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--

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 . . . there have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. Actually I guess you could say there's a fourth overriding one which is the connection between the first two. . . . The third one by itself, as I think I said earlier, is a reason to help the Iraqis but it's not a reason to put American kids' lives at risk, certainly not on the scale we did it. That second issue about links to terrorism is the one about which there's the most disagreement within the bureaucracy, even though I think everyone agrees that we killed 100 or so of an al Qaeda group in northern Iraq in this recent go-around, that we've arrested that al Qaeda guy in Baghdad who was connected to this guy Zarqawi whom Powell spoke about in his U.N. presentation.

In short, Wolfowitz made the perfectly sensible observation that more than just WMD was of concern, but that among several serious reasons for war, WMD was the issue about which there was widest domestic (and international) agreement.

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:

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.

The failure so far to discover "stocks" of WMD material in post-Saddam Iraq raises legitimate questions about the quality of U.S. and allied intelligence--though no one doubts that Saddam's regime had weapons of mass destruction, used weapons of mass destruction, and had an ongoing program to develop more such weapons. Furthermore, people of good will are entitled to disagree, even in retrospect, about the wisdom and probable effects of Saddam's forcible removal. But distorting an on-the-record interview with a Bush administration official in order to create a quasi-conspiratorial narrative of deceit and deception at the highest levels of the U.S. government is a disgrace.

--William Kristol

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