Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Interesting. I just watched Wes Clark on Aaron Brown. This was his first appearance on the show as a candidate. So Brown made a point of throwing a few policy questions at him and, conspicuously, switching to a more distant tone than the one they had when Clark was there as a CNN analyst.

He asked a question about Medicare, which Supreme Court justice he admired most, partial birth abortion. Clark's discomfort was evident, as, to be frank, was mine.

I won't mince words: it was a pretty awkward exchange. Not pretty.

Then after a few questions Brown moved to foreign policy and some more general questions that didn't turn directly on domestic policy issues. And Clark was smooth, articulate, polished, etc. For that matter, his pre-announcement to 'draft clark' supporters which ran online Wednesday morning (and which you can see here) was really good -- unrehearsed, not overly polished, but in a good way.

I know that one of Clark's concerns about getting into this race was not being up to speed on various domestic policy issues. And I suspect the issue here with these answers -- the awkwardness -- was not so much a lack of knowledge -- after all, most pols punch through those sorts of questions with a couple one-liners -- but an evident concern that someone's going to catch him out on some issue.

Now, it was day one. And I can imagine it's jarring if you've been going on TV a lot talking about subjects in which you have great expertise and then suddenly being asked questions on subjects in which you don't much expertise.

But it was a problem.

In all seriousness, following up on the previous post, this seems to be the first time that the press, the editorialists, everybody is reacting with mounting indignation over the Vice-President's habit of stating notorious falsehoods and unsubstantiated allegations on national television. The behavior isn't new; the reaction is. Something's changing. (At this point, Tim, don't you wish you'd followed up?)

Does Dick Cheney need to revise and extend his remarks? Over the last couple days pretty much every member of the administration has come forward to knock down Cheney's claim on Meet the Press that Saddam Hussein might have played some role in 9/11. ("We just don't know."). Not that it's so surprising: they're just stating the obvious. But this does represent a slight improvement over past behavior. So under the guidelines set down by most child-rearing specialists some measure of positive reinforcement is likely in order. Today even the president said it.

In the last month I've become increasingly convinced that the effort to use Iraq to pad the pockets of friendly companies in the US is a real story. In the past I always sort of shied away from the Halliburton contracts storyline. After all, Halliburton and its subsidiary Brown & Root didn't get big into the government contracting biz because of Dick Cheney. They bought Dick Cheney because they were already so big in the government contracting business.

In any case, when this much money is flying around, you inevitably get a lot of it steered into friendly hands, even without systematic crony-ization of the whole process. And one hears more and more examples of contracts getting very inexpensive bids from local Iraqi companies, only to end up in the hands of American companies whose bids are an order of magnitude higher. I don't think you have to figure wholesale corruption or even favoritism is taking place, at least not only that. The people who award the contracts are likely acting under provisions which (understandably and rightly) give preferential treatment to American companies. And many of the people making the calls probably have little knowledge of Iraqi society or business practices and thus little way of evaluating the trustworthiness and reliability of local operators.

I don't put that forward as an excuse, just possible, partial explanations that may be figuring into the mix. The whole situation over there is so complicated and multi-faceted (and we're just talking about the contracting issue) that I don't pretend to have a handle on it yet. I'm starting to do more poking around. But I think there's enough information out there to seriously question whether American taxpayers are spending much, much more than they need to be spending in Iraq.

Today Juan Cole notes how Halliburton was given early contracts on a no-bid, emergency basis. But under government guidelines they now have 'experience' in the region and thus a big leg up on future contracts. Cole says "most other large contractors have given up even trying for those contracts." He also notes this article about how we've nixed a local provider of cell phone coverage in favor of MCI Worldcom, which of course did such a bang up job here in the USA.

There is, moreover, a serious question about how much this issue of contracts is a hang-up in our efforts to get other countries involved in getting Iraq back on its feet.

PS. I've had a number of comments, not a few rather intemperate, taking me to task for saying that "the contracts are likely acting under provisions which (understandably and rightly) give preferential treatment to American companies." I think the clear import of the whole post is that this may not be a good idea in this case. However, the regulations in question here are general ones. And as a general matter, when the US government pays to have this or that done, I think we rightly give preference to American companies. But the key is 'preferential.' And that means that all other things being equal we give preference to our own folks. But clearly in Iraq all things aren't equal.

Trouble signs out of the Balkans.

A week ago Misha Glenny wrote in The Guardian that we are in danger of squandering NATO's success in stabilizing and ending the bloodshed in the region by failing to secure a permanent territorial and constitutional settlement. The 'we' is slightly misleading since, as Glenny notes, there is common agreement that the EU should take the lead political role in the long-term stabilization of the Balkans.

Today, though, the Financial Times adds another worrisome piece of news. The Pentagon is making a serious push to pull US forces out of Balkans altogether. The Army has always wanted to get those troops out. And administration hardliners have always taken a dim view of the whole enterprise. But the problem today is real. After years of saying our military was overstretched, we are now extremely overstretched. According to that recent CBO report, we are faced with the possibility that we will have no choice but to dramatically reduce our troop deployment in what is very much an active theater of operations.

Their total number is fewer than 4,000. But they're at least of great symbolic value and quite possibly operational value as well.

What distresses me most is a quote like this, which the FT article has from an "administration official": "The Balkans have always been essentially a European challenge more than an American one. Much of Europe seems bound and determined to leave Iraq as primarily an American challenge. Perhaps, therefore, a more clear-cut division of labour is in order."

The pique there is unmistakable. And the one thing we really don't want is to torpedo our successes in the Balkans (which are looking increasingly well-handled in contrast to recent bumbling) with the acrimony over Iraq.

Plus, if you look at that quote, it really does seem to mix the worst of Bush I with the worst of Bush II, doesn't it?

Sage words from one of the sharpest political observers in town. By email this afternoon.

I don't think fundraising is that important now. I'd look for how [Clark] deals with the press. Is he comfortable? Is he brittle? The precedent is not Hart and McCain, but Perot. If he wins over the national press, everything else will fall into line, but if he gets a reputation as touchy or distant or ill-informed, he'll be in trouble regardless of how much money he raises or whom he hires.

Sounds right to me. My only addition to this would be that questions over how his tenure as Commander of the United States European Command ended may show how he'll do in comfort and brittleness terms. My sense is that he's got a good story to tell. But the press is picky, a temperamental beast.

Department of credit where credit is due ...

Today, when asked his opinion on whether Saddam Hussein played any role in the 9/11 attacks, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld said: "I've not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that. We know he was giving $25,000 a family for anyone who would go out and kill innocent men, women and children. And we know of various other activities. But on that specific one, no, not to my knowledge."

Stating the obvious shouldn't win you a prize really. But in these days, a little honesty goes a long way.

So he's in. Gen. Wesley Clark is, according to late reports, going to announce tomorrow in Little Rock that he's running for the Democratic nomination for president. (I have to tell you that I had my ear pretty close to the ground on this one. And Clark really, really kept people guessing.)

I think this has the potential to turn the primary race completely upside-down. The Dean insurgency has almost completely defined the race to this point. At present, you can't even call it an insurgency really since Dean is in fact the front-runner, by most reasonable measures. As I've written before, I think there's a niche waiting to be filled just to Dean's right. And the real mystery of the campaign so far is that none of the other contenders has managed to fill it and coalesce those who don't support Dean behind their candidacy. Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt ... none of them have managed it.

It's an oversimplification, of course, to frame the matter just in left-right terms. It's also a matter of tonality, the kind of campaign Dean is running, the demographic slice of the party he's appealing to, and so on. The folks whom I respect most on this question believe Dean's mix of Vermontly social liberalism and staunch opposition to the war will make it exceedingly difficult for him to appeal to the swing voters who will eventually decide the election in battleground states like Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. But, even beyond that point, strong insurgent candidacies generally force those who oppose those insurgencies to coalesce around a single candidate. And to date that hasn't happened.

Of course, Dean's supporters have an altogether different view of the matter. They believe that he is the only candidate who can beat George W. Bush, and that it is his early opposition to the war, the defiance of his message, and his social liberalism that makes him such a strong candidate.

To them I can only say that, with sincere respect, I disagree with their judgment. Or, at least, I'm deeply skeptical.

Now, what chance does Clark have?

All my experience of conventional, real-world politics tells me that political outsiders and late-entrants end up not winning. And that experience says that Clark doesn't win. But this is already far from a normal or conventional political moment. Howard Dean's extremely impressive run to date, if nothing else, shows that. Add to that the very unsettled international scene, President Bush's wobbly approval ratings, a shaky economy, and the demonstrable inability -- as noted above -- for any of the other candidates to get any traction.

Here's what I'll be watching in the coming days.

How well does Clark do raising money? This is one of the main issues people are talking about when they say Clark is getting in too late: he's so far behind the rest in fund-raising. But I think what the Dean campaign has shown us is that the Internet has made it possible to raise a lot of money quickly -- from a vastly larger potential pool of givers than candidates have in the past -- if you catch fire.

Of course, the 'if' is the big thing. But if Clark doesn't catch fire quickly money won't matter anyway. The problem in the old days was that candidates like a Gary Hart or a John McCain could catch fire and rocket in the polls and yet just not have the time to raise the money needed to sustain that surge. Small donor fund-raising on the Internet by no mean solves that problem for Clark. But I think it at least creates a possible solution to the dilemma of surging in the polls and still not being able to raise money quickly enough to avoid getting crushed by a better financed candidate.

What sort of team does he put together?

How do his opponents come after him? Clark was not universally popular in the Army. And he rubbed some powerful people the wrong way. I have no doubt that this opponents -- both Dems and the Republicans -- will air these issues thoroughly, as is their right. How and how well does Clark respond?

Of course, I have many other questions, many other things I'll be watching for. But there'll be time enough to get to those points later.

We hope to have the new, redesigned TPM up and running by next week. We're now "beta-testing" the redesigned site, trying to get all the glitches and bugs ironed out. And coming up this Thursday we'll be presenting the TPM interview with Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Stay tuned.

I don't know whether to write this post or just put in a call to Jack Shafer, who's been on the case for months. But you really must read Tuesday's article by Judith Miller in the Times about Syria's "ambitious program to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons."

Miller of course has come in for a great deal of criticism, and rightly so, for her long record of highly credulous reporting about Iraq's WMD programs and support for various terrorist groups. Much of that reporting was apparently based on very uncritical sourcing to the usual suspects in the Iraqi exile community and equally dubious sources in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. (Howard Kurtz famously got hold of an email in which Miller lectured a Times colleague about how Ahmed Chalabi was the source for "most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper." For more of the details see Shafer's on-going reporting.)

Now she's back at it again with Syria, with a piece which looks to be based on the same set of sources and clearly takes the same credulous approach.

It seems widely accepted that Syria does possess chemical weapons. And they clearly support terrorist groups in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. But an ambitious program to develop nuclear weapons? Here's what the CIA's most recent public report on rogue state WMD says: "Syria—an NPT signatory with full-scope IAEA safeguards—has a nuclear research center at Dayr Al Hajar. Russia and Syria have approved a draft cooperative program on cooperation on civil nuclear power. In principal, broader access to Russian expertise provides opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons."

That seems rather short of an ambitious program.

The truth is, who knows? Maybe they do have one. But Miller's sources' credibility on this stuff is pretty near shot. And, frankly, so is hers.