Imminent Dangers

February 9, 2004


February 09, 2004


Mr. David Kay, the Bush administration’s hand-picked weapons inspector spent six months looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and last month reported to the Congress that he had found none. He did not think, either, that more inspection would produce further results. He no longer even believed that there had been any WMD when the war began. Then the Director of the CIA, Mr. George Tenet, said in a speech that the United States had not, at the time the war began, been in imminent danger. Secretary of State Colin Powell then said that if he had known before the war what he knows now, he would not have supported going to war.

The president then went on NBC’s Meet the Press and told Tim Russert: "I believe it is essential that when we see a threat, we deal with those threats before they become imminent. It's too late if they become imminent." He said Saddam Hussein had had bad intentions. When there is a foreign leader who has bad intentions and has a bad record, we do not have to wait until there is an imminent danger. We can take him out because of his intentions.

It is very difficult, of course, to prove another man’s intentions. Intentions are like dreams; sometimes they are real; always we are trying to imagine what someone else is thinking. Mr. Bush, without a shadow of self doubt, however, took his country to war based upon his imagining of the intentions of someone he had never met, someone acting in a culture he had never experienced, someone acting according to calculations of Islamic face and power about which he, Mr. Bush, knew almost nothing. Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Bush was acting according to his own calculation about how Hussein would act in some unknown circumstance, some unknown day of madness, some unknown time in the future.

The “imminent danger” test is different than this. It means that in the president’s estimate the attack will come sometime soon and must therefore be forcefully stopped because there is no alternative to force. Mr. Bush substituted for this test, just “sometime,” taking out the “soon,” and based his whole calculation upon what he judged would be in another man’s mind, someday.

Last fall, Diane Sawyer asked the president about the weapons that had not been found. The president replied that Saddam had had “programs” to develop those weapons. Sawyer asked if there was not a difference between programs and actually existing weapons. The president asked, “What is the difference?”

The difference is important to everyone who has studied Hitler and knows that the condemnation of that dictator after World War II was based upon his invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland upon pretext, upon made-up excuses of self defense, upon his claim to be protecting the fatherland, and, of course, upon his estimation of the intentions of his enemies. The condemnation of Hitler led to the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Conventions which are now included in the supreme law of our own land, according to our own constitution. Under that law a pre-emptive military strike is only allowed when the danger is imminent, not when it is possible.

The US signed these treaties; we led the way to adopt this rule. We would see that invasions of countries upon pretext did not happen again. We would make that absolutely illegal. We would enable the United Nations to enforce the rule. We sent troops to Korea to enforce the rule. Thirty three thousand Americans died to enforce the rule.

Now the president asks what is the difference between an imminent threat and a dictator’s uncertain intentions. That is not a question he ought to have to ask.

Being on the right side of the law is a difference. Funerals of 526 Americans is a difference. A 400-billion-dollar money hemorrhage is a difference. The ability to afford health care for seniors and conservation programs for our soils and our waters is a difference. Creating jobs for 3 million Americans is a difference. Instead of expanding employment in the infantry and on navy cruisers, the president could be expanding employment in the mills of South Carolina, in the commercial aircraft plants in Seattle, in the auto plants of Michigan, and that would be a difference.

It is true that there is an imminent threat. But it is not in Iraq. It is in job losses and health losses and school programs under-funded and veterans under-cared-for and seniors excluded from hospitals. Given Mr. Kay’s report and Director Tenet’s agreement, we now know that these were, and are, far more imminent and threatening to the lives and well-being of Americans than Saddam Hussein ever was.