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Saturday, October 25, 2003

Imminent threat?

Josh Marshall is currently hosting a contest on his blog. He is trying to dredge up the best quotes from people in the Bush administration asserting that Iraq posed an "imminent threat."

Recently, Dan Drezner judged a debate hosted on his blog on this awkward resolution: "It is a complete fabrication that the Bush administration argued in the runup to the war that there was an imminent threat from Iraq."

Drezner found for the person arguing the negative. The administration, he declares, did often say some things that sounded very close to imminent threat (you know, "gathering" threats; "mushroom clouds," that sort of stuff).

However, I think those who defend the President have a valid point, in that the administration specifically argued that old standards about imminent threat had to be changed. Look at the September 2002 National Security Strategy document. They weren't using the phrase in the same way that prior advocates had. Drezner, by the way, points this out as well.

The administration was trying to lower the bar. And if the world lowers the bar far enough, preemptive attacks (which are widely recognized as legal against imminent threats) give way to preventive wars (which have long been viewed as illegal and aggressive). This is why the Pope opposed the latest war.

In any case, this distinction means that the real debate should focus on what kind of evidence is needed to launch a war against an alleged threat that is NOT imminent. When is a preventive war acceptable? Or when should notions of imminent threat be altered?

Many of the arguments the Bush administration was making about Iraq could easily be made about Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba, or North Korea. The State Department has long listed those states as sponsors of terrorism, and they each have a real potential to acquire WMD. After all, chemical and biological weapons are readily manufactured.

There's decent evidence that forces in the US War for Independence deliberatively (and perhaps successfully) tried to spread smallpox to the enemy. Chemical weapons, of course, were widely used in World War I.

So the administration is emphasizing threats that have existed, literally for one or two centuries.

And lots and lots of states probably have programs that could be viewed as threatening.

Conceivably, the US could launch a lot of wars using the rationale employed to defend war in Iraq. And that is why the current Republican view that nobody claimed war was imminent is so scary. If they had said the threat was imminent and then proved it in Iraq, support for the war would have been and would still be, much, much greater.

Nuclear weapons are a different order of magnitude, of course, but the IAEA said pretty clearly and definitively before the latest war that Iraq did not have a nuclear program. While Iran and North Korea are obviously of concern on this front, fears are dramatically reduced if we eliminate those merely with chemical or biological programs. And, as I've blogged recently, there are new policy initiatives aimed specifically at Iran and North Korea. Even President Bush says he doesn't plan war against North Korea (maybe he didn't read the NSS 2002).

So, who is willing to support new "preemptive" wars against outlaw states without evidence of imminent threat?

I fear the neocons in the Bush administration remain ready to fight. Cheney's recent speeches certainly state this.

Republican House member Pat Roberts (Chair of the Intelligence Committee), however, says he's not sure that Congress would have backed war in Iraq if they knew then what it now knows about Iraq's WMD.
Asked whether he thinks Congress would have supported a war in Iraq with only the existing evidence about weapons of mass destruction, Roberts said, "I don't know."

"Right now, we're seeing a lot of people who say that because we haven't found the specific evidence or the actual weaponry, that they would not have voted to go to war," he said.
I doubt seriously that the Bush administration is going to launch another war before the next election -- unless there's some sort of clear provocation such as another major terrorist attack.

However, the question of preemptive war needs to be a major issue in the 2004 election. What is the best strategy for combating terror and promoting non-proliferation? Should the US be attacking states it might fear down the road, or developing policies targeted at specific problems such as "loose nukes" in Russia or command and control of Pakistani forces.

I'm for the latter.

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