Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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Still more goal-post-moving on the right.

Andrew Sullivan notes an editorial in Today's New York Times as an example of a broad defense of Don Rumsfeld.

If you're a member of the Rummy screwed-it-up department, it must be a little disconcerting to read the New York Times editorial this morning. When the viscerally, uncompromisingly anti-Bush Times pooh-poohs the notion of a military miscalculation, then the media tide must surely be turning.
He seems to have missed the deeper point of the editorial: that the immediate military problems are not so bad, but that the Pentagon's and the administration's political assumptions were poor and that they don't presage positive results in the future. A few selections ...
The Iraqi response to the American and British troops may warm up when Baghdad is taken. But so far, resistance in the south has been spoiling much of the original war plan ... The big failure has been in political assessment, and the expectation that southern Iraqis would welcome the American troops and offer minimal resistance ... The United States badly misjudged the Iraqis going into the war, and there seems little reason to hope that we will be much smarter when it comes to nation-building ... From the beginning, the great challenge of Iraq has seemed to be less about winning the war than about securing the peace, and everything that has happened in the last two weeks reinforces that assessment.
Why the selective reading?

We're beginning to hear a lot more about US plans for the post-war administration of Iraq, as well as disagreements between the State Department and the Pentagon over who should be involved and how it should be done. One of the key figures in all this is Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi Shi'a emigre who is beloved and admired by the hawks and often treated with suspicion and ridicule by their critics, particular at the State Department and the CIA.

Here's a snippet from an unpublished article of mine on Chalabi, based on reporting from last spring and summer ...

In 1991 the CIA was looking to create what eventually became the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization intended to foster unity and cohesion amongst Iraq's notoriously fractious exile and dissident groups. The man they chose to head it was Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi was charismatic and enterprising and he understood the pulse of Western politics and media something key to the sort of media and propaganda operation the CIA wanted to create. "He understands the West very well," says Whitley Bruner, a retired CIA agent who was the first to reach out to Chalabi, "and he was very useful in the sense that he grasped what the Agency was doing, and what its aims were, and how to translate that back and forth to various Iraqis who were working with him." Chalabi's very lack of connection with any established dissident groups in or out of Iraq was actually one of his main attractions to the CIA since it set him apart from the parochial concerns of the various feuding groups and made him more useful to the United States.

Chalabi was dynamic and entrepreneurial. But he was also headstrong and he quickly alienated many of the other exile leaders operating within the INC fold, particularly those with greater bases of support inside Iraq. Chalabi, said some critics, consistently focused on Washington rather than forces in Iraq -- a trait which both caused and fed off his antagonisms with other dissident leaders. "Chalabi takes the blame of taking the INC from its mission of trying to win the Iraqis and to reach out to the Iraqis to a new mission which is to try to win Washington and reach out to Washington," says one Iraqi émigré involved in the creation of the INC.

But this was only one of the problems plaguing the INC and American Iraq policy in the early 1990s. After 1991 American policy toward Iraq was confused and meandering. The Bush and Clinton administrations take a measure of the blame for this. But the real cause was more deep-seated. All US policy was based on a cardinal assumption -- that Saddam could not long survive his massive defeat in the Gulf War -- which was quickly proving to be a fallacy. During the first Clinton administration, while Chalabi was intermittently running the INC from the safe-haven in Iraqi Kurdistan, the CIA toyed with different strategies to topple Saddam. Chalabi's plan was for a so-called rolling coup -- essentially getting the INC to lop off chunk after chunk of Iraqi territory under the cover of US air power until the tide of defections swept Saddam's regime from power. The US eventually lost faith in Chalabi's plan and got behind a separate effort to foment a military coup using Iraqi exiles in Amman. Chalabi's attachment to the rolling coup plan was not rooted in any ideological or operational compunction. He didn't seem to have much of either. He just wanted to do something. Anything. Preferably sooner than later. "He was pushing the envelope and [the CIA was] not ready," says a Washington-based Arab journalist.

That was part of the problem. The CIA was not sure Chalabi was up to the task; they were not sure what if anything they wanted to do or how they wanted to do it. The one thing the Agency was increasingly sure of was that whatever they were going to do they didn't want to do it with Ahmed Chalabi. "If an error was made over the first several years," says Bruner, "it was that [Chalabi] was so capable and so able to do these things that I think that a lot of the managers at [CIA headquarters in] Langley let him run, because he seemed to be able to do all this so well. And it wasn't until later that he began to get out of control. And then it was too late."

The latest word seems to be that Chalabi isn't slated for quite so high a role as he would like. But with friends as powerful as he has among those running the post-war show, I'm sure that's not the final word.

More on this soon.

This article by Anthony Shadid in Wednesday's Washington Post seems to best capture the flow of contradictory forces now at play inside Iraq. In the south you have the fedayeen Saddam and members of the Iraqi army keeping a tight grip on the cities, and apparently doing a pretty good job of it. Then you have the US-UK army trying to wrest control of these cities. And finally you have civilians -- terrified of Saddam's paramilitaries, frightened by the American bombing, at least suspicious of the Americans themselves, though not necessarily hostile.

Pretty clearly, most of these folks just don't want to get killed and are most concerned about getting through all this with themselves and their families in one piece. But their plight deepens as the fighting drags on, supplies dwindle, and the infrastructure is degraded and broken down. The article doesn't give you much of a clear sense of what will happen or what these civilians will be saying after Saddam's regime is displaced. But it provides a compelling view of the fluidity and chaos of the situation, and how it could play out in very good or very bad ways.

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.