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'Imminent threat' is revisionist spin


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'Imminent threat' is revisionist spin

Jonah Goldberg

October 17, 2003

Jimmy Carter never used the word "malaise" in his "malaise speech." Abraham Lincoln never said, "God must have loved the common people, he made so many of them."

And George W. Bush never said that the threat from Iraq was "imminent."

He never said it. Seriously. Not once.

Teams of rhetoric inspectors have been pouring over Bush's comments, utterances, speeches and gesticulations for about as long as we've been looking for WMD in Iraq and, to date, nobody has found a shred of proof that the president - or anybody in his Cabinet - ever once said Iraq or Saddam Hussein posed an "imminent" threat to the United States.

In fact, one of the only good finds on this score actually says the complete opposite. In President Bush's State of the Union Address last January, 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."

This is important because the favorite talking point of Democrats and liberal pundits right now is that the president "lied" when he said that Iraq posed an "imminent threat."

Just the other day Sen. Jay Rockefeller said on Fox News Sunday, "What I keep having to remind myself is that we went to war in Iraq based upon an imminent threat which was being caused by weapons of mass destruction." And New York Times columnist Paul Krugman hyperventilated: "The public was told that Saddam posed an imminent threat. If that claim was fraudulent, the selling of the war is arguably the worst scandal in American political history - worse than Watergate, worse than Iran-contra."

Ted Kennedy offered the most infamous summary: "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."

It would make things so much easier to say that all of the war's critics are as intellectually dishonest as Kennedy or Krugman. Unfortunately for the war's defenders, but fortunately for the republic, not everyone is willing to stoop to their level.

Indeed, there are quite a few facts on the side of those who say the administration claimed the threat was imminent. In Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, Bush said, "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists." Bush reiterated the claim from British Intelligence that Saddam could launch a chemical missile attack with 45 minutes. Various Cabinet members referred to this or that threat as "immediate" and "gathering." There was a lot of talk about "reconstituted nuclear programs" and even "mushroom clouds."

On inspection, some of these quotes seem damning, others don't. But none of it supports the case that Bush "lied" or perpetrated a "fraud." It might - and almost surely does - help the case that Bush was wrong about the extent of the Iraqi threat (though even that door isn't completely closed yet). But these statements don't prove deception. Nor, in my opinion do they have much to do with dispelling the case for war.

Regardless, to argue persuasively that Bush lied, you'd have to demonstrate that he knew that our own intelligence agencies, numerous U.N. teams and the intelligence services of Britain, Germany, France and other allies were all wrong. And, by the way, President Clinton - who just last July said, "When I left office, there was a substantial amount of biological and chemical material unaccounted for (in Iraq)" - would have to be wrong, too.

The "made up in Texas" stuff is only possible if you're filming an Oliver Stone movie.

Moreover, while the public debate may have left the impression that the threat was more imminent than it turned out to be, the formal deliberations in Congress and the United Nations had nothing to do with imminence.

That debate was about Iraq's ongoing, globally undisputed and flagrant defiance of U.N. resolutions and the need to be pro-active against anything like another 9-11. Read the actual congressional resolution authorizing force. It's mostly about Iraq's defiance of the United Nations.

Indeed, numerous Democrats, including Senators Kennedy and John Kerry, opposed the resolution authorizing the use of force precisely because it wasn't hinged to an imminent threat from Iraq (Kerry ultimately flip-flopped and voted for the resolution anyway). Senator Robert Byrd even offered an amendment requiring that imminence become the standard for war. After a debate, he lost.

In other words, Kennedy & Co. objected to the war before it was launched because Bush wouldn't say the threat was imminent and now they're peeved because Bush "lied" when he said the threat was imminent. That's laugh-factory logic.

This spin probably won't stick. After all, as Abraham Lincoln once said, "You cannot fool all the people all the time."

Oh, wait. Lincoln never said that either.

Jonah Goldberg is editor of National Review Online, a TownHall.com member group.

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