The post-war debate about the pre-war rhetoric — part III
Holsclaw responds to Schwarz: First, I would like to dispose of the thesaurus arguments. Do we really have to stoop to this? A thesaurus gives you a contextless range of somewhat similar meaning words. In the context of the debate about the war against Saddam the words ‘imminent threat’ were used by opponents of the ...
Holsclaw responds to Schwarz: First, I would like to dispose of the thesaurus arguments. Do we really have to stoop to this? A thesaurus gives you a contextless range of somewhat similar meaning words. In the context of the debate about the war against Saddam the words 'imminent threat' were used by opponents of the war to set an extremely high threshold of intelligence about Iraq. This is not a context that allows 'imminent' to be freely exchanged with words like 'gathering threat'. This is especially not a context where 'immediate' is interchangeable with 'imminent'. The French have an immediate capability to attack us with nuclear weapons, but no one in their right mind would argue that the French nuclear capability is an 'imminent threat'. This disagreement is about the actual content of the administration argument about the war. One of the most public and most forceful administration arguments about the war is the 2003 State of the Union Address . I hate to belabor it, but I really don't think I can overstate the importance of such a publicized speech to a disagreement about the administration’s case. Bush said:
Holsclaw responds to Schwarz: First, I would like to dispose of the thesaurus arguments. Do we really have to stoop to this? A thesaurus gives you a contextless range of somewhat similar meaning words. In the context of the debate about the war against Saddam the words ‘imminent threat’ were used by opponents of the war to set an extremely high threshold of intelligence about Iraq. This is not a context that allows ‘imminent’ to be freely exchanged with words like ‘gathering threat’. This is especially not a context where ‘immediate’ is interchangeable with ‘imminent’. The French have an immediate capability to attack us with nuclear weapons, but no one in their right mind would argue that the French nuclear capability is an ‘imminent threat’. This disagreement is about the actual content of the administration argument about the war. One of the most public and most forceful administration arguments about the war is the 2003 State of the Union Address . I hate to belabor it, but I really don’t think I can overstate the importance of such a publicized speech to a disagreement about the administration’s case. Bush 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. 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.
Your rhetoric regarding these paragraphs is tortured. You are correct that Bush states that we cannot know whether the threat is imminent. But the conclusion you draw from that is not supported by the actual text, nor is supported by the context of the debate about war against Saddam. He is arguing that the concept of imminent threat is inapplicable to the problem of Iraq. He is saying that we cannot know if the threat is imminent, but that given what we do know about Iraq, it doesn’t matter. He then immediately goes to show why it doesn’t matter by saying that if we permit the threat to fully emerge, if we allow the threat to become imminent, we have waited too long. He then mentions that Saddam has already used such weapons on his own people–a fact which has no bearing on an imminence question, but which is deeply important if your case for war is not concerned with an imminent threat. You attempt to divert the discussion into a question of knowledge. You seem to indicate that Bush might be saying that the threat is imminent. Bush brings up the problem of knowledge to show that an imminent threat analysis leaves you too exposed to the imperfections of the intelligence networks. He is arguing against the whole ‘imminent threat’ way of looking at things because it foolishly assumes perfect intelligence about Iraq. You focus on the fact that Bush neither confirms nor denies an imminent threat. You seem to think that Bush might secretly suspect that there is an imminent threat. Perhaps he did have such a secret suspicion. But he argued that we should act even without an imminent threat. The administration argument is what is in question. If the imminence of the threat was in fact part of the administration case, I would have expected you to find far better quotes than the ones you have: Point One, regarding the State of the Union Address, I dealt with above. Point two is a context-free thesaurus reading exercise. Points four and six, the Fleischer quotes, are responses to reporter questions in which the ‘imminent threat’ portion of the question is a mere preface to the substance of the question which Mr. Fleischer answers. In your point four, Fleischer is clarifying the US demands about UN Inspector access. In your point six, Fleischer is responding that one of the reasons for going to war was worry about weapons of mass destruction. Construing his yes to a substantive question about one issue as an affirmative administration argument in favor of an incidental reporter declaration of ‘imminent danger’ is exactly how one engages in a good fabrication. You take things that are near the truth, and change them into something else entirely. The other problem with point six is that much of it relies on third party characterizations. We are not talking about third party characterizations. The question is: what did the administration argue? Radio Free Europe’s funding does not transform its characterizations into administration arguments. Point Seven is an argument well after the fact. The Bush administration knows that the idea of ‘imminent threat’ is important to some people. If they believe that they can win these people over by showing evidence of an imminent threat after the fact, that is just good politics. That says nothing however about the administration’s arguments before the war. That leaves us with only two points that are even remotely relevant to the discussion. Point three is the Rumsfield quote. Rumsfield says two things. First, he says that intelligence is uncertain. Once again he is pointing out a problem with waiting for intelligence of an imminent threat. He offers some evidence for those to whom an imminent threat argument is important, but he does not argue that such a threat is necessary. He then goes on to talk about the biological threat. In this context ‘immediate threat’ means that we suspected Saddam had biological and chemical weapons at the very time of Rumsfield’s report. The threat isn’t imminent, because Saddam has had those weapons for years and you wouldn’t talk about a 15-year imminent threat. It was an important threat because he was a self-declared enemy who had actually used such weapons against his enemies before. He was a scary threat because he was Saddam and not Chirac. But none of that constitutes an argument that Saddam is an imminent threat. Point 5 suffers exactly the same problems. Cheney points out the capacity of Iraq to cause trouble because it has a long history of causing trouble. ‘On any given day’, refers to its present capacity. It means that if Saddam chose to do so, he had the capability to cause a great amount of mischief. This isn’t an imminent danger of the ‘we have intelligence reports showing that Saddam is about to give some of his longstanding stocks of chemical weapons to terrorists’. This quote points out Saddam’s capability, and our knowledge about Saddam’s willingness to use such capabilities makes it disturbing that he should continue in power indefinitely. This speech was made in the context of the prospect of an indefinitely long UN inspection period so it makes perfect sense in that context. The problem at this point is that you equate all arguments that Saddam was a threat as if they were arguments that Saddam was an imminent threat. Of course Bush argued that Saddam was a threat. But he never fell into the trap which Kennedy and Byrd tried to set when they wanted an authorization predicated on an ‘imminent threat’. Bush and his administration argued that Saddam was threat that would get worse over time. They argued that he was a threat that could not be deterred forever. But they did not argue that he had something in mind to attack us right now, they did not argue he was an imminent threat. The essence of fabrication about someone’s political position is to take a kernel of truth and apply so much distortion as to turn it into a lie. That is exactly what is going on here. Those who are engaging in this fabrication take Bush’s position that Saddam was a threat and twist it through the anti-war rhetoric of Senators Kennedy and Byrd. Then they contrast this mischaracterization against the lack of evidence that Saddam was an imminent threat and use this contrast to suggest that Bush lied about Saddam’s imminent threat. A fabrication is asserted as true, when it in fact is not true. It is not true that Bush’s administration argued for the invasion of Iraq by saying that Iraq was an imminent threat. The very few quotes you can find which come even close to that all stress that Saddam is a dangerous threat, but none of them approach the level of ‘imminent threat’, especially as used in the very real debate about the war against Saddam. Phrases have different meanings in different contexts. ‘Pro-choice’ and ‘Pro-Life’ have much narrower meanings in the context of the abortion debate than they do in other situations. That is why it always sounds so silly when people say ‘how can you be pro-life and eat meat?’, or ‘how can you be pro-choice and support a ban on cocaine?’ In the context of the debate about the war against Saddam, ‘imminent threat’ became the anti-war phrase which set an extremely high burden of proof for an attack. Instead of trying to meet that burden, Bush argued that it was an inappropriate burden, and that we should attack Iraq on other grounds. To characterize this anti-‘imminent threat’ position as arguing that Saddam posed an imminent threat, is to twist the argument so far as to make it the opposite of what it actually was. That is why I feel free to characterize such a position as a fabrication.
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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