The post-war debate about the pre-war rhetoric — part I
I’ve been asked to referee a debate among two frequent commentors at Calpundit — Jonathan Schwarz and Sebastian Holsclaw — on the following question: “It is a complete fabrication that the Bush administration argued in the runup to the war that there was an imminent threat from Iraq.” The winner gets $100 from the loser. ...
I've been asked to referee a debate among two frequent commentors at Calpundit -- Jonathan Schwarz and Sebastian Holsclaw -- on the following question:
I’ve been asked to referee a debate among two frequent commentors at Calpundit — Jonathan Schwarz and Sebastian Holsclaw — on the following question:
“It is a complete fabrication that the Bush administration argued in the runup to the war that there was an imminent threat from Iraq.”
The winner gets $100 from the loser. [Why are you the referee?–ed. According to Schwarz, they both respect my “intellectual integrity and judgment.” Suckers!! So you already have an opinion formed?–ed. Let’s just say I’m open to having my mind changed. If you want to know what my take on this question has been in the past, click here, here, here, here, and here] Holsclaw — who will argue in the affirmative — gets the first shot: In light of our failure to find large scale evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), there has been much talk about Bush’s administration lying about Iraq’s imminent threat. It is certainly disturbing that we have not found WMD in Iraq. But those who want to accuse Bush of lying about the Iraq’s ‘imminent threat’ are confusing their own rhetoric with the case actually put forth by the Bush administration. Here is the charge:
“There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud,” Ted Kennedy
There is a major problem with this charge. The Bush administration did not in fact argue that there was an imminent threat. In fact they strenuously resisted labeling it as such. In 2002 there was a Senate debate on the authorization of war against Iraq. Senators Kennedy, Byrd and Kerry all argued that war could not proceed against Iraq without an imminent threat. Kennedy, Byrd, and Kerry (saying that he wouldn’t vote for an authorization without an imminent threat right before he does in fact vote for such an authorization.) In fact Byrd offered an amendment which would have replaced the actual language of the authorization, “the continuing threat posed by Iraq”, with an authorization only allowing attack if there was an imminent threat. These deliberations and wranglings were widely reported with the ‘imminent threat’ argument repeated in news stories and op-eds across the country. The actual resolution requested and obtained by the Bush administration does not refer to an imminent threat despite numerous attempts by opponents of the administration to include it. Kennedy and Byrd wanted us to wait until our intelligence services could verify that Saddam was just about to gain nuclear weapons before we acted. Considering what we now know about our intelligence activity in Iraq, that proposition looks even more ridiculous now than it did then. Considering the failure of our intelligence services in discovering the North Korean nuclear capability before it was active, it was silly even then. The ‘requirement’ for an imminent threat lost out in the 2002 debate. But Bush himself continued to address the argument. In his 2003 State of the Union Address, an address which is one of the most widely reported speeches in the free world, he 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. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option. (Applause.) The dictator who is assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages — leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind, or disfigured. Iraqi refugees tell us how forced confessions are obtained — by torturing children while their parents are made to watch. International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape. If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.”
Here, in one of the most widely reported speeches in the world, Bush specifically rejects a need for an imminent threat before attacking Saddam’s regime. He also argues the humanitarian case for destroying Saddam’s regime. Kennedy, Byrd, and many of the opinion writers in the nation argued that an imminent threat was required to attack Iraq. It certainly did not escape their notice that the US did in fact attack Iraq. They seem to believe that they won the debate about ‘imminent threat’ and that since Bush attacked Iraq, he must have argued that there was an imminent threat. This quite simply a fabrication, or at best a self-imposed illusion. They lost the debate in 2002. They had their theory specifically repudiated by Bush in the most public speech available. Bush did not lie about an imminent threat because he absolutely did not argue there was one. UPDATE: Part II is now available.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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