Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

In his column today Nick Kristof argues that for all the mistakes President Bush made getting us into Iraq --- mistakes both of omission and commission, incompetence and bad-faith --- that now we have no choice but to stay, and to pay what it takes to get the job done right. “I believe that President Bush was wrong to go into Iraq,” Kristof writes in conclusion, “but he's right about staying there.”

I agree, so far as it goes. But I think the sentiment expressed misses the point.

I certainly don’t think we should pull out of Iraq. More importantly, I don’t know many of what I’d call mainstream foreign policy voices who think we should pull out of Iraq any time in the near future. (No, Dennis Kucinich doesn’t count.) I know the president would like to conjure up opponents who favor an immediate pull-out from Iraq because shadow-boxing with them would make for good politics. But I really don’t know quite who Kristof is arguing against.

As I said, I think Kristof has it a bit wrong.

The question is not whether we should pull out immediately, nor is it precisely how long we’ll need to stay, nor even the precise sums of money we should be willing to expend. The question is how to make a success --- or at least not a failure --- of the situation we’re currently in.

And if our task is to figure out how to find our way to success, then it makes a lot of sense to look skeptically at the roadmap to success being charted by those who got us into the mess in the first place.

Eh ... 12 letters from northern Iraq. Or maybe 500, give or take. Turns out that 500 of those phony letters from soldiers in Iraq got sent out. For the moment it looks like it was all the brainchild of Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, the commander of the battalion in question.

I’m trying to put together a list of the most ridiculous historical analogies Bush partisans are putting forward to explain the difficulties we’re now facing in Iraq. This is sort of related, I guess, to the hunt for the Holy Grail of an innocent explanation of the Plame debacle we noted a few days ago.

The contest is just beginning. But John Fund is definitely in the hunt. Just a few minutes ago on CNN, Fund was on Paula Zahn’s show debating Peter Beinart on the senseless ‘press is keeping all the good news from Iraq hidden' story line.

When asked about the on-going toll of dead and wounded American soldiers, Fund interjected: “But remember after World War II we had Japanese soldiers fighting on islands for years.”

(Next time I see Fund I’m going to have to have word with him because I’m holding him responsible for the Diet Coke that exploded out of my mouth and got all over my shirt when I heard his boneheaded analogy.)

If you’re a World War II buff, you’ll remember that for years after Japan’s surrender in 1945 there was a smattering of Japanese soldiers on this or that Pacific island who had never gotten the news that the war was over. The stories are touching. And I think I remember that the very last of them were found in the early 1970s. But for America, their prime historical legacy was to provide fodder for a few episodes of Gilligan’s Island. So somehow I think they’re a rather strained analogy to the guerilla insurgency and suicide attacks we’re now wrestling with in central Iraq.

Maybe someone else will come up with something more ridiculous. But for the moment, John, you’re the man to beat!

Bob Novak seems to be doing everything he can to lay the groundwork for his sources -- those "two top administration officials" -- to claim they didn't know Valerie Plame was a clandestine agent. Frankly, the available facts say otherwise. Here's my run-down of the evidence in my new column in The Hill.

A bounce back in the polls?

That might be a bit of an overstatement. Here are a number of recently-released presidential approval polls (with the most recent listed first) and how far the president moved up or down from the last time that news outlet did a poll. ABC/WaPo: 53%, down 1; CNN/USA Today: 56%, up 1; Newsweek: 51%, down 1; Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report: 51%, down 4.

One extra bit of info, CNN/USA Today Gallup did two polls in rapid succession: one at the beginning of last week and one over the weekend. If we go back one more poll, to the one they did September 19th through 21st, that one had Bush at 50%. So if you bend the measure a bit in the president’s favor, you get one poll with a six point bump.

Things are very politically unsettled at the moment. So I don’t think we can make too many judgments from this snapshot other than to say that the president has gotten a bit of a foothold just a hair’s breadth over 50%.

Equally important, perhaps more so, is the re-elect number. The ABC/Post poll has that at Bush 46%, Dem Nominee 47%. The Newsweek poll has him at 44% re-elect. I couldn’t find the internals on the CNN-USA Today poll. But if someone knows what re-elect number they got, please send it along.

For my part, I'll be waiting to hear what the all-knowing Ruy has to say about these numbers.

Okay, can I have five minutes of your time?

You've gotta hear this.

If you click on this link you can hear a short segment from NPR's 'Marketplace' about one of the American businessmen, Tompie Hall, trying to get a piece of the Iraqi reconstruction action.

Believe me, you've gotta hear this.

To mark Columbus Day, let me suggest a book: The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo.

It’s not as current as Conason’s Big Lies or Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. It was written a bit more than four-hundred years ago. But I think it holds up pretty well.

Diaz was born in 1492 and was one of the small band of soldiers under Hernan Cortes who landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519 and eventually conquered most of what we now call Mexico. Whatever political implications and questions linger over the conquest today, this is a truly amazing story, and one that is difficult to fully explain even today.

Diaz was part of Cortes’ expedition. But he was also on two previous, less ambitious, voyages of exploration and potential conquest to these lands in the years just before 1519. For all these reasons he was uniquely qualified to tell the story of what happened. And he was also blessed with an unadorned but gripping and graphic writing style which brings the events marvelously alive.

Diaz finished the book when he was seventy-six, an old man living on an isolated estate in what is now Guatemala. He died in 1580.

As some of you know I spent most of my twenties studying the 17th century North American colonies, particularly New England --- my dissertation was about the first decades of contact between English settlers and Algonquian Indians in southern New England. My great interest in Anglo-Indian contact in that period was the profound alienness of each group in the eyes of the other.

When I was in grad school I also prepared a field in Colonial Latin American history. And that’s where I first came across Bernal Diaz’s book --- which is one of the basic primary documents of the Conquest. (I'm rereading it now.) That same sense of the unknown, the mix of bewilderment, horror and fascination with which each group views the other, is what I find so gripping about it.

As Cortes and his small group make their way into the interior, the Indians they come into contact with have difficulty making sense of whether the Spaniards are even human or some sort of gods. At least at first, they think the men on horses are actually one single creature. Horses turn out to have been a profoundly important military asset. Fire-arms, though not as decisive as a weapon as you might imagine, were literally terrifying.

As 'my' settlers did in 17th century New England, the Spaniards made conscious and quite effective use of terror (not in the sense we now commonly use the word) as a weapon.

The Spaniards meanwhile are fixed on two things: finding gold --- and miscellaneous other precious objects --- and compelling the Indians to accept Christ. Given that human sacrifice was an essential part of religious practice in pre-Columbian Mexico, it’s not surprising that the Spaniards found the Indians' religion shocking and revolting. And as they make their way into the interior --- first defeating and then making alliances with various city-states --- they are constantly demanding that their new allies destroy their idols, end human sacrifice, ban sodomy and adopt various other au courant codes of behavior. This is usually accompanied by whitewashing one or more temples, setting up a cross, and giving a brief lesson on the basic tenets of Christianity, before they move on their way towards Tenochtitlan.

If you like reading history, and discovering unknown, alien worlds, I think you’ll like this book.

Well, there’s the first high-profile response to the Great Push-Back from the White House: the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says the president has lost control of his Iraq policy because he has failed to assert control over his vice president, his over-mighty cabinet secretaries, and their endless squabbles.

“The president has to be the president,” Lugar told Tim Russert yesterday on Meet the Press. “That means the president over the vice president and over these secretaries. And Dr. Rice cannot carry that burden alone.”

Lugar is not a Bush loyalist. He was a lukewarm supporter of the war, a voice of the old-line Republican foreign policy establishment. But he’s also no John McCain, nor even a Chuck Hagel. He’s not someone who looks for reasons to criticize the president.

Nor is Lugar the only one making this point.

Last week Bill Kristol noted the foreign policy "disarray within his administration" and said the "administration [was] at war with itself."

Clearly, Kristol doesn't agree with Lugar about a lot, and even less with me -- less and less every day, it seems. And he'd like to see the conflict in DC won by different folks than I would. But the objective reality of disarray at the highest levels is impossible to miss or ignore.

Rumsfeld is on the retreat on every front in the administration’s internecine battles. Powell lacks the clout to fully assert himself --- he remains fundamentally isolated. Cheney is a power unto himself. And Rice has largely abdicated the principal role of the National Security Advisor: to discipline and ride herd over competing institutional and ideological factions within the national security bureaucracy.

By default, our current policy in Iraq is drift.

If you're interested in seeing the audio/visual version of TPM, I'll be on the Aaron Brown show tonight on CNN talking about phony letters to the editors and the phony phonies who write them.

Yesterday we discussed the business of placing phony letters to the editor and OpEds in newspapers --- a real growth industry in Washington, DC. This business, of course, is a subset of what’s called ‘astroturf’ organizing, as in companies that are in the business of whipping up phony ‘grassroots’ support for this or that cause --- something we discussed at some length back in the spring of 2002.

Now, the phony letter and OpEd racket comes in many shapes and sizes. But just to get the ball rolling, let’s look at one example from the TPM archives. Van Kloberg & Associates is a DC lobbying firm which specializes in representing what … well, what would you call them? … let’s say, the most misunderstood of nations. Countries like Burma, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Liberia under Samuel Doe, Zaire under Mobutu, all sorts of good places. If you look here you can view a November 26th, 1990 letter from Edward van Kloberg to the then-Ambassador of Zaire, Tatanene Manata. The subject of the letter is what Kloberg called the “Zaire Program 1991.”

Basically, this was the firm’s program to flack for Zaire by harrying opponents of the Zairian dictatorship in the United States, lobbying congress and getting stories planted in the press about how the mind-bogglingly corrupt and brutal Zairian dictatorship wasn’t such a bad place after all.

(For a good run-down of Mobutu’s Zaire --- and there’s really no other Zaire since Mobutu changed the country’s name from the Congo to Zaire when he took power and it was changed back after he was run out of the country --- see Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo.)

By all means take a look at the whole thing. It makes for delightfully entertaining reading, in a sort of surreal and amoral sort of way. But note one part of their ‘press campaign’: placing letters-to-the editor and OpEds in newspapers.

“Our press outreach placed dozens of letters-to-the-editor in newspapers across the country,” Kloberg says on the first page of the letter. He later notes how the firm “responded to criticism of the government of Zaire by drafting and placing letters-to-the-editor and op-ed pieces.”

In mid-2001 an employee of one DC foreign lobbying firm told me that many of these outfits have a few ex-foreign service officers, ex-ambassadors or other luminaries on retainer who can lend a hand by affixing a signature to such letters, or perhaps even writing them.

So this is one part of the racket. Later we’ll discuss others.