Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

This is one hell of a story in Sunday's Washington Post. The outlines of the tale are ones we've known for a while now: Iraq had little or nothing to do with al Qaida before the war. But the war itself -- the supposed remedy for the tie between Iraq and al Qaida -- ended up making the Iraq/al Qaida mumbo-jumbo into a reality.

You knew that in general terms. But here are the particulars. One confluence of events seems key. By the middle of 2002 al Qaida was seriously damaged, its infrastructure disrupted, many of its soldiers and key leaders dead. The mix of damage to the organization and increased security in the United States made new mass-casualty terrorism in America all but impossible. The organization had to fall back on smaller-scale attacks mainly in Muslim countries, carried out by local affiliated groups.

But the Iraq war -- and the onset of the occupation -- provided the organization (or its remnants) with a new opportunity. It was both a new vehicle to galvanize followers and operating there meant fewer logistical difficulties since it was close by. Even just before the war, in February of this year, key al Qaida operatives started planning the move toward Iraq as the new front.

Also key is the role of Iran, which, according to the Post article, provided key members of the damaged al Qaida organization with a safe-haven during the period between their expulsion from Afghanistan and the opening of their new front in Iraq.

A story like this, culled together from different sources, many of whom are no doubt interested parties, is only a first run at the truth. Points will be refined; major elements of the story may change. But I think this story and those that will follow it will be a major point of discussion for some time to come.

When I read it, the story left me mute, expressionless, bereft -- as though I'd just watched someone die.

Okay, what's up with the departure of Bernard Kerik from Baghdad? When the former New York City Police Commissioner arrived in Iraq in late May to serve as Baghdad's de facto police chief he told reporters, "I will be there at least six months - until the job is done."

According to the ten fingers here in front of me, he wasn't there much longer than three months.

The Pentagon now says Kerik was supposed to leave this summer and "extended his stay to finish his ongoing projects." And Kerik's spokeswoman -- actually the spokeswoman for Kerik's employer, Giuliani Partners -- now says the job was only supposed to last 90 days.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there would seem to be more than enough law enforcement work to do in Iraq right now. And it wouldn't seem like the most opportune time to have the job vacant, as it now is.

And there's more.

Today the FBI recalled its lead agent in Iraq, Thomas Fuentes, who'd been in the region since July and replaced him with Chris Swecker, the head of the Bureau's Charlotte, North Carolina field office.

The FBI switch may well be a standard rotation. But what gives with Kerik? There must be something more to the story, no?

Another postcard from the 'responsibility era' ...

Instead of pointing fingers at the security forces of the coalition because there are acts of violence taking place against Iraqi people in this country, it's important for the Iraqi people to step up and take responsibility.

Donald Rumsfeld
September 6th, 2003

The CBO says the Pentagon can only maintain the Army's current troop strength deployment in Iraq until Spring 2004. How much longer can President Bush maintain Don Rumsfeld's deployment to the Pentagon?

Realism, neo-realism, neo-conservatism, democratic internationalism, hegemonism, multilateralism. How about just this: 'Don't shoot your mouth off if you can't back it up' ...

The various foreign policy schools each have points to recommend them. But a lot of effective statecraft comes down to grade school principles like these.

Paul Wolfowitz may be saying that he's wanted the UN in Iraq from day one. But those of us who are still reporting from the planet Earth know this is the exact opposite of the truth.

Stiffing the UN and threatening retaliation against key Security Council members may have been impolitic and ill-judged. But stiffing and threatening when you were going to have to come back to them six months later with hat in hand asking to get bailed out is just stupid.

I spoke this morning to a foreign policy insider who'd been to an off-the-record conference also attended by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin Minister just after the end of the war. He confirmed what was at least informally obvious to everyone who was watching: that the French were practically pleading for us to let them in on the effort in Iraq as long as the halo of victory was still over us.

Now, not so much.

Nor is this the only instance of un-backed-up tough-talk that ends up making us look weak.

Look at North Korea.

A year ago, after North Korea admitted to working on enriching uranium for making nuclear weapons, the White House said, that's it. No more paying you off to behave. No more talk. No more nothing. It was a foreign policy equivalent of the famous moment in Godfather II when Michael Corleone tells Senator Geary: "My offer is this: nothing. Not even the $20,000 for the gaming license, which I would appreciate if you would put up personally."

And yet the last year has been a seamless repetition of the same pattern: bold ultimatum and threat, followed some weeks or months later by ignominious cave.

First we wouldn't negotiate; we wouldn't give them aid; and we wouldn't give them a security guarantee. They had to disarm and behave. Then maybe we'd talk.

Then we would talk, not but negotiate.

Then we would negotiate, but we wouldn't give them aid.

Then we would give aid, but only after the North Koreans disarmed.

Now, according to this morning's paper we're ready to "discuss a package of economic and energy aid even before North Korea completely terminates its nuclear weapons programs."

Clearly we've got them right where we want them.

Bluster that you can't make good on makes you look much weaker than if you'd never blustered at all.

I've never been a huge fan of Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton. When the North Koreans banned him from the multi-party talks, the first thing I thought was, "Wow. They're finally taking a constructive approach toward these negotiations." However that may be, Bolton's comments in Paris today take the cake. About Saddam and WMD ... "Whether he possessed them today or four years ago isn't really the issue." Or this: "The issue I think has been the capability that Iraq sought to have ... WMD programs."

So many issues, so little time.

What are you supposed to make of this?

Paul Wolfowitz told reporters today that it's not the US which has changed positions, but the UN. We've wanted a new UN resolution for months. It's just that the UN has finally come around to our position. The bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad "changed the atmosphere in New York."

How about that? Wolfowitz is an awfully sharp guy. But he's turning into the Comical Ali of the collapse of neoconservative grand strategy in the Middle East.

The UN is putty in our hands!

We have bent them to our will!

The humiliation of the French is complete!

In the 19th century history was supposed to repeat itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In the 21st century it seems to be farce, followed by farce, followed by farce in a kind of infinite recurrence. Sort of a mix of Marx and Nietzsche, I guess.

On a more unfortunate note, there's this clip from Steven Weisman's aptly titled piece "Bush Foreign Policy and Harsh Reality," in Friday's Times ...

"The question is whether the world is ready to pick the United States up off the floor and dust them off," said a senior Western envoy involved in discussions on Iraq. "A lot of people aren't ready yet."

We have bent them to our will!

There's no way to stand up for the little guy quite like cutting the number of people eligible for overtime pay. That's what I always say anyway.

As you may know, President Bush has proposed revisions of regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act which would deprive some eight million Americans of their right to overtime pay. But now Sen. Tom Harkin looks like he may have a shot at scotching those plans in the Senate.

This isn't the sexiest issue. But it's important. And it cuts to the values of this administration like nothing else.

Visit this website to find out more and learn what you can do to strengthen Harkin's hand.

Take a look at this article and scan down to the graf that begins "A year ago, American General John Abizaid ..." More on this later.

Last night I wrote that it looked like the Joint Chiefs might have done an end-run around Don Rumsfeld on the UN resolution question. Then this morning a reader who knows a lot about these things told me he didn't think that was necessarily so, that Rumsfeld -- privately, at least -- had come around to a realization that a course correction was in order. Rumsfeld's the Secretary, and hated in the building as he may be, what he says goes.

But this article in Thursday's Post seems to say that an end-run is pretty close to what took place -- if not around Rumsfeld precisely, then the bulk of the civilian leadership at the Pentagon. The article is well-worth reading in its entirety. But the upshot seems to be this ...

We've known about the basic division between State and Defense on the UN question, with the former wanting a substantial internationalization of the occupation and the latter more or less opposing it. The Pentagon has operational control over what goes on in Iraq. So they've had the upper-hand. But in Washington it's been close to a stand-off between the two camps, with the advantage to DOD.

What changed, apparently, was that the Joint Chiefs went over to Powell's side. Not only did they come over to his position, but at some level they seem to have worked in concert with Powell's team at State to push the White House into shifting its position.

On the president's first day back from Crawford, says the Post ...

Powell, whose department had long favored such an action, informed the commander in chief that the military brass supported the State Department's position despite resistance by the Pentagon's civilian leadership. Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, whose office had been slow to embrace the U.N. resolution, quickly agreed, according to administration officials who described the episode.

As the Post aptly puts it, Powell -- with the support of the Chiefs in hand -- presented the president with "something close to a fait accompli."

Much of what happened and is happening here still seems murky. And to a significant degree this change of direction is less a matter of shrewd bureaucratic in-fighting than a simple, dawning acquaintance with reality on the part of everyone in the administration -- a realization that, as Fareed Zakaria put it last week, Plan A wasn't working. It would also be fair to say that the people around Powell -- if not necessarily Powell himself -- would not only like to internationalize the effort but to make the shift in policy itself appear as much as possible as a bureaucratic victory for State. (The point being, who's leaking here and to what end?)

But even with all those caveats, given what's happened at the Pentagon for the last thirty months, a decision on the part of the Chiefs to take a more assertive stand toward the Pentagon's civilian leadership would be a development of potential momentous proportions.

From the department of 'says it all' ...

"Mainly, people want reassurance that the administration knows what it's doing," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), "that things are going better than CNN would have us believe."

That and more stories about what congressmen and senators heard from their constituents over the recess in this article in today's Post.

And, yes, that's (R-Utah).