Let me make a

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April 18, 2003 3:57 p.m.

Let me make a few quick points about the response to my article “Practice to Deceive.”

A number of critics (some friendly, some not-so-friendly) have criticized my contention that there was anything deceptive or disingenuous about how the White House brought the nation into this war.

A number have made the specific argument that I can hardly claim that there’s a ‘secret plan’ or a ‘conspiracy’ afoot when I buttress my argument with on-the-record quotes from various of the players — Richard Perle, Ken Adelman, Max Boot, et al. This argument is neatly summed up in a comment yesterday by James Taranto and even more crisply in a single sentence last week from Jonah Goldberg.

“If this is a secret plan,” says Goldberg, “how did Josh Marshall stumble on it? Marshall’s proof that there is a secret plan afoot actually derives from on-the-record quotes and public statements.”

The only problem with this logic is that I never used phrases like “secret plan” or “conspiracy.” So the logic of Goldberg’s point amounts to trying to catch me out on the contradictions between what he and others say I said and quotes of what I actually said. If there’s a contradiction, somehow the barb seems to point toward them and not me.

As a general matter, calling an argument like mine a ‘conspiracy theory’ is sort of a poor-man’s way of knocking an argument down a few pegs without providing any rationale for why it should be knocked down a few pegs. Goldberg peppers his critique with asides to how I say this is all the work of a secret cabal or that I say the president is a dupe, when in fact there’s nothing in the article which supports any of that. Taranto bases a substantial portion of his interpretation of my argument on the title of the piece and the cover design of that issue of The Washington Monthly. That makes no sense. Every journalist knows that an author seldom gets much say over the title of his article and none at all on the magazine’s cover art. That doesn’t mean I have any beef with either, just that you interpret an article’s meaning based on the text of the article, period.

However that may be, I think the whole argument that I’m wrong on the deception point actually collapses under the crushing weight of its own insubstantiality. The great need to refute this argument virtually confirms the impossibility of its refutation.

Here’s why. What if I said, ‘The President passed a huge tax cut. But he kept from everyone that he thinks it’ll spur economic growth!!’ Or maybe, ‘Sure the president wants to build a national missile defense, but he’s not telling anyone that it’s intended to knock down limited missile attacks from rogue states!!’ No one would respond. And they certainly wouldn’t get bent out of shape about it. They wouldn’t even care. Why? Because no one feels accused if they’re alleged not to have told people something that everyone actually already knows.

An informed citizen may not have the access to the president’s advisors to gauge their strategic vision. But the public at large is extremely well-placed to judge what the president has or has not shared with the public.

The most common critical response to my piece has been like that put forward yesterday by Taranto in Wall Street Journal Online: basic agreement on what I argue is the broader plan of which the Iraq war is one part, but sharp disagreement on whether or not this has been made clear to the public. He makes references to statements that he says show the president being quite open about all of this. He cites, for instance, the president’s February speech on Iraqi democracy at the American Enterprise Institute in which the president said (the ellipses are Taranto’s) …

A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. . . . The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. . . . A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.

Frankly, I don’t think even statements like that count for much, as vague as they are, and as drowned out as they were by discussions of Iraqi WMD and the regime’s alleged ties to al Qaida. But as I said above, I think the very need to find such quotes makes my case rather than refutes it.

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