Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

There seems to be yet another explanation for why the Pentagon sent a fighting force into Iraq which was both smaller and less armor-laden than one conventional military doctrine seemed to call for. And this isn't coming from some pundit or talking head, but from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs himself, General Richard Myers.

They had to undergun the force for the sake of diplomacy. Here's a snippet from the transcript of today's briefing ...

You know, we went in there with some very sophisticated objectives. We had diplomacy under way at the United Nations; we wanted to deploy a sufficient force, but not the kind of force that would make it look like diplomacy didn't have a chance to work. So we had to work that piece.
On the one hand he's saying there was a "sufficient force." But he's also at least implicitly conceding that it was not an overwhelming force, or at least not as much as you might have wanted. (What you always hear from war-planner types is that this isn't football. You don't want to win 21-7. You want to win 100-0. You want overwhelming force.)

It seems to me that there are at least two problems with this new argument.

Problem number one is that this is precisely the opposite of the model we were supposedly working on. Going into this, the idea was that we hadn't decided on war. But we wanted to make the threat of war as credible as possible. Why make it less credible with an insufficient fighting force? Or why would a larger fighting force be a problem, since the theory of our diplomacy was to make the threat of war as credible as possible? It's hard for me to see how this argument doesn't fall short just on grounds of simple logic.

Now, let's grant that it was an insufficient fighting force, or at least one that lacked the sort of overwhelming power we wanted. If it was an insufficient fighting force, why didn't we wait a few weeks to bring it up to speed after we'd made the decision for war? Especially with the surprise of no northern (i.e., Turkish) front?

I can imagine a possible response to this argument. The window of time between when you declare your intention to go to war and when you actually do it is a very dangerous period. That's when you run the risk of preemptive attacks and so forth. Still, why pull the trigger with an insufficient force on hand? The argument either doesn't make sense or the policy is really irresponsible.

There's a backdrop problem in play here too. This new rationale leads us to the conclusion that the very structure of the fighting force was rigged, at least to some degree, to suit the needs of diplomacy. And yet pretty much everyone thinks we didn't really quite have our hearts in the diplomacy at all. Or, perhaps better to say, our diplomacy was geared toward getting us into war on the most favorable terms. If that's so (and I think it is) why would we under-gun our military force to serve diplomatic objectives if the purpose of the diplomacy was to get us into war on the best possible footing? It just doesn't make sense. It's a logical contradiction.

If you have a subscription to the Financial Times, here's my take on what Rumsfeld and company were thinking. LATE UPDATE: Now it's available without a subscription.

Here's a couple key grafs from an article in tomorrow's Post ...

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has rejected a team of officials proposed by the State Department to help run postwar Iraq in what sources described as an effort to ensure the Pentagon controls every aspect of reconstructing the country and forming a new government.

While vetoing the group of eight current and former State Department officials, including several ambassadors to Arab states, the Pentagon's top civilian leadership has planned prominent roles in the postwar administration for former CIA director R. James Woolsey and others who have long supported the idea of replacing Iraq's government, according to sources close to the issue.


Powell and senior State Department officials, along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have maintained that a quick turnover from U.S. military control to the United Nations would give postwar Iraq more international legitimacy. They believe it also would encourage participation in the reconstruction effort by countries that opposed Bush's decision to go to war without U.N. authorization.

But Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, supported by Vice President Cheney, have been leery of any substantial U.N. role on grounds that it would inhibit U.S. ability to shape Iraq's future. Under a postwar plan supervised by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, the military would maintain control of Iraq for an indefinite period, until new institutions could be constructed and a representative Iraqi government installed. The plan allows a U.N. role in humanitarian assistance, under U.S. supervision.

Does this inspire you with a lot of confidence?

On the issue of personnel, it's only fair to point out that one of the people noted in the article as slated for the Iraqi Defense Ministry is Walt Slocum, Bill Clinton's highly-respected undersecretary of defense and obviously not a Bush or Rumsfeld crony. On balance, though, the article makes painfully clear that Rumsfeld is intent on stacking the entire post-war American occupation government with members of the DC Iraq-regime-change mafia. It's not even an American occupation; it's an AEI occupation. Every made-man in the gang gets his own ministry apparently. Maybe they'll set up an Iraqi Defense Policy Board that Richard Perle can run in Baghdad. I hear he's on the market again. Ken Adelman, Ministry of Pastries?

Now we know where all those discredited cakewalk Iraq-hawks are headed. They're going to Baghdad to run the occupation.

I don't normally like doing tit-for-tats with other bloggers because I think such exchanges get too insidery and readers get bored with them. But let me take a few moments to respond to a post from Andrew Sullivan criticizing my recent writings on the progress of the war. I've said some very pointed things over the last several days -- both here and in the Washington Monthly -- about the folks running this operation. So I suspect Andrew is not the only one thinking along these lines.

You can read what he has to say here. But I'd summarize it as basically two criticisms. 1) I'm overstating how bad the military situation is. 2) I've "staked a certain amount of cred on being just, well, so much smarter than anyone in the administration, but a hawk as well" and I have an axe to grind because I'm "one of those neolibs [who is] trying to be hawks without being neocons."

Let's start with the first.

Sullivan says the military situation actually isn't that bad and that we can still win. I agree that it's hard for me to disagree with this claim. But that's largely because I've actually said the exact same thing at least two or three times over the last several days. What I have said fairly clearly is that some major mistakes have been made on the planning of this campaign, but that our actual military situation isn't all that bad. What I do think is that the conduct of the war to this point has shown pretty clearly that our political situation is much worse and that the political assumptions on which the administration based its policy were deeply flawed.

Let me explain each point.

First, it's seems inarguable to me now that Don Rumsfeld under-gunned the force we sent to the Gulf and that we're paying a price for it now. What else does one have to say but that we're two weeks into the war and one of the most important components we really need on the ground in Iraq is currently on the ground in Texas? Frankly, that seems like pretty good prime facie evidence of a screw-up.

Sullivan says that we just shot for the moon (early "shock and awe" etc.) and didn't quite make it. But that's okay because the plan is flexible enough to take a little longer and finish the job. On the one hand, yes, we can reconfigure a bit, regroup, and win it the old-fashioned way. But that's largely because we have a great military and it's flexible and professional enough to roll with the punches. And, at the end, of the day we're just a hell of a lot stronger than the Iraqi army. But as an argument, Sullivan's pretty far short. I don't like to get too far into the nitty-gritty of military doctrine and strategy because it's something I'm definitely not an expert on. But I think I know enough to see through this argument.

If it were true that we were just shooting for the moon knowing that it might fail and that we'd then hit them with a more conventional infantry and armor attack, we'd already have our infantry and armor in place. We don't. So I don't find that argument particularly credible.

I also don't get the impression that this is the way the US military likes to fight wars. And for good reason. First of all, if we have to wait a while now to get everything in place, we have a lot of American soldiers and Marines getting in some pretty nasty fire-fights while we're waiting. The most important point, however, is that you don't try one risky plan and then, when it doesn't work, come up with something else.

From my conversations with war planners I get the impression that, given the preponderance of our military power, what you want to do is hit the enemy with massive and unstoppable force from the start. Partly, this makes your own casualties fewer. But also, by not dragging it out and by not giving the enemy any good way to resist, you make it much more likely that the enemy will fold quickly.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had so much armor and cavalry on the ground that we could brush off these fedayeen who are harassing our supply lines? At this point, we've given the Iraqis are really hard whack and they're still standing. That's a huge boost for their morale. And I don't think there's any question that it has emboldened them and kept our potential friends among the Iraqis hesitant to make a stand in our favor. It also seems like it's emboldened people in the neighboring states as well states like Syria and Iran.

So, as I say, the military situation isn't so bad and we can certainly recover from it. But that's because we have a massive and extremely professional military and that gives us the luxury of being able to recover from some early goofs.

The problem is that our political situation is not nearly as good as our military one. And our ultimate goals are political, not military.

The administration premised virtually all of its strategy and most of its tactics on the assumption that the civilian population would treat us as liberators. Unfortunately, that basic assumption has been shown itself to be fundamentally flawed. Our military strategy was based on the idea that the Iraqis would be so happy we'd shown up that they wouldn't harass our supply lines on the way to Baghdad. That hasn't panned out.

Far more importantly, the administration's regional and international diplomatic strategies were also based on this assumption. We were so confident that the Iraqis would welcome our presence that we figured that they'd make our case to the Saudis, the Palestinians, the French and the Germans after the fact. Sure, they figured, the French and Germans are pissed now. But how stupid are they going to look when we find lots of WMD and the Iraqis are thanking us for bringing them democracy? Same difference in the region itself. Yes, the Arab street will seethe, they figured. But how long can it seethe when the Iraqis are counting their blessings and thanking us for ridding them of Saddam?

What it comes down to is that this whole operation was, shall we say heavily leveraged. So the lack of a best case scenario with the civilian population is a serious problem.

Let me be clear. I don't think we're universally hated in Iraq. Far from it. Nor do I think that even a long war will make that true. I think most Iraqis despise Saddam. Almost all will be happy for him to go. And many will be happy we got rid of him. What I do think, however, is that the Iraqis are a good deal more ambivalent about our presence than the White House thought. And there's at least a minority of Iraqis and other Muslims from neighboring countries who are willing to harass and kill American soldiers. That makes our post-war occupation of Iraq much more problematic. And it makes White House's hoped for ripple-effect -- the spread of democracy and pro-American feelings -- a lot less credible.

I'll be honest. I'd like to say that I knew we'd face this much resistance, even in the South. But I didn't. I thought we'd face a good deal less. But I knew it was a distinct possibility. (Remember: Hope is not a plan.) And that's why it was so important to go in with a top-flight war plan and a serious multilateral alliance. Without either, I think we're in a bit of a jam. If we'd drawn three aces and two kings, we'd be sitting pretty. But we didn't.

So my basic point is this: our military situation isn't that bad. We can still win and we should be able to rapidly pull together the right mix of forces to make it happen. The problem is that given what we've seen so far 'victory' itself looks a lot more problematic.

Now to the second point: Sullivan's contention that I've "staked a certain amount of cred on being just, well, so much smarter than anyone in the administration, but a hawk as well" and that I have an axe to grind because I'm "one of those neolibs [who is] trying to be hawks without being neocons."

I've heard this criticism a number of times. But I'm not quite sure what to make of it. The idea seems to be that there is something brazen or illegitimate about being serious-minded about national security and comfortable with the use of military force in foreign affairs and yet still not willing to sign on to the party line of the Weekly Standard. What does this mean exactly? I can't for the life of me see the problem with being a "hawk" on some issues and yet still resisting very point of enthusiasm or ridiculousness that this or that "neo-con" signs on to.

All I can figure with Sullivan, in this case, is that he wants to create a false dualism in which everybody is either a neo-con, a fellow traveler of neo-cons, or else some hopelessly soft-headed peacenik who secretly longs for Saddam's affection. I can see where this would make the debate easier. But I don't think it's a realistic view of the situation.

Finally, in Sullivan's post, there's a generalized claim that I'm somehow gleeful at the chance that certain of the administration heavyweights may be discredited by this and perhaps that I'm even enjoying seeing the difficult time we're having in Iraq.

Human nature is probably too frail not to have some moments of satisfaction at predictions being vindicated. But there's no glee in the points I'm trying to make about the people who've gotten us into this situation. If there's some extra intensity in the postings of late it comes from two principal reasons.

1) Not having to finish and revise a dissertation manuscript frees up a lot of time and mental energy.

2) Far more importantly, I don't like watching people risk American blood, treasure and honor on unproven and often improbable theories. I don't want to see similar mistakes made in North Korea or on the West Bank or in Europe or elsewhere. And I don't want to see these folks passing the blame off on others.

It's very important that the American people know that people in this administration acted recklessly and unwisely since that's the best way to prevent it from happening again.

Sullivan concludes by saying that I may be "haunted" by what I've written over the last week. Presumably, I'll be haunted one or two months from now when we're off on an easy occupation of Baghdad, governing a peaceful nation of thankful Iraqis, and resting easier since we've cowed Syria, Iran and the Palestinians into quiescence.

I'll be honest, if that happens, my reputation as a predictor of future events will take something of a hit. But I'll happily take that hit given how much better a situation it would mean for the country. My feeling about this situation isn't one of exhilaration but rather mortification for the situation that we're in.

Among old lefties, there always used to be this line that you couldn't say socialism or communism had failed because it had never really been tried. I told a friend a few days ago, that for better or worse, after this is done, we're not going to be able to say the same thing about neo-conservatism. This is their show. If it all pans out great, they'll really be able to crow. If it doesn't, there will be nowhere to run.

A few days ago I did a post about a book called Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. It's by a guy named Eliot Cohen. And the book played a key role in the debate last year over the relationship between the civilians and the military at the Pentagon. In that post I wrote ...

The thesis of Eliot's book is that the best wartime leaders are those who heavily involve themselves in military planning. They don't just leave it to the generals. They question and prod and, when needed -- and that's fairly often -- overrule them. A key premise of Cohen's argument is that generals and admirals are often overly risk-averse, trapped in the thinking of the last war, and sometimes overly devoted to the institutional agendas of their particular service.
Cohen sent me an email in which he said the following ...
If you are going to quote me ... would you kindly do so correctly? You recently declared that my book, SUPREME COMMAND has as its thesis the argument that competent statesmen "question and prod and, when needed -- and that's fairly often -- overrule them [their generals]."

You admit that that's an oversimplification. Its not. Its a misrepresentation. Check out the final chapter (and note its title), "The Unequal Dialogue" "Interestingly enough, none of these men [Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, Ben Gurion] dictated to their subordinates. They might coax or bully, interrogate or probe, but rarely do we see them issuing orders or acting like a generalissimo." "Rarely" doesn't mean "fairly often." p. 208.

It seems to me that you owe me a correction, preferably by publishing this email.

Eliot Cohen

Here's my response.

My description was based on my recollection of the book from almost a year ago. That is my recollection. But Cohen has a quote which belies a key part of that recollection -- namely, the frequency with which civilian leaders actually do or should overrule their generals, as opposed to jawbone and coax and prod and so forth. So I went back and reread my notes, and interviews I did with others in which Cohen's book came up, and reviews of Cohen's book.

Having done that, I have to concede that my sense of the book was likely colored by conducting those subsequent interviews and reading those subsequent reviews.

Now, having said that, I think I was right about the role Cohen's book played in the debate over the last year between Rumsfeld's advocates and those of the Joint Chiefs and Joint Staff. The book was used as cover for those who thought the civilians at the Pentagon should feel a wide latitude in overruling their military subordinates. (For more on what I mean by this, see the original post.)

But how others interpreted or misinterpreted Cohen's book is a separate issue and in my post I said what Cohen's thesis actually was. I haven't gone back and reread the whole book, but based on my conversation with Cohen I think I probably did overstate a key element of his argument -- namely the frequency with which great civilian wartime leaders have, or should, dictate policy to their generals. So, Mr. Cohen, please consider the correction issued.

P.S. Now that I've been set straight on this frequency issue, the following occurs to me: If Don Rumsfeld had read Cohen's book a bit more closely, maybe we wouldn't be in this jam either ...

“'All we have now is front-line positions,' the former intelligence official told me. 'Everything else is missing.'"

That's from Sy Hersh's new piece in The New Yorker, now up and on-line. It reads like it was a tad rushed. But sometimes the goods you have are so choice and the story is moving so quickly that it's well worth pushing ahead into print. This is one of those times. Hersh's piece is unquestionably today's required reading.

Also, don't miss the long, ominous quote from Robert Baer, a former CIA middle east operator (don't ask) who is the author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the Cia's War on Terrorism. Though not one of them by any means, Baer used to be one of those guys who the neos would send you to to get a sense of what it was like in Iraq in the 1990s. So he's not one they can easily dismiss.

And there's yet another troubling development. We continue to hear that it is only the presence of the fedayeen Saddam that is preventing more Iraqis from rallying to our banner. I have no doubt this is true to some degree. But it is at least partly belied by the apparently substantial number of Iraqis who are leaving Jordan to go back to Iraq to fight against us.

The flacks at the DOD now say they may release new information on Saddam's repression and human rights violations. But this has the troubling sound of an institution and an argument in a feedback loop. We know Saddam's a beast. The fact simply doesn't seem to be leading to the result that some had anticipated. More evidence that he's a beast is off point. Sure, we may find the Iraqis' response hard to fathom. But why did Anne Murray ever sell so many records? Why did CNN ever have Talkback Live? Some things are just inexplicable ...

More food for thought ...

What [the Iraqis have] got going for them is that our maladroitness politically and diplomatically has put us in a real bind. There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein is an unpopular guy in Iraq, but he's running against George Bush. If you're an Iraqi, you've gotta decide who you're going to vote for here.


I hate it when military plans are made with optimistic assumptions of that kind. I never made a plan that relied on the courage of my own troops. You hope that -- and they generally will -- fight bravely. Your plan ought to be predicated on more realistic assumptions.

And if we sent the 3rd Infantry up there naked, by themselves, because somebody assessed that they'd be throwing bouquets at us, that's the worst thing you could say about political leadership, is that they made optimistic assumptions about warfare.

Michael Moore? Dan Rather? Phil Donohue?

Nope. General Merrill A. McPeak, former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force 1990-94, from an interview which appeared in the Thursday edition of the Oregonian.

"President Bush's aides did not forcefully present him with dissenting views from CIA and State and Defense Department officials who warned that U.S.-led forces could face stiff resistance in Iraq, according to three senior administration officials. Instead, Bush embraced predictions of top administration hawks, beginning with Vice President Dick Cheney, who predicted Iraqis would joyously greet coalition troops as liberators and that the entire conflict might be over in a matter of weeks, the officials said."

That's the devastating lede of Warren Strobel's piece on the administration meltdown.

At a certain level, of course, we already knew this. Either the president's chief advisors deliberately kept from him the warnings streaming in from all around (which I doubt) or they convinced him that he could ignore such advice because it came from people who weren't credible (which I believe happened). (The standard line among the neos and hawks is that the folks at State and CIA are just a bunch of discredited, Arabist, softies -- or worse. And any nay-saying from them can be safely ignored.) One might also suspect that he was fully briefed on all the downside potentialities but simply chose to move ahead regardless. But I think that third possibility is highly unlikely.

Whichever is true, for the moment, it's a secondary matter. What makes this article such big news is the attribution: "three senior administration officials".

A responsible journalist -- and the author, Warren Strobel, definitely qualifies -- reserves that classification for a very select group of people: cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, VPs, chiefs of staff, NSC Directors, Communications Directors, press secretaries, senior political advisors, and so forth. It might be squeezed open a bit further maybe. But these three aren't assistant-deputy-sub-deputies over at Interior or Commerce.

It's a narrow enough designation that I think you can say clearly that there simply aren't "three senior administration officials" at the State Department. Indeed, this has all the looks of a story leaked right out of the White House. Presumably, we can scratch Dick Cheney's name off the list since they finger him as the person most responsible for selling the president a bill of goods. Of course, we said months ago that Cheney was the living, breathing disaster at the heart of this administration. But we'll get back to that later.

In any case, the attribution is what makes this such a big story. The White House is in such a state of pandemonium and implosion that they are discarding the policy -- indeed, they are positively undermining it -- in the hopes of insulating the president from the immense fall-out that they can see barreling down the track. Consider also that, saying the president was "out of the loop" -- seemingly a family failing -- on the central policy of his administration is a devastating admission of incompetence on its own. So that tells you what they think of the consequences of remaining attached to the policy.

If you need some evidence that our country is in some trouble, there it is.