Take it on faith

October 03, 2003

THE STICKING POINT when it comes to a doctrine of pre-emptive war is that in almost every conceivable instance such a war would have to be based on intelligence (of the spycraft kind) - on knowing what the chosen enemy was up to. And the problem with intelligence - as David Kay's report to Congress yesterday on the continuing search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction should remind us - is that it isn't always right.

That intelligence can sometimes be wrong is further clouded by another problem: The public generally has only the haziest idea of the nature of the intelligence that the White House is receiving.

So, based on assurances that there's solid dope and it demands action now, the nation goes to war, pre-emptively. The dope may prove to be a mirage, but by that time the war is very real.

Iraq, as far as we can figure out, is the first time this has happened, but it's not the first time people have worried about it happening. The man who would become the greatest wartime president, and a champion of the Republican Party, had this to say:

"Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose - and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, `I see no probability of the British invading us,' but he will say to you, `Be silent; I see it, if you don't.'"

The author, of course, was Abraham Lincoln, in a letter he wrote to his law partner, William H. Herndon, back in 1848 (and reprinted in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Suzy Platt). Honest Abe put his finger squarely on the problem, a full century before anyone had ever heard of the Central Intelligence Agency or mobile germ labs or Saddam Hussein or Valerie Plame. Lincoln wasn't shy about suspending habeas corpus, imposing an income tax and a draft, or freeing the slaves when he felt he had to - but even Lincoln waited for public proof of the South's intentions before committing the U.S. Army to battle.

"Be silent; I see it, if you don't." Those first two words seem downright prescient. Not only will a powerful and purportedly all-knowing president drag a nation into war, but he won't brook any objection to it, either. Was President Bush (or one of his aides) telling former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV to "be silent" - by outing his CIA wife? Critics of the White House, including Mr. Wilson, think so - and their argument is plausible enough that the burden of disproving it now falls on the administration.

Mr. Wilson clearly had intelligence about Iraq that the White House didn't want to hear, or want anyone else to hear. It fits - now - with what Mr. Kay has been able to dig up after the war: next to nothing. If it called into question the measured march to pre-emptive war, supposedly justified by little more than an assessment of Mr. Hussein's current or future intentions, maybe the whole country should have heard it.

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