Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

This is the quote from Michael Ledeen, from this morning's event at AEI, which I noted in the previous post.

The quote came in response to a question from the floor, asking how many casualties the American public would be willing to endure and still support the war in Iraq. This was the heart of his response ...

I think it all depends how the war goes. And I think the level of causalities is secondary. It may sound like an odd thing to say. But all the great scholars who have studied American character have come to the conclusion that we are a warlike people. And that we love war. And one of my favorite comments on American character, which is Patton's speech at the beginning of the movie, where he says "Americans love war. We love fighting. We've always fought. We enjoy it. We're good at it. And so forth." What we hate is not casualties but losing. And if the war goes well, and if the American public has the conviction that we're being well-led, and that our people are fighting well, and that we're winning, I don't think causalities are gonna be the issue.

If the American public gets the idea that we're doing poorly, that we're badly led, that the war plan is inferior, that we're being outmaneuvered, outwitted and our guys are dying on behalf of a losing cause, then the American people will turn against it. And that's the usual rule.

Interestingly, in the neo-conservative circles in which he runs, Ledeen is known not so much as an Iraq-hawk, but rather as an Iran-hawk.

I'll put together a verbatim transcript later this afternoon. But two points struck me from Michael Ledeen's comments from this morning at AEI. The first was his argument that Americans are a "warlike people" who have a high tolerance for casualties so long as they're well-led and fighting in a just cause. He referenced the speech from the beginning of the movie Patton -- you know, the one where Patton's standing in front of the big American flag.

The other point was on the definition of terrorism. Ledeen argued that the record of the war thus far has confirmed Saddam's practice of terrorism. His point was a reference to the Iraqis' practice of having soldiers try to blend in with civilians by taking off their uniforms and putting on civilian clothes, false surrenders, ambushes, and stuff like this.

Now, I don't defend this stuff for a minute. These are clear violations of the rules of war. But this isn't 'terrorism.' It's called guerrilla warfare. And guerrilla fighters, almost by definition, seldom follow the rules of war. This is something that's almost always practiced -- for better or worse -- by forces that are vastly outnumbered by their opponents.

It's amazing that anyone would not have expected that, and disingenuous to class it as terrorism.

Nothing seems as important right now as the possibility of a civilian uprising in Basra. If it plays like the hawks have long predicted it would, it would prove a major victory for the whole military endeavor.

Here's the key, as I see it, to the current situation. Nothing that has happened is really that troubling from a purely military point of view. The US-UK forces have advanced to the edge of Baghdad in just a few days. This isn't really good or bad, really. As we've noted before, the story will be told when we fight for Baghdad itself.

The problem isn't with the military strategy. It's rather that what we've seen so far on the military side of the equation has thrown into some doubt our political strategy.

We can subdue Iraq militarily. That's really not a question. But if we have to subdue it in that sense our political strategy will be in a shambles. The strategy which the administration is following amounts to a grand politico-diplomatic carom shot. We can ignore the protests from around the world, they argue, because we assume that when we've finished with our plan the results will prove our diplomatic opponents wrong.

In other words, if we get into Iraq and we find tons of WMD and the Iraqis are praising us to the stars for liberating them, then France and Germany and Russia will have egg on their face. It really won't matter how much they griped on the way in because we'll be retrospectively justified. And with a pro-American Iraqi civilian population we'll go about setting up a democratic polity which will be the envy of the Arab world.

On the other hand, if we have something more like an angry and restive civilian population, then, from a political standpoint, we're really up the creek. We won't have happy Iraqis making our case for us to the world community. And it will be very hard for us to set up a democratic government while we're ruling the place with our fists.

The real outcome will almost certainly fall between these two extremes. But the Bush administration's approach to changing the regime in Baghdad banked almost everything on a picture perfect response from the Iraqi people.

This reminds of a phrase they repeat over and over again in the Army: "Hope is not a plan."

I just got back from a briefing from what we might call -- with a nod to the Civil War lexicon -- the Army of the Potomac. That is, the key regime-change boosters from the DC foreign policy establishment. This morning at the American Enterprise Institute, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen and James Woolsey gave a briefing on the progress of the war. I'm going to write more about this later this evening. But I thought I'd write a little now from my filing station here at Starbucks just to give my first impressions.

There was a definitely a sense that things weren't going as well as had been expected. But the general tenor of the presentations was 'Let's wait and see; we never said it would be easy, etc.'

To the extent there was any second-guessing it was from Ledeen, who said it was a bad idea to have "made the battle for Iraq almost entirely a military battle when there were so many political elements operating in our favor..." This is something we may be hearing a lot more of -- basically, the neos saying we should have taken the US military-cum-'Iraqi opposition' approach.

There was some discussion of the much broader conflict or war of which Iraq is supposed to be only the first battle. But of that, more later.

Speaking in strictly military terms, it's far too soon to say how this war is going or how good a strategy the US is pursuing. But there is one man in particular who comes to mind whose professional reputation very much rides on the outcome. His name is Eliot Cohen and he's the author of a much-discussed book called Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.

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.

Any quick description of a book will to some degree be an over-simplification. But this captures the main outlines of Cohen's argument.

The book made a big splash in Washington policy circles. And what made the book so important was that it provided grist for a debate which was going on in Washington last year between the Pentagon's civilian political appointees and those in uniform.

Was Rumsfeld and Co. right to tell the Joint Chiefs how to do their business? Were the staff officers on the Joint Staff just too unimaginative or maybe just too afraid of taking casualties? Did the uniforms really grasp the impact of new technology on the conduct of war? Or did the folks in uniform maybe know something that Rumsfeld and Co. didn't?

For those who supported Rumsfeld and Co., Cohen's book provided much-needed ammunition. If you didn't want to fight a war in Iraq the way the military wanted to fight it, Cohen provided a reading of history which justified ignoring a lot of the career officers' advice.

That debate is now coming back with a vengeance as a lot of retired Army commanders are coming forward with a big "I told you so." (For a number of reasons, this debate centered most heavily on the Army.) This second-guessing from retired generals isn't coming from nowhere. They've been saying this for 18 months. And the degree of tension and acrimony in that debate became quite intense. (I discussed some of this in an article about civilian-military relations at the Pentagon last year in Salon.)

The Pentagon's political appointees were buoyed by the progress of the war in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld and Co. pressed the uniformed services to adopt a much more rapid and aggressive approach than they wanted to take. And it worked. By the early spring of last year, in part because of the success in Afghanistan and the discussion generated by Cohen's book, it had become conventional wisdom in certain circles in Washington that the career officers at the Pentagon were really just a bunch of fuddy-duddies who needed to be told what to do.

That's the backdrop to retired Army General Barry McCaffrey's remarks yesterday to Reuters. McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division in the first Gulf War, was asked whether he thought Don Rumsfeld had misjudged the nature of this war, particularly by sending in the Americans without enough force on the ground ...

Yes, sure. I think everybody told him that ... I think he thought these were U.S. generals with their feet planted in World War II that didn't understand the new way of warfare.
There's a lot more to tell here. (One part of the story is Rumsfeld's practice of appointing military leaders who are not known for standing up to, or giving bad news to, their civilian superiors.) But if it does turn out that we don't have enough men and materiel on the ground in Iraq, that's the direction this debate is going to go.

Here's another post for the foreign policy incompetence file. As we've noted here several times before, the administration thought muscling the Turks would pay off for the United States -- a strategy that backfired terribly. I don't even think I imagined, however, they'd be this clumsy. Buried in the last graf of this article in Saturday's Washington Post comes this ...

But one senior U.S. official acknowledged that U.S. pressure in recent months has backfired, saying that at one point Pentagon officials insinuated to Turkish politicians that they could get the Turkish military to back the request for U.S. troop deployments in Turkey. "It was stupid stuff. These are proud people," he said. "Speaking loudly and carrying a big stick wins you tactical victories from time to time, but not a strategic victory."
The backdrop here is that the military pushed out an Islamist government only a few years back. Going over the civilians' heads to the Turkish General Staff would inevitably raise the spectre of a repeat of those events.

It's the sort of tough guy tactics that's worked for the Bushies at home but failed miserably abroad.

What I wouldn't give to know who at the Pentagon tried this? Could someone with the initials HR possibly be involved? And who's the "senior U.S. official" who said this to the Post? What I wouldn't give ...

Special thanks to TPM Reader JW for bringing this article to my attention.