Imminent refrain

October 17, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When I wrote in my previous column that President Bush, in defending his Iraq invasion by citing the horrors of Saddam Hussein, "seemed to have forgotten those missing weapons of mass destruction he insisted earlier posed such an imminent threat," the e-mails poured in.

One reader, saying I was repeating the "imminent threat myth," said the president had never used those words. Another offered: "Perhaps you know something the rest of us do not. Would you be so kind as to quote the president -- or any member of his cabinet -- making that argument? Failing that, when do you think you might retract your assertion?"

Exhibit A offered by readers in defense of the president was this quote in his State of the Union speech of 2003: "Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent."

But Mr. Bush went on: "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."

That sounds to me as if he was saying the threat could well be imminent, so we'd better not take a chance and hit Saddam Hussein before he hits us.

In his news conference of March 6, two weeks before the invasion, the president said "since I believe the threat is real, and since my most important job is to protect the security of the American people, that's precisely what we'll do." If the beef is that Mr. Bush did not use the exact words "imminent threat," these readers may well be right.

But his many assurances about the existence of such weapons in Iraq, the "gravest danger" they posed and his urgent warnings that Iraq could use them at any time or give them to foreign terrorists amounted to the same.

In his speech in Cincinnati Oct. 8, 2002, the president called Iraq "a grave threat to peace" that "possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons" and "could bring sudden terror and suffering to America."

He continued: "Some ask how urgent this danger is to America and the world. The danger is already significant and it only grows worse with time. If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today -- and we do -- does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?"

That sure sounds to me like the perfect rationale for waging a pre-emptive war, and the sooner the better, as propounded in Mr. Bush's National Security Strategy paper and implemented in the subsequent invasion of Iraq.

If the president didn't use the exact words "imminent threat," the man running the war for him, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, did him one better by describing the threat as "immediate" in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Sept. 18, 2002, three weeks before Mr. Bush's Cincinnati speech.

In saying he didn't know "precisely how close he [Mr. Hussein] is to having a deliverable nuclear weapon," Mr. Rumsfeld added: "But those who raise questions about the nuclear threat need to focus on the immediate threat from biological weapons." Later in the same testimony, he observed that "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."

The point of the column to which the e-mail readers complained was not, however, whether Mr. Bush or any cabinet member ever used the exact words "imminent threat" (which were not used with quotation marks in the column).

The point was that the president, Mr. Rumsfeld and other architects of the war insisted before launching it that deliverable weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq and were the reason it had to be waged pronto.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to note that the president and Cabinet members are no longer making much reference to such weapons in justifying overriding U.N. cautions and rushing to war.

Or is their discovery in Iraq, if you'll pardon the expression, imminent?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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