The Iraq War “Imminence Debate” in Retrospect

ten-years-after-saddamAs we continue the walk down Memory Lane, bob recalls for us the “imminence” debate, which raged on for years, and is one element of the “Bush lied, people died” theory of the Iraq War that, as we were just noting, Mr. Feaver thinks has contaminated discussion, but Mr. Larison seems to claim no one actually ever argues. As I was just saying, I think Mr. Larison is wrong: MSNBC’s “most-watched documentary in 10 years” focused primarily on the claim, now taken as gospel on the left, that we were “lied into war” in relation to a supposedly but not actually imminent threat.

Echoes of the imminence debate have sounded recently in relation to the targeted killing “white paper” and the Obama Administration’s lexical-legal gymnastics around the same word. Back in the 00’s, the argument in its degraded form went something like “Bush said the threat was imminent, but it wasn’t really imminent, so that’s another way Bush lied, and, when he or his people or YOU say he didn’t lie, that’s just more lies and shows what liars you all are.” And so we ended up with highly polemical, unintentionally revealing, agitprop-ready material like the post that bob linked, from 2004 by the Center for American Progress, consisting of a list of statements by Bush officials, clearly intended to convey an image of flagrant, overwhelming mendacity, but, or so it seems to me, tending to confirm instead that Bush and his people mostly stuck to the line – which can be summed up, though as far as I know never was summed up, as “imminence is irrelevant.”

At the risk of reviving comment thread and discussion board combat of years gone by, the endless pointless virtual Fallujahs of yesterdecade, I will restate the old case, and my own view, that the Bush Administration’s central and determinative statements pointedly and centrally denied that imminence as commonly understood was, could, or should be the criterion for action. In this regard the State of the Union of February 2003, hardly a month before the actual commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, stands as a much more definitive statement than some offhand remark by a press spokesman. In a solemn setting, before a national and global TV audience, on the eve of war, Bush addressed the problem directly:

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.

Again: Imminence is no longer relevant: That was the theory. The problem for Bush officials and the war policy’s larger sales force both in and out of government was, however, that imminence remained politically very relevant, not least because the closer they could get to convincing their constituents, allies, and perhaps even themselves that the threat was in some way imminent, or would have satisfied the theoretically obsolete but still common understandings of imminence, the easier it would be to overcome resistance and close the political deal. They were in a position where it was always in their immediate rhetorical interest to diverge from their own theory of the war, the latter being more resilient, but less decisive, in the face of criticism.

No one in the Bush Administration who wanted to keep his or her job was going to deny that Iraq was any kind of threat at all. So, as in that 2004 collection of statements, we  get into multiple variations on “serious,” “immediate,” “threat to interests,” etc. Many of the quotes, even in the “gotcha” context, show officials struggling to explain the war policy as per the SOTU and other clear statements, while distinguishing the new threat or kind of threat or variation on imminence from the kind of threat, the old imminence, that even most ardent war critics would recognize as obviously justifying defensive action. We can imagine attempts to depict or plot the conceptual space graphically: maybe a two-variable curve shaped by one axis of seriousness and one axis of time/immediacy; maybe a three-variable space with x = pain, y = importance, and z = time, and so on. Yet, even in the unlikely event that we could arrive at an objective-enough definition satisfactory to all of what level of threat or what sector of threat-space was intolerable, there would still be a political issue over whether one side or the other had properly characterized that threat-space.

Perhaps we can all agree that Saddam Hussein was not personally jumping over the White House wall wearing a bomb vest, firing an assault rifle, hurling grenades, and shouting obscenities. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was also not a tiny island somewhere east of Vanuatu that no one here had ever heard of before. The Bush Administration was acting upon a clearly enunciated strategy different from self-defense against an “imminent threat,” but not the same as picking on someone for the Hell of it or for reasons that have nothing to do with self-defense. Its idea was that some threats cannot be allowed to become obviously imminent, or, saying the same thing, some threats may be more imminent than they appear to be, or some threats are no longer threats at all but impending catastrophe by the time they become apparent. The perceived lack of a direct defense against counter-population terror or against a range of disruptions of the international resource chain transforms “threat” into the equivalent of “attack” in two ways: First, we do not see the actual attack until it occurs, as there is no true “imminence phase” during which defense might be practical, and, second, the mere existence of a credible potential already begins to “terrorize” us:  use up resources, constrain behavior, impact on policy, and so on, even before specific new incidents have occurred.

We are forced to consider that the mere existence of an authentic terrorist, or of a defiant strong man at a key geo-political and geo-economic location, may already be an attack in this re-defined sense. The formulation will appear paranoid, because it is paranoid. We are in an age of paranoia, an environment of uncertainty, first because things look the same, yet we sense they are different, but perhaps even more because paranoia is the normal state of the hegemon’s mind, and, as citizens of a democratic or quasi-democratic neo-imperial republic, we are all co-hegemons, part-tyrants, each of us with an inexpressibly small but vitally real share in running the world system. This theory is not just our theory, or the Bush theory, but it was also the terrorist or revolutionary partisan theory, the same theory that makes each of us potential targets, corresponding to our roles in the same system of which we are material beneficiaries and within which, however remotely or even merely symbolically, we are all responsible participants.

I am not arguing this is all a good way to go about business and war, or sustainable over the long term – though it may well turn out to be, especially in the absence of a viable substitute. What I am saying is that “playing gotcha” on the basis of problematic definitions is never to engage in the necessary discussion at all, since the key point of the new strategy was or is that the terms of the old discussion are no longer adequate. That people fall into the old terminology constantly should not be surprising, but the fact that they do is relevant to the main questions only as evidence of their novelty, and as illustration of how difficult it can be to discuss and cope with them at all, politically and otherwise.


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  1. I confess I linked to that list out of laziness – it was the first search result that I opened, felt a twinge of pause that it obviously was agiprop, but it seemed to serve my purpose in replying to Miggs just fine. I’m not sure if I actually made the point I intended to make – the Bush admin did not make a convincing case at the time,either showing immenence, or justifying pre-emption, or both and this created the space for whoever to fill in the blanks pretty much unimpeded.

    The gotcha environment is harmful, and was made more likely by the poorly documented, reasoned and inconsistent manner the case for war was made. I recall quite vividly that at the time Karen and I went from, “Well if this is true then war maybe necessary” through a series of head scatching presentations to “Even if it is true, do we want these guys to be in charge of the war??” I recollect using the words “ass” and “map” in close proximity.

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