February 18, 2004
Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Playing Defense Advocate
After I posted my memo on the margin Monday on "Flight Lt. George Bush" on Monday, I got a great many e-mails in response, pro and con. The memo simply expressed my belief that Mr. Bush was not suffering in the polls because he may not have shown up for some or all of his National Guard commitments back in 1973, but because it adds to his credibility problems resulting from the war in Iraq. One fellow who has been following my commentaries for decades was really upset because of the following line in my memo.
My personal opinion still has not changed, in that I don't believe Mr. Bush flat out lied to the nation. But the issues surrounding his National Guard service had caused me to put aside any thought of writing a defense of him and his credibility on that score. It's now hard to do.
What upset the fellow, who said this was my "low point" in the 20 years he has been following me is that if I would defend Saddam Hussein, why would I not defend our President. I think it is important to explain why I can do this, so you understand exactly why I defend some and not others.
Anyone who is charged with a "crime" should have the right to have a legal defense, and in our system public defenders are hired by the relevant political jurisdiction and paid by the taxpayers. Over the several decades of my career as a journalist and as a consultant on the political economy, I have never been paid by anyone for playing defense advocate or "devil’s advocate" for people in the news. I said that "the issues surrounding [the President’s] National Guard service had caused me to put aside any thought of writing a defense of him and his credibility on that score. It's now hard to do." Note the emphasis "on that score."
I’m perfectly willing to defend Mr. Bush on assertions that he has behaved improperly in his management of the economy, and I am even willing to defend him against charges that he flat out lied to the American people on the reasons why he pulled the trigger on Iraq. I can put myself in his shoes and see why he did what he did and said what he said and still believe he acted honorably. Not wisely, but honorably. I can’t defend him on the wisdom of his decision, only on its morality. What I meant in the sentence above is that I was thinking about defending the President on the matter of his National Guard service, but suddenly the facts that surfaced caused me to decide otherwise. It was not that I suddenly believed he was "guilty," only that the information available did not persuade me that he had been unjustly accused.
Which brings us to Saddam Hussein. In the last several years I have written myriad commentaries about Saddam, including several explicit memos "In Defense of Saddam Hussein" on this website. Go into the site search and you will find them. The only reason I can write in this vein is only that I believe he has been unjustly accused of a specific charge. I cannot defend him or his regime against charges that are beyond my ken and I have never done so. But where I have had access to information and expertise on other serious charges leveled against Saddam and have concluded he was innocent of those charges, I could in good conscience step forward in his defense.
This is not something I undertook in the last year and a half, but an enterprise I began in 1990, at the time of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In the years since, I have concluded that he could be defended for his decisions in the war with Iran, defended for his decisions in Iraq’s conflict with Kuwait, defended against the charge that he committed genocide against the Kurds, defended against the charge that he tried to assassinate former President Bush in 1993. I concluded years ago that he had destroyed whatever leftovers from the 1980s Iraq had of "weapons of mass destruction" and so advised anyone who would listen to me. And all the while I assured all the politicians I talked to about my defenses of Saddam was that if it could be shown that he was hiding WMD or that "mass graves" could be found showing he had slaughtered 200,000 Kurds in 1989, I would instantly confess error and drop my defense.
I’ve also done this over the years in my various defenses of many dozens of political or financial leaders here or abroad who were accused of improprieties. The clearest example is my defense of former President Bill Clinton, when Republicans accused him of having behaved improperly with Monica Lewinsky. As long as I believed he was "stretching the truth" to protect Ms. Lewinsky or his relationship with his wife, I could write as I did that this was not an impeachable case. It was only when I came to believe that he was willing to throw Monica to the wolves by saying she had been "stalking him" that I had to withdraw from support of him. Even then, as soon as the Senate voted against his removal from office, I argued in this space that it was over and should be put aside. In the same way, I argued in this space that the jury’s decision to acquit O.J. Simpson was enough for me, no matter how many people told me he was almost certainly guilty. Was his acquittal unjust? We can debate that forever, but the fact is a jury of his peers made that decision for all of us.
One of the things history shows us over and over again is that men and women who were thought to be EVIL incarnate in their own day – and had to be exterminated – are not so bad in hindsight. I’ve told my family and friends these last several years that I really wish information would be unearthed to show that Saddam Hussein did all the evil things he has been accused of doing, so I could shed my defense of him. Until that happens, I am stuck with him. And until President Bush clears up his National Guard service to the satisfaction of those who are questioning it, I will not expend any effort in his defense on that score.