.

• Ohio's undecided voters tend to be 25 to 39, mostly female, mostly white, conservative fiscally but moderate socially. She knows someone who lost a job, or she might be worried she'll lose hers.

"If we have to trust our future to anyone, I trust it to Ohio," he said.

So many hats.

And Fox News will control the video cameras filming the debate. So you know everything will be on the up-and-up.

A success: MSNBC has decided to pull the plug on the Frank Luntz focus group they had planned to run as part of their presidential debate coverage tomorrow evening.

(As noted in the earlier post, Luntz is not only a partisan pollster -- like, say, Stan Greenberg or Celinda Lake on the Dem side -- but a strategist and message massager who continues to work actively for GOP candidates and organizations.)

As recently as yesterday, I've now learned, he was slated to be part of the show. But according to a late report in Roll Call, MSNBC has decided to pull the plug on this extremely ill-advised plan. And that is at least in large part because of some very effective mau-mauing on the part of Media Matters, David Brock's (still relatively) new media watchdog outfit.

For the moment, that's a real feather in their collective cap.

It's also an important step in what will be a long and difficult -- but I believe eventually successful -- effort to provide a center-left counterbalance to the right-wing noise machine that creates such a skew in the contemporary media landscape.

Now the conversation should turn to how it was that this was ever going to happen in the first place. NBC giving a hard partisan the mic to himself to shape first impressions of one of the central events in the presidential campaign?

What does that tell you?

I can't tell from this post whether MSNBC has already decided to use Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz as its presidential debate focus group pollster or not. But if they are it truly defies comprehension.

See the links Atrios provides here.

See this post too for evidence of Luntz's track record.

Perhaps MSNBC will even things up by having James Carville serve as anchor for the evening's coverage.

A travel day here at TPM. Expect more posts this evening.

Paul Krugman today touches on a crucially important point about Thursday night's presidential debate. If 2000 was any indication -- and there's every reason to think it is -- the winner of the debate won't be determined during the 90 minute encounter itself but during the spin war that will follow it. And with the advantage the Republicans have on the cable nets, talk radio and chat TV shows, the odds are stacked in their favor.

(As Krugman alludes to, the initial public reactions to the first Bush/Gore debate had the then-veep coming out on top, if narrowly. It was only after several days of pundit churn that Bush became the winner. The Bush team won the post-debate debate.)

More than just these built-in advantages, though, Democrats, I think, have seldom really appreciated that there is such a thing as a post-debate debate. I don't mean that they don't know about putting out surrogates or trying to spin the results. Of course, they do. But in 2000 at least (a certainly in analogous situations in this cycle) the effort was very reactive and scattershot. And that inevitably leaves the Democrats trying to parry or deconstruct the ways that Republicans are trying to define what happened. In that way, they're fighting at best for a draw.

Republicans are already leaking hints and taunts about whether Kerry will sweat profusely under the lights, whether he's too tanned and other similar nonsense. But the antic nature of these taunts doesn't mean they won't be effective. They're meant to throw the other side off balance and, in a related manner, to provide grist for a catty and frivolous press corps.

So what's the Democrats' plan going into this debate? You can see what the other side is planning from visiting Drudge or listening to the GOP surrogates on the chat shows.

But what do the Dems have in mind?

It's easy to predict that there will be several exchanges in the debate where the president will describe the situation in Iraq in ways that are entirely belied by the reality of the situation. Perhaps he'll mention the situation in Fallujah where his intervention in the battle planning had such disastrous and feckless results. Will the pundits and talking heads be primed for those moments? Or only for Kerry's moments of over-fancy rhetoric?

Will the Dems be ready to hit on these issues and focus the post-debate debate on the president's recklessness, lack of a plan and inability to level with the public about what's happening in Iraq?

There are many other possible examples. But the point is that we have a pretty good idea what the president is going to say. And what he'll almost certainly say will open up a number of solid lines of attack. But if the Democrats don't hit the ground running with a plan in mind they'll be overwhelmed by the GOP spin machine -- no matter how many fibs the president tells or how many times he says up is down.

Take a look at what "New Donkey" (i.e., a sharp Dem politico from Georgia) has to say about who's winning the ground game going into the election.

As ND says, the ground game only really comes into play if the election is within a few points, tops. But if it does -- and there's certainly reason to believe this one will -- the ground game can be decisive.

At the same time a good ground game -- at least the voter registration part of it -- can be hobbled mightily if opposing elected officials find ways to disqualify or throw out lots of new voter registration applications, as they seem to be doing in Ohio.