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Students of warfare will

Students of warfare will tell you that the stroke of actual violence is sometimes only the coup de grace. The build-up can be key: creating divisions in the enemy camp, sowing confusion and uncertainty with disinformation and propaganda, putting the enemy off-balance. Sun-Tzu has a slew of great aphorisms illustrating the point.

Unfortunately, those things seem to be happening here, in the United States, at least as much as in Iraq.

The Stratfor strategy intelligence site said yesterday that the White House is beginning a climb-down from its bellicose rhetoric on Iraq and looking for the least damaging way to do so. Or maybe not? The President has called a meeting of what amounts to his war cabinet down in Crawford, Texas on Wednesday. Officially, they're slated to talk about military 'transformation.' The personnel involved, however, make it look more like a meeting -- perhaps a key one -- on Iraq.

What's going on? Who knows? And that uncertainty applies to pretty much everything about administration Iraq policy right now. What we're doing, how we're going to do it, why we're going to do it. Everything.

The administration's approach to building up to this conflict turns out to be a reductio ad absurdum of its notorious addiction to secrecy. They say it's premature for the president to discuss why, when and how we might be going to war or what the costs might be because he has not yet made a decision about whether to do it at all. Until then, everything's under wraps. Yet this is belied by numerous statements that make the president's decision -- in favor of war -- seem quite clear. In fact, if the president hasn't made a decision he is making his country play the fool on the world stage since he and his advisors are clearly threatening war. Either he's not leveling with the country when he says he hasn't made a decision or he's engaging in a classic case of talking loudly and carrying a very little stick.

"I want him to make the case when he's decided to go in," said Ken Adelman this evening on Crossfire, summing up the administration line. "That will be the time to make the case." In other words, persuade the public after you've signed off on an attack. But this isn't persuasion or even explanation. It's just an announcement -- the presidential equivalent of a declaration of war.

You build support for a war policy so that you go into it with a unified nation behind you. You don't commit yourself and then go see if you can convince anyone that it's a good idea. In any case, the issue here isn't really a matter of the quality of the president's presentation. It's the palpable and widespread doubt that the president's team really knows what they're doing. They're working up their Iraq policy like they crafted the botched plan for the Department of Homeland Security, with a half dozen suits working away in secret in some windowless room in the White House, ready to spring the whole thing on the public fully formed, and then hope -- really hope -- that everyone is wowed into falling into line. Adelman again sums it up nicely: "I think that once the president ... says that we absolutely have to go in. ... I think that the view of Americans, 90 percent of Americans would say that's a very good thing." Truthfully, it's another example of the big bluff from the White House.

Let's be honest. There's a more logical explanation for the president's weird reluctance to talk details. The White House has walked very far out onto the plank committing itself to 'regime change' by war. If they have to climb down from that rhetoric now the country will be embarrassed and humiliated. At best they have tenuous support within the country. They have virtually no support anywhere else in the world. And to date they have no credible war plan that withstands both military and geopolitical scrutiny. Like Adelman, they say that once the president gives the go-ahead all of this will change. Keeping up the no-decision's-been-made charade puts off having to admit that that's not true.

What would David Dreier

What would David Dreier do without Osama bin Laden?

Harsh words? Perhaps. But painfully apt. David Dreier is the hail-fellow-well-met congressman from the small patch of LA suburbs where I grew up. Today he was on Wolf Blitzer's show debating the economy and the deficit with South Carolina Congressman John Spratt. Every time Spratt explained that the president's tax cut had created vast new federal deficits over the next decade (just as Democrats said it would) Dreier jumped in with a 'that was all before September 11th.' Clear meaning: the bleak fiscal picture is fallout from September 11th. Don't blame us.

But even White House budget analysts don't believe this. They say some 40% of the decline in the projected ten-year surplus is directly due to the president's tax cut -- numbers which are themselves likely understated. Spending on defense and homeland security is but a small part of the equation.

But isn't the recession responsible for the red ink, you might ask? Not a valid argument. Go back and look at the debates. The premise of the opposition was that the surplus numbers would fall substantially in the next economic downturn. A big tax cut on top of that would throw us back into the deficit era. As, indeed, it did. The central fact of politics today is that the president rammed through a tax cut which he said wouldn't create deficits. The opposition said it would. Now the evidence is in; the president was wrong; and the country is paying the price. Dreier and other administration apologists are trying to pass it off on Osama bin Laden. It's not true. They know it's not true. And it won't work. But there's no other argument left.

Can anyone now deny

Can anyone now deny that President Bush's $5.1 billion budget cut stunt was a political goof? Of course not. And now the president has to resort to transparent weaseling to try to recover. In response to ferocious criticism from the nation's firefighters' union ("Don't lionize our fallen brothers in one breath, and then stab us in the back ...") the president today tried to explain why he's cutting more than $300 million in funding for firefighters and ground zero rescue personnel. It's Congress's fault: "What [the firefighters] ought to be upset about is the fact that Congress tried to tie my hands. They said, 'You've got to spend $5 billion or none of the $5 billion.'" The clear sense of that remark is that the president would have supported the money for firefighters. But Congress forced his hand by lumping it in with a lot of other spending.

Unfortunately, this contradicts what the president said a mere three days ago. Back on Tuesday the president said that along with axing the $5.1 billion he would ask Congress to send him another bill to reinstate funds for "truly pressing needs and priorities" which he said were $200 million for AIDS prevention and $250 million to be divided between aid for Israel and aid for the Palestinians. Those were the priorities the president did want to spend on. The money for firemen wasn't one of them.

The whole budget cut stunt was just a snap decision to save the Economic Forum. They hadn't thought it through. Now they're in damage control. The president has to make stuff up. It's not a pretty picture.

Oh the indignity It

Oh the indignity! It appears Bernie Ebbers' name has finally been taken down off Trent Lott's Mississippi Wall of Fame. And he's apparently been replaced by ... Benji! He of canine fame.

P.S. Thanks to TPM reader "D" for the eagle eye.

And then there were

And then there were six! TPM readers know we're trying to find out which of the seven other congressmen who attended the Free Markets and Democracy conference in Doha, Qatar, in April 2001, went along with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to meet with the Taliban delegation and discuss Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan' for Afghanistan with then-Taliban Foreign Minister Muttawakil. According to several contemporaneous wire reports, other congressmen also joined in on the meeting. We've just heard back from Sununu campaign spokeswoman Barbara Riley and she tells us that Congressman Sununu -- who is currently challenging Senator Bob Smith for the Republican Senate nomination in New Hampshire -- did NOT attend the Rohrabacher-Muttawakil meeting. That leaves six other possibilities. Still no more details on the contents of Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan.' And still no response from the Bob Barr campaign to our repeated queries about whether he was one of the attendees at the Muttawakil meeting.

Just a brief update

Just a brief update on the washingtonpost.com's snatching the name of this website for its own DC-based, online, politics column. I have it on the best authority possible that the Post has received literally hundreds of emails about this. So again, thank you to everyone who's written in. A number of Posties have been kind enough to send along word about how embarrassed they are by their employer's behavior. Which is quite kind of them. Actually I'm just thankful they're still talking to me. I wondered for a while why I wasn't getting any response to my phone calls or emails. I mean, I know everyone is in Crawford and Waco and such. But what am I? Chopped liver? Okay, I guess the answer to that is yes. But still: Why no calls back? Then I discovered that relevant folks at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive (the corporate moniker of the Post website) had been given strict instructions not to talk to me, respond to my queries, emails, phone calls, morse code, smoke signals, what have you ... I kid you not. Apparently there was even some talk of sending Bob Woodward over with a baseball bat, a ragged phone cord, and a decapitated horse head. But they decided that might be too heavy-handed. (Okay, the part about Woodward is a joke. The rest is true.) Finally I got someone at the WPNI Communications Department who was authorized to talk with me. He told me that next week they are going to get all the relevant people at WPNI "around a table and have a smart conversation about it" and then after that they'll get back to me.

I thought Fred Barnes

I thought Fred Barnes had left behind the paraphernalia of sixties-ism back in his early days at The New Republic. So just what has he been smoking? Did he pick up a good stash when he was in Prague trying to track down those dubious claims about Mohammad Atta? How else to explain his ridiculous column this morning ("The Complainers") in the Weekly Standard Online (good site, by the way) on how the Clintonites are the first administration ever to publicly criticize their successors.

His big beef seems to be with Messrs. Berger and Sperling. "[S]o far as I know," Barnes opines, "officials of the Clinton administration are the first to attack the policies of the next administration in a systematic way that includes public criticism, leaks, and dubious statements."

Oh please.

Try doing a Nexis search on the name Michael J. Boskin, Bush Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers circa 1993-94. Or perhaps Dan Quayle or Dick Cheney or a dozen other names whacking White House foreign and domestic policy in the early Clinton years. Or many more flacking Whitewater.

But why go so far afield? Fred's current boss, William Kristol, was the key player and Republican strategist, publicly and privately, involved in undermining and turning back the Clinton health care initiative. And of course Kristol had been Vice-President Dan Quayle's Chief of Staff. Nothing wrong with that of course. That's politics. And Kristol's a master at it. But why the faulty memory?

Fred, this one doesn't pass the laugh test. Next time Karl pitches you on a story idea, take a deep breath and count to ten. You'll thank yourself in the morning.

When last we checked

When last we checked in, we were trying to find out which congressmen were there with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher when he sat down with then-Taliban Foriegn Minister Muttawakil (and a delegation of Taliban diplomats) and presented him with his 'personal peace plan.' This was in Doha, Qatar in April 2001.

I asked representatives of Congressman Bob Barr and Congressman John Sununu if they were there at the Muttawakil meeting. But so far neither have gotten back to me with an answer.

(Why just Barr and Sununu when there were seven congressmen at the Free Markets and Democracy conference, where the Muttawakil meeting took place? Those are the two who are in contested elections in 2002. So they're the first ones I called.)

I did get to talk to Aaron Lewis, spokesman for Dana Rohrabacher. At the time The Gulf News, which is published in the United Arab Emirates, ran a story ("Positive Engagement," 4/13/01) which hailed "the meeting in Doha between Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil and American Congressman Dana Rohrabacher [as] an important contact between the two countries. Although no concrete headway is reported to have been achieved, the very fact that both senior officials agreed to meet in a neutral place and exchange ideas is significant."

That description squares with wire reports (noted in yesterday's post) in the AP and the AFP. But like Grover Norquist, Lewis says the meeting was a much more impromptu affair. And Lewis was at pains to point out that Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan' wasn't for peace between the US and Afghanistan (which, of course, weren't at war at the time), but for peace within Afghanistan.

Lewis said he didn't know the details of Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan.' But that he'd try to find out more information about it when he spoke to the congressman. Lewis says Rohrabacher didn't know the Taliban would be at the conference when he travelled to Qatar. But when he found out they were there, he took the opportunity to give them a talking to about human rights, the Buddhist statues, and related matters.

Lewis said he wasn't sure if the subject of bin Laden was raised during the meeting but that Rohrabacher had long been a determined bin Laden foe.

Lewis said Rohrabacher was also an old friend of then-Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. And he speculated that perhaps this was part of the reason why Rohrabacher was so keen on working things out in the country. A CIA source tells TPM that Rohrabacher has been 'freelancing' in Afghan affairs since the mid-1980s. So Rohrabacher's history of involvement in Afghan affairs seems well attested.

Lewis said he didn't know the identities of the other congressmen who went with Rohrabacher to meet with the Taliban delegation.