Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

This will be a shorter post than might be expected under the circumstances because I am, shall we say, reporting directly from the official TPM sickbed. Some sort of cold or flu, not sure which, but plenty nasty.

In any case, the big news of the day: the capture of Saddam.

Clearly, this is very big news and very good news on all sorts of levels. In the United States we've long become accustomed to treating Saddam as a symbol, a shorthand involved in all sorts of political arguments in our country.

But on a day like this it's worth stepping back and remembering that this was a man who took what is probably the most educated, cultured, and close to the most wealthy country in the Arab middle east and ground it down almost into dust over more than thirty years of rule (Saddam was the de facto ruler of the country prior to becoming the official head of state.) He tortured and killed untold numbers of his own people and launched two unnecessary and, for his own country, disastrous wars.

(Here's some interesting and surreal material from Saddam's initial interrogation.)

Yet, looking forward from today, there is one fundamental question: was Saddam Hussein central to the guerilla war or resistance fighting in Iraq? Either operationally or as a symbol (the person they were trying to put back in power)?

I've never thought either was true. And if it's not, then his capture should not fundamentally change the situation on the ground in the country.

From the beginning, I think, we've explained to ourselves that the reason the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq hasn't gone according to plan is that the resistance is being run by Saddam or his people or that the Iraqis won't get down to work on rebuilding their country until they're sure Saddam isn't coming back, until the veil of fear is lifted, etc.

In other words, they're not acting like they're liberated because, in a sense, their liberation is not complete.

This after all was the reason for making such a show of the deaths of Saddam's sons -- as a symbol that any sort of dynastic hand-off would be impossible.

That, again, was the idea. But I don't think we've seen any real evidence that it's true.

There's no question most Iraqis hate Saddam. But since the invasion I think Saddam has been mainly a thing of the past. The problems we face on the ground in Iraq are ones of the present.

Along those lines, in this article out this afternoon, Fareed Zakaria argues that Saddam's capture may be part of a more widespread cooperation on the part of Iraqis with US troops, which is garnering more and better intelligence for US forces. That seems plausible. And if better intelligence can be matched up with -- and this remains the heart of the matter -- a better political strategy on the ground in Iraq and internationally, then there may be hope of a good outcome.

Okay, this may call for what, back in the old days, we used to call reporting.

Yesterday, President Bush said that if Halliburton's overcharged then they've gotta pay up.

"I appreciate the Pentagon looking out after the taxpayers' money," the president said. "They put the issue right out there on the table for everybody to see, and they're doing good work. We're going to watch, we're going to make sure that as we spend the money in Iraq that it's spent well and spent wisely. And their investigation will lay the facts out for everybody to see."

Yet, just a week earlier, acting on the president's orders, the Deputy Secretary of Defense signed a directive which hamstrung precisely the sort of internal audits of the funds Congress just approved for work in Iraq -- just the sort of crackerjack oversight the president says he loves.

Earth to daily newspaper reporters: these two things don't match up.

Don't be scared off. This one doesn't even require any serious investigtive reporting. Just get a hold of the December 3rd memo Paul Wolfowitz wrote, which set up the IG's office that Congress authorized to oversee the money to be disbursed under the 2004 Emergency Supplemental.

C'mon, you can do it! I believe in you!

Department of the ugly <$NoAd$>truth ...

If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of ... I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true and get on about the business.

George W. Bush on the Plame Investigation
University of Chicago
September 30, 2003

And then more recently...

We have let the earth-movers roll in over this one (i.e. the Plame investigation).

"Senior White House official"
Financial Times
December 5th, 2003

If you slap the press around enough and keep your people's mouths shut you usually get what you want.

Usually ...

There are a bunch of right-wingers out there thumping their chests about how we're right to stick it to the Europeans and make them pay a price for not supporting us -- as though the issue here were justice for French multi-nationals ("Free Le Such-n-Such!").

Guys, they don't need our contracts.

The issue isn't that this policy is unfair but that it's stupid. As those notorious Francophiles Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan put in a column in the Standard yesterday, this policy is "stupid, and should be abandoned."

Some folks seem to be under the misimpression that there's some clever bargaining going on here. There's not.

Think about it. The whole pot is about $20 billion. Let's imagine the French and the Germans both got fabulously lucky and their companies managed to land contracts for a billion a piece. Does anyone think that Germany or France are going to write off billions of dollars in Iraqi loans or invite a backlash from their anti-Iraq war publics by sending in some troops all for the privilege of having the French or German versions of Halliburton or Bechtel make a few million dollars?

Of course, not.

The heart of the matter here is that for some folks there's a certain failure to appreciate the situation we're in.

Think back to your grade school science class.

We're like the Saber-toothed Tiger sinking into the tar pit. And over on dry land are a few giraffes munching away on some leaves. And we're taunting them with what terms we're going to give them to buy into the good thing we've got going on.

Yes, an over-dramatic metaphor. But you get the idea.

What a surprise ...

When Congress voted the $87 billion for military expenditures and reconstruction in Iraq they were keen to create an office of Inspector General at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to watch out for all manner of waste, fraud, abuse, price gouging and various other shenanigans.

Now it seems that Paul Wolfowitz has gutted that provision.

According to Inside the Pentagon, a weekly newsletter, "Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz last week directed a newly formed inspector general's office in Iraq not to request sensitive information about Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) activities related to intelligence or operational plans."

The report goes on to quote Wolfowitz's order ...

In his statement, upon approving the act, the president directed that, in exercising these authorities and responsibilities, the IG/CPA shall refrain from initiating, carrying out, or completing an audit or investigation, or from issuing a subpoena, which requires access to sensitive operation plans, intelligence matters, counterintelligence matters, ongoing criminal investigations by other administration units of the [Defense Department] related to national security, or other matters the disclosure of which would constitute a serious threat to national security.

In plain English, that sounds a lot like the IG should refrain from doing anything.

On the surface, you can see why you wouldn't want green-eye-shade types rustling through sensitive intelligence and war-fighting information willy-nilly.

But common sense also tells you that all the other IGs at the Pentagon must have to work with classified information all the time. So certainly they've worked out some way of dealing with these issues. And as the article goes to say, they have.

"In the Defense Department," says Inside the Pentagon, "auditors with appropriate clearances have access to all internal information deemed necessary to carry out their duties."

But under the new rules IGs can only make the kinds of requests noted above "if so directed by the defense secretary."

That makes the new CPA IG sound a tad less than fully independent, doesn't it?

Again, according to the article, the highly restrictive rules Wolfowitz has set forth for the CPA Inspector General are different from those which apply to all the rest of the Pentagon.

Don't you feel better now?

A few people have suggested that the whole brouhaha over the contracts is largely symbolic since even countries that are barred from bidding on the top-tier contracts can bid on the subcontracts. So, in other words, everyone gets a piece of the action and everyone is happy.

That's not what I hear.

The big contracts are where the real money is -- or, more specifically, where you get the comfortable margins and the insulation from risk. Down the food chain, the competition is stiffer, the margins are leaner and the risks are greater -- sort of like in old fashioned capitalism.

This operation really runs like a well-oiled machine, doesn't it.

Almost half of the 700 members of the first battalion of the new Iraqi army to undergo training have, in the Pentagon's words, 'resigned.'

(Reports last night said close to a third had bailed. But it seems like they're just putting a different spin on the same number: roughly 300 out of 700.)

I thought that when enlisted men hit the road without permission that's called desertion, not resignation. But who knows?

D'oh! ... Let's try again to get our story straight.

Out-going Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien told a press conference today that in a private phone call President Bush told him not to believe reports that Canada would be cut out of the contract bids.

"He was telling me basically not to worry," said Chretien, "so I said 'thank you."'

LATE UPDATE: And there's more ... Responding to Chretien's comments this afternoon, President Bush explained that he was only referring to the subcontracts -- i.e., the ones for which eligibility is open even to the rankest of appeasers!

From this morning's <$NoAd$>gaggle ...

Q So you're not backing away at all from blocking France, Germany, or Canada?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think I made our view very clear yesterday, John, and I also made very clear that if others want to join in the efforts of the coalition and the efforts of the Iraqi people, then circumstances can change.

However, when you look at the president's comments after the Cabinet meeting, he seems to equivocate: No money unless you've contributed troops, but then maybe debt reduction will do the trick too ...

"I asked President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder and President Putin to see Jim Baker, to talk about debt restructuring. If these countries want to participate in helping the world become more secure by enabling Iraq to emerge as a free and peaceful country, one way to contribute is through debt restructuring" Q You seem to be saying that the boots on the ground are the only qualifications for -- but what about the forgiveness of debt? Isn't that a fairly substantial --

THE PRESIDENT: It is, it would be a significant contribution, for which we would be very grateful. What I'm saying is, in the expenditure of taxpayer's money -- and that's what we're talking about now -- the U.S. people, the taxpayers understand why it makes sense for countries that risk lives to participate in the contracts in Iraq. It's very simple. Our people risk their lives. Coalition -- friendly coalition folks risk their lives, and, therefore, the contracting is going to reflect that. And that's what the U.S. taxpayers expect.

So now the contract ban is a squeeze play meant to get the Euros to forgive Iraq's debts, eh?

Check back later for a discussion of why this leaves two possibilities ... a) whoever is in charge of overseeing this policy is totally disorganized or b) whoever is in charge of overseeing this policy is a complete moron.

Today, the President defended the <$Ad$>decision to bar NATO allies France and Germany from bidding on Iraqi reconstruction contracts.

"If these countries want to participate in helping the world become more secure, by enabling Iraq to emerge as a free and peaceful country, one way to contribute is through debt restructuring," the president said.

Now, along these lines and the Baker mission, once in a blue moon, TPM runs a guest post. And this is one of those cases. The following is from someone whom, after some lengthy negotiation, I've agreed to call a 'former high-level Democratic executive branch appointee.'

Here's this person's take on the Baker mission ...

Aspiring to the light touch under dire circumstances, perhaps we can say of Iraq what Casey Stengel said about one of his Mets third basemen: “He’s got third base so screwed up, nobody can play it right.” Iraq is the site of so many mistakes, who can the Administration call on to win the game?

The answer is, as so often before in Bush Family history, Jim Baker. Only the naive can think his mission – special part-time job (so conflicts of interest will not need to be disclosed), with plane, staff, and direct report to President – is about renegotiating Iraq’s debt obligations, as if he were restructuring a company’s balance sheet. This company is deep into chapter 7. It loses vast sums of money a day. Its few, severely impaired assets have been spoken for many times over. Its employees are impoverished and barely working. Its political liabilities are burgeoning: indeed it is the principal risk to the parent company’s future. If Iraq could be liquidated, it would be. But instead the proprietors need to abandon it.

Finding a way to separate Bush and the United States from Iraq is this latest, and hardest, of the Baker rescue missions.

Of the many skills of Jim Baker, one is to assess a problem realistically and solve it ruthlessly and effectively. This is the same person who contrived to devalued the dollar at the Plaza Hotel in 1985, and thereby cunningly put the banana peel under the world’s second leading economy, letting Japan slip into boom and bust from which it is only now emerging.

So Baker knows – as does presumably the vigilant Rove who has perhaps arranged this supplanting of Rumsfeld, Powell, Bremer, and Rice – what it will take to get this Administration out of Iraq. Baker has to pull off a trifecta: (1) involve Europeans (and perhaps Indians) in an indefinitely long occupation of a country they did not want invaded, (2) bring in enough non-American troops to create an appearance of stability by next summer, and (3) enable President Bush to announce with a straight face at the Republican Convention next September that ‘progress’ will permit him to withdraw virtually all American troops soon after his second inauguration.

This deal will be as much appearance as substance. In return for playing their part in the President’s re-election, our ‘allies’ naturally will ask for a great deal of….money.

Billions of dollars, currency exchange ratios, and trade concessions are the ways Baker will buy his deal. Think of this as the Plaza Accord redux: this time America will weaken not its dollar but its whole economy in order to extend the Administration. The foreign soldiers we bring into Iraq might seem akin to mercenaries, but such cynicism is a virtue in Baker’s way of thinking. In any event, the deal will not be nearly as unseemly as the Middle Eastern swaps of the 1980s that an overlapping band of American politicians used to arm their friends in Central America.

Iraq, the country that we are supposedly building, won’t have much of a stake in the deal. The neo-con vision of a western Iraq reforming the Arab world is, with Baker’s appointment, pretty much finished. Perhaps the United States may end up with an airfield in one of the more deserted areas of the sad desert land of Iraq, but perhaps not; that’s negotiable.

What about the liberal dream of an Arab democracy that entranced many Democratic opinion-makers to support the Iraq war? Elections, in Baker’s experience, are not about fairly casting and counting votes; they are about who gets to rule. If a fair election was an indulgence not appropriate in Florida 2000, certainly Iraqis are not going to be allowed to vote for a freely chosen self-government in 2004. For that matter, we cannot be sure that the United States will have a fair vote count in 2004. You never know what exigencies may arise in a close election.

Support for the Dean-Gore campaign shows that much of America already understands that Iraq has been a calamity for America as well as for Iraqis. The Baker mission shows that someone in the Administration also understands that third base needs a sure-handed veteran, in a hurry. So, again, a Bush’s political fate is in Baker’s hands.

As I've said over the last couple days, I have mixed opinions about Baker's mission. I have no doubt that much of the aim is political -- gaming US politics, rather than Iraqi politics. But Baker actually knows what he's doing. And at this point things are so screwed up so that that's something we could really use.