Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

A few days ago I did a post about a book called Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. It's by a guy named Eliot Cohen. And the book played a key role in the debate last year over the relationship between the civilians and the military at the Pentagon. In that post I wrote ...

The thesis of Eliot's book is that the best wartime leaders are those who heavily involve themselves in military planning. They don't just leave it to the generals. They question and prod and, when needed -- and that's fairly often -- overrule them. A key premise of Cohen's argument is that generals and admirals are often overly risk-averse, trapped in the thinking of the last war, and sometimes overly devoted to the institutional agendas of their particular service.
Cohen sent me an email in which he said the following ...
If you are going to quote me ... would you kindly do so correctly? You recently declared that my book, SUPREME COMMAND has as its thesis the argument that competent statesmen "question and prod and, when needed -- and that's fairly often -- overrule them [their generals]."

You admit that that's an oversimplification. Its not. Its a misrepresentation. Check out the final chapter (and note its title), "The Unequal Dialogue" "Interestingly enough, none of these men [Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, Ben Gurion] dictated to their subordinates. They might coax or bully, interrogate or probe, but rarely do we see them issuing orders or acting like a generalissimo." "Rarely" doesn't mean "fairly often." p. 208.

It seems to me that you owe me a correction, preferably by publishing this email.

Eliot Cohen

Here's my response.

My description was based on my recollection of the book from almost a year ago. That is my recollection. But Cohen has a quote which belies a key part of that recollection -- namely, the frequency with which civilian leaders actually do or should overrule their generals, as opposed to jawbone and coax and prod and so forth. So I went back and reread my notes, and interviews I did with others in which Cohen's book came up, and reviews of Cohen's book.

Having done that, I have to concede that my sense of the book was likely colored by conducting those subsequent interviews and reading those subsequent reviews.

Now, having said that, I think I was right about the role Cohen's book played in the debate over the last year between Rumsfeld's advocates and those of the Joint Chiefs and Joint Staff. The book was used as cover for those who thought the civilians at the Pentagon should feel a wide latitude in overruling their military subordinates. (For more on what I mean by this, see the original post.)

But how others interpreted or misinterpreted Cohen's book is a separate issue and in my post I said what Cohen's thesis actually was. I haven't gone back and reread the whole book, but based on my conversation with Cohen I think I probably did overstate a key element of his argument -- namely the frequency with which great civilian wartime leaders have, or should, dictate policy to their generals. So, Mr. Cohen, please consider the correction issued.

P.S. Now that I've been set straight on this frequency issue, the following occurs to me: If Don Rumsfeld had read Cohen's book a bit more closely, maybe we wouldn't be in this jam either ...

“'All we have now is front-line positions,' the former intelligence official told me. 'Everything else is missing.'"

That's from Sy Hersh's new piece in The New Yorker, now up and on-line. It reads like it was a tad rushed. But sometimes the goods you have are so choice and the story is moving so quickly that it's well worth pushing ahead into print. This is one of those times. Hersh's piece is unquestionably today's required reading.

Also, don't miss the long, ominous quote from Robert Baer, a former CIA middle east operator (don't ask) who is the author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the Cia's War on Terrorism. Though not one of them by any means, Baer used to be one of those guys who the neos would send you to to get a sense of what it was like in Iraq in the 1990s. So he's not one they can easily dismiss.

And there's yet another troubling development. We continue to hear that it is only the presence of the fedayeen Saddam that is preventing more Iraqis from rallying to our banner. I have no doubt this is true to some degree. But it is at least partly belied by the apparently substantial number of Iraqis who are leaving Jordan to go back to Iraq to fight against us.

The flacks at the DOD now say they may release new information on Saddam's repression and human rights violations. But this has the troubling sound of an institution and an argument in a feedback loop. We know Saddam's a beast. The fact simply doesn't seem to be leading to the result that some had anticipated. More evidence that he's a beast is off point. Sure, we may find the Iraqis' response hard to fathom. But why did Anne Murray ever sell so many records? Why did CNN ever have Talkback Live? Some things are just inexplicable ...

More food for thought ...

What [the Iraqis have] got going for them is that our maladroitness politically and diplomatically has put us in a real bind. There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein is an unpopular guy in Iraq, but he's running against George Bush. If you're an Iraqi, you've gotta decide who you're going to vote for here.


I hate it when military plans are made with optimistic assumptions of that kind. I never made a plan that relied on the courage of my own troops. You hope that -- and they generally will -- fight bravely. Your plan ought to be predicated on more realistic assumptions.

And if we sent the 3rd Infantry up there naked, by themselves, because somebody assessed that they'd be throwing bouquets at us, that's the worst thing you could say about political leadership, is that they made optimistic assumptions about warfare.

Michael Moore? Dan Rather? Phil Donohue?

Nope. General Merrill A. McPeak, former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force 1990-94, from an interview which appeared in the Thursday edition of the Oregonian.

"President Bush's aides did not forcefully present him with dissenting views from CIA and State and Defense Department officials who warned that U.S.-led forces could face stiff resistance in Iraq, according to three senior administration officials. Instead, Bush embraced predictions of top administration hawks, beginning with Vice President Dick Cheney, who predicted Iraqis would joyously greet coalition troops as liberators and that the entire conflict might be over in a matter of weeks, the officials said."

That's the devastating lede of Warren Strobel's piece on the administration meltdown.

At a certain level, of course, we already knew this. Either the president's chief advisors deliberately kept from him the warnings streaming in from all around (which I doubt) or they convinced him that he could ignore such advice because it came from people who weren't credible (which I believe happened). (The standard line among the neos and hawks is that the folks at State and CIA are just a bunch of discredited, Arabist, softies -- or worse. And any nay-saying from them can be safely ignored.) One might also suspect that he was fully briefed on all the downside potentialities but simply chose to move ahead regardless. But I think that third possibility is highly unlikely.

Whichever is true, for the moment, it's a secondary matter. What makes this article such big news is the attribution: "three senior administration officials".

A responsible journalist -- and the author, Warren Strobel, definitely qualifies -- reserves that classification for a very select group of people: cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, VPs, chiefs of staff, NSC Directors, Communications Directors, press secretaries, senior political advisors, and so forth. It might be squeezed open a bit further maybe. But these three aren't assistant-deputy-sub-deputies over at Interior or Commerce.

It's a narrow enough designation that I think you can say clearly that there simply aren't "three senior administration officials" at the State Department. Indeed, this has all the looks of a story leaked right out of the White House. Presumably, we can scratch Dick Cheney's name off the list since they finger him as the person most responsible for selling the president a bill of goods. Of course, we said months ago that Cheney was the living, breathing disaster at the heart of this administration. But we'll get back to that later.

In any case, the attribution is what makes this such a big story. The White House is in such a state of pandemonium and implosion that they are discarding the policy -- indeed, they are positively undermining it -- in the hopes of insulating the president from the immense fall-out that they can see barreling down the track. Consider also that, saying the president was "out of the loop" -- seemingly a family failing -- on the central policy of his administration is a devastating admission of incompetence on its own. So that tells you what they think of the consequences of remaining attached to the policy.

If you need some evidence that our country is in some trouble, there it is.

Another snippet from my interview with Richard Perle from April 2002 ...

Everything depends on what happens in Iraq. Suppose the Iraqis are dancing in the streets after Saddam is gone. So why does an Egyptian get inflamed if the Iraqis themselves are saying 'Thank god, Thank Allah, we've been liberated' ... By the way, if you went back and looked at the predictions [about the first Gulf War], some of us were right and others were wrong. And people have forgotten where they were at that time. And I said we're going to win this and we're going to win it very quickly. And I was even asked about the role of the ground forces and I said, 'They will be taking down names, ranks and serial numbers. That's the essential role of the ground forces.' Because it was basically over before anybody touched Iraqi soil, as a result of the air campaign. And our abilities today are by orders of magnitude better than they were then. We were primitive in 1991 by comparison to what we can do today …
More soon ...

Here are the first two grafs from Vernon Loeb's piece in Sunday's Washington Post ...

Current and former U.S. military officers are blaming Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his aides for the inadequate troop strength on the ground in Iraq, saying the civilian leaders "micromanaged" the deployment plan out of mistrust of the generals and an attempt to prove their own theory that a light, maneuverable force could handily defeat Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

More than a dozen officers interviewed, including a senior officer in Iraq, said Rumsfeld took significant risks by leaving key units in the United States and Germany at the start of the war. That resulted in an invasion force that is too small, strung out, underprotected, undersupplied and awaiting tens of thousands of reinforcements who will not get there for weeks.

Be sure to read the rest.

Here's the second graf of Rick Atkinson and Tom Ricks' piece in the Post ...

Top Army officers in Iraq say they now believe that they effectively need to restart the war. Before launching a major ground attack on Iraq's Republican Guard, they want to secure their supply lines and build up their own combat power. Some timelines for the likely duration of the war now extend well into the summer, they say.
Also, don't miss Jonathan Finer's excellent piece on house-to-house sweeps by Marines looking for weapons. LATE UPDATE: Don't miss this new article filed by Finer several hours later. It's the Marines on a similar mission but getting a better and more hopeful result by working through apparently cooperative village leaders -- an optimistic sign in some pretty dark days.

Here's something I'd like to share with you. This is an email I received this evening from a former career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to a Muslim country. He also studied military strategy at the National War College with retired four-stars like Wes Clark, Hugh Shelton, and others.

As the author of the email himself says, many parts of it are speculative. Perhaps they'll prove correct, perhaps not. Who knows? But I found the discussion and predictions fascinating and full of insights, if profoundly ominous in their implications ...

Your latest posting raises the question of what is going to happen. You write that we still have to come up with a strategy to protect our troops and complete the mission. Yogi Berra said never to make predictions, especially about the future. But I have had a pretty good track record over the years in predicting the future. (That's the sin of pride, and not a Nostradamus complex.) So, looking into my crystal ball, I do not believe that we will be able to complete the mission on OUR terms, which were to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, overthrow Saddam, and liberate the Iraqi people.

Not only has this not been a cakewalk, the most telling point is that we still have not been able to secure Basra in the Shiite south. That was supposed to be easy. So how we will be able to enter and secure Baghdad, so much larger, so much more populated, so much more Sunni, so much angrier at us (after days and nights of bombing), defended by the toughest of the Republican Guard, and so much more critical to Saddam? Baghdad is the "prize," the center of gravity (in Clausewitz's phrase). Without Baghdad, there is no regime change. And how will we be able to take it without getting bloodied, both militarily and politically? Are we really prepared to bomb the bejeezus out of it (and the people who live there)? Are we prepared to be drawn into urban warfare in such a large place -- a mega-Mogadishu -- when Saddam & Co. already have demonstrated that they are prepared to use every trick in the book to thwart us (irregulars in civilian clothes, terrorism, suicide bombers, human shields, etc.)? And where, as in Vietnam, we cannot distinguish friend from foe?

Holbrooke predicts in a new NY Times story by Johnny Apple as follows:

--"Saddam won't win," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former United States representative at the United Nations. "Unlike L.B.J. in Vietnam, Bush won't quit. He's a different kind of Texan.(**) He'll escalate and keep escalating. In the end his military strategy will probably succeed in destroying Saddam.

--"But it may result in a Muslim jihad against us and our friends. Achieving our narrow objective of regime change may take so long and trigger so many consequences that it's no victory at all. Our ultimate goal, which is promoting stability in the Middle East, may well prove elusive."

The war obviously is not going to end the way that Rumsfeld, Cheney, Perle, Kristol, etc. all predicted. I see three scenarios:

1. We will hesitate to enter the city for fear of losing large numbers of US casualties in urban warfare. We therefore will have to engage in major bombing in Baghdad, including in civilian areas. To use the Vietnam era phrase, "we had to destroy the village in order to save it." International outrage will be overwhelming, and we will pay the price in the Arab and Muslim worlds for years to come. Operation Iraqi Freedom becomes Operation Iraqi Conquest.

2. Like the Russians against Napoleon and later the Nazis, there is "defense in depth." Let them get deep inside your country, and then start nibbling at them and making their life miserable. It's already happened -- we were rolling to Baghdad with little opposition against our main and heavily-armed forces, and then all hell broke loose against our lighter armed but critical logistics chain that is in the rear. Following this pattern, Saddam eventually will make it "easy" (that's in quotes, because it won't be that easy) for us to enter Baghdad as a ruse, and once we are there, with only 20 to 30K troops inside an unfamiliar and large city of 5 million, his forces will engage in hit and run, guerrilla, terrorist tactics against us. We will have to retreat from the city, bloodied and demoralized -- to borrow your phrase, this is the chickenhawk down scenario. There will be calls from within the US (and certainly from Britain) to pull out of Iraq all together, because the mission has failed. How do you spell "Dunkirk?" We will have to get us forces safely out of the country across 300 miles. (Is that the distance from Baghdad back to Kuwait?) Remember April 1775? The British lost more troops marching back to Boston than they did at Lexington and Concord.

3. This is what I think is the most likely scenario. Cooler heads such as Colin Powell and our senior military leaders will be able to convince Bush that Option 1 and 2 are not "viable," to use a USG phrase. (It will be a tough sell, because Bush personally will prefer Option 1, the stay the course, show the world (and Daddy) how tough and determined and "focused" I am). Our military leaders, already mad at Rummy and company for not giving them the forces they needed to do the job, will simply not want to engage in such butchery or subject their forces to heavy casualties. Tony Blair will make the same point. But what to do? We will need to surround the city, secure the rest of the country, and then play the game of "political standoff." Somebody will have to blink.

If there is this political standoff (option 3), then others in the world -- the UN, our European allies, responsible NAM members -- will push to eliminate two of our objectives (regime change and liberation) and return to what 1441 was all about, which is inspections and disarmament. With our forces in country, we will have in effect what Jessica Matthews called for before the war started -- "robust inspections." With US military force at hand, UN inspectors should be able to go anywhere they want to outside Baghdad. If Saddam wants the rest of his country back, he would have to agree to robust inspections within the 50 miles radius of Baghdad as well.

After Option 3 goes into play, Bush will need to deflect blame in order to try and save his political skin. He will let Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz know that he wants their resignations. The finger pointing around town will be staggering. Career military officers and CIA/DIA analysts will continue to leak damaging stories of how their concerns were suppressed at "the political level." A number of military officers will resign/retire because the honor of their service and the lives of their men/women were needlessly squandered by an arrogant and deaf political leadership. There will be calls from the talking heads that if Bush wants to be re-elected, he should start to focus on the economy and replace the disgraced Cheney on the ticket in 2004 with Colin Powell. The Democrats will be as ineffectual as ever in taking advantage of all this.

(**) Comment. Right. LBJ's self-doubts about the war are not only in Doris Kearns's biography, but also have been revealed in the transcripts of his phone conversations with Sen. Richard Russell (even in 1964-65). And when he saw that it wasn't working, he halted the bombing and went to the peace table. As for GWB, he is not given to self-doubts, second thoughts, or self-reflection.

Food for thought. Like syrup of ipecac ...

TPM can chatter about the Rumsfeld debacle. But it looks like Sy Hersh has the goods and then some. Here's the sneak preview. I'd say this is going to be the big article.

Here are just a few examples from an article just sent out by Reuters ...

"He thought he knew better. He was the decision-maker at every turn," the article quoted an unidentified senior Pentagon planner as saying. "This is the mess Rummy put himself in because he didn't want a heavy footprint on the ground."

It also said Rumsfeld had overruled advice from war commander Gen. Tommy Franks to delay the invasion until troops denied access through Turkey could be brought in by another route and miscalculated the level of Iraqi resistance.

"They've got no resources. He was so focused on proving his point -- that the Iraqis were going to fall apart," the article, by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, cited an unnamed former high-level intelligence official as saying.


Hersh, however, quoted the former intelligence official as saying the war was now a stalemate.

Much of the supply of Tomahawk cruise missiles has been expended, aircraft carriers were going to run out of precision guided bombs and there were serious maintenance problems with tanks, armored vehicles and other equipment, the article said.

"The only hope is that they can hold out until reinforcements arrive," the former official said.

The article quoted the senior planner as saying Rumsfeld had wanted to "do the war on the cheap" and believed that precision bombing would bring victory.

We've got a great military, great commanders and great troops. They can do this. But we owe them far better civilian leaders.

Humanitarian relief? This report is good news, bad news. Luckily more of the former than the latter, at least in the medium to long term. According to this AFP report, refugees streaming south to avoid fighting gave food to US Marines. That's a good sign of goodwill from Iraqi civilians -- possibly a sign of underlying support, kept in check for the moment by fear of Saddam's reprisals. But it does rather beg the question of why our troops are having to get food from Iraqi refugees. Isn't it supposed to be going the other way? Numerous news organizations are reporting that Marines at the tip of the spear have had to ration their food, limiting themselves to one MRE (meal) a day, because of supply-line disruptions farther south.

I'm trying to keep posts to a minimum today. But just a quick update. I've been getting hints from a number of directions that some of the president's political allies are privately distancing themselves from his policies. I've mentioned the "I told you so" interviews with retired generals. But this is more pols who didn't have a lot of sense one way or another about the military and diplomatic issues and took it on faith that the plan was a good one. I pass this news on without comment.

The unfortunate reality is that however many long-predicted mistakes Rumsfeld and company made, we still have to come up with a strategy to protect our troops and complete the mission. I think what we should keep in mind is that our immediate military situation is really not as bad as it looks. But our short, medium and long-term political position may be worse than we even yet realize. As per Clausewitz, war is "a continuation of political activity by other means."

TPM continues to get whining messages from Bush supporters saying that this site is somehow either supporting or giving aid to the nation's enemies by pointing out the administration's mistakes. Not true. TPM is obviously no military man. But, to the extent that I had any angle on this issue, it was from interviewing current and retired career officers over the last year. Frankly, if these Bush partisans have a beef with me, they have a beef with them.

The people who have spent a year trying to make sure we didn't send our troops into battle unprepared are not the ones who are endangering our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

The key priority now is moving ahead in way that secures a successful military and political outcome while safeguarding our troops. But it ill-behooves the president's partisans to use the sheer magnitude of their screw-ups as an excuse not to discuss them.

Meanwhile, I think we really do need that no-fly-zone set up for the now-discredited cakewalk Iraq-hawks -- you know, modeled on the humanitarian operation, Operation Provide Comfort, we set up to protect the Kurds. Again, just for humanitarian reasons, even if they brought it all on themselves. But what would its name be? The best I've been able to come up with so far is Operation Chicken Hawk Down ...