Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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I sincerely hope the author of this article in today's Boston Globe gets all his calls returned at the White House for a good long time. Because, boy, did he earn it. The piece lays out the "case" the Kay report is going to make about Iraqi WMD or, what the author calls, "the White House's best case so far that Hussein hid an outlawed weapons program."

The strategy behind the Kay report will apparently run something like this: Present a body of evidence that utterly discredits the administration's pre-war arguments about WMD. But dress it up with tons of documents and details. Say it confirms the administration's arguments. And then hope no one notices.

Here's the lede from the Globe article ...

Investigators searching for Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction will report next month that Saddam Hussein's regime spread nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons plans and parts throughout the country to deceive the United Nations, according to senior Bush administration and intelligence officials.

Once freed of inspections and international sanctions, the weapons programs were intended to be pulled together quickly to manufacture substantial quantities of deadly gases and germs, the investigators will argue, although the development of a nuclear weapon would probably take many months, if not years.

That "many months, if not years" line is really one for the chronicles of egregious understatement. But look at the broader point. What they're talking about is stuff like the centrifuge parts Mahdi Obeidi had under his rose bush.

Basically, Saddam had shuttered his 'programs' but kept the knowledge base on ice in expectation of a future point when sanctions would be relaxed and he could start back into the WMD business. The author of the Globe piece says "inspections and international sanctions." But clearly the issue was sanctions since inspectors had been out of the country since 1998.

Then there are gems like this ...

Officials said the investigators plan to paint a picture of an Iraqi government intent on expanding its ability to produce chemical and biological weapons and continuing its search for a nuclear bomb, while ensuring that the parts, if uncovered individually, would not be condemning or could be explained away as legitimate scientific and manufacturing endeavors.

A key aspect of the case, the sources said, will be so-called "dual use" equipment designed for making, for example, pesticides, but also useful for producing chemical weapons.

The argument here is that the thoroughly shuttered and static state of the Iraqi WMD 'programs' are a sign of how ingeniously covert they were.

Or another pearl like this ...

The Iraqis' so-called "break-out" program -- which could rely on small, dispersed teams of specialists and hidden equipment and supplies to build weapons of mass destruction in the event of relaxed scrutiny -- also could explain why the Republican Guard did not use chemical weapons against American troops in the war, as US commanders feared. Kay is expected to unveil evidence to support assertions by US officials before the war that Iraqi troops had been ordered to launch gas attacks on invading troops.

Let's translate this: the Republican Guard's failure to use weapons of mass destruction might be explained by the fact that Saddam had shuttered his WMD programs until sanctions were lifted.

That logic is pretty hard to dispute, isn't it?

I don't want to make light of this stuff too much. Weapons proliferation is a deadly serious issue. And we really do need a comprehensive report to tell us not just about the lead-up to this war, but everything we can glean about the history of the last dozen years of inspections and sanctions, not least of which how so many people -- certainly, myself included -- bought into many assumptions that simply weren't true.

But Kay's report is clearly going to be as political as it gets. And full of funny business. This is a deadly serious issue. But as long as they're approaching it in this way, it merits ridicule.

For a couple months a question has been hanging -- often unspoken -- over the WMD search. There were a lot of Iraqi defectors circulating through DC who claimed some very specific and direct knowledge about post-1991 weapons production.

Now we've looked; and a lot of those stories turn out to be baseless.

Intelligence analysts whose stories don't prove out may be guilty of poor judgments or even incompetence; but alleged eyewitnesses whose stories don't pan out are, almost by definition, liars. Not all the cases are so clear-cut certainly. But there are a number of celebrity defectors who showed up in a lot of articles and on a lot of panels who have some explaining to do.

Bob Drogin has a must-read story in the LA Times out yesterday evening which seems to do a bit of the explaining for them: Drogin says that the intelligence analysts and inspectors working the WMD case have decided that quite a few of those defectors were either double-agents working for Saddam or else dupes who innocently passed on disinformation that Saddam's agents wanted them to spread in the West. Others, not surprisingly, were just in the hunt for money, asylum and greeen cards. The intelligence agencies are apparently applying a new round of scrutiny to all the defectors. And, though the article is a touch fuzzy on this detail, they're also giving another look at the person who handled a lot of those defectors -- Ahmed Chalabi.

Among other things the article includes the most concise and -- I suspect -- accurate synopsis of what the inspectors operating in Iraq under David Kay have actually found ...

Evidence collected over the last two months suggests that Saddam's regime abandoned large-scale weapons development and production programs in favor of a much smaller "just in time" operation that could churn out poison gases or germ agents if they were suddenly needed. The transition supposedly took place between 1996 and 2000.

But survey group mobile collection teams are still unable to prove that any nerve gases or microbe weapons were produced during or after that period, the officials said. Indeed, the weapons hunters have yet to find proof that any chemical or bio-warfare agents were produced after 1991.

Drogin's collection of comments from inspectors and intelligence analysts demonstrates another point: the folks actually doing the work on the ground in Iraq and the analysts back home are in fullscale reevaluation mode. Only the DC pundits and the White House press office are still pitching the "you'll be sorry when we find the WMD" line.

More to come on the CIA/State versus the Pentagon political appointees front, who got scammed and who didn't, and a murky event from the mid-1990s which may be in line for some fresh scrutiny.

Just a quick note on the TPM redesign. The redesigned site should be debuting in the near future. The front-end look won't be very much different from what you see now, with the exception of a wide text window, which has heretofore been a source of some complaint -- the same simple, unadorned look. The new site will have an RSS feed for all you tech geeks out there, a printer-friendly function for those who don't want to print out a particular post without having to waste paper on a whole week's worth of material. (There won't be a 'mail-to-a-friend' function or an email list, for reasons I'll explain later.) The real changes will be on the back-end, which will make TPM more smooth-functioning, easier to update, and hopefully make it possible to put more content online. Let me thank everyone who's continued to contribute to help keep the site up-and-running and to every reader who's helped keep the site traffic growing month to month. More soon on the new site.

Wow. This new Zogby poll has Howard Dean leading John Kerry by a margin of 38 percent to 17 percent in New Hampshire. Equally striking is the fact that none of the other candidates even show up significantly in the poll. Gephardt and Lieberman both show up with a pallid 6 percent; and the rest of downhill from there. I seldom draw too many judgments from a Zogby poll. I think he has moments of real statistical insight or intuition, but is often wide of the mark. But a 21 point margin can't be an illusion based on flawed modeling. Dean is clearly way out ahead of everyone else in New Hampshire.

Now it appears that Iran's rapid progress toward a nuclear weapons capacity came thanks to substantial assistance from Pakistan. Add that to the fact that we now know that North Korea's progress along the uranium-enrichment track (as opposed to plutonium) was similarly the product of key assistance from Pakistan. If we're looking for the unstable Islamist-leaning state which has nuclear weapons and is the chief proliferator of nuclear technology to other unstable rogue regimes, we've found it: Pakistan. The urgent question to be answered is whether such assistance is continuing. If it's ended, when did it end?

Following up on whether there's a rationale for a Wesley Clark campaign, here is another analysis of the question from the new issue of The Washignton Monthly. Amy Sullivan argues that there is a vacuum waiting to be filled and that the structural and timing problems for Clark aren't nearly as great as many think.

Does it matter whether or not you bait-and-switch a nation into a good cause?

For the purposes of my hypothetical, let's set aside for the moment whether or not it was a good thing to invade Iraq to topple a bad-acting regime and build a democratic state in its place. In fact, let's stipulate for the sake of argument that it was not only a good thing but a worthwhile expenditure of national resources.

In the lead-up to the war, I argued repeatedly that it was a mistake to gin up phony or exaggerated reasons for our invasion of Iraq, even if the effort itself was justifiable on other grounds. It was wrong not only because it's bad practice to bamboozle the public but because such deception has very practical consequences.

Now we're seeing some of them.

David Warren is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and, among other things, a main proponent and perhaps originator of the 'flypaper' hypothesis.

In an article today he asks whether Americans will have the stomach and sticktoitiveness to stick it out in Iraq. And he comes to the conclusion that they probably won't. This is really a wretched argument, more wretched because it mirrors the communications strategy coming from the White House and many war-hawk circles in Washington.

To the extent that there is war-weariness -- and that's a complicated, fluid reality -- it's not so much because of casualties as the administration's own pervasive dishonesty in building the case for the war.

(Actually, dishonesty before the fact, mixed with incompetence after the fact, which is a really bad combination.)

Before the war, I had many conversations with war-hawks who said something like this. "If this is a good war, it really doesn't matter if you hype up the arguments to get the country into it. It's a good thing. And a little rallying the country is okay, if the goal is a good one and a necessary one."

The thinking was that once you've got the country into Iraq you can rely on American gumption to stick it out till the job is done, even if you weren't completely honest about what that job really was going in.

But there's a problem with that kind of thinking. Once it becomes clear what sort of enterprise you've gotten the country into, it may turn out they really don't have the stomach for it. And then what do you do?

Or, actually, that's an unfair way to put it. Let's try this instead ... Once it becomes clear what the stakes really were and what the costs really are, you may find out that the country doesn't think it's a good bargain and doesn't support it.

The reasoning of many war-hawks on this point was extremely cynical. In essence, it went like this: Once we're in, we'll have the wolf by the ears and it really won't matter what people think. We'll have created a fait accompli. They'll have no choice.

Of course, there's another possibility. The public might start wanting to pull the troops out when the effort has barely even begun.

Today those same war-hawks are arguing that it's a moral failing for the public not to want to follow through on the enterprise that they bamboozled the public into.

Now, let's draw back and make a few points ...

The war still has a lot of public support. And the situation is far from irretrievable. War-hawks want to portray the situation as something akin to the late stages of Vietnam, with a defeatist press and establishment, a war-weary public, and a few brave souls who've read their Churchill and remember the lessons of Munich wanting to stick it out.

But that's not where we are. What you've got is a lot of people who are unhappy about the administration's dishonesty, an equal number who don't think the current plan is working, and a pretty broad consensus that we need to make some course corrections if we're going to be successful.

So let's make those course corrections and give ourselves a shot at an outcome which is good for us and the Iraqis.

One thing we shouldn't do is give those liars a chance to question people's moral fiber for not signing on to their latest fairy-tale, the never-ending-story about why we did all this in the first place. Let's write those folks out of the conversation entirely.

A few days ago there was a small stir over an article in the Washington Post describing Paul Bremer's efforts to start recruiting members of Saddam's intelligence services (particularly his foreign intelligence service, the Mukhabarat) to bolster US intelligence capacities in Iraq in order to stem the rising tide of terrorism.

This development raises any number of very valid concerns. But what strikes me about it is less the immediate issue of whether we should be using Saddam's ex-secret police to help control the country than another broader issue.

In the run-up to war, in the debate between neoconservatives and what's left of the foreign policy establishment, the neocons' primary argument was about the moral and strategic poverty of their opponents' policy of supporting corrupt authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Not only was that policy obnoxious to our values, they argued. But it was also bad news in strategic terms since corrupt, illegitimate regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt were simply breeding grounds for al Qaida recruits who attacked us on our own territory.

Now we're seeing the other side of the coin.

It's awfully difficult to build a new state and society around the democratic opposition, when the democratic opposition really doesn't exist. You can say it exists, but once you're in the country it's liable to become clear that the democratic opposition is really just a program at AEI. However that may be, it's very hard not to fall back on at least some of the baddies from the old era because they end up being the people who have a lot of the skills you need. This is one of the reasons, after all, why we ended up working with a lot of Nazis during the occupation of Germany, the broadly successful program of de-Nazification notwithstanding.

My point is not to justify hiring Mukhabarat agents today or ex-SS officers half a century ago. I'm only trying to note how difficult these enterprises are and that it's usually impossible to avoid making at least some deals with bad-actors from the old regime. The key is not making no deals but making them judiciously so that the structure of the old regime, as opposed to a few individuals, doesn't return.

The broader point, however, is that this should have been friggin' obvious from the start. In those earlier debates you can almost imagine (and frankly I've heard) grizzled CIA operators saying, "Wow, and all this time we were tossing Mossadeq, keeping Mubarak in power, and making nice with the Saudis, we could have just built western democracies instead. Why didn't we think of that?"

I don't want to give too much of a pass to the Agency types. We have seen a lot of boomerang effects (or 'blowback' as the term of art has it) from our coddling of dictators and foreign repression. But it's not like the neos were the first ones to come up with the idea of exporting democracy. The history of US foreign interventions in the last century is filled with stories in which the US first tried to build liberal institutions in this or that country, saw it was going to be either really tough or unsustainable, and then settled for dictators or autocrats who were thought could secure our interests for the time being.

That's not great. But it's even worse to blunder into a situation blinded by an arrogance you mistook for idealism and then end up falling back on the same old bad-guy-empowering tactics anyway.

Of course, a lot of these guys never believed their own mumbo-jumbo to start with. But that's another story for another post.

From a story today on the Reuters newswire ...

Operating in growing numbers, the Taliban and their allies have succeeded in destabilizing large parts of Afghanistan and creating conditions that could undermine the U.S. military and central government. Aid and reconstruction is suspended across swathes of territory in the center, south and southeast, giving Afghans the impression the international community has abandoned them now the Taliban has been formally ousted.

Speaks for itself. Read the whole piece.

A few grafs from Michael Wolff's piece about a recent conference/political powwow in Aspen ...

There was a party on the second day for Clinton at the Aspen version of Nobu, and then, later that evening, a discussion between Clinton and President Kagame, hosted by the William Morris Agency, at Whiskey Rocks Bar in the St. Regis Hotel (Michael Eisner, the Disney CEO, while not a conference attendee, slipped into the room).

This turned out to be the pivotal moment of the conference—even the primal one. When Clinton took questions, a young man from a technology company who identified himself as chairman of Bush-Cheney 2004 in California said he was offended by Clinton’s partisanship. To which Clinton, without hesitation, and with some kind of predatory gleam in his eye, said, “Good!” From there, Clinton went on, with emotion and anger, at a level seemingly foreign to most everyone here, to rip to shreds the motives, values, and legitimacy of the Republicans.

It was all anyone could talk about the next day. People seemed genuinely taken aback (some people kept offering that since it was late at night, in a bar, it didn’t quite count) that one of their own might have violated the accepted codes of lofty liberal behavior. There was a little current of fear at the sudden recognition that testosterone could fuel politics. It was a shock, apparently, that we might be this close to real feelings. That politics could actually be personal.

Find the whole article here.