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Presidential Sophists on the Loose


The controversy over President Bushs State of the Union allegation about President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and African uranium is a lesson in how to distinguish a PR flack from an honest commentator. The latter tries to ground his statements in evidence and logic. The flack performs embarrassing mental contortions that have no bearing on the matter.

For example, 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 reply that the offending sentence shouldnt have been in the speech and that its all the CIAs fault. Thats supposed to close the controversy and allow us to move on.

But wait its not responsive to the criticism. The question now is not whether the sentence should have been in the speech, but why it was in the speech, given everything else we know.

When the same apologists attribute the sentences inclusion to intelligence complications or snafus, that is again 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 assuredly not merely a case of the CIAs failure to properly vet data. It knew the truth. It successfully counseled the president and other officials to keep the false story out of speeches in the fall of 2002. But the story ended up in the Big Speech in January 2003. Whatever it is, its 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 this while trying to have it both ways. They want us to believe that although Bush shouldnt have made the statement, it was nonetheless accurate. So why not say it? Because, they claim, it did not meet the State of the Unions 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, Bushs exact statement that British intelligence said that Hussein tried to buy uranium was in fact accurate and still is.

Theres one problem with this story. Mr. Bush did not claim that British intelligence had said this. 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 stated, British intelligence believes that Hussein tried to buy uranium. But we are not convinced yet. He didnt 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, Bushs defenders in the pundit world say 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 its not a valid argument. While it may discredit the speaker, it doesnt discredit the allegation. After all, the counterattack doesnt touch anyone who opposed the war resolution. 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 administrations palpable dishonesty?

Another illegitimate defense is to say 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 are to be overlooked because the cause was good?

Sophistry is at least as old as ancient Greece. But its never been quite this transparent.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.