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Sorting out the "imminent threat" debate

By Ben Fritz
November 3, 2003

In recent weeks, a debate has raged over the phrase "imminent threat." Many liberal critics have asserted that a central claim in President Bush's case for war in Iraq was that Iraq posed an "imminent threat." They argue that it's now clear that no such threat existed, and thus the President's argument has been revealed as deceptive or illegitimate. Conservatives retort that Bush never actually used the phrase and in fact specifically used language indicating that the threat was not imminent on several occasions.

As a factual matter, conservatives are largely correct and liberal critics and journalists are guilty of cheap shots or lazy reporting. However, the evidence is not completely clear and both sides are guilty of distorting this complex situation for political gain. Specifically, while there's some evidence indicating the Bush administration did portray Iraq as an imminent threat, there's much more that it did not. Those attempting to assert that the White House called Iraq an imminent threat are ignoring significant information to the contrary. Similarly, those who say the Bush administration never used the phrase or implied as much are ignoring important, though isolated, evidence.

What the administration said

Those defending Bush most often point to an excerpt from the President's 2003 State of the Union speech in which he explicitly said Iraq was not an imminent threat:

Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late.

Furthermore, these Bush administration defenders accurately point out that neither President Bush nor any of his aides ever outright described Iraq as an "imminent threat."

So why has the phrase become so commonly used and an object of such contention? It first gained wide usage based on the National Security Strategy of the United States, a document published in September 2002 that outlined the U.S. government's policy for national defense. In it, the Bush administration argued that the concept in international law of "imminent threat" - which allows countries to defend themselves against opponents who are poised to attack them - must be given a new meaning in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks:

For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack. Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of an imminent threat-most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.
We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today's adversaries. Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means. They know such attacks would fail. Instead, they rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction-weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning...
...The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction- and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

Blogger Josh Marshall argued that this assertion justifies claims that the White House did say Iraq poses an imminent threat. "For my money, one of the most revealing quotes is the passage in the National Security Strategy the White House released in 2002, which essentially argues that the concept of 'imminent threat' must be reinterpreted to apply to countries like Iraq," he wrote.

However, the National Security Strategy language above does not actually apply the term "imminent threat" to Iraq. It instead contends that the legal concept "imminent threat" embodies should be expanded to allow action against threatening "rogue states" and terrorists even when there is not direct evidence that they are mobilizing forces for an attack. Essentially, it argues that we sometimes cannot wait for imminence to launch a pre-emptive strike.

Moreover, there are extremely few instances in which any member of the Bush administration even suggested that Iraq posed an "imminent threat."

Twice, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer affirmed questions from reporters using the phrase "imminent threat" to describe the administration's case against Iraq. As the liberal Center for American Progress pointed out, when Fleischer was asked by a reporter on May 7 of this year, "Well, we went to war, didn't we, to find these -- because we said that these weapons were a direct and imminent threat to the United States? Isn't that true?" he replied, "Absolutely." And on October 16 of last year, a reporter asked, "Ari, the President has been saying that the threat from Iraq is imminent, that we have to act now to disarm the country of its weapons of mass destruction, and that it has to allow the U.N. inspectors in, unfettered, no conditions, so forth." Fleischer replied, simply, "Yes."

While Fleischer's affirmation of reporters' use of the phrase is indeed notable, it's important to keep in mind that he never uttered the words himself - hardly conclusive evidence in the matter.

More substantially, as Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover noted, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on September 18 of last year, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested that Iraq may be an imminent threat and described its biological weapons with a similar term, "immediate threat":

Some have argued that the nuclear threat from Iraq is not imminent-that Saddam is at least 5-7 years away from having nuclear weapons.
I would not be so certain...We do not know today precisely how close he is to having a deliverable nuclear weapon.

He then added:

[T]hose who raise questions about the nuclear threat need to focus on the immediate threat from biological weapons.

This evidence is paltry, however, when compared to the times when Bush specifically argued that Iraq was an enemy for which the concept of "imminent threat" was insufficient.

To take just a few examples, when signing the Congressional resolution empowering him to order an invasion of Iraq last October, Bush stated, "The Iraqi regime is a serious and growing threat to peace." In his address to the United Nations in September of last year, Bush said, "Our greatest fear is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with the technologies to kill on a massive scale." And when summarizing his case against Iraq shortly before the war began in March, Bush stated, "The dictator of Iraq and his weapons of mass destruction are a threat to the security of free nations. He is a danger to his neighbors. He's a sponsor of terrorism. He's an obstacle to progress in the Middle East. For decades he has been the cruel, cruel oppressor of the Iraq people."

Weak evidence from liberals

However, many liberal critics have ignored this evidence and misinterpreted the meaning of the word "imminent" to argue that the Bush administration made a case that Iraq was an imminent threat, even if it never said the words. One of the most comprehensive efforts came from David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, on the left-leaning website TomPaine.com. Corn argued that, "On several key occasions, [Bush] did all he could to suggest that there was an imminent threat."

He points out, for instance, that in September 2002, Bush repeated a since-discredited British claim that Iraq could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes. It was indeed irresponsible of Bush to repeat this claim, which was backed by only a single source and appears to have been shown to be false by post-war investigations. However, Bush never alleged that Iraq had the means to launch an attack with these weapons against the United States, which lies on the other side of the world (although Cheney and others did suggest Iraq was developing such technology). Corn also notes that, in the same appearance, Bush described the threat posed by Iraq as "grave" and "growing," which do not mean the same thing as "imminent."

Corn's other evidence is thin. He notes in one case that Bush said there was a "high risk" Iraq could "launch a surprise attack against the United States or its armed forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so" in a draft resolution submitted to Congress. Corn also points out that Bush said Saddam Hussein could give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists and must be stopped "before he hurts a single American." At another point, Bush said, "If we don't do something he might attack us, and he might attack us with a more serious weapon. The man is a threat."

Saying that Iraq could attack the US soon or might enable terrorists to do so is not the same thing, however, as arguing that Iraq was poised to attack the US. That's what "imminent" means.

Furthermore, liberals like Corn are being selective in their evidence. He introduces his argument by referring to the above-mentioned State of the Union excerpt and stating, "That one line does not erase the many others." Similarly, when asked in a WashingtonPost.com chat why he used the phrase "imminent threat" in his PBS documentary "Truth, War and Consequences," producer Martin Smith stated, "It's simply not a quotation -- it's a summary of the president's assessment."

As we saw above, though, it's not a fair assessment of the Bush administration's case at all.

Repetition by critics and journalists

Many other journalists and commentators have casually used the phrase "imminent threat", sometimes even putting it in quotes as if Bush or one of his aides used the phrase. William O'Rourke wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that, "Bush and Vice President Cheney went on and on about Saddam's imminent threat and his many WMD." Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas said in a syndicated column, "In the run up to the war, Bush and his team spent months contending that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that were a 'direct and imminent' threat to the United States." Writing in the Village Voice, Syndney Schamberg said, "We were told, endlessly, by President Bush and his war cabinet that Iraq, not the Saudi kingdom, posed an 'imminent' threat to the security of the United States." In an online interview, Bill Moyers said, "We were at the mercy of the official view that he was an 'imminent threat' without any reliable information to back it up." And in an online discussion on the New Yorker's website, Hendrik Hertzberg said, "We went to war on the basis that there were weapons that made him an imminent threat."

Andrew Sullivan also pointed out several examples of reporters casually using the phrase on his weblog. A New York Times news analysis stated, "Nothing found so far backs up administration claims that Mr. Hussein posed an imminent threat to the world." And a Los Angeles Times article about President Bush's State of the Union address last year said Bush "[promised] new evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime poses an imminent danger to the world."

Several prominent Democrats have unfairly used the phrase as well. Presidential candidate Howard Dean, for instance, said in June, "To justify the preemptive invasion of Iraq, the President claimed that the United States faced an imminent threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction." And in an October 12 interview on Fox News, Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, stated, "We did not go to war to bring democracy and prosperity and peace to Iraq. That was not part of the arrangement. That was not part of the vote. It was all about weapons of mass destruction and the imminent threat of America getting attacked." (Rockefeller later granted that Bush never used the phrase but said it was "the feeling that was given to the American people and to the Congress.")

Attacking arguments that Iraq was not an imminent threat

However, some conservatives have gone overboard in their criticism of Democrats, claiming it is unfair to use the phrase at all. For instance, in a recent New Republic article, Sullivan goes after Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark for the following statement, "It was an unnecessary war. There was no imminent threat." Sullivan retorts, "No member of the administration used the term "imminent threat" to describe Saddam Hussein's Iraq. No one." But it's not at all clear that Clark is claiming to quote the President, As phrased, he's simply saying the war was unnecessary because there was not an imminent threat. That's a perfectly reasonable criticism, regardless of whether Bush used the phrase or not.

Some conservatives have also gone beyond pointing out that Bush never used the phrase to claim that no member of the Bush administration ever suggested that Iraq may pose an "imminent threat" at all. Jonah Goldberg, for example, wrote in his syndicated column that, "To date, nobody has found a shred of proof that the president - or anybody in his Cabinet - ever once said Iraq or Saddam Hussein posed an 'imminent' threat to the United States." But as we saw above, the statement by Rumsfeld makes the situation more complex than Goldberg indicates.

A need for nuance

As we have pointed out before, many of the arguments for war made by the Bush administration were deceptive or false. However, critics who make it appear that the Bush administration's case relied primarily on claims of an imminent threat distort a more complex argument that painted Iraq as an intolerable, but not imminent, threat. Those unfair attacks do not make it legitimate for Bush supporters to jump on any critic who uses the phrase, however, or claim that nobody in the administration ever suggested Iraq could pose an "imminent threat." Complexity is not an excuse for cheap shots from either side.

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-Spinsanity on the debate over the war in Iraq

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