The Magazine

What Wolfowitz Really Said

From the June 9, 2003 issue: The truth behind the Vanity Fair "scoop."

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AS THIS MAGAZINE goes to press, a controversy swirls about the head of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. He is alleged to have "revealed," in an interview with writer Sam Tanenhaus for the Manhattan celebrity/fashion glossy Vanity Fair, that the Bush administration's asserted casus belli for war against Saddam Hussein--the dictator's weapons-of-mass-destruction program--was little more than a propaganda device, a piece of self-conscious and insincere political manipulation.

Lazy reporters have been following the lead of the press release Vanity Fair publicists circulated about their "scoop." It begins as follows:

Contradicting the Bush administration, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz tells Vanity Fair that weapons of mass destruction had never been the most compelling justification for invading Iraq.

As it happens, this is a not-quite-accurate description of a paragraph in Tanenhaus's article, which itself bears reprinting for reasons that will become obvious in a moment:

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.

Let's be clear: Though Paul Wolfowitz has friends and admirers at The Weekly Standard, we would be surprised and more than a little distressed had he actually said what he's supposed to have said in this instance.

For the last 12 years, all specific and sometimes heated policy disagreements notwithstanding, American presidents of both parties, joining a near-unanimous consensus of the so-called "world community," have agreed that the Baath party regime's persistent and never-fully-disclosed WMD program represented a grave threat to international security. Al Gore, for example, in his much-hyped antiwar speech last September, acknowledged that "Iraq's search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to completely deter and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power. We know he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country." The notion that the Bush administration's prewar reiteration of this view was a cynical ploy is crackpot.

For that matter, the notion that the Bush administration really, really, in its heart of hearts, had other, preferred reasons for taking out Saddam Hussein--particularly, that it did so to justify removing its troops from Saudi Arabia--and that the entire war was therefore a fraud . . . well, this idea, too, is crackpot.

What gives with this Vanity Fair interview, then?

What gives is that Tanenhaus has mischaracterized Wolfowitz's remarks, that Vanity Fair's publicists have mischaracterized Tanenhaus's mischaracterization, and that Bush administration critics are now indulging in an orgy of righteous indignation that is dishonest in triplicate.

Pentagon staffers were wise enough to tape-record the Tanenhaus-Wolfowitz interview. Prior to publication of the Vanity Fair piece, they made that transcript available to its author. And they have since posted the transcript on the Defense Department's website (www.defenselink.mil). Tanenhaus's assertion that Wolfowitz "admitted" that "Iraq's WMD had never been the most important casus belli" turns out to be, not to put too fine a point on it, false. Here's the relevant section of the conversation:

TANENHAUS: 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--