Mar 1 2004

The ‘Imminent’ Argument

An embarrassing phrase rallies White House defenders

Did the Bush administration portray Iraq as an imminent threat in order to justify an invasion? According to the White House, that’s a media hoax. “I think some in the media have chosen to use the word ‘imminent,'” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters (1/27/04). “Those were not words we used.”

With this denial, McClellan joined a crowd of conservative pundits who for months have blamed media misrepresentation for the widespread impression that the administration had indeed sold Iraq as an imminent threat. (According to a University of Maryland-based PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll published late last year—11/13/03—”an overwhelming 87 percent said that, before the war, the Bush administration portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat.”)

Why were the White House defenders protesting so much? Reminders that the central reason given for going to war was a non-existent arsenal of terrifying weapons are embarrassing and inconvenient, particularly in a presidential election season. The administration and its media seconds would rather journalists focus on the newfound justifications for the war—bringing liberty and democracy to Iraq. The resulting debate over “imminent threat” reveals how zealously Bush’s partisans try to control the language of the Iraq war and occupation.

Mortal, grave, immediate

There is little doubt that the White House painted the alleged danger from Iraq in the most dangerous, immediate and menacing terms, whether it used the precise term “imminent threat” or not.

For instance, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2002 (Associated Press, 8/26/02; State Department, 8/26/02), Vice President Dick Cheney described Iraq as “a mortal threat” and “as grave a threat as can be imagined.” “Simply stated,” Cheney told the vets, “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.” Furthermore, Cheney warned, “Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.”

Testifying before Congress (AP, 9/18/02), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added urgency: “No terrorist state poses a greater and more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.”

George W. Bush himself insisted that Iraq not only had and was making more banned chemical and biological weapons, but, “according to the British government, the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the orders were given” (New York Times, 9/27/02). On the White House website (9/26/02), the same claim was stated as fact, with no attribution to any source. On October 2, Bush described Iraq as “a threat of unique urgency” (AP, 10/2/02). A few days later, he darkly warned a Cincinnati audience (USA Today, 10/8/02): “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

Fill in the blank

After reviewing these and many other urgent and scarifying claims, many journalists concluded that the White House had portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat. Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus (6/22/03), looking back on the president’s “mushroom cloud” speech, wrote: “The presidential address crystallized the assertion that had been made by senior administration officials for months that the combination of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and a terrorist organization, such as Al-Qaeda, committed to attacking the United States posed a grave and imminent threat.”

The Associated Press (10/5/03) used the term to describe the White House’s case for war: “While the Bush administration argued before taking the country to war that Iraq’s arsenal posed an imminent threat, much of what Kay discovered is that Iraq had interest in such weapons and was researching some agents.”

Maureen Dowd used the phrase in her New York Times column (10/30/03): “The war began with Bush illogic: false intelligence (from Niger to nuclear) used to bolster a false casus belli (imminent threat to our security) based on a quartet of false premises (that we could easily finish off Saddam and the Baathists, scare the terrorists and democratize Iraq without leeching our economy).”

To all this, White House defenders reacted forcefully, defending the administration on the narrow, legalistic grounds that Bush and his top aides never uttered the term “imminent threat.” It was a straw-man argument, as no reporter we could find had quoted the White House using the term.

“No member of the administration used the term ‘imminent threat’ to describe Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. No one,” wrote New Republic senior editor Andrew Sullivan on the magazine’s website (10/28/03.) There was broad agreement on the right: “George W. Bush never said that the threat from Iraq was ‘imminent,’” wrote columnist Jonah Goldberg (Tallahassee Democrat, 10/21/03). Investor’s Business Daily (10/31/03) editorialized, “The fact is, he never said Iraq was an imminent threat” (10/31/03.) Fox anchor David Asman declared (Big Story, 11/4/03), “The president himself . . . never specifically said that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat.”

It may be true that White House officials didn’t use the term, but on a number of occasions administration spokespersons energetically agreed with the term.

Before the attack on Iraq, on October 16, 2002, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was questioned: “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’s answer: “Yes.” Months later, early in the occupation of Iraq (5/7/03), Fleischer was asked: “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?” Fleischer responded, “Absolutely.”

In a pre-war interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer, 1/26/03), White House communications director Dan Bartlett was asked, “Is [Saddam Hussein] an imminent threat to U.S. interests, either in that part of the world or to Americans right here at home?” Bartlett’s unequivocal answer: “Well, of course he is.”

The same day in late January (1/27/04) when McClellan denied the administration had ever used the term, Bush’s own campaign website praised conservative columnist Kathleen Parker (Chicago Tribune, 10/8/03) for citing facts that, in the campaign’s words, “indeed prove that conditions in Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States and the world.”

“Adapting the concept”

Some of the White House’s defenders claimed the administration had argued against waiting until Iraq became an imminent threat. Many cited the 2003 State of the Union message where the president said: “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.”

But this statement, intended for an international audience as well as a domestic one, was arguably more about the White House’s efforts to redefine and broaden the legal definition of imminent threat than about downgrading the urgency of the Iraq peril. Under international law, specifically under the U.N. Charter, one nation may go to war with another only in self-defense; pre-emptive action only constitutes self-defense when an imminent danger to a country’s security can be demonstrated. An attack on a nation that doesn’t pose an imminent threat is an aggressive war, which is one of the highest crimes of international law (Chicago Tribune, 5/23/99).

In his State of the Union comments, Bush was apparently publicizing a new doctrine that sought to broaden the definition of “imminent threat” to make his concept of pre-emptive war more palatable. In the National Security Strategy document published on the White House website on June 1, 2002, the administration argued:

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. . . . 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 White House’s attempt to “adapt the concept of imminent threat” failed to win many international adherents, but it does show that the administration was aware of its legal bind. Ironically, conservative commentators who have defended the White House by arguing that it never presented Iraq as an imminent threat may be unwittingly making a case that the White House’s war was a crime.