Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

A few weeks ago I sat down to read (and review) a book that I expected to like a lot. And then I didn't. I had that expectation because the subject is so rich (terroristic Islamism) and because I have such respect for the author (Paul Berman). The book is Terror and Liberalism. Here's my review in The Washington Monthly.

"Shock and awe said to many people that all we've got to do is unleash some might and people will crumble. And it turns out the fighters were a lot fiercer than we thought. Because, for example, we didn't come north from Turkey, Saddam Hussein was able to move a lot of special Republican Guard units and fighters from north to south. So the resistance for our troops moving south and north was significant resistance. On the other hand, our troops handled it, handled that resistance quite well."

Who? President George W. Bush in an interview today with Tom Brokaw aboard Air Force One. In the interview, he goes on to say that he wasn't worried because he had confidence in the plan.

Meanwhile, don't miss this report on the fall of Baghdad by Tim Judah in The New York Review Books. You know the story: the increasingly comical statements by al-Sahaf, the wildfire of rumor, the sudden collapse of the state, the looting. But like all good reportage this brings it to life, lets you experience some of it like you were there, lets you understand some of it.

Also, I've had a number of folks write in to ask recently for recommendations of books about the Middle East and/or Islam. Now, obviously, these aren't topics about which I can speak with any expertise. But I can suggest a couple that I liked and I felt I learned from. One is Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman by William Montgomery Watt. If I recall correctly this is actually an abridgement or condensation of a longer, more academically-oriented book. It's a biography of Muhammad and -- as such -- a history of the earliest origins of Islam. It's short, maybe a couple hundred pages (I'm sitting in a Starbucks right now. So I can't look at my copy.) and it's a couple decades old so I suspect it might seem a touch dated in some superficial ways.

Now, obviously the information in this book won't give you any better purchase on rebuilding Iraq, the Middle East generally, clashes of civilizations and so forth. But if you're looking to familiarize yourself with Islam this is obviously some pretty key info. I remember it as one of the better books -- better written, crafted and so forth -- I've read on the subject.

Also very worth reading is A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin. Almost every conflict in the Middle East for the last seventy or eighty years can reasonably be seen as the fall-out from or at least deeply tied to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. This is a really, really good book. One of those if you only read one book kinda books.

Finally, there's Ataturk, the most recent major biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. I'm a fan of Ataturk's and a fan of this book. If you want to learn more about the origins of modern Turkey it's not a bad place to start.

Yesterday I mentioned an article coming out about the various exile groups vying for power in post-war Iraq, and how they each have their own sponsors in the United States government. The CIA, State, DOD? Everyone's got their horse. Here's the article by Eli Lake in The New Republic. Definitely take a look. It's important.

Which is worse? That there are five or six different exile groups vying to control post-war Iraq? Or that each of those five or six groups is allied with a different arm of the United States government?

It's not quite that bad. But it's not that great an exaggeration either. We've touched on this in passing over recent weeks. But the divisions that bedeviled US Iraq politics through the 1990s haven't gotten resolved. And now they could become really acute -- especially since time is now of the essence. (Say what you will about the Iranians, they at least know who they're supporting.) Of course, the Pentagon is in league with Ahmed Chalabi's INC. For years the CIA has been backing the Iraqi National Accord headed up by Iyad Alawi -- basically made of ex-Generals and security types. State has its own theory. (To say that there is bad blood between Chalabi and Alawi is the vastest of understatements.) Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition likes Adnan Pachachi. The list goes on and on. (The Brits had issues like this in their sojourn in Arabia and Iraq.)

It's the Beltway on the Tigris. Just as the divisions of Iraqi politics got played out in Washington during the 1990s, the reverse may happen now.

Tomorrow a really good article is coming out that unpacks this aspect of the story quite nicely. I'll link to it when it goes online.

Coming soon -- the backstory on that New York Times four US bases in Iraq story that Rumsfeld knocked down.

The newsflash of the day is the surprising strength of clerically-based Shi'a groups in Iraq. Perhaps 'surprising' should be placed in edgy quotation marks, since the articles and columns appearing in today's papers are based on the comments of those who aren't surprised at all -- namely folks at State, CIA, the broader intelligence community, and region experts generally. The argument behind these critiques is not that the problem is insurmountable but that the planners of the war seem to have given the issue so little attention.

Take a look at "U.S. Planners Surprised by Strength of Iraqi Shiites," which is above-the-fold in the Post. The Times has a complementary piece on Iran infiltrating agents into southern Iraq to organize the Shi'a along lines congenial to Iran's religious and geopolitical interests.

The most interesting piece may be the column in the Times by Dilip Hiro. He explores the longstanding and distressing pattern by which in situations of anarchy or delegitimized governments, it is often the clerics who have the sole remaining base of social and political authority, and are best able to provide some measure of security and essential services.

We're still in 'too-soon-to-tell' territory. But the democratizers in the DOD camp are concerned about the situation with the Shi'as and how ably the Iranians have been playing the situation. They do have on their side the fact that the most senior and revered Shi'a clerics are not fans of the Iranians' theocratic model. There's also the counterveiling force of Iraqi and, more broadly, Arab nationalism. But will these be enough?

I still want to say more about Newt Gingrich's cartoonish performance at AEI yesterday. But for the moment I just want to discuss an interchange which Charles Krauthammer, another of the members of the panel, had with one of the questioners. (One of the most entertaining parts of the panel was the time when Gingrich's clownish, grade-school rhetoric became too much for Krauthammer, and he felt the need to pipe in with some clarifications.) A key question today is what we would do if the Iraqis elected an Islamist government. When a questioner posed this question to Krauthammer, he as much as refused to entertain it. While granting that it was a possibility, he said it was extremely unlikely since people had never freely voted for what he called 'totalitarianism.' (I think he called it an 'extreme hypothetical' or perhaps a 'radical hypothetical' -- I'll check my recording later to verify.) People in the audience tossed out the examples of Iran and Nazi Germany, which are at best flawed examples, since in neither case did a majority of the population vote for the government that came to power. But it has happened, exactly this, as recently as 1992 in Algeria. The Islamist party, the FIS, was winning what no one doubted was a free election when the military stepped in and annulled the results of the election. (The one saving grace in Iraq may be the inability of Shi'a and Sunni Islamist to come together politically, let alone religiously.)

In its own way Krauthammer's comment was the most disturbing part of the presentation since it was an example of the one thing none of us can really afford: the temptation to cling to ideologically-driven assumptions over observed facts.

Next Up: the administration's get-out-quick camp's stated desire to avoid the appearance of being colonizers or occupiers and why this is the most ridiculous sort of cop-out.

"Zubaydi was picked up by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) exile group's militia, the Free Iraqi Forces, and turned over to the U.S. Central Command yesterday, the official said."

That's the third graf in Walter Pincus's piece in Tuesday's Post.

A couple days ago, Saddam's son-in-law Jamal Mustafa Abdallah returned from Syria and turned himself in to members of the INC 'militia'.

Then there's the headline in Tuesday's Washington Times: 'INC says it's closing in on Saddam'.

It's not too early to start asking just what's going on here. We already know that the Pentagon airlifted Chalabi and several hundred of his 'Free Iraqi Forces' into Iraq not only over the objections of many others in the administration but apparently without even notifying many of them.

The question everyone is asking today is whether the Pentagon -- and the Bush administration more broadly -- is going to try to install Chalabi as the head of a new Iraqi government or at least tip the scales decisively in his favor.

(My new column in The Hill this week discusses the Chalabi question, some of his background, and how this may all come back to bite us.)

I think it's clear that that is precisely what's happening. Is Chalabi's militia just getting really lucky grabbing all these guys? Or is the Pentagon working with him on these captures, making him privy to US intelligence, using his 'militia' as a proxy, or simply letting it be known that if you want to turn yourself in, they're the ones to go to?

More generally, Iraq is currently under US occupation. That means the US military is responsible for law, order and security in the country, as well as the apprehension of potential war criminals or former regime leaders. An occupying power usually doesn't look very kindly on self-declared 'militias' freelancing around the country trying to set up their own de facto authorities. The situation is different with the peshmergas in Iraqi Kurdistan since the Kurds have had de facto self-rule for a number of years. But under just what authority is Chalabi's crew operating? Under whose auspices?

If our plan is that the INC militia is to be the basis of the new Iraqi army -- as some suggest -- that makes a mockery of our claim that we're not favoring any particular leader.

Most of Chalabi's supporters in Washington understand that he has little support inside the country. They think, however, that he's earned a right to at least a shot at leading Iraq because of his work on the outside agitating for regime change over the years. On top of that, they believe that the sort of Iraq he'd help create would be the best both for the Iraqis and for us.

So what to do about the fact that he's got no constituency in the country and the fact that the Iraqis seem hostile to the idea of being governed by emigres? Well, the thinking goes something like this ... America's got a lot of stuff. Stuff? Well, money, water purifiers, electrical generators, medicine, you name it, all sorts of stuff.

But who becomes the conduit for that stuff? If that conduit happened to be someone like Ahmed Chalabi that would be a very good way of building up a constituency on the ground in the country.

If this is what we're up to, it's something that should really be debated.

Rumsfeld Neo-Con Mau-Mau Guidebook, p. 46, "Powell Knock-Down Checklist"

1. Former government official (check)

2. Member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (check)

3. Fellow at AEI (check)

4. Willing to do a lot of media (check)

5 ...

Okay, I admit. This is kind of cool -- at least to me. My college alumni magazine profiled me, or rather, profiled TPM.

Over the last several months I've become widely associated with what might be called the 'botched diplomacy' hypothesis. (The Wall Street Journal Online, for what it's worth, disparagingly called me the "brains behind the Democrats' 'botched diplomacy' spin.") Well, now I'm getting some high-profile support ... from Newt Gingrich.

AEI had a big confab this morning at which Gingrich announced his support for precisely this argument. (His presentation was previewed in the Post this morning.) American diplomacy, he argued, has been an unmitigated disaster over the last several months.

Here's a taste ...

The State Department communications program failed during these five months to such a degree that 95 percent of the Turkish people opposed the American position. This fit in with a pattern of State Department communications failures as a result of which the South Korean people regarded the United States as more dangerous than North Korea and a vast majority of French and German citizens favored policies that opposed the United States.
Only there's a catch. As the above quotation implies, the problem isn't with the Bush administration or its policies. It's all due to the meddling of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. The reason the Europeans and the Turks and everyone else turned against us isn't because of Bush administration policy. It's because the State Department and the particularly the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs refused to implement Bush administration policy.

The answer? Purge the State Department.

(Note to all members of the conintern: Stop zagging! Time to zig! (What's the reference? See Novick, That Noble Dream, p. 419) The inevitability-of-no-international-support party line is no longer operative. We're on to State Department betrayal. Crib-sheets for the new argument can be picked up at the AEI front desk, laminated wallet-sized versions available at ATR.)

Ever since that whole elective office gig didn't pan out, Gingrich has been casting around for a new angle. And this would seem to be it. Gingrich's rhetorical palette remains about the same as ever: red, yellow, orange and hot orange. So we'll of course be saying much more about this.

Sometimes the best short-n-sweet bit of information for the day is contained is Chris Nelson's staccato, rat-tat-tat run-down of the day's events that introduces each day's edition of The Nelson Report. Here's today's ...

Kelly on the way to Beijing for N. Korea meeting, Bush meets again today on Syria. What each has in common is role of Colin Powell in urging diplomacy, and Bush's willingness to listen. Rumsfeld & DOD hawks were ready to send troops into Syria "in hot pursuit" before Bush said "no". And Rumsfeld was against holding the Beijing/DPRK talks, until Bush said "yes", at Powell's urging. Then the hawks tried to substitute Bolton for Kelly, the approximate equivalent of a MOAB, but Powell prevailed. So, reports of Powell's demise exaggerated…for now. Question is, are the "adults" really in charge (the optimist's view) or is Powell the guy who grabs the steering wheel when the bus driver hits 100 mph?
Also, do not miss this article from the Israeli daily Ha'aretz on the apparent breakdown in talks between Arafat and Palestinian PM-designate Abu Mazen. The deal-breaker, it seems, is that Mazen is demanding the authority to dismantle Fatah's Al Aqsa Brigades and other Palestinian paramilitary groups, and also make Mohammed Dahlan head of security.

It's not clear that the short-term outcome here is going to be a good one. Arafat is apparently now reaching out to other potential prime ministerial candidates -- presumably ones he can reliably control. But the deeper story seems very positive: the emergence of something like conventional politics, the open vetting of the crucial issues and thus the possibility of democratic accountability. More than anything else, it's the splintering of unitary power within the Palestinian authority and the possibility of having the crucial political questions hashed out with some degree of openness rather than by violence and opaque factional in-fighting. This is important. And, potentially, good news for everyone.