A couple months back, I got a little irked that critics of my article 'Practice to Deceive' kept trying to tar the argument I made as a 'conspiracy theory' even though the article alleged no such thing.
To say that people have been dishonest isn't the same as saying they've engaged in a 'conspiracy'. It just means they haven't told the truth. Or, at least that they've been, shall we say, too parsimonious with it. But, of course, a charge of dishonesty has to be refuted on the merits while labeling an argument a 'conspiracy theory' allows you to dismiss it out of hand.
And if you'll have a difficult time refuting the claim on the merits that gives an added incentive to play the 'conspiracy' card.
Now, back then, I could scarcely reveal my irkitude to you, the vaunted TPM reading public. But in truth the irkification was there -- vouchsafed away in my heart and revealed only in hidden gritted teeth, but there nonetheless. And then one cloudy, wet, dreary day I was walking down the street in my neighborhood. And it suddenly occurred to me: most of the characters calling me a conspiracy theorist spent a big chunk of the last decade pushing the claim that Vince Foster had been whacked in a safehouse in Northern Virginia and then dumped off at Fort Marcy Park to make it look like a suicide. And then, well ... suddenly the sun started shining a bit brighter and the blue sky sloughed off its clouds. And somehow all seemed well with the world. Or at least with my neighborhood -- I don't want to project.
Admittedly, not all of them thought Hillary herself had done the deed with Walther PPK and a silencer, and wearing one of those khaki tunics Blofeld wore in You Only Live Twice. But I think you get the idea.
All of which is, I suppose, to say that this public writerly scuffling over regime change and related matters can be a rather rough business.
There's a new rush of articles claiming that the term "neoconservative" is actually no more than an anti-Jewish slur or codeword and that its use is at a minimum analytically meaningless, almost certainly ill-advised, and quite possibly a form of cloaked anti-Semitism. This of course ignores the fact that the term is itself a coinage of neoconservatives and has been in common usage by them and their opponents for almost three decades.
When the gentiles start charging Jews with uttering anti-Semitic slurs you know there's something funny in the water.
In any case, the latest brouhaha is over Sam Tanenhaus's upcoming article in Vanity Fair, Paul Wolfowitz's statement about WMD contained therein, and now whether Wolfowitz actually said what Tanenhaus claims he said. Over the weekend Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol wrote a short piece in the Standard purporting to show that Tanenhaus had in fact distorted Wolfowitz's words, taken them out of their proper context or simply twisted their meaning.
Now, the problem with verbal interviews is that, unlike the case in written English, people tend to speak in fragments and not always in a purely linear fashion. And that often makes quotations ambiguous and open to different interpretations.
Having said all that, I think that Kristol's review of Tanenhaus' material is at least not the final word.
Let's begin with the paragraph from Tenanhaus' piece that raised the whole ruckus in the first place ...
When we spoke in May, as U.S. inspectors were failing to find weapons of mass destruction, Wolfowitz admitted that from the outset, contrary to so many claims from the White House, Iraq's supposed cache of WMD had never been the most important casus belli. It was simply one of several reasons: "For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on." Everyone meaning, presumably, Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Almost unnoticed but huge," he said, is another reason: removing Saddam will allow the U.S. to take its troops out of Saudi Arabia, where their presence has been one of al-Qaeda's biggest grievances.
Kristol has two beefs with Tenanhaus here -- one on the 'bureaucratic reasons' point, and another on the Saudi Arabia point. For now I'm going to focus on the second beef. Here's Kristol ...
As for Tanenhaus's suggestion that Wolfowitz somehow fessed up that the war had a hidden, "unnoticed but huge" agenda--rationalizing a pre-planned troop withdrawal from Saudi Arabia--we refer you, again, to the actual interview. In an earlier section of the conversation, concerning the current, postwar situation in the Middle East, Wolfowitz explained that the United States needs to get post-Saddam Iraq "right," and that we also need "to get some progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue," which now looks more promising. Then Wolfowitz said this:
(Note: the transcript is one prepared by the Pentagon and online at the Pentagon's website.)
There are a lot of things that are different now, and one that has gone by almost unnoticed--but it's huge--is that by complete mutual agreement between the U.S. and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. . . . I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things.
Tanenhaus has taken a straightforward and conventional observation about strategic arrangements in a post-Saddam Middle East and juiced it up into a vaguely sinister "admission" about America's motives for going to war in the first place.
Now, if I understand Kristol, he's saying that Tanenhaus took a Wolfowitz observation about what's happening in post-war Iraq and twisted it into a statement about one of the reasons we went into Iraq in the first place. In truth, Wolfowitz's statement only talks about benefits after the fact, not explicitly at least about reasons for going into Iraq. You wish Tenanhaus had been a good reporter and followed up to clarify this point -- i.e., whether this was just a fringe benefit or whether it was one of the reasons for invading Iraq in the first place.
Well, look how Tanenhaus did follow up -- the part of the transcript which comes immediately after the portion Kristol quoted, but which Kristol didn't include.
Tenanhaus: Was that one of the arguments that was raised early on by you and others that Iraq actually does connect, not to connect the dots too much, but the relationship between Saudi Arabia, our troops being there, and bin Laden's rage about that, which he's built on so many years, also connects the World Trade Center attacks, that there's a logic of motive or something like that? Or does that read too much into --
From this point, the conversation gets interrupted a few times by a phone call, and Wolfowitz goes into his point about bureaucratic reasons. But the first chance Tanenhaus gets to speak again he returns to the same point.
Wolfowitz: No, I think it happens to be correct. The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason, but -- hold on one second --
Tanenhaus: So this notion then that the strategic question was really a part of the equation, that you were looking at Saudi Arabia --
I know this referring back and forth to the transcript is a touch tedious. But looking at the interplay of the conversation it seems pretty clear to me at least that, contrary to Kristol's argument, Wolfowitz made a somewhat ambiguous statement. Tenanhaus followed up in order to clarify what he meant. And Wolfowitz goes on to say exactly what Tanenhaus said he said: that the need to get US troops out of Saudi (and eliminate the goad to terrorism and instability they created) was an important reason for the invasion.
Wolfowitz: I was. It's one of the reasons why I took a very different view of what the argument that removing Saddam Hussein would destabilize the Middle East. I said on the record, I don't understand how people can really believe that removing this huge source of instability is going to be a cause of instability in the Middle East.
On this point at least, Kristol seems on pretty shaky ground saying that he distorted Wolfowitz's meaning. I think Tenanhaus' point about 'bureaucratic reasons' holds up pretty well too. But I'll leave that for another post.
Now, as it happens, I think Wolfowitz was right about this -- both right in the sense that this was one of his big reasons, but also right in the sense that this was one of the strongest reasons for taking military action against Saddam. In fact, this was one of the key reasons that originally persuaded me of the need to settle our dispute with Saddam. The premise of most mainstream foreign policy types was that we had Saddam 'in a box' and that we could contain him there indefinitely. But, as I said in my original article on Iraq, I became persuaded that we were in that box with Saddam and that being there was, perversely, hurting us a lot more than it was hurting him. As I wrote then, as early as "1996 and 1997, [the in-the-box argument] was no longer clearly true. Saddam's regime was thriving under sanctions, even as his people suffered under them (a condition he could have alleviated, but didn't). As their condition deteriorated, so too did the U.N. Security Council's support for maintaining the U.S.-backed sanctions. We were in the box now just as much as Saddam was. And time was on his side, not ours."
The measures we had to take to keep Saddam in his box were leading to blowback like al Qaida's attacks on the United States.