Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I've had a slew of readers writing in and asking -- or insisting -- that the raid on the Baghdad home of Ahmed Chalabi and INC headquarters was, if not staged, then conducted with the intent of boosting Chalabi's popularity by appearing to place him at odds with the American occupiers. (The idea, you might say, would be to Sadr-ize him.) Indeed, one of those notes came from someone who I'd describe as loosely affiliated with the United States military establishment and quite knowledgable about Iraq and the Middle East at large.

So could this be true?

I have no direct knowledge. I just got back from a few meetings. And I've had no time to make any calls yet. But I'm very skeptical of this interpretation.

I don't doubt that some of Chalabi's Washington supporters have encouraged him to take a more oppositional stand toward the occupation authorities to bolster his own popularity. But there are many US government players in Iraq right now. And many of them really are hostile to Chalabi.

Something quite that orchestrated would, I suspect, be far too difficult to pull-off. And are we dealing here with smooth operators? Answers itself, doesn't it?

One other point: You only have to look next door to see what happens to American puppets after they have their fallings-out with the Americans. Clue: They don't get embraced by the other side. In fact, that guy from nextdoor was lucky to get out of the country in one piece.

Another theory -- or at least a portion of one -- is contained in an article appearing this morning in Salon by Andrew Cockburn. The article points to US government suspicions that Chalabi may be plotting against the soon to be announced caretaker government, chosen by American officials and UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi.

Cockburn notes Chalabi's continued efforts to ally himself with Shia sectarian groups in Iraq, particularly the new umbrella group he's created, variously translated as the Shiite Political Council or the Supreme Shia Council (I'm assuming these titles I've seen referred to are in fact the same group).

Cockburn mentions that Chalabi's new Shia sectarian faction includes members of Iraqi Hezbollah. And though he doesn't mention him by name, I believe he is referring in particular to a man named Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, a key member of Iraqi Hezbollah.

Chalabi's dwindling number of Washington supporters have awkwardly claimed that his efforts to ally himself with Shia Islamist groups in Iraq is an evidence of their man's 'pragmatism', recognizing the political realities of the country and adjusting accordingly. This is an echo of their pre-invasion efforts to explain the copious funding Chalabi received from the government of Iran, which, in case you hadn't noticed, is not supposed to be a great friend of ours.

If you're looking for any entertainment, any silver lining to this mess, watch the faces of the hardest core Chalabistas and watch the less and less subtle ripples of chagrin on their faces as their man more and more publicly shows how much he played them for fools.

It's an obvious question really, but worth asking, worth considering: How long do we think the administration, the CPA, the UN and whoever else now has a finger in the pie will wait to announce what government, even what sort of government we'll be handing 'sovereignty' over to at the end of June?

What's the absolute latest you can imagine? A month? A week? Could it be like one of Bill Clinton's state of the union addresses where they're fiddling with the small print until a couple hours before showtime?

I'd be surprised if they came up with a plan by the end of this month and I cannot imagine they'd leave it until less than a week before June 30th.

But just step back and look at how crazy this is: we've run Iraq for more than a year, spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the whole effort, lost many of our own sons and daughters as well as many Iraqis. And here you have what is arguably the big issue: who you hand the place off to and how you hand it off to them. And it's left to the last minute, with the powers that be having to ditch almost everything that has come up until this point and start from scratch.

The market in examples for how badly the Bush team has bungled this situation is admittedly glutted. But even if they're now going for a dime a dozen this is really one to marvel at.

Now, another related point: the increasing velocity and ferocity of war-hawks trying to shift the blame for their own goofs by inventing a new stab-in-the-back theory (nicely patterned on the original one from Weimar Germany) to cushion their consciences from the brunt of recognizing the dire pass to which their own foolishness and reckless zeal have brought their country.

The chief example I've seen -- though there must be many others -- is John Podhoretz's column in The New York Post from last Friday, May 14th.

The column is a string of accusations. The first is against The New York Times for, according to Podhoretz, blaming the United States, rather than his murderers, for Nick Berg's death. "The Times," writes Podhoretz, in concluding this section of his piece, "is leading the mainstream media in turning the United States into the bad guys in Iraq."

Podhoretz's evidence is an article in the Times which reports the Berg family's claims that the Bush administration somehow bears some of the blame for their son's death.

Now, just as Berg's death shouldn't have been cynically exploited by Bush partisans, what his family says shouldn't be exploited in the other direction. But simply reporting what the family says in a news article hardly seems to merit anything Podhoretz says. What he wants is a black-out on anything the family says -- and that in the context of the saturation coverage of the murder itself -- because it is politically off-message.

Then there's the Time magazine cover with an Abu Ghraib image which reads "Iraq: How Did It Come to This?"

After blowing some smoke about the war's aim of "liberat[ing] 25 million people and rout[ing] Islamic extremists, terrorists and those who thirst for the mass murder of Americans" Podhoretz calls the Time cover "a vile and grotesque slander against every American in uniform in Iraq."

At length, the column concludes with these four grafs ...

So let's be clear what's going on here. As we speak, 138,000 Americans are serving under dangerous conditions in Iraq. And our forces in Karbala are fighting against the goons and thugs of Muqtada al-Sadr with some success. They're risking their lives for freedom and honor and duty and love of country.

And conventional liberal opinion wants them to lose.

Conventional liberal opinion believes that the Abu Ghraib photos are the true meaning of the war, and that Nick Berg is just another victim of callous U.S. policy.

Conventional liberal opinion is actively seeking the humiliation and defeat of the United States in Iraq.

Let's be a little more clear about what's going on here. Having led the country perilously close to humiliation and defeat, the architects of the war want to shift the blame for what's happened to their opponents who either said the whole thing was a mistake in the first place or criticized the incompetence of its execution as it unfolded. They take the blame, the moral accountability, by 'wishing' for a bad result. That at least is Podhoretz's reasoning.

If ever there was an example of moral up-is-downism, this is it. And claiming that their political opponents -- liberal, in Podhoretz's usage here, is just a catch-all -- want defeat and humiliation for their country is certainly the most gutterish sort of slander there is.

There's something almost uncomfortable about watching the mix of desperation, panicked zeal and projection evidenced in Podhoretz's column. It's like the pornography of watching someone beg for his life or shift the blame onto someone else when they've been caught in the act -- with the added twist of spasms of aggression mixed in. But on a broader level, it's in character. Not for Podhoretz -- this isn't at all directed at him as a person -- but for the movement, the crew, he's part of and is trying to defend.

How'd we get into this? After 50 years of pretty consistently prudential foreign policy, managed mostly on a consensus of bipartisan agreement (yes, there are exceptions, but by and large, true), they decided to bet the national ranch on an idea. Actually it was a series of ideas, wrapped together in an odd tangle that could look like an odd jumble when viewed from outside. The key, however, was betting the national ranch on steep odds.

Only, they weren't confident the country would get behind such a riverboat gamble. So they lied about what they were doing. They didn't trust the people -- which might be an epitaph we should return to.

Now, what do we expect of people who make reckless gambles with other people's money? Of people who can't discipline themselves enough to distinguish between their hopes and reality? What do you expect of that ne'er-do-well relative who's always hitting you up for a loan because he's come up with a sure thing?

Do you expect those sorts of folks to take responsibility when things go bad? Or do you expect them to blame others?

Character, alas, really does count.

Frequently, when I read a column by Bill Safire, I have to think to myself: who was the editor on this piece? And what must he or she have thought when they were editing this stuff? Read the man's column for Wednesday's paper and it has about as much coherence and rationality as one of your more loopy C-Span ranters just before Brian Lamb mercifully hits the button and sends him off into telephonic oblivion.

This piece is such a clotted mix of discredited ridiculousness, slurs, false claims of racism, disinformation and lies that it's hard to know where to start.

But allow me a few examples.

First, there's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Safire is still claiming that back before the invasion Zarqawi's group was working not just within Iraq's international borders but at the behest of Saddam Hussein. In other words, Safire is still relying on the say-so of the folks who peddled the most discredited of pre-war intel mumbojumbo. Apparently he hasn't gotten the word. The line is still open to Chalabi, who finally got cut off by the Pentagon this week and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith, the guy who put the FU in FUBAR.

(Remember how Zarqawi was supposed to have had his leg amputated in Baghdad before the war? Notice how he now seems to have two legs?)

Then there's the about-to-be-found caches of biological weapons. For a few months after the war, Safire and similar folks claimed that we weren't finding the goods because scientists were still afraid Saddam might make a come back -- after all, he and other high-value targets were still on the loose. Never a very probable theory -- and one pretty well disproved by the deaths of Saddam's sons and Saddam's eventual capture.

Now Safire has a new theory. "In a sovereign and free Iraq, when germ-warfare scientists are fearful of being tried as prewar criminals, their impetus will be to sing — and point to caches of anthrax and other mass killers."

To use a much-overused line, you can't make this stuff up. It transcends self-parody.

Conservatives hunting for media-bias in the Times often pick on its more liberal columnists. In fact, if there's bias to be found, it's in Safire. Only lack of interest and respect for conservative opinion can fully explain Safire's continued presence on the page.

Thank you, thank you and ... well, thank you.

We posted our TPM reader survey overnight last night. And the response has been amazing. As of late this evening, we're just shy of 20,000 responses. To be specific, as of 11:30 PM here on the east coast, we're at 19,448.

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Here's one of the Democratic candidates that everyone is excited about. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for the open Senate seat in Illinois. And now his campaign's got a blog.

In this new piece, Fred Kaplan hits on key point in the unfolding prison abuse scandal -- one that is, oddly, easy to overlook with all the daily revelations.

Set aside, for the moment, the underlying claims and misdeeds. Right out of the gate, multiple officials at the White House and the Pentagon pretty clearly lied about their own roles in putting in place the policies that led directly to what was taking place in those photos and went along with trying to pin the whole thing on these half dozen jokers whose pictures we've now seen again and again.

The whole progression of the story has an odd doubled-up quality. On the one hand we have repeated claims from top officials insisting that the abuses were the isolated work of a few miscreants. Then, simultaneously, we have numerous stories showing specific policy decisions (often confirmed on the record by slightly lower-level officials) which sanctioned pretty close to all the stuff we're seeing in those photos, even if not quite practiced with the same relish and glee.

This new article in Tuesday's Times says that the the head of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib apparently put military police at the disposal of interrogators and gave them orders to do stuff like strip detainees, shackle them and generally give them a working over (though only, he said, when there was "some good reason"). But, along with this, there was no superivision of what they were doing and no guidelines or rules given to them saying what was acceptable and what wasn't. And remember, this isn't the testimony of a disinterested observer, but rather someone who is on the line for a lot of it and who presumably has an interest in putting the best face possible on the situation.

At a minimum, that sounds like giving benzine, some cordite, a gallon of gas, firecrackers, and a hundred rolls of toilet paper to some teenagers, telling them to see if they could put it all together to have some fun in the neighborhood on Friday night and then leaving them to their own devices.

And, remember, that's the generous interpretation.

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The one point of solace Republicans find today in the polls is this fact: despite how egregiously bad 2004 has thus far gone for President Bush, and regardless of the broad deterioration in the president's poll numbers, John Kerry is still, at best, only a few points ahead of him. And in some cases he's not ahead at all.

This leads to the conclusion -- their conclusion -- that Kerry is a terribly weak candidate, or is running an awful campaign, because he cannot even open up a serious lead against a president whose presidency seems on the verge of collapse on so many fronts.

There's a related line of criticism from Kerry's Democratic partisans. Why is he so silent? With the mix of poor values and incompetent leadership that is at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal, why isn't he out there affirmatively making the case against the president?

I've been listening to these criticisms for some time. Indeed, in a pretty prominent venue last month, I made an argument that was at least partly along these lines.

But I've begun to think that all of this is misguided, that whether by design or accident -- and I'm not at all sure which it is -- Kerry is doing more or less exactly what he should.

There are a number of ideas I want to air along these lines. But for now let me start with just a few.

First, what to make of the head-to-head numbers, which show the two candidates close to neck-n-neck down in the mid-to-low 40s? Nothing bad for Kerry, I'd say. Presidents who can't even get near 50% approval going into an election end up losing. It's that simple. In fact, presidents who are a lot closer to 40% than 50% end up getting crushed.

Bush's low numbers are almost infinitely more significant than Kerry's in that regard. Kerry hasn't even been officially nominated yet. He doesn't have a running mate. And the intensity of the news cycle makes it hard for him to get too much face time with the American people.

Now, here's the point I'd like to discuss in a bit more detail: the fact that Kerry can't get a lot of attention to himself right now or that he's not seizing the opportunity to make the case against Bush. I don't think this is a bad thing at all. At least not for now.

Let's think of this battle as a prize fight, with both men in the ring. If you're up on points and the seconds are ticking down on the final round, what do you do?

Simple: stay out of his way.

Trying to land punches when he's desperate and going down gives him the opportunity to hit back. And in such a dire moment that may be all he has. Why give him the opportunity?

With all we're seeing in Iraq right now, does anyone really need to 'make the case'? I'd say the case is making itself. For anyone who can't see it, the case probably can't be made.

The boxing analogy doesn't work perfectly. But let me explain what I'm getting at and get this back to concrete points.

The most salient fact about the contemporary American political landscape is its profound political polarization. And that is almost the last thing the president has going for him. There are forty-plus percent of the electorate on both sides that will stick with their candidate, and fight for him, simply because he opposes the other side. I think that that's one of the few things keeping the president's approval ratings as high as they are.

Further injecting partisan political sensibilities into this current moment will, I think, steady the president and perhaps even help him in his current state.

Of course, that moment can't be avoided. By the late summer and into the fall, the political climate will become intensely polarized as the two campaigns and all their official and unofficial surrogate organizations start pouring money into paid advertising, after the conventions run, and then eventually when the debates are held.

But for now it's salutary for the Democrats to have President Bush the focus -- near exclusively -- of attention. There is, I think, a coalescing sense that President Bush is a failed president -- that key and grave decisions he has made have been the wrong ones and that his leadership and management have been deeply flawed on many fronts. The public mind -- though in a sense a fiction to describe the individial cogitation of three hundred million individuals -- is a powerful reality. And if we look into the 'internals' in these recent polls I think we can see it turning against the president.

Take the president's declining numbers on terrorism.

For more than two years this has been the president's strongest number -- one that stayed strong even after support for his policies on Iraq or the economy declined. I've long thought that this number -- more than any other -- was a measure of public confidence in the president's strength and fortitude.

I say this because, what is confidence in his ability to fight terror a measure of? To judge the president in this regard, all we can really go on is the fact that no other major terrorist incident has occurred within the US.

The other signs are in most cases hidden from the public eye -- or if not hidden, not easily seen. Policy wonks may get into studies about money put into security at America's major seaports or what the president is doing to get the FBI into shape to combat terror. But that's deep in the weeds where few non-policy wonks venture.

In the case of Iraq, the public has something to look at: Iraq. The president's numbers were once very strong on Iraq. But they've fallen dramatically as visible reality has overwhelmed whatever people's assumptions about the president's leadership may have been. Same with the economy.

But, again, on terrorism there's much less concrete for the public to look at. So I think that measure is much more an intuitive sense, a general gut sense of the man himself. And that number -- so long so high -- is now falling and falling fast.

The new CNN/Time poll has Bush leading Kerry on this question by a mere 7 points -- his highest spread on any question.

Why is it falling? There hasn't been a terrorist attack. There were the Clarke revelations, yes. But I don't think these account for the change, at least not in themselves. I think they're falling because Iraq and other failures are eroding the public's belief that the president knows what he's doing and making people believe that his 'toughness', if it exists, is not directed in any productive or beneficial direction.

Now, as I say, the partisan polarization will intensify in the coming months. And that will help the president in many ways, getting some of the attention off him and on to Kerry. But a judgment about the president like the one I've described above, once made, can be hard to unmake. And for the moment, with so many of the president's actions delivering abysmal dividends to the nation he's led, that judgment is being made against the president. So, for the moment, I'm not sure having Kerry give Bush center stage is such a bad thing.

As I said earlier this morning, here's the latest <$NoAd$>update from my friend in Iraq, a retired military intelligence officer, now working as a security contractor in Iraq ...

Hey Josh,

Sorry about the delay but I have been out on the streets more than usual these days despite the micro-Intifada in the South.

Let me answer your questions:

Q1. From on the ground, how would you rate the effects of Abu Ghraib on the population at large and on the morale of Iraqis who are at the moment working with us?

A1: Abu Ghuraib just confirmed what we have been hearing here for a long time. I am amazed that the ICRC didn't push this forcefully. It is very easy to find people who have been in the prison and could make statements to that effect. What I am sure amazed the ICRC was the callousness of the Bush administration blowing off eye-witness testimony of ICRC delegates in the prison. It had to be done with pictures and I applaud and honor the men who blew the whistle ... If I was the NCOIC of that place I would have been filing courts martial papers just to make sure it was indestructibly document that things were going on ... Someone obviously did something official for General Taguba to be sent there.

The Iraqi people, even my 150 staff think the Americans are essentially not welcome anymore. They fear for their security but would rather go through a cataclysm with a new Iraqi police and army as their security force, rather than be occupied by the Americans. Then they could work through the system and know that their security was in their hands ... Trust me I am training 40 Iraqi bodyguards and the demand is getting serious. Listen Josh, EVERYONE outside of the Green Zone, Iraqis Westerners and Americans alike refer to the CPA and the US Army as "The AMERICANS" as if they were a third-party nation.

No one sees them as part of the solution anymore but as a foreign entity that does as it likes and pisses everybody off in the process. The thinking in the usually suspicious Iraqi mind is that this is still being staged to seize control of their oil... Well that's been done but now they think the domestic troubles like the bad electricity (3 hours on, three hours off) the major Dysentery outbreak in the tap water this week (all of us have been ill due to our cooks washing with tap water) and the inability to drive down the street without having a Hummvee point rifles at you (or worse yet explode next to you) is punishment or, more accurately, incompetence.

Abu Ghuraib was always part of their belief that the Bush Administration would "do anything" to defeat the Baathists. One guy said "you hired the Baathist Intelligence back and now you are doing as they are doing." Well that's not exactly true. We're more open about it. But as long as we are seen as occupiers we will never earn the trust of the Iraqi people. Turning over in a month to a new set of lackeys (here they call them Lougies ... Iraqi Arabic for "fawning Brown-noser") and asking them to invite us to stay and continue our ways is absolutely laughed at.

Q2. I’ve heard rumors that the DOD had instructed Halliburton or other contractors to cut off internet access to troops, at least for all but non-essential stuff. Heard anything about that?

A2: No, Internet seems to be humming along ... Now, at some of the more remote field camps they may have them off but not at the CPA. That place would shut down without Internet because they NEVER leave the Green Zone.

Q3. Was any of the AbuG stuff known on the street, as it were? Was this stuff an open secret, even if people hadn't seen the pics?

A3: As I said above, it was an open secret because guys were being released and complaining ... The ICRC was inspecting the place and dropping hints. Al Jazeera had done pieces on torture there and had interviewed people. Here in Iraq it was an anecdotal-evidence-supported ASSUMPTION. Until confirmed by photos we didn't know the depth of it. Remember, they chose a really high ranking General (Taguba) to documented this, which means it burned hot in the craw at Central Command when they found out it was true. Taguba showing up meant that they probably intended to court martial or dismiss the General in charge. Also it is no secret that ON THE STREET the US Army was and remains openly kicking Iraqi asses whenever and wherever they want to.

About the Army - Man, it hurts my heart to write this about an institution I dearly love but this army is completely dysfunctional, angry and is near losing its honor. We are back to the Army of 1968. I knew we were finished when I had a soldier point his Squad Automatic Weapons at me and my bodyguard detail for driving down the street when he decided he would cross the street in the middle of rush hour traffic (which was moving at about 70 MPH) ... He made it clear to any and all that he was preparing to shoot drivers who did not stop for his jaunt because speeding cars are "threats."

I also once had a soldier from a squad of Florida National Guard reservists raise weapons and kick the door panel of a clearly marked CPA security vehicle (big American flag in the windshield of a $150,000 armored Land Cruiser) because they wanted us to back away from them so they could change a tire ... as far as they were concerned WE (non-soldiers) were equally the enemy as any Iraqi.

Unlike the wars of the past 20 years where the Army encouraged (needed) soldiers, NGOs, allies and civil organizations to work together to resolve matters and return to normal society, the US Forces only trust themselves here and that means they set their own limits and tolerances. Abu Ghuraib are good examples of that limit. I told a Journalist the other day that these kids here are being told that they are chasing Al Qaeda in the War on Terrorism so they think everyone at Abu Ghuraib had something to do with 9/11. So they were encouraged to make them pay. These kids thought they were going to be honored for hunting terrorists.

Best, [Name Suppressed]

More soon.