Editors’ Blog

Zubaydi was picked up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rumsfeld Neo-Con Mau-Mau Guidebook

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

1. Former government official (check)

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

3. Fellow at AEI (check)

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

5 …

Okay I admit. This

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

Over the last several

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

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

Here’s a taste …

The State Department communications program failed during these five months to such a degree that 95 percent of the Turkish people opposed the American position. This fit in with a pattern of State Department communications failures as a result of which the South Korean people regarded the United States as more dangerous than North Korea and a vast majority of French and German citizens favored policies that opposed the United States.

Only there’s a catch. As the above quotation implies, the problem isn’t with the Bush administration or its policies. It’s all due to the meddling of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. The reason the Europeans and the Turks and everyone else turned against us isn’t because of Bush administration policy. It’s because the State Department and the particularly the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs refused to implement Bush administration policy.

The answer? Purge the State Department.

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

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

Sometimes the best short-n-sweet

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

Kelly on the way to Beijing for N. Korea meeting, Bush meets again today on Syria. What each has in common is role of Colin Powell in urging diplomacy, and Bush’s willingness to listen. Rumsfeld & DOD hawks were ready to send troops into Syria “in hot pursuit” before Bush said “no”. And Rumsfeld was against holding the Beijing/DPRK talks, until Bush said “yes”, at Powell’s urging. Then the hawks tried to substitute Bolton for Kelly, the approximate equivalent of a MOAB, but Powell prevailed. So, reports of Powell’s demise exaggerated…for now. Question is, are the “adults” really in charge (the optimist’s view) or is Powell the guy who grabs the steering wheel when the bus driver hits 100 mph?

Also, do not miss this article from the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on the apparent breakdown in talks between Arafat and Palestinian PM-designate Abu Mazen. The deal-breaker, it seems, is that Mazen is demanding the authority to dismantle Fatah’s Al Aqsa Brigades and other Palestinian paramilitary groups, and also make Mohammed Dahlan head of security.

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

On the off chance

On the off chance that you woke up this morning in too buoyant a mood and need to get depressed really quickly, then you won’t want to miss this piece (“Officials Argue for Fast U.S. Exit From Iraq“) in Monday’s Washington Post.

As the title implies, the article is built around blind quotes from various senior administration officials arguing that we should, after all, try to get out of Iraq as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

It’s true that this is the kind of piece you put together by going to every administration official who’s eager for an early exit. But the fact that the author apparently got so much material from ‘senior’ administration officials is a very bad sign.

Here’s just a listing of some of the choicest quotes and snippets …

Senior administration official on the post-war plan: “I don’t think it has to be expensive, and I don’t think it has to be lengthy. Americans do everything fairly quickly.”

Senior administration official: “The president’s goal is to leave Iraq on the road to prosperity and security and democracy — or at least give them a fighting chance of it.”

Former Sec Def James R. Schlesinger: “This is going to be a very tricky course that we are on. Many people who have the right vision about what should be accomplished do not, as of now, recognize how much of a commitment in time as well as money this is going to require.”

Pentagon and White House officials disagree with such warnings. One senior defense official questioned whether 75,000 troops would be needed even in the near future, saying the U.S. military force that deposed Hussein’s government was not much larger. Some government functions could be turned over to an interim Iraqi government in a matter of months, the official said. Even the need for a new Iraqi military force could be obviated by moving U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters south toward Baghdad, the official suggested.

You only have to study Iraq for about an hour and a half to understand that the idea of turning the policing of Baghdad over to Kurdish peshmergas is just a tragic joke.

The subtext of the whole piece is, “It’s gonna cost a lot more than we thought, it looks really complicated, so let’s just give them a good running start, send over a few water purifiers, and then get the hell out.”

What’s so depressing about this article is that none of the difficulties which are now carted out as excuses for pulling out quick were at all unexpected. For months, reluctant hawks were saying, ‘Yes, go in, but only if you’re willing to commit to the sort of long, expensive effort that can insure a good outcome.’

At least some senior administration officials seem willing to toss aside all the grand rhetoric just a couple weeks after the major battles stopped. Just to complete the morality tale, the ones now holding out for a concerted push for reconstruction and democratization are the folks at the State Department — the ones the hawks at the Pentagon long accused of opposing efforts to democratize Iraq.

It’s hard to read this article and not get the sense that at least some big players in the administration had never really thought seriously about what they were getting us into. Or, if not that, that they’re cynical almost beyond measure. I always feared that we’d get into Iraq on the sparkling vision of Paul Wolfowitz and then govern it with ethics of Richard Perle and the parsimony of Mitch Daniels.

If this article is any sign … well, you know the rest.

At a Passover seder

At a Passover seder a few days ago I was talking to an Israeli emigre who told me there was a long-abandoned oil pipeline connecting the Iraqi city of Mosul to the Israeli port city in Haifa. The pipeline was built by the British in the 1930s and 1940s. But it was shut down in 1948 when the Brits quit Palestine and the state of Israel was born. It’s sat unused for more than half a century.

The implications of reopening such a pipeline under the auspices of a pro-American Iraqi government were obvious to me immediately. But I didn’t know if the idea had yet gotten much serious attention.

It turns out that it has. Quite a lot, actually. The issue was first raised by Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure at the end of March. His comments were reported in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Here’s a more recent piece from Janes (the British defense industry news publisher) and another in Sunday’s Guardian.

The Guardian piece not only confirms that this is being actively discussed in Israel, but also that the Israelis are discussing it with US administration officials as well as members of Ahmed Chalabi’s INC. (Add to this, Richard Perle’s statement last month that Chalabi “and his people have confirmed that they want a real peace process, and that they would recognize the state of Israel. There is no doubt about that if they come to power.”

This captures what’s at the heart of my deepest misgivings about this whole endeavor we’re now embarked upon: fatal overreach on the part of American policy-makers. It’s an overreach with multiple causes, none of which will lead to anything good.

I’d like nothing better than to see a pro-Israeli government in Baghdad. It would be great if they could start pumping oil from Mosul through Jordan to Haifa. Same goes for a “real peace process.” But what is the chance of any of these things happening in the short term and the new government of Iraq actually being democratic?

What sort of government in the Arab world, born of what is at best the iffy origin of an American invasion, would kick things off by establishing warm relations with Israel and opening a pipeline to sell Iraqi oil to the Israelis? The answer, I’d imagine, is one that won’t last a second longer than American troops are on the ground.

There are those who think that Arab hostility toward Israel is largely the product of corrupt, authoritarian governments that divert popular unrest into rage against Israel. I think there’s a degree of truth to that argument. But even if you grant the point, which I do only to a limited degree, it’s still quite possible that that antipathy will persist long after the corrupt, authoritarian governments who fed it leave the scene.

It’s already clear that our credibility and Arab perceptions of our motives are extremely poor. To make this democratization project work, we will really have to be, as the old-timers say, purer than Caesar’s wife. If we treat Iraq simultaneously as a democratization project and as grab-bag to fill out our geopolitical wish list, then we’re heading for disaster.

We hear a lot, and rightly so, that this effort is going to require patience. Usually that’s meant in the sense of patience to stay involved in Iraq’s affairs for a very long time. But we’re just as much in need of patience to achieve our most desired ends in the region. If we don’t have it, if we try to squeeze this orange for every quick advantage, we really are heading for disaster.

There is a role

“There is a role for the Islamic religious parties, including Shia religious parties,” said Ahmed Chalabi this morning on ABC, “because they have some constituencies. But they are not going to be forcing any agenda or any theocracy on the Iraqi people.”

Some constituencies

I don’t how large the Shi’a parties’ constituencies are. The answer likely turns largely on definitions. Are we talking about Shi’a parties based largely on group identification or those committed to the imposition of a theocratic state?

Whatever the answer to that question, what’s clear is that they have some constituency in the country and that Ahmed Chalabi has no constituency in the country — so long as you exclude the several hundred who flew into the country a couple weeks ago. And yet he’s the one we’re hearing from.

To the extent that he gains a constituency it will likely be by leveraging his connections to American capital and political players. (The fairly consistent report from journalists on the ground is generalized Iraqi resistance to leadership by exiles who’ve spent most of their lives outside of the country — a phrase that is quickly becoming a code-word for Ahmed Chalabi.)

Ironically, this is a replay of the last dozen years. Through the 1990s, Chalabi had very little support in the Iraqi exile community — let alone in Iraq. The key exile groups maintained their membership in Chalabi’s group, the Iraqi National Congress, largely because he was a conduit for money and access to the US government. The INC billed itself as the umbrella group representing the breadth of the opposition, when in fact it had become little more than a shell. The other groups, nominally joined under the INC umbrella, began meeting in separate ad-hoc arrangements for precisely the purpose of sidelining Chalabi.

Chalabi advocates claim this was the work of the State Department, trying to undermine Chalabi. And there’s some truth to this. But to the degree it was true it was largely because they believed he was an obstacle to getting the rest of the groups together to actually do something beside lobby Washington (we’ll discuss later why State and the CIA don’t like Chalabi).

Now the US media (and perhaps various players in government circles) seem to be falling into the old trap — giving disproportionate weight to Chalabi because he speaks good English (and talks — more broadly — the language of the West) and has a thick 202 area code rolodex.

Just a short note

Just a short note on the WMD search. Here’s a clip from an article at Time.com …

The failure to turn up anything to date raises two possibilities, neither one good, says Joseph Cirincione, chief of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It may be that there aren’t as many weapons as the President said, in which case we have a major intelligence failure, a huge embarrassment for the President and a huge blow to U.S. credibility—and that’s the good news,” he says. “The other option is that there are as many weapons as the President feared, and they’re no longer under anyone’s control.”

That sounds like a distressingly good point. But as these searches go on it seems to me that it would be terribly misguided not to bring the UN inspectors back into the country. Since we fought a war to get at Iraq’s WMD there’s no reason why we shouldn’t run the search entirely to our own liking and dictates and to suit our own needs. But having the UN inspectors there along for the ride, as it were, will serve a critical function: namely, giving the search credibility.

Now that we’ve had a few false alarms with would-be WMD finds, when we do come up with something there will be lots of people around the world who will think we planted whatever we find. Frankly, not a few people in this country will be suspicious. Whether that’s fair, or reasonable, or rational is really beside the point. If and when we find this stuff it will be critical to our interests and goals that as many people as possible believe us. At the moment, having some of the UN inspectors involved seems like a good way of accomplishing that. And I haven’t yet heard what the downside would be — save for pique and payback.

Here is a key

Here is a key part of America’s strategic vision for Iraq coming into focus. According to this article in The New York Times, the Pentagon is expecting to secure long-term access to four key Iraqi military bases. One’s near Baghdad; the others are near Nasiriya, the pipeline leading to the Jordanian border, and in Iraqi Kurdistan. As we’ve noted earlier, Iraq is quite literally in the center of the Middle East. It borders almost every major country in the region. And isn’t that far from the two others — Israel and Egypt. (Remember, we’ve also secured a series of robust basing arrangements with several of the tiny emirates that line the Arabian Peninsula.

Consider how this changes our reliance upon and stance toward the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In addition to their oil, much of our security relationship with the Saudis has been based on our need to project force against and counterbalance Iraq and Iran. With the Iraqi government out of the picture, our need to counterbalance them disappears. And if you want to project force against or counterbalance Iran, Iraq is a much better place to do it from than Saudi Arabia.

What this adds up to is that most, if not all, of our geostrategic interest in Saudi Arabia evaporated over the last month. If the Saudis give us grief or won’t cut off terror money to various bad-actors we have a much freer hand to squeeze them.

Of course, they still have the biggest amount of oil, which is no small matter. But even some of that leverage may be fleeting. I’m not writing from home this evening. So I don’t have access to the precise percentages. But Iraq’s known oil reserves are quite large. And it is widely believed that if the country’s oil industry (which has been in a dilapidated state for many years) was opened up to more modernized, state-of-the-art technology, those reserves could actually turn out to be much greater than is currently known.

What this means is that while Iraq’s reserves may never be as great as Saudi Arabia’s, they may be large enough to diminish some of the Saudis’ commanding hand over the international oil market.

Now, combine all this with the fact that many in the Bush administration (and out of the Bush administration, for that matter) think that Saudi Arabia is the ground zero of international terrorism, the terror purveyor state par excellence. To this point, our ability to muscle the Saudis on the terror question or even undermine the regime itself has always been limited by our need for their assistance geostrategically. But if the administration gets what it wants in Iraq, all of that changes.

Let me make a

Let me make a few quick points about the response to my article “Practice to Deceive.”

A number of critics (some friendly, some not-so-friendly) have criticized my contention that there was anything deceptive or disingenuous about how the White House brought the nation into this war.

A number have made the specific argument that I can hardly claim that there’s a ‘secret plan’ or a ‘conspiracy’ afoot when I buttress my argument with on-the-record quotes from various of the players — Richard Perle, Ken Adelman, Max Boot, et al. This argument is neatly summed up in a comment yesterday by James Taranto and even more crisply in a single sentence last week from Jonah Goldberg.

“If this is a secret plan,” says Goldberg, “how did Josh Marshall stumble on it? Marshall’s proof that there is a secret plan afoot actually derives from on-the-record quotes and public statements.”

The only problem with this logic is that I never used phrases like “secret plan” or “conspiracy.” So the logic of Goldberg’s point amounts to trying to catch me out on the contradictions between what he and others say I said and quotes of what I actually said. If there’s a contradiction, somehow the barb seems to point toward them and not me.

As a general matter, calling an argument like mine a ‘conspiracy theory’ is sort of a poor-man’s way of knocking an argument down a few pegs without providing any rationale for why it should be knocked down a few pegs. Goldberg peppers his critique with asides to how I say this is all the work of a secret cabal or that I say the president is a dupe, when in fact there’s nothing in the article which supports any of that. Taranto bases a substantial portion of his interpretation of my argument on the title of the piece and the cover design of that issue of The Washington Monthly. That makes no sense. Every journalist knows that an author seldom gets much say over the title of his article and none at all on the magazine’s cover art. That doesn’t mean I have any beef with either, just that you interpret an article’s meaning based on the text of the article, period.

However that may be, I think the whole argument that I’m wrong on the deception point actually collapses under the crushing weight of its own insubstantiality. The great need to refute this argument virtually confirms the impossibility of its refutation.

Here’s why. What if I said, ‘The President passed a huge tax cut. But he kept from everyone that he thinks it’ll spur economic growth!!’ Or maybe, ‘Sure the president wants to build a national missile defense, but he’s not telling anyone that it’s intended to knock down limited missile attacks from rogue states!!’ No one would respond. And they certainly wouldn’t get bent out of shape about it. They wouldn’t even care. Why? Because no one feels accused if they’re alleged not to have told people something that everyone actually already knows.

An informed citizen may not have the access to the president’s advisors to gauge their strategic vision. But the public at large is extremely well-placed to judge what the president has or has not shared with the public.

The most common critical response to my piece has been like that put forward yesterday by Taranto in Wall Street Journal Online: basic agreement on what I argue is the broader plan of which the Iraq war is one part, but sharp disagreement on whether or not this has been made clear to the public. He makes references to statements that he says show the president being quite open about all of this. He cites, for instance, the president’s February speech on Iraqi democracy at the American Enterprise Institute in which the president said (the ellipses are Taranto’s) …

A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. . . . The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. . . . A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.

Frankly, I don’t think even statements like that count for much, as vague as they are, and as drowned out as they were by discussions of Iraqi WMD and the regime’s alleged ties to al Qaida. But as I said above, I think the very need to find such quotes makes my case rather than refutes it.

Last week I went

Last week I went to a lunch meeting in DC on the same day that statue of Saddam came crashing to the ground.

At the lunch a well-known conservative columnist introduced one of speakers, a well-known liberal columnist, on what he called “the day [the liberal’s] worldview was collapsing.” By that measure I assume that today’s news that, as The Washington Post puts it, “Tens of thousands of Iraqi Muslims took to the streets of Baghdad after Friday prayers … to demand the departure of U.S. and other foreign troops and the establishment of an Islamic state” should cause at least some creaking in the conservative columnist’s worldview as well, no? He was good-hearted about it, but good-hearted in the sort of way that people who know they’re right can afford to be good-hearted.

Don’t get me wrong. Iraq is a country of some twenty-four million people. It shouldn’t surprise us that a few tens of thousands can be mobilized to support the withdrawal of American troops and the creation of an Islamic state. (Their chants were “No Bush, No Saddam, Yes to Islam,” and “No to America, No to Secular State, Yes to Islamic State”.) Nor is that fact at all incompatible with a successful conclusion to our efforts to build a democracy in the country.

But it should be a sober reminder to everyone that none of this is going to be settled by one day of good or bad photo-ops. The die is cast. Like it or not, the fate of America and Iraq are now fastened together for at least several years. I don’t pretend to know how it’s going to turn out. But the one thing I think we can be confident of is that none of us are going to emerge from this with our hubris intact.

For anyone who thought

For anyone who thought the Iraq war had cowed the North Koreans into compliance, today’s news may come as a rude awakening. As TPM noted yesterday, China’s role in the trilateral talks about to start in Beijing looks as much like that of a host as that of a participant. And now, prior to the talks getting underway, the North Koreans are pressing just that point.

A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said today that “at the talks the Chinese side will play a relevant role as the host state and the essential issues related to the settlement of the nuclear issue will be discussed between the DPRK and the U.S [italics added].” In other words, having gotten us to sit down to talks with a multilateral fig leaf, the North Koreans have now snatched the fig leaf back.

Indeed, China seems to be seconding that reading of the talks. This from the AP

China’s ambassador in Seoul said North Korea and the United States should resolve their nuclear dispute themselves, and Beijing does not plan to mediate between them during talks.

“I don’t think China plans to mediate,” Ambassador Li Bin told South Korea’s MBC Radio in an interview recorded Thursday. “Although China can play a constructive role, it is the two parties concerned that should resolve the problem. How much the problem could be resolved is up to how the two parties work.”

Far more ominously, the North Koreans now say they’ve actually begun reprocessing those spent nuclear fuel rods. And in a comment sure to raise questions and speculation, the North Koreans are saying that they informed the US and “other countries concerned” last month.

Much is being made

Much is being made of North Korea’s apparent decision to accede to Bush administration demands for multilateral, rather than bilateral, talks over their nuclear weapons program. Now, as I said earlier, there are still lots of details to be ironed out. The beginning negotiating positions are still very far apart.

But, contrary to most press reports, these new talks themselves at least arguably amount to as great a climbdown for the United States as for North Korea. I say that because this plan — or something very near to it — has been on offer since mid-January.

Just to review, the North Koreans wanted bilateral talks with the US. The US wanted multilateral talks — talks, including the United States, North Korea and China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

On January 14th, the Chinese offered to host talks between the United States and the North Koreans in Beijing. At the time, the US basically demurred. According to an article that appeared the next day in The New York Times

the White House said it welcomed China’s involvement and appeared receptive to talks with Pyongyang, though officials insisted that an end to North Korea’s nuclear plans was not negotiable. There was no immediate response to the offer from the Pyongyang government.

I’m not certain whether the North Koreans ever made a formal response. But, at the time, the US response was taken as a polite ‘no, thank you.’ It wasn’t how the White House wanted to proceed. But it also, rightly, didn’t want to offend the Chinese by swatting down the proposal. By some, China’s offer was even seen as slightly demeaning to the US, since it is usually the role of a great power to host or sponsor talks between lesser states — such as our role in the Middle East peace process, for instance.

Now we are having those talks in Beijing, only the Chinese are now participants rather than mere hosts.

Now, diplomacy is a game of subtle, but symbolically significant distinctions. And this is such a distinction. But, as distinctions go, this is, shall we say, rather subtle.

The truth is that the rapid victory in Iraq created incentives for both sides to get to the negotiating table (more on this soon). And that’s why they’re about to get there.

No Aaron Brown. Had

No Aaron Brown. Had to cancel on short notice. More later.

TPM on Aaron Brown

TPM on Aaron Brown tonight on CNN at 11:30 PM Eastern.

In Korea and Arabia

In Korea and Arabia, the Bush administration is poised to make decisions that will tell us a lot about the policy it intends to pursue and just who’s calling the shots. In the post below, I note that the North Koreans have come toward the Bush administration position — but with several significant barbs that may nullify the effect of the opening. The president now has to decide whether he’s interested in talking or not. (NB: This is being presented as an administration victory — and, to an extent, it is. But we shouldn’t forget that the multilateral talks position is still a significant climb-down from the administration’s original stance.)

There’s a similarly telling moment with Syria. (I have a column coming out about this tomorrow. So I don’t want to say too much about it now.) I doubt very much that we’re about to move militarily against Syria. This strikes me as a brush-back pitch. It is critical to our efforts in Iraq that Syria not try to Lebanize Iraq. Those are the minimum ground rules. And we need to make that crystal clear to them right now.

Our military might looks extremely credible at the moment. Also, note that Syria is now surrounded by the United States and two of its allies — Turkey and Israel, Lebanon being effectively Finlandized and Jordan a minor military power.

The critical question is, how far do we press our advantage? Do we warn the Syrians off any interference with our work in Iraq and put them on notice about chemical weapons? Or do we press on our whole bill of particulars — cutting off support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, opening up to some sort of chemical weapons inspections, closing down offices of terrorist organizations in Damascus, a more compliant stance toward peace with Israel, etc. The devil will be in the details. But those details will tell us a lot about whether we’re pursuing a minimalist or maximalist plan for remaking the Middle East.

On a related matter, there’s a lot of chatter about how much we may or may not be coordinating with Israel on all this. Here’s one good example that we’re not — or at least not that well, if we are. Because if we really were coordinating so closely with Israel we wouldn’t let anything like this happen that made it look like we were coordinating so closely.

Israel’s hawkish Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Israeli daily Maariv, “We have a long list of issues that we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians, and it is proper that it should be done through the Americans.” In various press reports I’ve seen this translated both as “through the Americans” and “by the Americans.” In the context, that subtle distinction in meaning is rather important. So I’d be curious to know more about how he phrased it in Hebrew. The long list of issues included

… removing the threat of Hezbollah in south Lebanon; distancing long-range rockets; moving Hezbollah away from the south, up to dismantling [Hezbollah]; stopping Iranian aid to Hezbollah via Syrian ports; and halting the granting of the cover of respectability to the terror headquarters of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad based in Damascus, from which they dispatch orders and funding to Palestinian terrorist organizations.

Now each of these would be great to have happen. But this reads like something out of the more conspiratorial wing of the Arab press: Israel comes up with a list of demands for Syria. Israel gives the list to the United States. The United States masses troops on Syria’s borders and forces the Syrians to comply with the list of Israel’s demands.

If nothing else we want to do a bit better on appearances.

Multilateral Well … kindalateral.

Multilateral? Well … kindalateral. Bush administration Korea policy got an apparent boost a couple days ago when the North Koreans suddenly (a couple days after the fall of Baghdad) announced they were willing to engage in multilateral talks over their nuclear weapons program so long as the US was “ready to make a bold switch-over in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue.” On Sunday, the president crowed — not without some justification — that his tough policy against Iraq had made the North Koreans cave.

But now there seems to be a catch.

The North Koreans say they’re okay with multilateral talks. But, according to an article in today’s Korea Herald, North Korea — and China — say they don’t want the Russians or the Japanese at table.

We probably don’t mind not having the Russians there. But according to Chris Nelson, at The Nelson Report, the US would find excluding Japan from multilateral talks “unacceptable under any circumstances.”

The rationale for the exclusion, according to the article is that the UN, China, North Korea and the United States were the only signatories to the original 1953 armistice agreement. So Russia and Japan are just not relevant to a new conference that would move beyond the armistice agreement and toward a non-aggression pact — the North Koreans key, and apparently still operative, demand.

That may work as an purported rationale. But it doesn’t really wash as the actual reason.

And there’s one other party the North Koreans and the Chinese would like to have at the table: the European Union.

The Korea Herald article quotes a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul saying that “the North wants the European Union (EU) to participate in the multilateral forum in an apparent hope that the EU may play a leading role in providing economic aid to Pyongyang.” But it’s hard not to see some extra-economic motivations behind the desire of the Chinese and the North Koreans to pull up a chair for the EU.

Here’s a good Reuters piece — moved before the news about Russia and Japan — on the hard-bargaining to come. There are some particularly good quotes from Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum, a branch of the DC think-tank CSIS. Cossa’s predecessor at the Pacific Forum was none other than James A. Kelly, the State Department point man on East Asia and the North Korea issue. (I think Cossa worked under Kelly as Executive Director before Kelly moved on to State in 2001.)

Assuming some agreement can be worked out over who’s a party to the negotiation, the question now is whether the president will have the courage to say ‘yes’ and test the North Koreans’ willingness to make a deal or whether he’ll follow the lead of those on his right flank who say that war with North Korea is essential and inevitable — the only question being whether we pull the trigger now or wait a few years.

This from an article

This from an article in The Guardian

We now also learn that before Blair departed for the March 18 Iraq debate, Downing Street had drawn up contingency plans for the withdrawal of British troops from the build-up in the Gulf and also for Blair’s resignation, should the votes have gone against him. That is how serious it was.

One of the fascinating things over the next weeks and months and years will be to find out more and more of the hidden details about the lead-up to this war.

Are those foreign fighters

Are those ‘foreign fighters’ in Iraq Saudis?

As the fighting winds down in Iraq, the US has started muscling Syria on a number of issues — 1) having its own stocks of chemical weapons, 2) giving sanctuary to members of the Saddam Hussein regime, and 3) facilitating or at least not preventing Syrian nationals from going to fight against US forces in Iraq.

This evening CNN has been running live coverage of a firefight in which several snipers or paramilitaries were firing on US Marines near the Palestine Hotel. The CNN reporter on the scene is Rula Amin.

Just after 6:00 PM on the East Coast, Amin was having a back and forth with Wolf Blitzer about those foreign volunteers in the country to fight the US. During that conversation she said that the Saudi volunteers were a bigger deal or there in greater numbers than the Syrians. I don’t have down the precise language she used. But the basic point was clear: there are more Saudis there fighting us than Syrians.

(Wolf, buddy, why no follow-up?!?!)

Now, obviously I don’t listen to all the coverage out of Iraq, but I don’t think I’ve heard any word of Saudis there fighting against us (though it’s hardly surprising) and certainly not that they’re the most numerous group in the country. Amin’s only one reporter, of course. But her beat is the Middle East; you’d expect reporters on the ground to have the best handle on such an issue; and she said it like she was pretty sure.

This raises some interesting questions. Certainly, we don’t want any foreign fighters there shooting at our troops. But to the extent that they’re there and we find that they’re Syrians, that gives us reason and (figuratively speaking) ammunition for going after Syria. That, of course, is where the administration is looking right now. Finding Saudis there — from a geopolitical perspective — is much less helpful. If we were finding them there, it would not surprise me that we wouldn’t be making a big deal out of it. There are many folks in the administration — particularly at the DOD and OVP — who think the Saudis are at the heart of the problem we have in the region. But for the moment we need the Saudis and they know that. On the other hand, some of their allies outside the administration aren’t so constrained. So I’m curious if we’ll hear about this from those quarters — in the standard outlets where we hear from those guys.

This article up on

This article up on the Time website says that in the trashed remains of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday’s pied-a-palace on the banks of the Tigris, reporters found email print-outs addressed to udaysaddamhussein@yahoo.com. They were apparently from Iraqi emigres pledging to come back and fight. The most recent was dated March 5th.

I’ve always been fascinated by the mix of alienness and similarity one finds in the leaders of countries like Iraq — really across what we used to call the Third World. Some of this is just the story of globalization — leaders and elites on the hand in death struggles with the global ‘center’ and on the other very much a part of it, invested in its culture, its modes of communication, its idioms. One sees examples of it in all the stories of raided palaces and homes of Saddam’s top lieutenants. (So now we know that Tariq Aziz sometimes barked on TV about how the Iraqis would bury us in the sands of southern Iraq and then went back to his pad and popped Sleepless in Seattle into the VCR.) On the one hand, Uday Hussein was a hideously violent thug, born and bred into Saddam’s Ba’athist police state, steeped in a virulent strain of Arab nationalism. On the other hand, he was using a free Yahoo! email account.

I was willing to

“I was willing to fight with a gun, but not to commit suicide.” That’s the best quote from an article by Anthony Shadid in Sunday’s Washington Post. It’s about a 22-year-old member of the Saddam Fedayeen who finally deserted several days ago in Baghdad. He fought under threat of death, though perhaps not altogether unwillingly, and then finally bailed when his superiors selected him for a suicide mission. Reading this piece you start to get the details of the picture of how the paramilitary resistance was at first unexpectedly stiff and then rapidly collapsed.

I really haven’t done the sort of systematic reading of different reporting by different reporters that would make me comfortable saying whose has been the “best.” But I’ve been consistently struck by the quality of Shadid’s, most of all the depth of the detail (which is the essence of good reporting), the material that goes beyond the standard stock interviews and anecdotes. I’m sure he’ll win tons of awards for it. Deservedly.

So far much of

So far, much of the discussion of WMD has been focused on whether war-advocates or war-opponents will be vindicated retrospectively by how much is found. This way of framing the question, however, may miss the real issue — what we may never find and why. Think about the ways people might dispose of WMD or WMD precursors if they were in a big, big hurry. It’s not a comforting thought.

My sons are 25

“My sons are 25 and 30,” Representative Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming) said on the House floor a few days ago. “They are blond-haired and blue-eyed. One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean if you go into a black community, you cannot sell a gun to any black person, or does that mean because my … ”

At this point, Representative Mel Watt (D-North Carolina) cut Cubin off and demanded her remarks be stricken from the record for implying that blacks are presumptive drug addicts. Cubin declined to retract her remarks, while she said she did “apologize to my colleague for his sensitivities [italics added].” The House later voted 227 to 195 against striking Cubin’s remarks from the record on the basis of their being inappropriate. No Republican voted in the affirmative.

I’ve been so taken up with the war that I haven’t had time to make any mention of this yet. But I’m far from the first to express bewilderment that it hasn’t gotten more attention. Indeed, the Washington Post — not exactly some scrappy lefty blog — has an editorial on it in today’s paper (“Where’s the Outrage?“).

And really, where is the outrage? It’s difficult to see how anyone without pretty *#$%ed-up views on race could have said that, even as a slip. But what’s really important as far as the public square is concerned is not so much the rancid views people may have in their hearts but that they keep their mouths shut and publicly repudiate this stuff when it slips out. This Cubin seems completely unwilling to do. And her colleagues seem in no rush to make her. According to the Post, Speaker Denny Hastert said her remarks “clearly left the wrong impression.”

Clearly … And so do Hastert’s. The Post is right: where’s the outrage? If I were Trent Lott, I’d ask for a rehearing of my case, because the rules for this sort of thing seem to have loosened considerably.

What about the looting

What about the looting, the mayhem, and the fires? It’s clearly a bad situation. And these things get to a tipping point where they can go from looting and mayhem to something far deeper and darker which is very hard to put a stop to. Having said all this, though, I think we shouldn’t be too quick to ask why the invasion force didn’t have some sort of constabulary or plan in place to stop this. If it’s still like this in a week, it’ll be a good question to ask. But I think it is virtually inevitable that you’re going to have some period of rupture — a window of time when there’s an utter vacuum of authority — when a government like this falls under military assault.

One reason is historical, another is operational. The first is just, as we’ve noted before, the steel beam under compression finally snapping. It’s a judgment call; but to some degree it’s probably better to ride this tumult in the short-term rather than squelch it. There’s a lot of rage and clamor to be let off and better not to turn too much of it toward US soldiers trying to keep everyone in check.

The more important issue, however, seems operational.

One moment you’re in very active battle for a city. The last thing you want is thirty-thousand lightly-armed or unarmed policemen and American aid facilitators hanging around to get shot, or taken hostage or just get in way. The next moment you’re not at war and you’ve got thousands of US soldiers and marines who are — for a host of reasons — in no position to police anything but the most egregious sorts of crimes. Add to this, of course, the fact that even that dividing line isn’t so clear. We have mainly a liberated/conquered city where large-scale hostilities are at an end and the old regime is gone. But we still have irregulars or foreign fighters or holdouts shooting off occasional shots. And that makes it hard to send anything but heavily armed folks out into the field.

Add to this one final complexity. Part of the problem is that you’re dealing with a former regime that was so shot through with state-terror that it’s hard to see how many people who ever wielded “hard” authority under the old regime are going to want to show their heads again even in an interim capacity. The Army is putting out the call for police and firefighters and the people who ran the phones and water and electricity to come back to work. In the latter cases, that’ll probably work. But what about the police? I’m not sure there were people in Iraq who would fit our rather benign definition of “police.” I’m sure there were low-level folks in the security apparatus who were decent people compromised by a bad system. But I can imagine those folks wouldn’t want to show their faces just now. And do we want them keeping order for us?

It’s a tough situation, and an ugly one that we’ve got to get a handle on. Morally and under international law, we’re responsible for restoring order when it was our tanks that smashed the old, albeit hideous, order. (Isn’t this a case of the troop strength, again, being too small? Yes, I suspect so, to a degree. But even if there were a lot more troops immediately at the ready, I think you’d still have an interval of chaos like this since the sort of troops you use to fight your way in to the city just aren’t equipped for policing duties. We need to see how it looks in a week or two.) The real danger over the long-term is the sort of deeper inter-communal blood-letting which reared its head yesterday in Najaf — of which we’ll say more later. But I think we should recognize that in the short-run this sort of ugliness may have been close to unavoidable.

Following up on the

Following up on the earlier post, here’s an article with an inventory of the ransacked house of longtime Saddam crony Tariq Aziz. It’s a litany of artifacts which are mostly striking in their ordinariness and Western-ness. My picks for best tidbits are the the marked-up copy of Princeton Review’s “Cracking the GMAT” or perhaps the Britney Spears posters on the walls in the kids’ room. Also, here’s my most recent column in The Hill, from two days ago, on the fate of Iraq’s battlefield dead.

Its about 1230 AM

It’s about 12:30 AM on Friday morning and on CNN there’s live coverage of a huge number of Iraqi soldiers, ex-soldiers really, walking south toward Baghdad along an open two-lane road. The landscape looks like it might in the eastern, flatter part of Colorado or New Mexico. What’s being reported is that these were Iraqi conscripts who were stationed in positions in the north and as the Iraqi army dispersed and disintegrated they just hit the roads and headed south. They deserted. Their officers deserted them. Various other possibilities. They’re walking toward Baghdad, which is more than one hundred miles away, and then they think down toward southern Iraq where they’re originally from. Many of them are sandal-clad or even bare-footed. They don’t seem to have water or food or money. Mostly, they’re wearing civilian clothes.

It’s not even clear how much of this is true, or just who these men are. But whoever they are, there are hundreds, actually thousands of them walking south down a road toward Baghdad.

There’s all sorts of talk now of who was right and who was wrong about this or that, what will come next, and so forth. But watching this you just see the magnitude of the whole situation, the number of people on the move, displaced, with new hope, with no plan.

It’s not an analogy. But the image it brings to my mind is of slaves at the end of Civil War who headed out onto the roads looking for relatives who they’d been separated from.

It defies analysis or quips or quick insights (imagine that for TPM!). In their own way these are the most staggering images yet.

We heard a lot

We heard a lot about “Shock and Awe” in the lead-up to this war — that is, the hammering concussions of American air power that were supposed to cow the Iraqi military if not the regime itself into submission, the swift whack of a bat that was supposed to shatter the hold of the brittle regime.

That didn’t work, of course. Loyalists and militiamen were more finely meshed into the civilian population than we thought. It took the ‘old-fashioned’ combination of armor on the ground and precision munitions from the air to grind away the Iraqi army.

But “Shock and Awe” wasn’t a misplaced phrase. We just had the date wrong. It came yesterday, with the collapse of Baghdad. And it came not in Baghdad or Kirkuk or Basra but in Cairo, Beirut, Riyadh, Amman and other capitals around the Arab world.

It’s far from the case that everyone applauded what they saw. But it seems hard to find man-on-the-street interviews that don’t carry a large measure of shock and in many cases something very like awe. (Yesterday I discussed an interview with a neoconservative in which he described the great hope of this invasion as the confrontation that it could bring about between testimonials of Iraqi liberation and the pieties and orthodoxies of anti-American arab nationalism. It was an on-the-record interview. So I can say that the neo in question was David Frum. And yesterday was a pretty good day for David’s predictive ability.) What I take most from these man-on-the-street interviews is the mix of surprise and humiliation. From Jordan there are a slew of interviews with Jordanians expressing contempt for the Iraqis dancing in the streets in Baghdad. There is something very like a sense of betrayal. This was presaged in an article from an issue or two ago in the New York Review of Books in which the author was interviewing Iraqis and Jordanians in Amman or some other Jordanian city. The Jordanians were against an invasion. The Iraqis, though regretting it, hating the prospect of civilian casualties, and insisting the Americans shouldn’t stay long, supported it. There’s a moment in the interview when the author asks one of the Iraqi women to explain the divergence of views and she says something like, “they didn’t have to live under Saddam.”

Beyond that, in these various interviews from yesterday, you see questions like: What happened to the Republican Guard? Why were we so weak? Were we lied to? We supported Saddam in spite of ourselves, knowing he was a bastard because we thought maybe he could take the Americans down a notch, strike a blow for Arab pride, and so forth. Now we’re doubly humiliated. Why are they celebrating? What happened? Why was there so little resistance? Why did Baghdad fall so quickly?

Then you see these statements which mix excitement that Saddam has fallen with shame or humiliation that it took American armor to do it and, secondarily, that perhaps they should have been more serious about the need for his fall in the first place. I think we should see very clearly the toxic potentialities of that sense of humiliation and shame.

Positive or negative, however, almost all the statements bespeak fractured if not shattered certainties. Now, it seems to me that there are a few things important to note about this. If there is one thing that history and social psychology tell us it is that ingrained idea systems can be extremely resistant and often impervious to new facts. Indeed, they can rapidly regroup and accommodate new and what may seem utterly contradictory new data. (Indeed, as good as yesterday looked and was, we should be equally careful to judge all of this on its own terms as much as we can and place these events as little as possible into the conceptual architecture of our preconceptions and imaginations.)

All of this is simply a long-winded way of saying that the window of opportunity, the window of changing expectations could prove exceedingly brief. We’re already seeing a host of things, even happening today, which could provide the building blocks of a very different image, indeed a very different reality. As the foreign media is already starting to note, the number of people who attended the statue-toppling yesterday was actually rather small — not thousands or tens of thousands, but maybe a couple hundred. Then today there is news that two Shi’a clerics were literally cut to pieces by a crowd of rival Shi’a in Najaf at the Ali Shrine. This is the steel beam in compression that the people who know this subject best have long predicted. This doesn’t necessarily nullify what happened yesterday. But it should show us how hard this is still going to be and how a very different set of images and realities could quickly push aside all the consternation those of yesterday created. Anti-war types shouldn’t let their preconceptions blind them to the palpable feelings of relief and happiness many Iraqis are feeling today. But hawks shouldn’t fool themselves into ignoring how ephemeral those images could prove.

A couple weeks ago I wrote that one of the pre-conditions for the success of democratization in post-war Japan and Germany was the shattering impact of overwhelming military defeat and the resulting shattering of confidence in the pre-war elites and ideological systems that had led the two countries into war. This could be a potentially equally shattering event. But all seems in flux and much of what is not in flux remains uncertain. The end result depends mightily on subsequent events and actions — some of which we control, some of which we don’t

Yesterday when the American

Yesterday when the American flag went up on the face of the soon-to-fall statue of Saddam, I wondered the following: Clearly Centcom and the folks at the Pentagon are rightly cautious about giving any symbolic evidence or sign that this an American occupation rather than a liberation. The best example of that is the hoisting of American flags, as we already saw in Umm Qasr a week or two ago. So why do the US soldiers and marines seem to have all these American flags on the ready to hoist up?

A post that went up on the BBC this morning gives a clue.

We’ve just learned from the US marines that the US flag that was put on the face of Saddam yesterday – it was replaced by an Iraqi flag when the people shouted for that – was the flag that was flying over the Pentagon on September 11.

For a lot of the American marines, they think this war is all about defeating terrorism, they will tell you that over and over again. There is also a connection in the minds of the American public between the regime of Saddam and what happened on September 11, and apparently the flag that was draped over this face was flying over the pentagon when the plane crashed into it.

So apparently this wasn’t just any flag.

It was still a slip-up. But this puts it in a different, deeper context. It’s also one of those gives-you-faith-in-America moments to find out that the Marine who hoisted the flag — Cpl. Edward Chin — is apparently Chinese-American.

LATE UPDATE: He’s more on Chin from Abcnews.com …

“And the flag — it was on the Pentagon when it got hit on 9/11. That was the same flag, and me being from New York, it kind of all goes together a little bit. It was a team effort, which made it even better, you know,” he said.

Chin, 23, and his family are ethnic Chinese from Myanmar, formerly Burma. The family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when Chin was just a week old. Chin, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, joined the Corps in 1999 and was assigned to the First Tank Battalion at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., before being shipped off to Kuwait in January.

More soon…

Two questions face us

Two questions face us in the reconstruction of Iraq. Many more than two, of course. But, for the moment, let’s discuss these two. One is whether we should try to set up a full-fledged democracy in Iraq or fall back on the older approach of installing some sort of well-meaning strongman who can hold the country together and move slowly toward something like democracy. Then there’s the question of whether we should back Ahmed Chalabi and the INC or some other group or mix of groups. There are many people who argue that these two questions are really just one question: that supporting Chalabi means supporting full-fledged democracy and opposing him means supporting something beside democracy. This equation is simply false on a host of levels. We’ll be talking more about this, not least of which the CIA’s relationship with Chalabi. But for the moment don’t miss this piece by Gideon Rose in Slate.

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