Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I have a simple request: Is it possible for the Bush administration to go one day without fulfilling its critics' direst predictions about its war aims and operational abilities? Yesterday, The Washington Monthly released my new article on the Bush administration's grand plan for reforming the entire Middle East. One assertion many found difficult to believe was my claim that the administration would soon seek to provoke wars with Syria and Iran. Today, Don Rumsfeld threatened both countries with just that. Admittedly, this creates some extra buzz for the article and this website as well. But frankly, Don, TPM is doing okay and, buddy, you're starting to get a kinda scary.

The language Rumsfeld used was key. He basically accused the Syrians of committing acts of war against the United States. The key wording was: "We have information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night-vision goggles. These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments."

Now, what makes this really weird is that background briefings at the Pentagon suggest that we're not reacting to anything new. Rather, this is a long-standing issue we've had with the Syrians -- presumably a subset of our larger issue with their sanctions-busting.

This invites a pretty obvious question: was this the best day to bring it up? I'm no expert on the military art. But I have the impression we've got our hands full at the moment.

Here's another question ...

Let's assume Bill Clinton had launched the country on a major war on the other side of the globe. Clinton's top military advisors had told him and his Sec Def that he was sending them to war gravely under-gunned, without all they needed to get the job done and protect the lives of American troops. Then let's assume that Clinton and his Sec Def ignored their advice. He and the Sec Def told the generals they didn't understand how modern wars were fought and sent them out anyway. And then let's assume that the generals and admirals warnings were rapidly confirmed on the battlefield with a bogged down offensive and an escalating number of American casualties. Do you think Clinton and his Sec Def might be in some hot water? Yeah, me too.

Joseph Galloway, a storied old war reporter, was on Lou Dobbs show this evening and walked through the whole sorry story. In its outlines it was basically what I've been telling you on this site for several days. But obviously Galloway knows a lot more about war-fighting doctrines than I do and also much better sources. So he laid out the story with gripping, sorrowful detail. Basically, the Rumsfeldians thought a new day had dawned in the annals of war. The old doctrines were out the window. And the fuddy-duddies with the uniforms and medals just didn't understand. Now it seems like they knew something after all.

Finally, is it time -- strictly for humanitarian reasons -- to set up a journalistic no-fly-zone to give some sanctuary for the hawks who've been telling us for months that a few good SWAT Teams could take down Saddam's regime.

I mean, think about Ken Adelman, who a year ago said that Iraq would be a cakewalk. (Okay, what did he really say? Ummm, well "I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk." I think that counts as calling it a cakewalk.) Now he's been driven to the hills by reportorial fedayeen. He's run ragged, exposed to the elements, and short on food. Or what about Richard Perle, who said Saddam's regime was "a house of cards [which would] collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder." Sure, AEI would like to send out a relief mission. But most of their troops have run off to the hills with those makeshift tarp-and-cardboard tents like Adelman and Perle. And well -- how to put this? -- let's just say they're just not in much of a position to beg relief from the UNHCR. Can't we at least protect these war-hawk worthies from fixed-wing aircraft, if nothing else? Toss 'em some MREs from the spare C-130? I mean, just for humanitarian purposes.

Before we get down to business today let's hear some sage words from the estimable Michael Thomas of Kentucky ...

From: "Michael Thomas"
To: talk@talkingpointsmemo.com
Subject: Objectives
Date: Fri, 28 Mar 2003 10:21:15 -0500
X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook Express 6.00.2800.1106

I browsed your memo... (very 'creative' title btw)... it doesn't take long to see that your objective is to demoralize our troops and our citizens, de-ligitimize the efforts (any efforts) of the Bush (or any Republican) Administration, further the "liberal cause" (although there really is no such thing - gaining power is not a cause in itself, you know), and attempt to help us lose this war - and any war - as long as a Republican is in the White House.

Your motives are clearly political and self-serving. I am sure they have made you quite popular with your friends in academia and Hollywood.

This may be the most critical time in the history of the modern world much less of our country; and it is my fervent hope that the American People will remember and appropriately reward those, like you, who have chosen to use this opportunity to forward a political cause, and not incidentally their own careers, by attempting to sabotage an honorable effort to make the world a safer, better place.

Our sons are fighting today, risking their lives... and some are dying... for your right to assist our enemies. That must make you very proud.


Michael Thomas

More soon ...

I've become associated over the last several months with the proposition that the Bush foreign policy team is simply incompetent. I have to tell you though that in recent days I have been repeatedly shocked by just how true this seems to be. If you still need to be convinced how disastrously the situation with Turkey was handled, take a look at this article in Friday's Post. It's almost beyond belief. A bull in a china shop doesn't do it justice. The other analogies I came up with were just unmentionable...

I was finishing up an interview early this evening when I flipped open my laptop to find that Richard Perle had resigned his post as Chairman of the Defense Policy Board. All I can say is, it's about time. At TPM, we've been on Perle's trail for the DPB shenanigans since early October 2001. But clearly our efforts were just -- as the folks in uniform might say -- reportorial triple-A compared to the transformational, big munitions Sy Hersh and others brought to bear in recent weeks.

As I said, it's about time.

Another point. The conventional wisdom right now isn't really 'things are going badly.' It's more aptly characterized as 'things sure look like they're going badly but it's too soon to know.' Let's unpack this for a moment. The specter of Afghanistan is hanging over the reaction to, and reportage of, this war. Back in Afghanistan things looked like we were in for a long, tough, bloody battle. And then suddenly everything broke free. Pundits who had deployed the Q-word (i.e., "quagmire") too soon felt awfully exposed when the Taliban simply collapsed. No one wants that to happen to them again. So everyone's keeping their powder dry.

But the Afghanistan experience hangs over this moment in a deeper way too. Back in Afghanistan, the folks at the Joint Staff really wanted to go slower. They wanted to bring up more men, more equipment, the whole bit. But Rumsfeld and his people said 'no.' They wanted to move much more quickly, relying on a mix of high-tech weaponry, quick-moving Special Forces operations, indigenous proxy armies, and agile, on-the-fly decision-making.

And something happened: it worked.

When people write the history of these years, I think they'll place great emphasis on this fact. Rumsfeld and his deputies didn't need a lot of convincing that they understood military affairs as well as or better than anyone. But this experience greatly emboldened them.

But it did more than embolden them. This part is harder to get at or know. But I think it subtly shook the confidence of some of the folks on the Joint Staff. Rumsfeld went for the Hail Mary pass and, amazingly, Paul Wolfowitz came down with the ball in the end zone.

Of course, this is an over-simplification. But it catches the outlines of what happened. And I think it played a key role on a variety of levels in allowing the Office of the Secretary of Defense to get the Joint Chiefs to go along with an Iraq war plan they were never comfortable with.

We'll be saying more about this ...

Meanwhile, self-parody seems to be the answer to our recent reverses in Mesopotamia.

When I was doing course-work in graduate school I studied a little 19th and early 20th century German history. What always struck me was that "crude Marxism" looked a lot less crude when you looked at it through the prism of late 19th century German history. You had the cartoonish reactionary leaders, the alliance of ancien regime with plutocratic capital. And a foreign military adventure was pretty much always the solution of choice when things looked iffy at home or the Socialists looked set to win a majority in the parliament.

In any case, you can see all sorts of examples now -- cropping up everywhere it seems -- that we're heading toward some similar Gotterdammerung of ridiculousness.

I was watching a British military briefing this morning when a reporter asked one of the British generals what he thought of the fact that the running of the port of Umm Qasr has apparently already been raffled off to some American company. The look on his face was priceless. Sort of the Blair tragedy writ small.

Now, we hear that California Congressman Darrell Issa, a major recipient of money from hometown cell phone goliath Qualcomm is lobbying the Pentagon to rewire (rewireless?) Iraq with Qualcomm's CDMA standard rather than the one now used in the country, GSM, which is preferred by European manufacturers. "Hundreds of thousands of American jobs depend on the success of U.S.-developed wireless technologies like CDMA," says Issa.

And to think that for a moment I thought we were about to turn Iraq into a parodic banana-republic where favored US campaign contributors got to line up for Iraq-pork!

And speaking of the rather shariah-offending concept of Iraq-pork, at least we're not going to try to evangelize Iraq by turning over aid distribution to evangelical faith-based organizations from the Bible Belt, right?

Well ...

Here's another charmer from the always invaluable Beliefnet. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, said yesterday that his organization, Samaritan's Purse, has an army of relief workers "poised and ready" to roll into Iraq to serve the physical and spiritual needs of the Iraqi people. He's in constant contact with the US government agencies in Amman to help coordinate efforts.

Graham says that he knows he can't just whip out the good book and start preaching the gospel in an Arab country. But "I believe as we work," said Graham, "God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son... We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian I do this in the name of Jesus Christ."

That should go over well.

I mean, it's not like the Muslim Arabs have a chip on their shoulder or anything about the Christian West launching a new crusade against them to reclaim Arabia for the cross. So it shouldn't be any problem.

In all seriousness, obviously the US can't bar anybody with a Christian affiliation from doing relief work in Iraq. But optics seems to be the issue here. The American president is a deeply-believing born-again Christian. He's closely associated with Franklin Graham. Graham has repeatedly called Islam a "wicked" religion. And now Graham's missionaries are coming in behind US tanks invading Iraq.

If the Arab world had electronic media that tended toward sensationalism and inflammatory coverage this could really be a problem ...

"We do not all love Saddam, but we do not love the United States either." That's one line from a very sobering article at ABCNews.com. Until Saddam Hussein's regime is totally displaced we'll never quite know what people really think as opposed to what they say.

Hope is not a plan, as the Army planners say. And they say it for a reason ...

Here is our text for the day. It comes from an interview last evening on PBS's Newshour, when Gwen Ifill asked retired Colonel Samuel Gardiner whether the momentum of the campaign could be sustained. Gardiner said ...

No. I just want to add a political military dimension. Yesterday a very important thing happened. Two retired four-star generals: Wes Clark and Barry McCaffrey, who was a division commander in the first Gulf War, said we don't have enough force. Whether they are right or not, the leadership of the United States has a problem. And that is if we go to Baghdad with two divisions and there are losses, that's regime change kind of stuff. And I don't mean Baghdad regime change. But you don't send American men and women into battle without all it takes to do that. I mean, that's a very serious thing.
Now, a few points. I know Gardiner was only talking about changes of government at the ballot box but I'm still always a bit uncomfortable when even retired military men talk publicly about US governments being turned out because of poor military decisions. I didn't like it under Clinton; and I don't like it now. Retired military officers have as much right to speak out as the rest of us. But given the importance of civilian supremacy over the military, there's a penumbra of prudence that stretches over the public comments of even retired career officers. (Late Update: My criticism, if there is any, is not directed at McCaffrey and Clark. I think it's not only right but incumbent on them to speak out. My only point is that, in the case of Gardiner, it may be the better part of wisdom for retired career officers to speak out against bad defense policy but leave spelling out the political consequences to others. Again, a mild, tentative criticism, but one that I think worth voicing.)

Having said that, his comments get at a very big issue and one that may have profound political implications. War is, by definition, unpredictable. But what we're seeing right now was predicted. The predictions were just ignored.

Relations between the Pentagon's civilian political leadership and the uniformed services has been more vexed and acrimonious in the last two years than it has been for decades. (I discussed this at greater length in this article I wrote last August in Salon -- you can also see it here -- and touched on part of the debate in this earlier post.) The disagreements range over a number of issues including war-planning, 'transformation,' force structure and military-diplomatic relations with various countries across the world. At heart, however, the civilians believed the folks in uniform were overly conservative, risk-averse and failed to understand how technology had transformed modern warfare.

Don Rumsfeld (and Rumsfeld, in this case, stands for Rumsfeld and his various civilian deputies) thought Saddam Hussein could be taken down with a relatively small number of ground forces in conjunction with fast-moving and agile high-tech air power and special forces. (Keep in mind that the Pentagon's civilian leadership originally wanted to mount this war with as few as a quarter of the troops we now have in the theater.) The Sec Def's military advisors told him he was sending them into Iraq under-gunned. They argued about it for months. Rumsfeld thought he knew better than they did, however, and sent them in that way regardless of their objections.

We'll be saying more about this. And I think it's still to soon to fully evaluate Rumsfeld's plan. Perhaps Saddam's regime will collapse spectacularly in the coming days. But at the moment the results of Rumsfeld's gamble are not looking very good.

P.S. Special thanks to valued TPM reader BZ for sending the Newshour link ...

The uncomfortable reality is that presidents have often deceived the American public to pull the country into wars or extensive military engagements. FDR said he was trying to keep us out of World War II, even as he courted a conflict with the Axis powers, which he believed both necessary and unavoidable. History has judged him well. LBJ manufactured an incident to get us into Vietnam. Eventually it destroyed him. When President Clinton put American troops into Bosnia he claimed they'd only be there for a year, even though everyone knew they'd be there much longer. The verdict there has been generally positive, though more time needs to pass for a definitive verdict. There are many other examples both before and since.

Yet what the Bush administration has done and is doing is, I believe, qualitatively different from these and other examples both before and since. In each of these other cases the public had some sense of what war was being debated. Do we get into another world war based in Europe? Do we get into Vietnam the way we got into Korea? Do we sign on for a murky and perhaps unpredictable period of military oversight in the Balkans? Presidents may have lied about the costs of war or the pretexts. But there was at least some sense of what sort of war we were talking about.

That's not the case here.

This war isn't really about Iraq or deposing Saddam or even eliminating his WMD, though each of those are important benefits along the way. Nor is it something so mundane as a 'war for oil.' The leading architects of this war in and out of the administration see this war, and have pursued it, as an opening blow in a far broader war against political Islam. They see it as the first in a series of wars and near-wars which will lead eventually to the overthrow of most of the current governments in the Middle East, the establishment of western-oriented democracies throughout the Arab world, and the destruction of nothing less than the political world of Islamic fundamentalism.

That, as you might say, is a rather tall order. And it would have been very hard for the administration to sell the American people on such a struggle. So it didn't try. It pushed rather to get us into Iraq, knowing that if it went about the process in the right way it would make a further series of wars against Iran, Syria and perhaps lower-level hostilities against Saudi Arabia and Egypt all but inevitable.

As Jeffrey Bell put it last week in The Weekly Standard, this is nothing less than a "world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism ... a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future."

In any case, I've tried to sketch this out and put together the various ideas and aims involved, in the cover piece of the soon-to-be-released new issue of the Washington Monthly. The piece was finished on, I think, the first day of the war. But events have been moving so quickly that we've decided to preview release it on the Monthly's website. You can read "Practice to Deceive" here.

Over-estimating the extent of one's own power is the best sign that someone or something is heading for a fall.

This is something the Bush administration has been doing for months now. We're extremely powerful. But we're not all-powerful. Almost, but not quite.

An example of such over-reach is our current decision to threaten almost every country on the planet with payback for not following our lead on Iraq. Such threats aren't just ill-advised. Worse than that, they lack credibility since we're just not in a position to stick it to every country at once. Here at TPM we've been focusing on Turkey. But Dan Drezner has an excellent post on another country we're now threatening with payback: Canada ... (Drezner's post plays off this article in The Globe and Mail.)

On a similar note, there is an article today by Michael Ledeen in the New York Sun, which blames the French for the failure of our diplomacy with the Turks. (The article isn't available online.) As I noted in my column in The Hill, the argument that Turkish Islamism is at fault is belied by the fact that the secularist, Kemalist deputies in the Turkish parliament voted against us by a far greater proportion than the 'Islamic' deputies. Ledeen says this happened because the French and the Germans threatened the Turks (i.e., the pro-Western secularists) with exclusion from the European Union if they went along with us. Ledeen lards the piece with several throwaway lines which are as meaningless as they are foolish. He says for instance that we'll eventually find out "that French actions constitute the diplomatic equivalent of chemical and biological warfare."

(What does this mean? If one wants a little shock value, shouldn't the insults at least make some logical sense?)

Now, I have a few responses to this. First, Ledeen doesn't proffer a lot of evidence for this claim, merely unnamed sources. But, frankly, I don't doubt that they did make such threats. Perhaps they did; perhaps they didn't. Yet, Occam's Razor would suggest that it may not have played that decisive a role. No one in Turkey supported our war in Iraq. No one. Given that the secularists are out of government and not particularly inclined to help the Erdogan government, I don't think they needed a lot of encouragement to vote this way. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense.

There's a second problem with Ledeen's argument. The Erdogan government has shown that it is also extremely eager for EU admittance. Why didn't the threat work better with them?

The long and the short of it is that one doesn't have to look too far past the Turkish borders to explain what happened.

But let's assume for a moment that the French and Germans did level this threat. And that it had some effect. Far from being exculpatory of Bush administration diplomacy, it's actually quite damning.

Here's why.

The centerpiece of the Bush administration's strategic doctrine has been that alliances and international institutions hinder our ability to secure our vital interests far more than they advance it. Thus, they argue, we should chart our own course and invite the 'willing' to follow us or get out of the way. The subtext of that strategy is that if this or that country doesn't like it, that's their problem, not ours.

Their opponents said, no. Our alliances help us shape international debates and catalyze our power rather than diminish it. What's more, even with all our power, our isolation is our problem too. If true, France's threat to the Turks is a textbook example of this fact.

France has never made peace with American dominance in Europe. What they've heretofore lacked was a constituency among the countries of Europe to work against that dominance. Now they have it. And France is a big player in ... well, what else to call it, an alliance, the EU, which Turkey would really like to become a part of. If no more than French perfidy were involved here, France's threat would carry little weight. France doesn't run the EU. On the contrary, if the Turks think that the French are now speaking for most of the populations of Europe, the threat could be quite real. As we noted here, opportunists will always arise to exploit an exploitable situation. But we created a situation ripe for exploitation.

It's sad and undignified for conservatives to trumpet the evidence of the administration's shortsightedness and incompetence as evidence of its insight. They're lost in a tangle of their own enthusiasm and self-deception. Unfortunately, we're all along for the ride.

Thank god for small favors. At least there's some good news on the Turkish front this morning. Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, head of the Turkish General Staff and de facto arbiter of Turkish civilian governments, said today that -- barring a massive deterioration of the situation in Northern Iraq -- he will not send troops into Iraqi Kurdistan. That staves off one truly nightmarish scenario.

Yet look a bit further down in the article and you see a deeply revealing comment from Gen. Ozkok.

I have difficulty understanding those who claim there is a threat to them across the ocean. And when Turkey says the same threat exists on the other side of its border, this is found to be unbelievable.
What answer can we make to this?

It's difficult to fully grasp the deeper import of this remark without some sense of how deeply pro-Western and, more specifically, pro-American an institution the Turkish General Staff is. These are notes of resentment being sounded by our most loyal friends -- in the region, or anywhere for that matter.

My column in The Hill this week is on the Turks and the rise on the American right of a foolish, dangerous and utterly self-serving argument which holds that our problems with Turkey are due not to our own high-handed incompetence but rather to rising Turkish Islamic fundamentalism. The people who make this argument are either liars, utterly ignorant, or folks who are so unwilling to confront the reality of what's happened in Turko-American relations over the last three months that they've just willingly spun themselves. As I write toward the end of my new piece in The Hill ...

The Bush administration acted toward Turkey like the stereotypical rogue from a 1950s B-Movie. First we told Turkey what we wanted. When she balked, we got a little rough. When even that didn’t do the trick, we pulled out our wallet, saying in essence, “Fine, how much do you want?” When even cash failed, we told her to get out of the car and walk home.
This just gets uglier and uglier. And the costs keep rising.

Neil MacFarquhar has a fascinating and disturbing article in Wednesday's New York Times. The upshot of the piece is that almost everybody in the Arab world hates Saddam. But many are also energized and inspired by seeing Saddam's troops make problems for the US-UK invasion force. "They want Saddam Hussein to go and they expect him to go eventually, but they want him to hold on a little longer because they want to teach the Americans a lesson," says a Saudi newspaper editor.

What echoes through this piece and others in the papers this morning is the simple possibility -- never really appreciated by the more zealous Iraq hawks -- that people could hate Saddam and yet also fail to happily greet our invasion. (Saddam is a tyrant ergo we must be right and we must be welcome.) Equally so, few of them ever seemed to grasp that the Bush administration's long litany of indifference to world opinion on almost every issue imaginable might have some impact.

Don't get me wrong: it's not that an alternative approach would necessarily have made the Iraqis act differently. It's just that the administration seems to have premised its entire geopolitical and military strategy on the notion that they would.