Josh Marshall

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Following up on the ineptly-handled coup against Hugo Chavez, here's an interesting posting on the The United States Agency for International Development website. It's a job posting from the Office of Transition of Initiatives, an office at USAID which specializes mainly in countries transitioning from dictatorships to democracy or emerging from wars. It's a job posting for a new OTI posting in Venezuela and the job opening was listed on April 12th, more or less what turned out to be the day of the coup. (It doesn't close until the 26th, so you can still actually get an application in if you're interested.)

Among other things, the posting describes how ...

Since his election as President of Venezuela in 1998, Hugo Chavez has demonstrated increasing disregard for democratic institutions and intolerance for dissent. He has been slowly hijacking the machinery of government and developing parallel non-democratic governance structures. Corruption, supposedly targeted for elimination by Chavez, is alleged to be rampant.

The USAID Office of Transition Initiatives will establish a flexible program to address the deteriorating democratic institutions in Venezuela. OTI's program would be part of a comprehensive assistance program to shore up the democratic voices and institutions in Venezuela. The program will be managed by an OTI field representative reporting to the U.S. Ambassador in Venezuela and implemented through one of OTI's contract or international organization intermediaries. OTI's field representative will maintain close collaboration with other Embassy offices in identifying opportunities and selecting partners.

Now I don't think this entertaining coincidence proves anything. But I do think it provides a pretty revealing window into the approach the US was taking to Venezuela during the lead-up to the coup.

Everyone who I've talked to today believes that Karen Hughes is leaving the White House for the reasons she said. And I guess I do too. The one thing that raises a touch of suspicion for me is that this is a helluva a time for her to leave. Even administration yes-men concede that Bush has hit a rough spot.

Whatever we make of that, though, Hughes' departure does open up an interesting possibility. Get out some graph paper or maybe a protractor because this may get complicated.

Here goes...

There's been a rumor circulating through the White House press corps for the last week or two that Ari Fleischer was on the way out as Press Secretary. Not immediately but maybe over the next few months sometime. Whether it's to greener pastures or ones that are slushy and brown isn't clear. But the word was that Fleischer would be moving on to make way for the Pentagon's Tori Clarke who is a) more proficient at handling foreign policy and b) more of a Bush loyalist.

(TPM might have added 'c) not a risible hack like Ari' but that would have been strictly a TPM embellishment, and not part of the official rumor.)

I spent a bit of time yesterday trying to find out whether there was anything to this rumor. But as a number of members of the White House press gang noted, it's difficult to get to the bottom of 'Ari's on the way out' rumors because there are always rumors to this effect. And these rumors find a receptive audience among the White House press corps because these folks so dislike and disrespect him.

Winston Churchill once called the Soviet Union a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Fleischer's evil genius produces a similar effect. He has cloaked himself with such an aura of incompetence and disagreeableness that true signs of his professional demise are hard to distinguish from the normal background noise of derision and wishful thinking emanating from those who must cover him.

(One of the big parlor games in DC and particularly amongst the White House press corps is this: could Ari really be as out of the loop and incompetent as he seems? Or is he maybe just crazy like a fox? Or maybe in this case, an idiot like a fox? Could the higher-ups at the White House want him to play this game and take all the hits for the prez? Or maybe he really is as incompetent as he seems, but it's the same difference. They like having him there anyway to take the hits and the jabs? Apparently Howie Kurtz is working on an Ari profile -- and he is no doubt talking with fellow Postie Dana Milbank who has a mutual loathing society with Fleischer. So maybe Kurtz will get to the bottom of this mystery.)

Anyway I persevered and here's what I found out. I can tonight confirm to you that this is a bona-fide rumor. Whether there's any truth to it, that I'm not sure of. But it is a rumor. No question about it.

However, on Monday another person who covers the White House told me that Tori Clarke was a no-go at the White House because she'd gotten cross-wise with Karen Hughes. (Over what I'm not sure, but I'm led to believe that may be a story in itself.)

Anyway, with Karen out of the picture, could Ari be on the way out too? Or might the skids at least be greased? Could the moment for Fleischer & Gheith have finally arrived? And might they too colocate with Shrum, Devine & Donilon? The questions are ... well, endless.

Here's an entry for the annals of incomplete reporting. The MSNBC report throwing cold water on the idea of 'John McCain for President as a Democrat' noted that in 1995 McCain ...

displeased environmentalists — another important Democratic Party constituency —by voting against an amendment to keep the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska closed to oil drilling.

I noted earlier that references of even so comparatively recent a vintage sort of miss the point with McCain since most of his political shift is in 2000 and after.

This business with ANWR turns out to be a case in point. On the very day the MSNBC went online McCain was voting against drilling in ANWR, as had been expected for some time. So the 1995 reference was perhaps a touch out of date.

On Thursday I was talking to a Latin America expert in DC about rumors of possible US involvement in the unsuccessful coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. She called my attention to an intriguing development which few or no US media sources have reported: despite the apparent calming of the situation in the country, the State Department is asking family members of embassy officials in Caracas and other non-essential employees to leave the country; and it's paying their way.

Let me wade into this McCain as a Democrat talk. First, this MSNBC article points to various interest group score cards and litmus test votes which should supposedly knock McCain out of contention in a Democratic primary. Look closely though because it's a somewhat misleading list. On its face it's damning but most of the votes and scores are lifetime scores or ones that are several years out of date. The AFL-CIO, for instance, apparently gave him a zero rating in 1999.

The problem with all these numbers is that McCain's serious leftward tilt pretty much all comes from during and after his 2000 presidential run. Before that, campaign finance reform was still pretty much his only break from mainstream conservative Republican orthodoxy.

Thus, statements or votes prior to that date simply beg the question of where McCain is politically today. Plus, candidates who've had political conversion experiences need be far less troubled with past votes and actions than conventional politicians.

Mickey Kaus notes talk that McCain is still most likely to run as an Independent.


But if there are good reasons McCain would not or could not run as a Democrat there are even better reasons why he wouldn't or couldn't as an Independent.

Here's the best one: as I told Green while he was writing the article, if you actually want to become president as opposed to run for president, you'd never do it as an Independent because they never win.



Look at the data.

Last time an Independent was elected president since the creation of the two-party system in the 1820s?

It's never happened. Some interesting test cases include the lead-ups to the election of 1844 and perhaps also the election of 1868, when vice-presidents who had become president considered it.

The last time a third-party candidate became president?

Abraham Lincoln in 1860. And the proximate cause was sectional, not ideological, disintegration of the party system.

So, does the McCain as a Dem idea face a lot of hurdles? Absolutely. But the reason McCain would choose to run as a Democrat rather than an Independent would simply be that he is interested in winning.

I've just been reading Robert Wright's contrarian view of the Arafat-Barak Camp David negotiations while the idiot news coverage of the arrest of Robert Blake plays in the background.

The essence of his argument is that we're wrong to stick with the conventional wisdom that Arafat turned down a generous deal at Camp David and everything that follows from that assumption. The main conclusion that follows from it, of course, is that Barak's offer put the lie to Arafat's pretensions to be a true peace partner. If Arafat wouldn't bite when Barak offered him the whole cake, the reasoning goes, then that must not have been what he was interested in in the first place. The cake being an equitable peace, of course, and ... well, perhaps not the best metaphor or analogy, but let's move along.

I think Wright is far more right than wrong. And I really, really recommend that you read it. It's not that I think his analysis is correct in every respect. I disagree with a number of points he makes. But he's right to bust open the simplistic way in which this whole drama is generally understood in the US.

More on this later.

One of the fun things about reading daily newspaper reporters is watching them occasionally chafe at the mindless conventions of journalistic objectivity. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for being balanced and fair. I mean, we don't all want to be like Fox and the Wash Times.

But frequently a reporter will find an example of ridiculous hypocrisy or laughable bad faith and yet not really be able to quite call a spade a spade to the desired degree. So an expert at the trade will craft a series of quotes and factual asides which communicate the hidden message without violating the prescribed journalistic norms. Check out Mike Allen in today's Post ...

Bush, who as a presidential candidate condemned "nation-building," said the United States would remain involved in modernizing Afghanistan, likening his ambition to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. He said the United States was helping Afghanistan develop a stable government, train a national army and build a school system for boys and girls.

"We will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world's demand for drugs, and we will help the Afghan people recover from the Taliban rule," he said.

Aides said his plans did not violate his pledge against nation-building because he will not use U.S. soldiers as social workers or police officers.

The key knives in this passage are the appositive clause in sentence one and the final sentence.

Now let me decode what Allen is saying ...

Allen: Bush is caught in a transparent flip-flop and I've forced his aides to defend him by treating as facts their earlier demagogic attacks on Clinton policy (i.e., soldiers working as 'social workers.') They look stupid. Please recognize that they look stupid and think of them henceforth as lame. Also, readers, please take this as a sign that I do have a clue despite the fact that the conventions of daily news journalism sometimes require me to appear that I do not.

The key mistake made by most people who endorse conspiracy theories is assuming that discrepancies in different accounts of a single event point to deception or the existence of some hidden truth behind the maze of contradictions. The messiness and ambiguity of real-life events is what they don't figure on. Military men call it the fog of war. But the same concept applies to everyday life, particularly to its more hectic and confusing moments. Reality, you might say, tends to be rather over-determined.

The various accounts surfacing of the Venezuelan coup and the United States government's reaction to it brings this to mind. Yet there is still something odd and perplexing about the drifting accounts being provided by administration officials. Every day there's a new detail. Each new detail is provided to exonerate administration officials but as often as not they tend rather to inculpate them.

For instance, discussions at which US officials told Venezuela's future coup plotters that they would not support a coup. Well, how'd the topic come up exactly? Or Otto Reich's statement that he tried to prevent 'interim' President Carmona from dissolving the National Assembly. That sounds as much like coup-management as trying to support democracy.

I've never thought that the US was 'behind' this coup in a strong sense. But administration officials seem to be implicated in it in various small and -- let's just say it -- incompetent ways.

Let me point out another interesting discrepancy. Tomorrow's Washington Post has what strikes me as an extremely ingenuous article by Scott Wilson, based largely on an interview with 'interim' President Carmona. Wilson says Carmona only got the job because he was the only guy who didn't want it. Perhaps Wilson needs to read up on literary and political tropes -- I think that line warranted a touch more skepticism.

Much of the piece looks like it was dictated by Carmona's post-coup spin-doctor (you know, he's just a bespectacled economist, happened upon this coup thing...).

Anyway, let me point out this discrepancy that strikes me as important.

In Wilson's article Carmona says he visited Washington in November to meet with John Maisto, Bush's Latin America guy at NSC, Energy Secretary Spence Abraham and Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich.

Then Carmona said he "next spoke with U.S. officials Saturday morning at the presidential palace when he received the recently arrived U.S. ambassador, Charles Shapiro, and the Spanish ambassador."

But if Wilson or his editors would have read today's edition of an obscure metropolitan daily called The New York Times they might have noticed the following contradiction. The Times article quotes a State Department official saying that Assistant Secretary Reich placed an urgent call to Carmona on Friday, one day earlier. It's a pretty big difference since the coup took place in the overnight hours between Thursday and Friday.

Why wasn't this discrepancy pointed out in the interview or at least in the article? Good question.

As it happens, I just now notice that tomorrow the Times reports that the State Department has now changed its story -- 'revised' is the term they use. Reich didn't contact Carmona on Friday. He asked Ambassador Shapiro to talk to Carmona. And Shapiro talked to Carmona on Friday. First, that's a pretty big change in the story. Second, the discrepancy in the day when contact is made still stands, even though the personnel is different.

Then there's another strange thing that pops out from the apparently hastily written and indifferently copyedited Post story. Read these four grafs nestled more than half way down into the article ...

At least three people who landed key jobs within the provisional government have acknowledged that they met with U.S. officials in the past six months. One of them was Vice Adm. Carlos Molina, who said that he had a meeting with a U.S. official outside the U.S. Embassy within the past six weeks.

But U.S. officials say that although they were aware of the growing dissent, they sought to distance the United States from opposition figures that might be plotting a coup. In November, the U.S. ambassador at the time, Donna Hrinak, took the unusual step of ordering the embassy's military attache to stop meeting with a group of dissident officers, according to a U.S. official.

That group, according to a Western diplomat here, included Molina, Air Force Col. Pedro Soto and several other officers who in February publicly demand Chavez's removal. The U.S. diplomat said Soto and Molina each received $100,000 from a Miami bank account for denouncing Chavez.

Soto and Molina could not be reached for comment today. Molina is under arrest and was the subject of a military hearing today. Soto is among three officers seeking asylum in the Bolivian Embassy.

Hold on a second. They each got $100,000 from a bank account in Miami? What's that about? This really gives new meaning to the phrase 'burying your lede.' The article just drops it there and provides no explanation or discussion. But this seems like something well worth discussing, doesn't it? Two members of the Venezuelan military who later participated in the coup each got $100,000 from a bank account in the United States "for denouncing Chavez."

That's a bit of money. Whose was it? And how does this American diplomat know about it?

Also, let's be frank: Miami isn't just any American city. One of America's big beefs with Chavez is that he's close to Fidel Castro. So I think you can assume that the Cuban exiles in South Florida don't much care for him. And again, let's be frank, Otto Reich, the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America is himself a Cuban exile with close ties to the anti-Castro firebrands in South Florida. Not to put too fine a point on it, but whose money was that?

If a "U.S. Diplomat" -- a good catch-all phrase for someone who wants to remain both very anonymous and very credible -- knows that two of the key coup plotters got paid off for turning against Chavez, and that the money came from a US bank account, isn't this worth looking into?

The New York Times must not be quite as intolerant of conservative viewpoints as the founders of New York's new daily, The New York Sun, allege. The Sun has hired the Times to help them distribute their sheet.