Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

From today's Nelson Report ...

Gloom...has been building over Iraq. Increasingly, the <$NoAd$>Wise Heads are forecasting disaster. Wise Heads say they see no realistic plan, hear no serious concept to get ahead of the situation. Money, training, jobs...all lagging, all reinforce downward spiral highlighted by sickening violence. There seems to be no real "if", just when, and how badly it will hurt U.S. interests. Define "disaster"? Consensus prediction: if Bush insists on June 30/July 1 turnover, a rapid descent into civil war. May happen anyway, if the young al-Sadr faction really breaks off from its parents. CSIS Anthony Cordesman's latest blast at Administration ineptitude says in public what Senior Observers say in private...the situation may still be salvaged, but then you have to factor in Sharon's increasing desperation, and the regional impact.

Note: "quagmire"...when you are in a bad situation you created yourself, and would quit in a minute if you could, but which if you did, it would make everything else worse. So you can't...and it gets worse anyway. (Apologies to Bierce...)

1. Comes word from Very Senior Foreign Policy Observers that the situation now unfolding in Iraq is "a qualitative change of very profound significance. The chances of something like a general breakdown after the July 1 transfer is accelerating." The Observation continues: "Even if [dissident cleric Muqtada] al-Sadr is arrested, the whole question is whether the Shi'ia majority is comfortable with continued U.S. occupation." The suggested answer seems to be "no".

-- the Observer goes on to warn that, on the basis of personal soundings within the Administration, the conviction arises that the White House has "no concept of how to manage the crisis, no plan in place likely to work." This Observer last week relayed a concern that President Bush was not being given accurate reports from Iraq, but today, one assumes that even a President who prides himself on not reading the newspapers now grasps that things are not necessarily proceeding to our advantage, to borrow an historic phrase.

More to follow ...

Hats off to Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post for a truly well-deserved Pulitzer awarded today for coverage from Iraq.

The best way to get out of a hole is generally to stop digging -- at least, that's the first, critical step, without which nothing else matters.

Along those lines see this critical passage from Christopher Dickey's review of Rick Atkinson's In the Company of Soldiers in yesterday's Times ...

The coalition invasion force was less than half the size of the one that liberated Kuwait in 1991, because that was all that was needed to defeat Hussein's eviscerated services. But professional soldiers realized a lot more boots on the ground would be needed to maintain order once the dictator went down and the occupation (''the O-word'') began. The soldiers' concerns were ignored. The wishful assumptions of the Pentagon civilians about the after-war were just as wildly off base as their intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. ''The abrupt transition to anarchy was a disaster not only for Iraq but also for the United States,'' Atkinson writes. ''Pentagon planners in early May had predicted that U.S. troop levels would be down to 30,000 by late summer; instead, at Christmas the figure was 130,000 American soldiers in Iraq, with another 30,000 in Kuwait.''

Mull on that for a moment.

The people who planned and advocated for this war hadn't the slightest idea what they were getting into. All the plans, all the <$Ad$>assumptions, all the notions of what would flow from this came from that basic inability to grasp the reality of what they were entering into.

Think about it: down to thirty-thousand troops -- a smattering for a country the size of Iraq -- only three or four months after the end of fighting. Think how mind-bogglingly off the mark that was.

Some of this comes into perspective in a column Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley wrote in the Washington Post on the eve of the war (Feb. 28th, 2003).

It shows that the administration had done a lot of planning. They just had no idea what to plan for. Hadley's main points are plans to deal with humanitarian disasters in the country.

If you put yourself back in that mindset the Bush politicals had as of early 2003, the idea was that the great mass of the Iraqi population would be in sync with what we were doing and eager to participate. Our role was being there at the ready to help them deal with crises brought on by the war or by the internal degeneration of the country in the years before it: ready to ship in water, food, help repave the roads, technical assistance getting their economy in order and reformed, etc. That's what we'd be there for. And thus we could pull most combat troops out after a few months.

The idea that we'd need a vast army of occupation -- hopefully one with some multinational flavor -- to make everyone keep their heads down while we went about with the serious and risky business of nation-building simply didn't occur to them. Thus the treatment of Shinseki.

Here are the second through seventh grafs of Hadley's piece ...

Securing this liberty and sustaining it in a post-Hussein Iraq will be a huge undertaking. But we are well prepared. Planning has been underway for months, across every relevant agency of the U.S. government.

The goals for which we plan are clear. First, along with our coalition partners, we must ensure the rapid flow of humanitarian relief into Iraq. The current humanitarian situation in Iraq is tenuous. For food, most Iraqis rely on rations from the oil-for-food program. But the Iraqi regime's manipulation of the program has led to mortality and malnutrition rates worse than before the Persian Gulf War.

Hussein has a history of manufacturing humanitarian crises. We must be prepared for this -- and we are.

The U.S. government is stockpiling nearly 3 million Humanitarian Daily Rations to meet emergency food needs. We are also stockpiling blankets, water containers, essential medicines and other relief items capable of helping up to a million people. Much of this material is already in the region, and more is on the way.

To distribute these and other materials, we will rely primarily on civilian relief agencies. We are counting on the efforts of international organizations such as the United Nations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent, as well as various nongovernmental organizations. These groups have the expertise, personnel and equipment that can literally mean the difference between life and death. We will fund and facilitate their efforts to the greatest extent possible.

In circumstances where no U.N. agencies or nongovernmental organizations are available, the U.S. military may be required to provide limited relief. Such relief will be under the guidance of civilian experts, with the goal of getting civilian agencies into these areas as quickly as possible.

To coordinate all this activity, the U.S. government is training a 60-person civilian disaster assistance response team, the largest in U.S. history. Made up of humanitarian emergency professionals from several agencies, the team will soon have representatives in Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan and Qatar.

This crew simply didn't understand what they were getting into. It was an intelligence failure even more difficult to grasp than the fiasco over WMD -- and in this case it stemmed entirely from administration political appointees in the face of unanimous contrary advice from everywhere else in government.

They've never copped to that misunderstanding, even to themselves. That team can't save the situation.

The news from Iraq today of scattered clashes between US/Coalition forces and armed crowds and Shia paramilitaries is the worst news to come out of Iraq for months.

Measured purely in the terms of American casualties, today's death toll was not as bad as some of the bloodiest days of the occupation. Seven US soldiers were killed in what appears to have been a ferocious running battle in Sadr City, the vast Shia slum in northeast Baghdad. Two other soldiers, one American and another Salvadoran, were killed in similar clashes in Kufa. Other outbreaks of similar violence seem to have spanned the entire country.

The difference here is the type of violence and who's fighting.

Even if the US occupation had been welcomed by most Iraqis, there almost certainly still would have been major car-bombings and other terrorist acts. It's just not that hard, in that part of the world, to find people willing to strike violent blows against the US, even at the expense of their own lives. And as we've seen from Madrid, one doesn't need widespread or even any support in a country to mount such attacks.

Meanwhile, almost all the paramilitary violence -- the shootings and ambushes and roadside explosions -- have come from the Sunni minority concentrated in the center of the country.

Violence from the Sunni areas has never been difficult to understand. They lost out on privileges and status when Saddam was overthrown. And the future looked even more bleak, because the eventual handover of authority to a democratically elected government all but insured the domination of the Shia majority which the Sunnis had been lording it over for decades if not centuries.

In other words, time was never on the side of the Sunni rejectionists. From the start their interests were in destabilizing and delegitimizing the occupation.

Time, however, was very much on the side of the Shia. From a cynical viewpoint, why not let their American and Sunni enemies bloody each other into exhaustion in the central Iraq and sit back and wait on the day -- not too distant, certainly -- when they would inherit the new Iraqi state?

A central question has always been, when would the Shia come off the sidelines? A number of Sunni attacks have been aimed at triggering just that. (For a prescient analysis of this dynamic see part one of TPM's interview with Joe Wilson from last September.)

Now, they seem to have come off the sidelines with a vengeance, though the particular trigger here seems to be factional rivalry within the Shia community.

In any case, it really amounts to the same thing. Part of the myopia of the Iraq is hunky-dory crowd was not to recognize -- and in this case I'm talking really about political spinners in Washington, the policy types across the political spectrum understand this -- that the key ethno-factional groupings in the country have been hanging back and strengthening themselves to have it out with each other after we depart. As I noted earlier with the Shia, they were in no rush: why not let us kill a lot of their Sunni opponents while they prepare for the real battles -- either political or paramilitary -- after we leave?

It will be critical to see, in the coming days, whether this is one spasm of violence (organized by the young firebrand Muqtada Al-Sadr in response to being shut out of the political process by the Americans) which can be brought under control or whether this is the first day of a new phase of violence or even uprising.

The reality is that the US doesn't have anywhere enough soldiers in the country to control the place if there's this sort of widespread violence on an on-going basis. That could quickly lead to a vicious cycle which will put a virtual end to reconstruction and prevent the coming into being of any entity for us to hand the place off to. In Jefferson's ugly phrase, we may end up holding the wolf by the ears.

That's my brief take -- I'm drowning in several deadlines, so no more for now. For a more lengthy and far more knowledgable overview see Juan Cole's running coverage.

The Associated Press on the hyper-politicized Coalition Provisional Authority.

Dan Senor, a former press secretary for Spencer Abraham, the Michigan Republican who's now Energy Secretary, heads the office packed with former Bush campaign workers, political appointees and ex-Capitol Hill staffers.

One-third of the U.S. civilian workers in the press office have GOP ties, running an enterprise that critics see as an outpost of Bush's re-election effort with Iraq a top concern. Senor and others inside the coalition say they follow strict guidelines that steer clear of politics.

As the gibe around Baghdad has it, they don't call it the Republican Palace for nuthin'.

Interesting. In previous posts I've noted the inherent problem with having Philip Zelikow serve as Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission when <$NoAd$>he is a close associate of Condi Rice and was one of the three principals who ran the Bush foreign policy transition team -- a key focus of the investigation he's running.

But here's some evidence of some ability to rise above that conflict. From the new Newsweek ...

Last Monday morning 9/11 commission executive director Philip Zelikow faxed a photograph to the White House counsel's office with a note saying that if the White House didn't allow national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify in public before the commission, the photograph would"...be all over Washington in 24 hours," Newsweek has learned. The photo, from a Nov. 22, 1945, New York Times story, showed presidential chief of staff Adm. William D. Leahy, appearing before a special congressional panel investigating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The point was clear: The White House could no longer get away with the claim that Rice's appearance would be a profound breach of precedent.

A pity he has to resort to soft blackmail to get their attention. But perhaps he knows the language they understand.

An important article in the Sunday New York Times presents a long, detailed and I would say generally mixed picture of the Bush administration's handling of mounting threats of a major terrorist attack during the spring and summer of 2001.

The article makes clear that the quickening pace of threat warnings was far greater and more ominous than we've been led to believe.

"The warnings during the summer," says the article, "were more dire and more specific than generally recognized." And it provides numerous -- often chilling -- examples to demonstrate that fact.

The White House was tracking the warnings and took some steps to prepare for or possibly head off an attack. But the effort was scattered and uncoordinated and seemed to diminish in urgency and attention after a White House meeting in early July.

The plans for a renewed push against al Qaida -- which the administration has repeatedly called attention to -- were there. But there was apparently little sense of urgency behind them, especially when judged against the escalating threat level. And they were not as robust or militarily-focused as administration officials have led us to believe.

There's a lot in this article to digest. I'd say it provides a decent amount of ammunition for both sides of the debate, though the general picture is one of a White House giving only episodic attention to the escalating threats while focusing on other administration concerns like missile defense. Critics of the White House will point to the more intense focus given to the terrorist warnings around the turn of the millenium -- which Clarke himself has repeatedly noted.

I suspect the follow-on to this article will focus on who the prime movers were in taking the actions that were taken. Was it Clarke and folks like him trying, only half-successfully, to get terrorism on to the front burner? Or were Rice, Hadley and others themselves the ones pushing for the attention the threats did receive? The article seems particularly unclear on these points.

One point to keep in mind, though: the article's heavy reliance on unnamed administration officials in reconstructing the story of what happened in those crucial months. It will be interesting to see how the picture they paint holds up in the questioning of Condi Rice and the articles and further analyses that are certain to follow.

Keep in mind too that Rice's job as National Security Advisor is to coordinate the various national security related departments and agencies to deal with immediate and long-term threats. And on that count, if only in an organizational sense, the article paints a poor picture of the job she did.

Here we are again in this alternative universe in which it's front page news that Colin Powell has conceded that some of his testimony before the UN Security Council early last year was based on intelligence that was not "that solid."

I also hear that Pope has conceded that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. But I'm not sure that development garnered equal press coverage.

Since it has been a given for months that none of the speech's intelligence assessments about current programs were correct, this would seem to be a rather limited concession.

Powell is an ambiguous figure in all this. In an effort which he and his handlers went to great lengths to make known to the press at the time, he sat down at CIA headquarters for I think a couple days shortly before this appearance, and tossed out much of the more ridiculous material from Chalabi's defectors which OSD and OVP were pressing upon him. What he went with was the stuff that seemed at least more credible at the time.

Yet in the key months leading up to the war Powell also repeated particularly incendiary bits of intelligence information which we now know were already widely discredited within the Intelligence Community.

In one of the more comic and farcical strands of this story, many of the more ardent Iraq hawks and bogus intelligence schemers and dupes in and out of the administration now point to Powell as the biggest culprit in the whole manipulated intelligence fiasco. Their argument is that when it came time for the US government to make what was the closest thing to its official case -- that is, before the world at the UN -- it was Powell speaking the words, not Doug Feith or Paul Wolfowitz or Scooter Libby or anyone else.

So Powell takes the fall in their eyes because he gave that presentation and that apparently is vastly worse than a year of muscling the intelligence agencies, getting this goofiness before congress, salting it into the president's speeches and being the sources for myriad newspaper articles.

Let's touch on another matter that should have our attention: control of the electronic media on the ground in Iraq. It's become a given in some circles that whatever actually happens in Iraq over the coming months -- particularly during the handover ceremonies this summer -- will prove secondary to the fact that a highly politicized and Republican CPA will control the images on TV. The control of the electronic media -- particularly television -- will be that tight.

Print journalists are another matter. They can have the run of the place and are not so easily controlled. But images are key.

Again, it's a subject we'll return to, because a lot of work has gone into establishing the basis for such control, which is only one part of the heavy politicization of the whole operation.

One final point -- one to do with TPM and computer technology, not politics -- so skip down now if you're not interested. Thanks to everyone who's sent in advice about Tablet PCs so far. The consensus among TPM readers at least seems to be that Toshiba makes the best line of Tablets -- though some of the other brands have their admirers. A number of readers have suggested using one of these Wacom tablets for the sort of document mark-up we discussed earlier. Basically this is a little tablet you lay on your desk. And when you write on it with the pen the writing shows up on your screen. I've tried this. But I find it doesn't work for the sort of marking up of documents described earlier, or at least I can't get it to work well. We need something where you are actually writing directly on a screen. In any case, please keep the suggestions coming. They're very helpful. And they'll help us bring you more interesting and hopefully informative documents and materials that will provide context for what we discuss on the site.

According to tomorrow's Washington Post, the White House has quickly capitulated on the question of these 9,000 Clinton-era terrorism related documents that they had thus far refused to hand over to the 9/11 Commission.

The lede reads ...

The Bush administration agreed yesterday to let the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks review about 9,000 pages of documents from the Clinton archives, which the White House had earlier refused to release, despite the conclusion of federal researchers that they were relevant to the panel's work.

But then there's this: "But in comments to <$Ad$>reporters in Huntington, W.Va., McClellan declined to say whether the White House would agree to actually hand over any of the disputed documents at issue, raising the possibility of further disputes."

Is this an issue of whether the Commission gets physical custody of the documents, as opposed to reviewing them at some facility controlled by the White House, as has been the case with other material?

The article says some commission members are now raising the possibility that the White House is withholding other documents as well.

And, finally, here is what has to be the quote of the day, from Commissioner Jamie Gorelick:"We can't afford to have documents that are relevant to our inquiry being withheld on a technicality. This is not litigation. This is finding facts to help the nation, and we should not treat this as if we're adversarial parties here."

Too bad some White Houses don't seem to see it that way.