Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

We'll be saying more about this later. But watch Colin Powell's trip through Europe. On the surface, this is an effort at fence-mending with NATO allies after the lead-up to war and an attempt to make plans for post-war Iraq. In fact, this looks more like a three way battle between Europe, the State Department and the Pentagon, with Colin Powell trying to leverage the Europeans -- and particularly Tony Blair -- against the AEI faction at the Pentagon. Let's hope he's able to pull it off. On the other hand, in his battles with the hawks, look at his track record.

More from General McPeak (former Chief of Staff, US Air Force) from last night on Aaron Brown's show ...

Yes, I think that's more a political gamut. And quite frankly, I'm a lot less optimistic on the political side. I think we ought to make a sharp distinction here between two types of criticism that are being made. Some, even retired senior officers, are criticizing the plan, saying we don't have enough force there, one way or another.

I disagree with all that. And I don't think it's helpful. Our guys on the ground are doing great. The plan is being executed well. We just have to be a little patient.

But there's a second kind of criticism that says the political run-up to this thing was pretty ugly. The administration has managed to back us into a position where we've lost a lot of friends. Our closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico, are not on our side. Some of our oldest allies, France.

And so we've done a pretty good job on splitting NATO, the most successful military coalition in history. And so we've reduced our friends and multiplied our enemies in the political run-up to this, and that I think has enormous strategic consequences.

Remember, we never lost a battle in Vietnam, we just lost the war because the politics of it was so clumsily done.

More soon.

"The striking scenes of Iraqis cheering and welcoming U.S. troops as liberators in the Shiite holy city of Najaf Wednesday came as no surprise to a handful of British and American undercover officials who have for months sought with sweet talk and hard cash to win over the country's traditional tribal sheikhs and chieftains. 'The most important duty of a tribal chief is knowing when to switch sides,' one British official with knowledge of the undercover operation told United Press International. 'In Najaf, the al-Jaburi tribe understood that Saddam Hussein's time was over.'"

That's from a story just filed by Martin Walker for UPI.

This doesn't nullify the implication of those cheering throngs of Iraqis welcoming US troops. It just adds a deeper note of complexity to what's going on. It also anticipates the growing debate over the character of the post-Saddam government. Says one British official interviewed by Walker: "This is not just about toppling Saddam with briefcases full of cash or telling their people it is time to welcome the coalition troops. The tribes play a long game. For them, the real currency is not just money but privileges and the promise of roles and influence in the post-Saddam government, whatever the United Nations or the Iraqi exile groups may say."

A few thoughts. The chemical weapons issue is really becoming acute. CNN's Walt Rodgers is doing amazing reporting this morning with the 3-7th Cavalry, speeding toward the outskirts of Baghdad. Earlier this morning he reported seeing many dead Iraqis that his armored column was leaving in its wake as it pushed ahead. According to Rodgers, they were all wearing gas masks -- if not actually donned than at least at their side. Presumably that means the Iraqis are prepared and ready to use chemicals at any moment.

The question that arises is basically a political one for the Iraqis. Once they use chemicals, if they do, they will not only lose a lot of ground in the propaganda war in the Arab world and even more in Europe, they will also confirm a lot of the rationale for American action. So, for them, it must be a difficult calculation. If they have hopes of dragging this out in a guerrilla war or some urban fighting then you'd expect they wouldn't do it -- it would be counterproductive, since they believe they have some hope of eventually wearing America down and turning world opinion further against us. On the other hand, if they think they're on the verge of complete collapse -- which looks like a distinct possibility -- then they may be in 'go down in blaze of glory' mode.

Now, for what's coming next, be sure to read two key pieces today. The lead editorial in today's Washington Post and this article by Jane Perlez in the Times. The Post's editorial page has long been pretty friendly to the neo-con-Iraqi National Congress axis, so their note of caution on post-war plans merits considerable attention. Perlez's piece gives fascinating background on Iraq's government-in-waiting, currently kickin' it in Kuwait. Three candidates are now in the running to administer the occupation government: the UN/international community, the United States government, and the American Enterprise Institute. At the moment, candidate #1 is at least a lap behind the other two, and candidate #2 is already starting to wheeze. AEI ... well, they look like their just gettin' their stride.

We've just gotten in the traffic stats for March and we're very pleased: visitors 183,775, visits 495,507, and page views 1,411,073. As always, many thanks to everyone who visited the site last month. It's much appreciated.

Still more goal-post-moving on the right.

Andrew Sullivan notes an editorial in Today's New York Times as an example of a broad defense of Don Rumsfeld.

If you're a member of the Rummy screwed-it-up department, it must be a little disconcerting to read the New York Times editorial this morning. When the viscerally, uncompromisingly anti-Bush Times pooh-poohs the notion of a military miscalculation, then the media tide must surely be turning.
He seems to have missed the deeper point of the editorial: that the immediate military problems are not so bad, but that the Pentagon's and the administration's political assumptions were poor and that they don't presage positive results in the future. A few selections ...
The Iraqi response to the American and British troops may warm up when Baghdad is taken. But so far, resistance in the south has been spoiling much of the original war plan ... The big failure has been in political assessment, and the expectation that southern Iraqis would welcome the American troops and offer minimal resistance ... The United States badly misjudged the Iraqis going into the war, and there seems little reason to hope that we will be much smarter when it comes to nation-building ... From the beginning, the great challenge of Iraq has seemed to be less about winning the war than about securing the peace, and everything that has happened in the last two weeks reinforces that assessment.
Why the selective reading?

We're beginning to hear a lot more about US plans for the post-war administration of Iraq, as well as disagreements between the State Department and the Pentagon over who should be involved and how it should be done. One of the key figures in all this is Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi Shi'a emigre who is beloved and admired by the hawks and often treated with suspicion and ridicule by their critics, particular at the State Department and the CIA.

Here's a snippet from an unpublished article of mine on Chalabi, based on reporting from last spring and summer ...

In 1991 the CIA was looking to create what eventually became the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization intended to foster unity and cohesion amongst Iraq's notoriously fractious exile and dissident groups. The man they chose to head it was Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi was charismatic and enterprising and he understood the pulse of Western politics and media something key to the sort of media and propaganda operation the CIA wanted to create. "He understands the West very well," says Whitley Bruner, a retired CIA agent who was the first to reach out to Chalabi, "and he was very useful in the sense that he grasped what the Agency was doing, and what its aims were, and how to translate that back and forth to various Iraqis who were working with him." Chalabi's very lack of connection with any established dissident groups in or out of Iraq was actually one of his main attractions to the CIA since it set him apart from the parochial concerns of the various feuding groups and made him more useful to the United States.

Chalabi was dynamic and entrepreneurial. But he was also headstrong and he quickly alienated many of the other exile leaders operating within the INC fold, particularly those with greater bases of support inside Iraq. Chalabi, said some critics, consistently focused on Washington rather than forces in Iraq -- a trait which both caused and fed off his antagonisms with other dissident leaders. "Chalabi takes the blame of taking the INC from its mission of trying to win the Iraqis and to reach out to the Iraqis to a new mission which is to try to win Washington and reach out to Washington," says one Iraqi émigré involved in the creation of the INC.

But this was only one of the problems plaguing the INC and American Iraq policy in the early 1990s. After 1991 American policy toward Iraq was confused and meandering. The Bush and Clinton administrations take a measure of the blame for this. But the real cause was more deep-seated. All US policy was based on a cardinal assumption -- that Saddam could not long survive his massive defeat in the Gulf War -- which was quickly proving to be a fallacy. During the first Clinton administration, while Chalabi was intermittently running the INC from the safe-haven in Iraqi Kurdistan, the CIA toyed with different strategies to topple Saddam. Chalabi's plan was for a so-called rolling coup -- essentially getting the INC to lop off chunk after chunk of Iraqi territory under the cover of US air power until the tide of defections swept Saddam's regime from power. The US eventually lost faith in Chalabi's plan and got behind a separate effort to foment a military coup using Iraqi exiles in Amman. Chalabi's attachment to the rolling coup plan was not rooted in any ideological or operational compunction. He didn't seem to have much of either. He just wanted to do something. Anything. Preferably sooner than later. "He was pushing the envelope and [the CIA was] not ready," says a Washington-based Arab journalist.

That was part of the problem. The CIA was not sure Chalabi was up to the task; they were not sure what if anything they wanted to do or how they wanted to do it. The one thing the Agency was increasingly sure of was that whatever they were going to do they didn't want to do it with Ahmed Chalabi. "If an error was made over the first several years," says Bruner, "it was that [Chalabi] was so capable and so able to do these things that I think that a lot of the managers at [CIA headquarters in] Langley let him run, because he seemed to be able to do all this so well. And it wasn't until later that he began to get out of control. And then it was too late."

The latest word seems to be that Chalabi isn't slated for quite so high a role as he would like. But with friends as powerful as he has among those running the post-war show, I'm sure that's not the final word.

More on this soon.

This article by Anthony Shadid in Wednesday's Washington Post seems to best capture the flow of contradictory forces now at play inside Iraq. In the south you have the fedayeen Saddam and members of the Iraqi army keeping a tight grip on the cities, and apparently doing a pretty good job of it. Then you have the US-UK army trying to wrest control of these cities. And finally you have civilians -- terrified of Saddam's paramilitaries, frightened by the American bombing, at least suspicious of the Americans themselves, though not necessarily hostile.

Pretty clearly, most of these folks just don't want to get killed and are most concerned about getting through all this with themselves and their families in one piece. But their plight deepens as the fighting drags on, supplies dwindle, and the infrastructure is degraded and broken down. The article doesn't give you much of a clear sense of what will happen or what these civilians will be saying after Saddam's regime is displaced. But it provides a compelling view of the fluidity and chaos of the situation, and how it could play out in very good or very bad ways.

My recent posts have been getting some attention from proponents of our current military action in Iraq. And now I've heard their new line: I have to go on the record with what counts as "victory" and "defeat." By this they mean, how many weeks or months and how many US casualties? Does victory in two months count as success? Is more than three months a failure? Does under 500 battlefield deaths count as success? Over 500? People who are critical of the conduct of this war apparently have to choose their numbers to be credible.

You start to see how these folks operate. It's sort of like our national debate over the war is a big Iraq-war office pool, like with the NCAA championships or the NFL playoffs. ("I put down for six months and 843 war dead! It was a longshot. But I won big! My foreign policy cred is now assured!")

But this game-playing is either foolishness or a deliberate attempt to shift people's eyes from what's really being discussed. Duration of combat and numbers of casualties aren't yardsticks for measuring victory or failure. They're costs you incur in achieving your goals. So the numbers game -- in days and bodies -- is bogus. The question is, what are we trying achieve and how close are we to achieving it.

Taking our war goals at face value, it seems to me we're trying to achieve four things.

1. To eliminate Saddam's WMD capabilities.

2. To create a democratic or at least quasi-democratic Iraq, which -- because it is democratic -- has a positive ripple effect throughout the region.

3. A more stable Middle East, which breeds less terrorism.

4. A more stable and peaceful world order made so by the example of the destruction of Saddam's bad-acting regime.

The heart of the issue is #2 since #3 and #4 flow from the success of #2. And if we fail at #2, solving #1 may not turn out to mean all that much. Follow that? Ok, good.

At the moment, I don't think the prospects of #2, #3 or #4 look that good. I'm pessimistic because the administration heavily leveraged this operation on two basic assumptions: 1) that we'd be greeted as liberators by the Iraqi people and 2) that our show of force in the region would cow our enemies and embolden our allies. The facts are by no means all in yet. But neither proposition is looking particularly strong at the moment. And the administration played its hand in such a way that it was heavily dependent on both propositions bearing out in a big way.

If war took three months or six months and we achieved goals #1 through #4 I'd say it was a big success. But the supporters of the conduct of this war are equating "victory" with the physical occupation of Baghdad. And that's just a dodge.

More on this later.