Josh Marshall

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Was Dick Cheney set up? You'll remember that a little while back Vice-President Cheney went to the Middle East to get the region's leaders lined up behind an attack on Iraq. Well, this evening I was talking to a very knowledgeable insider on Middle Eastern affairs, and he said that the State Department had sent out word to folks in the region to give Cheney an earful. Among other things, said my source: "[Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs] Bill Burns met with a prominent Arab ambassador here and he told him, 'Don't tell me your views on Iraq. When he goes there you guys tell him.' So this is the vice president going to the region to hear Arab views and he came back and reported to the president 'The Arabs are not on our side.' They set him up. They set him up."

The press seems to have lost interest in the Taiwan National Security Bureau money scandal. But not, it would seem, the FBI.

I just had a funny experience. I was reading the humor site The Onion and then quickly buzzed over to MSNBC and started reading this article on the craze for the cosmetic neurotoxin Botox. And, well, it was hard to know whether I'd left The Onion. But, alas, it was true.

You've probably seen the reports that Don Rumsfeld has essentially withdrawn his support for Army Secretary Tom White over White's alleged lobbying of Congress against Rumsfeld's decision to scrap something called the Crusader artillery system, something the army is very set on having.

Perhaps this is the final straw for White, who's obviously been on the ropes with Enron for months. Who knows? But don't mistake this for an Enron story or even a Tom White story.

The real issue here is the intense antagonism between the Office of the Secretary of Defense (i.e., the political appointees shaping policy) and the uniformed services at the Pentagon. It's real; it's deep; and it runs from policy to procurement.

The defense intellectuals who are running the Pentagon have little respect for the folks in uniform and the feeling is pretty much mutual. White is a career army officer so his divided loyalties are apparent. So maybe this looks like a chance for Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al. to kill two birds with one stone.

Wow! Paul Begala really took a whack at Matt Drudge on Crossfire tonight. And he definitely drew some blood. Matt really had the look of serious regret that he'd come on the show. And he looked more than a bit pissed. I only caught part of it as I was walking into my apartment. But it'll definitely be worth catching on the replay tonight.

My apologies for the relative paucity of posts of late. I'm knee deep in a big reporting piece and I barely get a chance to read the papers, let alone mouth off on TPM about what I read.

In any case, more soon.

A few things to look at. President Bush is resisting making any condemnatory statement about French neo-fascist presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, which strikes me as a bit weird. There's always the issue of not meddling in another country's internal affairs. But pretty much every other world leader has spoken out. For the Europeans there is a slight sense that the EU makes this a bit different, almost a domestic issue. Still, what's the problem with a mild statement of condemnation from Bush?

Another interesting thing. Yesterday I was at an Iraq panel at the Council on Foreign Relations and one of the panelists was Khidr Hamzah, the former head of Iraq's nuclear weapons program and the author of a new book called Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon.

Anyway, here's one thing he said on the panel that caught my attention:

Suppose the Iraqi opposition came and took over? Why would they drop this huge [Weapons of Mass Destruction] infrastructure that's built inside Iraq which is power in the region? Would they drop it? Now it's coming out now with the new posture of the US which is dropping the Iraqi opposition as an option or as an instrument of toppling Saddam that probably the US doesn't believe the Iraqi opposition will abandon its nuclear or other weapons program ...

[Here Hamzah says US policy will be more like the occupation and democratization of Japan and Germany after World War II.]

Now many people now in the Iraqi opposition believe that this is the scenario now. That the US probably does not want the Iraqi opposition not because it is not viable, as they say, not because it is weak and frightened -- so was the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan -- no, because there is no belief that the inheritance, this is a huge inheritance, that will be taken over by the next government will be disbanded. And the only way to make sure is to take it over and disband it themselves.

That caught my attention.

Wow! The New York Times has a big scoop today. Tom Ridge is so out of the loop that he wasn't even consulted when the Pentagon decided to stop combat air patrols over New York and Washington, DC.

Well, okay, maybe not a scoop exactly, since broke this story in late March. Hell, you can even see it in the free first few paragraphs of the piece. You don't even have to buy Salon Premium.

I guess working in the bosom of the Grey Lady means never having to say 'as first reported by.'

I'll have to make a note of that.

We'd like to announce the debut of the new Talking Points Memo for Prize for Stunningly Deft Diplomacy (TPMPSDD). And the first winner is ... well, who else could it be? Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, of course.

Back last September things were looking pretty bleak for the House of Saud. The Saudi exile and renegade Osama bin Laden (that's no relation to AEI's Michael Ledeen, mind you) had organized a largely Saudi band of Islamist terrorists and misfits which succeeded in killing some 3,000 Americans, destroying in a matter of hours the second and third tallest man-made structures in the United States, and scored the first successful foreign attack on a mainland United States military installation since the War of 1812.

Saudi relations with the United States were already on the rocks before September 11th. And in a signal of the mess they saw they were in, the Saudis sent a message to the administration immediately after the attacks saying in no uncertain terms that whatever the disagreements were on September 10th, that was all in the past.

Only it wasn't. Or not completely. For a number of years the Saudis had built up a record of not being completely helpful or forthcoming in US investigations into various terrorist plots. And after September 11th, there were unsettling signs that the Saudi hierarchy wasn't quite unanimous in its condemnation of the bin Laden attacks. Right or wrong, the Saudis quickly developed a reputation in the US for crypto-bin-Ladenism, paralytic corruption, and serial bad-faith.

Then out of the blue a number of neo-con writers and intellectuals realized that rather than being our buds in the region, the Saudis were, well ... (how to put it?) whacks!

After a generation of imbibing the notion that Shi'a Islam was the scary fundamentalist branch of Islam and that the Sunnis were the safe, normal guys, Americans learned that the Saudis were advocates of the Wahabi sect of Islam. Wahabism is a puritanical strain of Islam which arose more than two hundred years ago in the Islamic heartland of Arabia. And there's a very good argument that Wahabism is inherently fundamentalist or even extremist while Shi'a Islam has only been made to appear that way in the West by the extremist variant today practiced in Iran and parts of Lebanon. Even the uber-slick, permanent Saudi Ambassador to the United States -- Prince Bandar -- was looking a bit down at the mouth.

In any case, by late last Fall, if you were a Saudi prince -- aside from vast personal wealth, your pick of comely blonde concubines from the Caucasus, Russia and other similar locales, a private jet, and miscellaneous other fun knick-knacks -- things weren't looking very good.

That was when Abdullah sprung into action. So let's see how the Crown Prince pulled off the coup that helped him win the TPMPSDD. But first a momentary philological digression ...

In Arabic, 'Abdullah' means Slave of God. Abd means slave or servant; so abd`Allah means Slave of God. (Arabic names compound in funny ways and I'm a bit rusty, so perhaps some Arabist can hook me up here if I've left some vowel out of place. But this is the essence of it.) In any case, three or four months after US-Saudi relations hit their nadir, Abdullah has got things to the point where perhaps the Arabs should start calling President Bush Abd'Abdullah.

But again, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Abdullah's series of masterstrokes began back during Vice President Cheney's trip to the Middle East last winter. If we're to believe Howard Fineman, Cheney's brief was to play a mix of Henry Kissinger and classic good cop/bad cop. On his tour of Mideast capitals, Cheney was supposed to tell the various sheiks and presidents-for-life that President Bush was really mad and if they didn't want to catch a bit of his whup-ass themselves they'd better sign on for the administration's latest coming attraction, the War on Iraq.

For a couple decades neo-cons at AEI and other choice DC spots had been pumping up the notion that moral clarity and determination gets results abroad like nothing. And Cheney played this for all it was worth. But according to reliable reports, the response, particularly from the Saudis, was something like "We're really mad too. So get the **** out of here."

Cheney was supposed to roll the sheiks. But they rolled him.

About the same time, something even more stunning occurred. At the Arab Summit in Beirut, Abdullah not only introduced his own Mideast peace plan, he also helped engineer the first rapprochement between Iraq and the Gulf States (including Kuwait) since the the Gulf War.

In other words, Cheney had gone to the Middle East to get the Arabs to line up behind the US against Saddam and a few days later they were lining up with Saddam against the US. And Cheney was somewhere in Israel wondering why his voice was suddenly so many octaves higher than it used to be.

In the intervening time, of course, the situation on the West Bank spun out of control and the administration finally started getting its hands dirty in the endlessly vexing work of Middle East peace and learning the lesson -- theretofore arrogantly ignored -- that genuine accomplishments like the one President Bush pulled off in Ramallah this week aren't so much victories as small, hard-won successes which keep the situation miserable rather than letting it descend into the truly horrible.

In any case, who helped Bush pull off this praiseworthy effort? Right, Crown Prince Abdullah. And this of course is after the pretty humiliating episode last week in which Abdullah met the President in Crawford, Texas with the heavily-leaked intention of slapping the president a bit and telling him what he'd have to do to avoid a major breach with America's Arab allies.

Today in the New York Times we hear that Bush and Abdullah have come up with their own new joint plan to restart the Mideast peace process. Bush will lean on Ariel Sharon and Abdullah and other Arab leaders will lean on Yasir Arafat.

Two points seem worth noting here. Crown Prince Abdullah (who, it's worth noting, is technically not even a head of state) is now our co-sponsor of the peace process. And he really is the co-sponsor. We used to call the Russians a co-sponsor. But that didn't mean anything. The Russians didn't do jack. We were basically just throwing them a bone because they used to be a superpower.

But you can make a pretty good case that Abdullah has the initiative here, not us.

Plus, look at Abdullah's position in the context of Arab politics. You may remember this guy named Hosni Mubarak. He used to be the President of Egypt. And maybe he still is. But it's actually pretty hard to tell. And even harder to discern whether it even matters. When was the last time you heard Mubarak's name mentioned in any significant way regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Right, a pretty long time ago. It's Abdullah-all-the-time.

So at the end of the day, what have you got? Six months ago the Saudis vital strategic partnership with the United States looked weaker than it had at any point since the early 1970s. The Bush administration was heating up the engines for a war against Iraq and was preparing to make the Saudis an offer they couldn't refuse. Today, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia looks more central to US policies in the Mideast than ever before.

Maybe there's some good legal rationale for this. But from a public relations standpoint you've got to figure it was a bit ill-advised for Cardinal Law of Boston to argue in a legal filing in the big child sex abuse case that the "negligence of the Plaintiffs [i.e., the victim and his parents] contributed to cause the injury or damage [i.e., the six year old being raped by Father Paul Shanley]."

This article in the Boston Globe points out that the language is "boilerplate legal defense language." But as the paper also notes, you've got to be a pretty big idiot not to realize that that filing might have done with a bit of editing.

I must confess that I don't understand this. The Embassy of Saudi Arabia (whose website looks like the Embassy of Jamaica or something) produced some slick TV ads saying they're our allies in the war on terrorism. But a slew of cable networks have refused to run them. In fact, even though they're willing to pay top dollar, the Saudis don't seem to be able to find any cable networks to run their ad.

On the merits, I'm pretty skeptical of the Saudis. But who cares? Why can't they run their ads?

The ads seem quite upfront about who's behind them, who's paying for them, and so forth. So why can't they put their message out there?

Is it better that they hire mercenaries and sharks to make their case and throw around money in the halls of Congress?