William Kristol posits the theory that the African uranium scandal was really political "rope-a-dope" for the Democrats. As he writes:
Almost two weeks ago, the president ordered his White House staff to bollix up its explanation of that now-infamous 16-word “uranium from Africa” sentence in his State of the Union address. As instructed, and with the rhetorical ear and political touch for which they have become justly renowned, assorted senior administration officials, named and unnamed, proceeded to unleash all manner of contradictory statements. The West Wing stood by the president’s claim. Or it didn’t. Or the relevant intelligence reports had come from Britain and were faulty. Or hadn’t and weren’t. Smelling blood, just as they’d been meant to, first the media–and then the Democratic party–dove into the resulting "scandal" head first and fully clothed.
Belatedly, but sometime soon, the divers are going to figure out that they’ve been lured into a great big ocean–with no way back to shore. Because the more one learns about this Niger brouhaha that White House spokesmen have worked so hard to generate, the less substance there seems to be in it. As we say, George W. Bush is a genius.
As much as this theory has its appeal, I don’t buy it. It’s becoming clear that the African uranium scandal was an example of a White House image management mistake. The Bush Administration should have simply stated that the 16-word phrase was correct except for two words: instead of saying "has learned" they should have said "believed" to add the appropriate measure of uncertainty. Instead, DCI Tenet’s sudden and strange mea culpa sent the White House completely off message.
Tenet’s apology was linked only tenously with the State of the Union. The White House’s initial reaction only fueled the uncertainty by seeming to link the two pieces of evidence. There are only three theories why the White House would do such a thing: Kristol’s "rope-a-dope", the White House didn’t have the British intelligence and assumed it was the same as the Niger documents, or that the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. The latter two are far more likely than an orchestrated media campaign.
The White House has put this particular issue to bed for the moment, but they could have avoided a lot of scandal and kept on message by getting the truth out sooner. However, there was clearly a political mistake or miscommunication that led the White House to spend over a week completely off-message. While the long-term political fallout won’t effect anyone who wasn’t already rabidly anti-Bush, it could have been worse for the President. One of the first rule of Presidential image management is that you always stay ahead of the news. If events are leading you rather than you leading events, you’re doing something wrong.
If Kristol is right and this was a case of "rope-a-dope" it was a very dangerous gambit.