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   Presidential Sophists on the Loose


Presidential Sophists on the Loose

by Sheldon Richman

Sure, a Clinton defender who criticized Bush would be a hypocrite. But that would not mean that the charge against Bush was false or trivial.
The controversy over President Bush’s State of the Union allegation about Saddam Hussein and African uranium is a lesson in how to distinguish an honest commentator from a PR flack. The former tries to ground his statements in evidence and logic, while the latter performs embarrassing mental contortions that have no bearing on the matter concerned.

For example, in response to the criticism that the President knew or should have known that the uranium claim had been debunked, administration officials, outsider defenders, and the President himself replied that the offending sentence shouldn’t have been in the speech and that it’s all the CIA’s fault. That’s supposed to close the controversy and allow us to move on.

But wait—this explanation isn't responsive to the posed criticism. The question now is not whether or not the sentence should have been in the speech, but rather why it was in the speech at all, given everything else we know.

The same apologists' claim that the sentence’s inclusion was caused by intelligence complications or snafus is just as unhelpful and unresponsive. It has already been established that the CIA, at the urging of Vice President Dick Cheney, sent an envoy to confirm or debunk the information. That envoy, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson, concluded that the documents giving rise to the report were obviously fraudulent.

This is most assuredly not merely a case of the CIA’s failure to properly vet data. CIA officers knew the truth. They successfully counseled the President and other officials to keep the false story out of speeches in the fall of 2002. Still, the story ended up in the "Big Speech" in January of 2003. Whatever it is, it’s no intelligence snafu. CIA Director George Tenet looks like a classic fall guy.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld add a Clintonian, sentence-parsing touch to all of this while trying to have it both ways. They want us to believe that although Bush shouldn’t have made the statement, it was nonetheless accurate. So why not say it? Because, they claim, it did not meet the State of the Union’s higher standard of confirmation. This, I submit, is gobbledygook.

Rice and Rumsfeld go on to say that on the basis of other, unrevealable evidence, the British government stands by the uranium allegation. Therefore, Bush’s exact statement—that British intelligence said that Hussein tried to buy uranium—was in fact accurate and still is.

There’s one problem with this story. Mr. Bush did not claim that British intelligence had said this. Rather, he claimed that British intelligence had learned it. To say someone learned something is to vouch for the information learned (Would we say that before Galileo, astronomers had learned that the sun moved around the earth?). Bush could have maintained that British intelligence believes Hussein tried to buy uranium, but that we simply are not convinced of it yet. He didn’t say that. There would have been no point in doing so because it would not have won support for his war.

In another line of attack, Bush’s defenders in the pundit world say that the Democrats are hypocrites because they voted for the pro-war resolution several months before the State of the Union address. This is a common form of counterattack: charge someone with hypocrisy and ignore the allegation. But this is not a valid argument. While it may discredit the speaker, it doesn’t discredit the allegation. After all, the counterattack doesn’t touch anyone who opposed the war resolution to begin with. Imagine if President Bush got caught lying under oath about an affair with an intern. Sure, a Clinton defender who criticized Bush would be a hypocrite. But that would not mean that the charge against Bush was false or trivial.

Yes, the Democrats, facing the resolution right before election day, were too cowardly to oppose it. What does that have to do with the administration's palpable dishonesty?

Another illegitimate defense is to say that the uranium story is unimportant because there were other good reasons to go to war. This is truly immoral. Do the Republicans making this argument really believe that evidence of official lying and corruption of intelligence—in pursuit of war—is to be overlooked because the cause was good?

Sophistry may be at least as old as ancient Greece, but it’s never been quite this transparent.

Sheldon Richman is a senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation ( in Fairfax, Va. and the author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. He is also editor of the Ideas on Liberty magazine.

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This story was published on August 15, 2003.
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