Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Pardon the recent scantness of postings. Other matters had been keeping me busy. But now we should be returning to more or less the regular frequency.

There's a good piece today in Slate by Jake Weisberg making what he calls "The Case Against the Case Against War." In fact, there's a nice package of pieces at Slate hashing out many of the different strands of the hawkish and dovish arguments.

I found a lot I agreed with in Jake's piece. But what really grabbed my attention today was a comment from -- of all people -- Colin Powell.

Recently I've criticized what seemed to me to be the casual attitude toward untruth many in this administration have when it comes to discussing Iraq. Generally, this comes from the more hawkish types from the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President and so forth.

Today the administration released new information showing purported ties between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaida. On balance, the information didn't seem that convincing. Or rather didn't seem to prove very much. There were overtures from al Qaida about whether Saddam would allow some members safe haven, but apparently no information about what the response had been. There are al Qaida in Iraq, but they're not in a part of Iraq that Saddam controls. Even different administration officials contradicted each other about what information the United States really had -- which doesn't inspire much confidence on a number of levels. The whole thing had the look of the old throwing whatever you can find up against the wall and seeing what sticks.

Again, what struck me though was a comment from Colin Powell.

Powell told a Senate Committee that while there was evidence of Iraqi-al Qaida cooperation there was still "no smoking gun" connecting Iraq to 9/11. I would hasten to note that there is also still no definitive proof that the author of Talking Points lives in a mansion in Georgetown or even that he owns that villa in Capri. But somehow stating this undeniable fact in such a fashion strikes me as a touch misleading.

Normally when you have a claim for which you have no evidence you characterize this as 'a claim for which you have no evidence.' Or one might even be bold and say 'it's not true, as far as we know.'

When you say there's no smoking gun, the obvious implication is that there is a lot of information, a lot of clues pointing in that direction, but no real slam-dunk evidence. But of course there simply isn't any evidence pointing to an Iraq-9/11 connection, and a lot of circumstantial evidence -- to the extent that one can ever prove a negative -- to the contrary.

So, as I asked several days back, why the endless attempts to fudge? Why the resistance to having this debate on the basis of the very serious facts and threats at hand? Though the rationale for liberating Kuwait was powerful in 1990 there was also testimony before Congress at the time about Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait which was later demonstrated to be entirely bogus. The immediate trigger for our involvement in Vietnam -- as opposed to the larger rationale for our involvement -- was later revealed to be based on exaggerations so great as to basically amount to lies. And one finds this sort of thing in the lead-ups to many other wars, in this country and in others. It's almost like these little bogus stories are the bon-bons of war, the little morsels and appetizers to chum up those who can't quite swallow the whole complicated rationale whole.

In this case, and from someone like Colin Powell, can't we do better?

Christopher Hitchens is finally leaving The Nation. He'll apparently make the announcement in a column in the magazine's next issue. Hitchens seems to no longer believe the Nation audience is a receptive or congenial one for him, given his hawkish stands on the war on terrorism and Iraq and -- I would imagine at least -- more or less everything he's written for the last half dozen years or so. The Nation released the following statement -- which will apparently also run in the next issue -- to TPM Wednesday afternoon ...

We note with keen regret that this week marks the final appearance of Christopher Hitchens's column, "Minority Report." We have been publishing Christopher for more than twenty years, and the relationship with him has been a rewarding one for this magazine and for our readers. That is testimony to the fact that Christopher has always been completely free to express his views, and differences he has had with the editors he has honorably ventilated. We will miss his eloquent and passionate voice and his elegantly crafted prose.
We'll be reporting more on this as it develops.

The normal writing energy for TPM entries was taken up by other late-night writing last evening. More posts to come later today. But if you have a moment read this new piece by Fareed Zakaria on Iraq. It's not the stance I would have thought to take, or would have taken on first blush, but it's challenging. And Zakaria continues to be one of the shrewdest, most consistently honest writers on the Iraq question.

Let me try to hash out a miscellany of unrelated little points I'd like to mention. The New Republic is not only a nearly-hundred-year-old institution fastened up with luminaries like Edmund Wilson and Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly, and not only does the current management sometimes see it in its heart to publish my articles, but the magazine now has a blog. (I've given it a look; and it's really quite good.) It seems it'll be run on the Tapped model, with none of the entries signed, though most or at least many will be written by staffer Noam Scheiber. I think that's a good model for a magazine blog. Having a bunch of different people signing entries on a single blog makes for clutter and cacophony. Better to run them unsigned.

Whether they'll be running any items at four in the morning remains to be seen.

Regular readers know that I keep a close eye on the Thune-Johnson Senate contest in South Dakota. For some time I've been saying that Johnson would do much better than people were thinking. This is a close race certainly. But the very latest round of polls leaves no doubt that Johnson holds a small but steady lead. A new Zogby poll has Johnson up 46-43. Monday on CNN Robert Novak said that Republican insiders were telling him that their polls showed Thune down by four, though I've heard rumors of a GOP poll showing an even deeper deficit.

In his commentary Novak said this was a "close race. It's been going back and forth." It's definitely close. But what strikes me is that it really hasn't been going back and forth. Look at the polls on this race over the last six months or so and you see a slow but consistent trend bringing Johnson from running behind up to ten points or so until today when he is in every poll running at least a few points ahead of Thune. It's a tight race. And it'd be foolish to be complacent. But I'd be really surprised if Johnson doesn't win this one.

Also of interest, the latest St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll -- also done by Zogby -- has Senator Jean Carnahan up by seven points over Jim Talent. That's supposed to be one of the close races. So that's an important result.

Given TPM's editorial line, you may find it surprising that when I go out to a cafe in the morning to read papers and sip coffee I will often pick up a copy of The Washington Times along with the Post and The New York Times. I don't think a lot of their political coverage but when it comes to reporting on the Pentagon and defense issues they have stuff you just won't find in the other papers.

But every so often you get a glimpse of just what an odd operation the Times is. On Friday I was sitting in my usual cafe reading my papers when I came across a whole separate section in the day's Times, a "Special Report", with the headline: "Adjara, Georgia: Region is Model for Good Government, Vigorous Economy."

On the front was a man of destiny-looking type figure with the caption: "The dynamic President of the Autonomous Region of Adjara, Aslan Abashidze, is a Georgian patriot and widely respected at home and in Europe." Below that there's an article "Adjara – beautiful, successful & secure: A unique region of the globe." And then on the page's right side an interview: "President Aslan Abashidze, visionary leader of Adjara."

(I later found this all on the web too, and thus the supplied links.)

After a bit I figured there was something a bit funny here and I discovered the small line of text scrawled at the top corner of the front page: "A Special International Report Prepared by The Washington Times advertising Department."

But by now I was hooked and, before I knew it, on to the second page, which has "500 Years of Family Leadership" about the Abashidze family's exploits in Georgian history back to 1463; "President Abashidze: a biography"; and "The Political Testament of Aslan Abashidze."

The next page has President Abashidze's open letter to President Bush expressing condolences about 9/11, a note from the First Lady of Adjara, and then from there articles about various economic development projects in Adjara, President Abashidze's commitment to democracy and stuff about Adjarian culture. On the religious front, surprisingly enough, it turns out that St. Matthew, the guy who wrote the 'Gospel of' is buried in the capital of Adjara, Batumi.

The only article about anyone else beside President Abashidze is an article on the back page, page 12, about the newly-elected Mayor of Batumi, the President's twenty-six year old son George Abashidze. George "has long expressed his political credo as 'STRONG CITY, STRONG REGION, STRONG GEORGIA!'"

Among the more bizarre and troubling aspects of the 'regime change' debate is ... well, the phrase 'regime change.'

According to various neo-conservatives and Iraq-hawks, George Orwell is a dedicated Iraq-hawk and thoroughgoing supporter of regime change. This may well be the case. I'm never able to predict such things. But I would have imagined that were Orwell alive today the phrase 'regime change' itself would be one he would quickly set upon with a knife and a fork.

Everybody's favorite Orwell text is his 1946 essay 'Politics and the English Language.' I wouldn't be foolish enough to try to summarize it. But one key point of the essay is that vagueness, euphemism and abstraction abet muddled thinking, evasions of responsibility, and lies. Put it another way: There is a tight connection between clear thinking and clear language. And clear thinking and clear speech are the beginning of, or at least the handmaidens of, honest thinking and honest speech.

Here's one passage from the essay ...

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Which brings us back to 'regime change.' Like many phrases Orwell had at, 'regime change' is one that comes with the evasion and concealment prepackaged within it. We all know more or less what the phrase means: the violent otherthrow of one government and its replacemnet with another, chosen by the power which overthrew the first one, or, in other words, by us. So why not say so? Using an abstract and antiseptic phrase like 'regime change' for a process which is neither abstract nor antiseptic is corrupting.

You can imagine various instances where we might try the same stunt in our daily lives. The fifty-five year-old man who dumps his graying middle-aged wife for a busty, blonde, twenty-eight year-old ad-exec. This is 'spousal replacement.' And so forth.

In the Weekly Standard this week David Brooks has a review of Christopher Hitchens' new book Why Orwell Matters. The rather unhappy conclusion of Brooks' review is how relatively little Orwell really does matter today. And reading Brooks' review it's hard not to agree with his conclusion, at least in the sense in which he means it. That is, that the basic issues Orwell concerned himself with -- the Soviet Union, socialism, fascism, and so forth, the ones that were paramount in his day -- simply aren't the ones that are central to anything that's crucial in politics or global affairs today.

For language, politics, and truth, though, Orwell remains quite timely.

I don't pretend that the short-hand of 'regime change' is the end of the world in itself. But it is the exposed tip of an extremely dishonest public debate -- one in which assertions which are widely understood to be false are stated and not corrected, in which important distinctions are clouded with obscuring phrases, and in which discussion of the long-term consequences of specific actions are trumped by slogans. And that's a very big deal.

The lack of serious debate is not limited to the hawks. The opponents of deposing Saddam are often similarly muddled. Many Democrats have busied themselves with asking good questions rather than proposing a credible alternative policy. Meanwhile, many people in the peace camp are simply not willing to face seriously the belligerence, recklessness and brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. They are not willing in most cases to consider the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iraq under Saddam Hussein's control. They often won't face the pressing nature of the issue, one in which time is not necessarily on our side. But mostly these are simply matters of evasion, an unwillingness to seriously consider the issue. There's little of the casual making up of stories that is the staple of this administration's arguments.

More notes from the annals of spin and war.

Last night I noted the part of the president's proposed use of force resolution which claimed there was a "the high risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its Armed Forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so..."

Maybe the Iraqis would give WMD to terrorists. Maybe. But does anybody really think Saddam is going to launch a surprise attack against the United States?

It turns out that one White House correspondent also found that line questionable and asked an administration official about it. The administration official -- who was well-placed and in a position to know -- told the reporter that the resolution's original language was much more specific and made clear that the reference was to US interests in the Middle East or military installations in the region. However, late in the process of drafting the resolution that wording got swapped out in exchange for the current, more dramatic language.

The implication from the administration official seemed to be that of course everyone knows that Iraq isn't going to launch a surprise attack against the US but, you know, read between the lines, etc.

Isn't a charge like this -- that a foreign power is likely to launch a devastating surprise attack on the United States with weapons of mass destruction -- not the sort of thing you just toss off like a throwaway line?

But, of course, this is who we're dealing with.

I just happened upon this excellent piece by James Fallows in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly. As you might imagine, it's about Iraq. And it's one that should be on the top of your list to read if you want to think seriously and in depth about this very important and quite pressing subject.

In this article at least Fallows doesn't draw any real conclusions, at least not explicitly. What he does is dig into all the details of what the 'day after' of regime change would look like. He doesn't spend much time with the more outlandish scenarios -- cleaning up after a nuclear blast, treating thousands of people for exposure to Anthrax, some follow-on confrontation with Iran, etc. He sticks to the ones we know we'd face: feeding everyone in the country, setting up a new government, courts, bringing in an American military police force to prevent people from killing each other -- both in ordinary criminal ways and out of politically-tinged revenge.

All together it's a very, very sobering picture. The sheer immensity of the effort is staggering to consider. And the prospect of doing this all on our own dime (which we almost certainly would) and with our own personnel is daunting. It's not so much an article about arguments as simple wealth of detail, a reality check to drag you back down from the hot air balloons of slogans and rationales on both sides of the regime change debate. In any case, read it or at least dip into it. It's well worth your time.

Fallows himself played a small but pretty influential part in the evolution of my own thinking about the Iraq question. I interviewed Fallows at the beginning of my reporting for the article on Iraq I wrote in the Washington Monthly last Spring. Going into that conversation I tended to view all the big pushers of regime change as warmongers, hysterics or trouble-makers. Coming out of it I gave up the thought the arguments of at least the more serious regime change advocates could be easily dismissed. After reading Fallows' own piece this evening -- or I guess, this morning -- I wondered whether Fallows' own reporting for this article had changed his thinking on the question and how that conversation with him would be different today. I wondered; but the answer remained obscure.

Since I started reporting intensively on Iraq almost six months ago my own thinking has strained quite a bit under the push of unfolding events. As readers of this site know I wrote a long article in which I tentatively came out in support of military action to remove Saddam from power -- albeit by the means I think Colin Powell favors rather than those embraced by the Iraq-hawks.

In recent weeks I've mulled over this judgment again and again. Some of this is simply the fact that judgments like this become weightier as the prospect of actual action moves closer. On balance, though, I'd say I remain comfortable with what I wrote then.

There's also an issue people don't like to talk about, but which is an undeniable reality for many. Military action is easier to contemplate if it's being planned by political leaders who you support and whose values you share. One might say this is mere partisanship, agreeing with what politician X wants to do because he's a member of your party or vice versa. And there's always some of that. But it runs deeper. Following political leaders into war requires a deep measure of trust on a variety of levels: trust in their judgment, trust in their analysis of factual information that can never be shared with the public, and so forth. If your general sense of an administration is that they're not trustworthy or that they don't share your values it's difficult not let that color your opinions. Of course, to some degree it should color your opinions. But it's important to evaluate these questions as much as possible simply on the merits. And I've tried to do that to the best of my ability in my writing about Iraq on this site over the last several months.

But let me discuss with you for a moment what I find the most difficult about this debate. The more ardent supporters of regime change lie a lot. I really don't know how else to put it. I'm not talking about disagreements over interpretation. I mean people saying things they either know to be false or have no reason to believe are true. Perhaps the word 'lie' is a very slight exaggeration. Perhaps it's better to say they have a marked propensity to assert as fact points for which there is virtually or absolutely no evidence. How's that?

Let's just take one example, one among many. In the proposed use of force resolution the president sent to Congress on Thursday it cites as one reason for war "the high risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its Armed Forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so." Whether Iraq would give WMD to terrorists to use against the United States is debatable. But is there a high risk that Iraq will launch a surprise attack against the United States? Really? Is there any risk this will happen? Is it even conceivable that this will happen? I don't think anybody of sound mind seriously believes this. That doesn't mean that Iraq isn't a serious threat or that an Iraq with nuclear weapons is not an eventuality we cannot allow to come into being. But a surprise attack against the United States? It's not a serious statement.

So why is it there? I assume it is just there as one more throwaway line that has no relation to the truth but sounds good and ups the ante. And the carefree indifference to the truth that that sort of statement betrays is worrisome in the extreme -- even if it's said in the service of a goal you think we should pursue.

I have more to say about this. But, alas, I must go to sleep. If you're dying for more you can read this article on Iraq which I published this evening in Salon.

It's a matter of long-settled constitutional practice that the president's role as Commander-in-Chief gives him the effective power to wage war more or less as he sees fit, subject only to the constraining power of the Congress's control over the purse strings.

The point of seeking a congressional resolution authorizing military action is get the Congress on record behind some relatively specific policy. The meat of the proposed 'use of force' resolution the president sent to Congress today says ..

The president is authorized to use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including force, in order to enforce the United Nations Security Council resolutions referenced above, defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and restore international peace and security in the region.
That language is broad. And it's vague. It authorizes the president to use force to enforce UN resolutions and do various, but unspecified, other good things in the Middle East. The vagueness of the language is deepened by the fact that president's policy seems to have been in complete disarray for several days.

The long and the short of it is that this resolution doesn't really mean anything. It gives the president the power he already has and puts the Congress on record behind no particular policy.

More thoughts on all this in a piece running this evening in Salon.