Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

According to the Washington Post, US civilian and military authorities in Iraq have agreed to create an Iraqi paramilitary force numbering just under 1,000 men, composed of equal contributions from the militias of the five largest political parties in the country.

I hesitate to criticize this decision too readily because I can see the very difficult range of options we're dealing with. And I can see advantages of pursuing such a course: namely, having a corps of trained Iraqis to help put down the insurgents who are killing our soldiers and preventing any progress toward stabilization and democratization.

I'm convinced that the choice to disband the Iraqi Army was a bad idea, about which we should have known better. This, on the other hand, may be a bad decision that we must take because all the other options are worse.

But with all those qualifications put out on the table, I have to tell you that just instinctively this strikes me as a very bad idea.

As Ghazi Yawar, an independent member of the Council tells the Post: "This is a very big blunder. We should be dissolving militias, not finding ways to legitimize them. This sends the wrong message to the Iraqi people."

The reasons for not doing this are almost endless -- not least of which is the fact that these militias aren't exactly pure as the driven snow operations, and they are based in most cases on rival political factions that would probably be fighting each other if we weren't still there with a hundred and fifty thousands of our guys and gals. (Add to this the fact that the leaders of several of these parties are reaching for almost any expedient to perpetuate their power into the post-occupation period -- and this looks like an awfully good way to do it.)

At a deeper level, however, the issue here is one of power and the direction in which it is flowing.

The idea behind a successful occupation, reconstruction and democratization process -- whether it be in Japan or Germany or Kosovo or Bosnia -- is that you control not only the power of overwhelming force but the more granular and immediate forms of power we associate with police authority and basic civil administration.

It is only with that sort of control that you can hope to manage the sort of social and political reconfigurations -- always matters of the greatest difficulty -- that can ensure a more democratic and stable future for the country in question.

(Call this imperialism, or any other catch phrase, but if it's done competently and under the appropriate auspices I have no problem with it.)

But what is quite evidently happening here is that we don't have that sort of power. So we're having to go to other sources of force, authority and patronage to find it.

Only the groups we're going to -- in most cases factions based either on hucksters, or charismatic leaders or ethnic or sectarian loyalties -- are the ones whose power we're trying to curb or who themselves embody tendencies in the society which we are trying to reform. In such a state of affairs it becomes very difficult to see whether we're coopting them or they're coopting us.

When I first started reporting on Iraq almost two years ago I had a long conversation with a well-known Iraqi emigre who told me that thirty years of what he called Saddam's "excessive dictatorship" had so ground down all the elements of civil society and public life in Iraq that the only associations that remained were the most elemental ones -- those of ethnicity and sect, the hardiest weeds, which were the only ones that could withstand the scorched earth policy which was Saddam's rule. The truly national institutions and the other rudiments of civic life had simply been destroyed.

Ideally, a period of occupation or international administration can create a period of breathing space where such national and cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian institutions could emerge and provide a counterweight to these more destabilizing, centrifugal forces.

But instead of our mastering them, they appear to be mastering us.

As is happening on so many fronts the initiative is slipping from our hands, even though we try to portray the process as the product of our own policy and decision-making.

In case you needed any more evidence that Ralph Nader has become the enemy of any hope of progressive change in this country, visit the new Nader 2004 Exploratory Committee website. Not much up there yet, but what more do we really need to know?

Or you can send your comments to the Exploratory Committee at this email address (info@naderexplore04.org) to let Nader and his associates know whether you think his potential candidacy would contribute to a good outcome in the 2004 election.

And if you want some dark comedic entertainment, see the Nader FAQ, which lamely tries to argue that Nader didn't help throw the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

Villainy, wrapped up in mendacity, with a little bow of hypocrisy on top -- always a delightful package ...

LATE UPDATE: Alas, as of Wednesday morning, they've taken down the FAQ -- I guess they didn't find it convincing either ...

Juan Cole has some noteworthy observations about the ambush and subsequent firefight this weekend in Samarra. I've been puzzling over this for days now. It seems clear that this was a major development, but the facts remain terribly obscure. And without the facts, it's hard to know just what happened or what significance it has in the larger story.

What struck me first about the firefight were the reports that the insurgents were wearing the uniforms of the Saddam Fedayeen -- one of Saddam's more vicious paramilitaries. If true, that seems like a very big deal.

Guerillas seldom have much to gain by wearing readily identifiable uniforms, save for the psychological message it sends, both to their enemy (i.e., us, in this case) and Iraqi civilians. And the message seems one of audacity -- that they're willing and capable of confronting us as organized paramilitaries and not just by sniping and setting off bombs.

The initial reports suggested it was a pretty poor decision on the insurgents' part since the Army opened up with the full force of Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and killed three or four dozen of the attackers.

But the more we hear about what happened the muddier the story gets. (See particularly the letter appended to Cole's post.)

In initial accounts the Army said that either 46 or 54 insurgents were killed. But battlefield estimates of how many of your enemy you kill are notoriously inaccurate --- and most often inflated. And the local hospital says it counted only 9 dead, most of them civilians.

As Cole notes, some of the discrepancy must be due to insurgents carrying their dead or wounded away after the engagement. But it's hard to figure that this accounts for all the difference. And in recent statements, the Army has downplayed the original reports that the insurgents were wearing the Fedayeen uniforms.

One other point that I haven't yet seen discussed in much depth is the precision and specificity of the information the attackers seem to have had about the mission to deliver those new bills into the city. I've heard some chatter --- though nothing as yet I've been able to nail down --- about suspicion in the Army about the security of information given to the CPA and/or the IGC.

In any case, this is a post about questions rather than answers.

I just don't think we have much of an idea what happened in Samarra. The initial reports seem to have come from soldiers who went into a very rough situation, found themselves in the midst of a horrific firefight, opened up with what are basically battlefield weapons and then pieced together what had happened from observations they collectively made while all of that hellishness was going on.

At this point, neither the Army's initial account of the number of dead or those provided by the local hospital seem particularly credible.

Does Ray LaHood (R-Ill) know something we don't?

Yesterday, at an editorial meeting with a local newspaper, Lahood was asked about the impact of Iraq on next year's election.

LaHood replied that the US is on the verge of capturing Saddam and once that happens the resistance will collapse. When a member of the paper's editorial board asked LaHood if he knew something they didn't, the five-term congressman -- who sits on the House Intel Committee -- said "Yes I do."

So is LaHood just blowing smoke or does he know something we don't?

Put me down for smoke. But read this and make your own decision.

Now that's odd.

When I flipped on my computer this morning, CNN was running a breaking news alert that Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri had been captured. al-Duri was not only one of Saddam's top deputies. He has also allegedly been a key organizer of the post-war resistance.

Now, twenty minutes later, no follow-up story, no alert, no nothing.

Looking at the other news sites, it seems that Kirkuk is rife with rumors that al-Duri was captured in a raid last night and that one member of the IGC, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, made a vague statement seeming to imply that he had "There was a major action against a highly suspicious objective last night in Kirkuk and it is very possible that Izzat Ibrahim has been captured or killed."

Did CNN jump the gun? Presumably we'll know more later this morning.

A couple months ago I was in a book store in New York leafing through the latest offering from Laurie Mylroie, a book called Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terror.

I've been thinking a lot about the book business of late and the all-important issue of timing. And with that in mind I couldn't help chuckling when reading over the liner notes and seeing gems like this: "Combining important new research with an insider's grasp of Beltway politics, Mylroie describes how the CIA and the State Department have systematically discredited critical intelligence about Saddam's regime, including indisputable evidence of its possession of weapons of mass destruction."

Indisputable evidence ... Hmmm, you think, maybe this is a dust-jacket that could have used a touch of last-minute rejiggering.

(Amazon says the book came out on July 29 of this year. So you figure those lines were probably written a couple months earlier, just as they were tipping over the edge from mere foolishness to demonstrable ridiculousness, but not quite there yet.)

Of course, in some circles, the jarring nature of disconnects between claims and facts ain't quite what they used to be. But whatever you think of Mylroie's work (which posits Saddam's role in everything from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to the Oklahoma City bombing to 9/11 to the Anthrax attacks), it has been extremely influential with the war-hawks who were the primary architects of our Iraq policy. And that's a frightening thought on a host of levels.

For more on Mylroie, her work and her influence, read Peter Bergen's new piece on her in The Washington Monthly.

Alas, one for two. Today a three judge panel quashed subpoenas which would have compelled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Congressman Joe Barton to testify in the Texas redistricting (i.e., double-dipping) case.

There were, of course, two instances this year of mid-decade redistricting that came, shall we say, straight outta Washington.

Because more seats were at stake and the process prompted more theatrics, the double-dipping in Texas got much more attention. But the same thing happened in Colorado. And today the State Supreme Court said the whole sorry episode was unconstitutional.

"If [congressional] districts," said the ruling, "were to change at the whim of the state Legislature, members of Congress could frequently find their current constituents voting in a different district in subsequent elections."

Now for the court case in Texas, where we're still waiting to hear whether House Majority Leader Tom DeLay will be able to avoid being deposed about his role in the redistricting battle.

My posts have been sparse for the last few days in part because of the holidays but also because I am poring over a stack of books about empire for an upcoming essay. And with these various thoughts about empire swirling through head, reading this article about our ever-evolving Iraq exit strategy plan in tomorrow's Post is an exercise in sinking feelings and dark humor.

The essence of the story is that the plan for a political handover that we announced just weeks ago is already on the fast-track to dead letterhood.

And it's happening because the plan is being gamed by Iraqi political leaders who've clearly got more power on the ground than we do.

Our lack of effective power, as opposed to main force, of which we've got plenty, is what's pushing us to get out of the country in the first place. But our efforts to get out have further weakened our position, thus diminishing our ability to get out on our own terms. It's a vicious cycle, and as difficult to remedy as it is vicious.

Back on Wednesday the Post had a piece about how Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani was largely responsible for scuttling our original plan to appoint the drafters of the constitution, rather than have them elected.

Now he's come out against the new plan for electing these folks through a complex series of town caucuses and called instead for direct nationwide elections.

It's pretty hard to fault Sistani's positions on democratic procedural grounds. But the bigger point, again, is our impotence in the face of his expressed views.

He's calling the shots; we're not.

And then there's the Interim Governing Council, the IGC.

The greatest deceit perpetrated by the architects of the war turns out to have had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction or ties between Saddam and al Qaida. The profoundest deception was the claim that the IGC was designed to be a transitional governing authority when in fact, as is now becoming clear, its true purpose was to provide a sort of dark, Falstaffian comic relief to balance out the ominous backdrop of postwar Iraq.

Much of the jockeying we're now seeing involves efforts by the IGC to perpetuate its power into post-occupation Iraq even though -- with the exception of the Kurdish faction leaders -- few of its members have any serious base of political support in the country or, to put it bluntly, any armies on hand for when things really get fun next fall.

So, while the real players jockey for position and await our departure, these boneheads are trying to use the paper power we've given them against us in order to hold on to authority even after we leave.

That's just great.

Here's a prime example ...

Even if the United States can broker a compromise formula, council members are still trying to retain their leverage by arguing that the council should remain as a second legislative body, the equivalent of a senate, an idea likely to ignite further controversy, Iraq experts warn. Alternatively, the council could try to slow the process, hoping to preempt the latest U.S. plan.

Their leverage ... Like I said, dark comic relief. We can't even get our puppets in line.

Undemocratic or imperfectly democratic upper houses of parliaments usually justify themselves by their partial remove from the bustle of democratic politics or their identification with national unity or ancestral wisdom or some such thing. Think the British House of Lords or at the turn of the last century the United States senate. Such arguments are always strained. But why the council we installed in the first months of the occupation should play this role is a little hard to figure.

And then another nice passage ...

One way or another, key council members are vying either to shape the transition or ensure the council remains intact and a powerful body, as the U.S. plan envisions. Because many of the 24 council members probably would not fare well in open elections, they pressured Bremer to establish an indirect three-step system to select a new national assembly, which in turn would pick a prime minister and cabinet, a process so complex that many Iraqis and U.S. experts doubt it will work.

A former U.S. adviser to Bremer described the plan as "an insane selection system of caucuses, like the Iowa caucus selecting those who will vote in New Hampshire."

The U.S. plan effectively gives the Governing Council a kind of remote control because it will have the deciding vote in local caucuses that will pick a national assembly.

All of this adds up to the essential ridiculousness of the moment: On the homefront, the president is shaping his political campaign around the notion that we shouldn't show weakness and we can't cut and run. Meanwhile, it's clear to pretty much everyone in Iraq that we're doing both.

And they're acting accordingly.