Bush Officials Contend Iraq Invasion was Preventive, Citing Alleged “Intent” and “Capabilities”

WASHINGTON — Over the past two weeks, senior Bush administration officials appeared to have abandoned one of their principal justifications for the Iraq invasion last year: the idea that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that required the United States to conduct an urgent, pre-emptive war.

Instead, various officials including President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have reasserted another previously given rationale: that the invasion was justified as a preventive action because former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had “intent” and latent “capabilities” for threatening the United States in the future.

In a Feb. 2 statement justifying the attack, Bush said, “We do know that Saddam Hussein had the intent and capabilities to cause great harm. We know he was a danger.”

Echoing that statement, Vice President Dick Cheney said in a Feb. 7 speech, “We know that Saddam had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. … We know that Saddam Hussein had the intent to arm his regime with weapons of mass destruction. … There is no question that America did the right thing in Iraq.”

Testifying before Congress yesterday, Powell expanded the administration’s argument, arguing that even though Iraq apparently lacked any weapons or active programs, its suspected intent to acquire them someday and its capability to do so equated to a threat.

“We had to look at it in terms of a threat that is gotten to by an examination of the intent of an opponent and the capability that opponent has. You put those two together and it equals a threat,” he said.

Those and similar statements coincide with recently revealed intelligence community conclusions that Iraq probably did not possess such weapons before the war and was not an “imminent” threat even with suspected weapons.

While critics charge the administration had overstated Iraqi capabilities based on the intelligence, and is now shifting its justification, officials have maintained they never said the war was justified to pre-empt an imminent threat and had in fact previously argued that the invasion would be a preventive measure. 

Regardless of the administration’s prior rationale, however, the current emphasis on a “preventive war” justification has fueled further public debate over whether the invasion was justified, with critics saying that prevention is no more valid a rationale than the administration’s pre-emption case.

“President Bush said that his decision to go to war with Iraq when he did was because Saddam Hussein had ‘the ability to make weapons.’ This is a far cry from what the president and his administration told the American people throughout 2002, ” said Democratic presidential candidate front-runner Senator John Kerry (Mass.) in a statement reported Monday by the New York Times.

“I don’t think that’s any justification whatever for attacking a country,” said arms control expert Jonathan Dean of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Problems with Preventive WarThe concept of “preventive war” is distinct from that of “pre-emption” in that it is intended to address a predicted threat, as opposed to a demonstrably imminent threat. Application of either rationale, however, can pose difficulties. Preventive war is not considered legal under customary international law and could be used as a pretext for naked aggression, experts said.

“Military attack on another state in the absence of an imminent threat is widely considered to be aggression,” wrote Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nonproliferation expert George Perkovich in a Feb. 2 commentary in the Washington Times.

After World War II, former German leaders on trial argued that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s decision to invade Norway and Denmark was justified as preventive, said Dean.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in a major address last year criticized the rationale.

“My concern is that, if it were to be adopted, it could set precedents that resulted in a proliferation of unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without justification,” he said.

The pre-emption justification on the other hand — which might draw stronger domestic support and international legitimacy — requires definitive evidence of an imminent threat to be considered legal, a difficult challenge in the face of authoritarian regimes and the secrecy of terrorist groups, administration officials have said.

While some officials still hold out the prospect of finding weapons, the pre-emptive justification for Iraq apparently was arguably undercut by reports of no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or active programs by U.S. inspectors last October and more recently in congressional testimony late last month by their former leader David Kay.

The most they could report was evidence of “weapons of mass destruction-related program-related activities,” a phrase repeated by Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address and ridiculed by critics.

Preventive War Was UrgedPerhaps even more damaging to the pre-emption case than Kay’s testimony, experts said, was CIA Director George Tenet’s statement last week that the intelligence community “never said there was an imminent threat,” even though it suspected that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons.

With that phrase, Dean said, the intelligence community “was drawing a line between their reports and what the administration made of them. The administration added the dimension of immediacy and urgency.”

Administration officials now maintain they never called Iraq an imminent threat.

“I think, if I might remind you, that in my language I called it ‘a grave and gathering threat,’ but I don’t want to get into word contests,” Bush said in an interview on Meet the Press last weekend.

Moreover, the administration did, as it turns out, make a preventive war case prior to the conflict, prompting the rationale to be dubbed the Bush Doctrine.

In a “National Security Strategy” document released in September 2002, in particular, the administration argued for expanding the definition of pre-emption to include preventive war against states suspected of developing chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and with alleged terrorist ties.

Preventive war should be justifiable, the document argued, to counter the possibility that a state with such weapons might share the capability with terrorists that could attack the United States without presenting evidence of an imminent threat.

“Our enemies are seeking weapons of mass destruction. America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed,” it said.

Speeches by Bush and other officials also argued a preventive justification for attacking Iraq specifically, including a key presidential address days before the invasion.

“We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over,” Bush said.

So Apparently Was Pre-EmptionThat speech like many others, however, also conveyed a sense of immediacy to the alleged Iraqi threat, in particular by citing with certainty the existence of banned weapons.

“Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised,” Bush said.

“The danger is clear: Using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other,” he said.

Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), at a recent hearing with Kay, cited an August 2002 Cheney statement that “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.”

“What the president referred to as a ‘word contest’ regarding the threat from Iraq is, in fact, his attempt to change the rationale for going to war and rewrite the history of what has occurred,” said Center for American Progress President John Podesta in a recent statement.

Officials “purposely never said that Iraq posed an ‘imminent’ threat, although they used rhetoric to convey that immediate military action was necessary,” said Perkovich in his Washington Times piece.

In light of Tenet’s statement, administration officials probably knew there was no intelligence case for pre-emptive war, but they nevertheless implied an urgent threat, says Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress.

“They were sending all kinds of messages,” he said.

Powell himself, on the other hand, appeared to acknowledge the prominence of the pre-emption rationale in his thinking when he said this month that he might not have supported the war had he known Iraq possessed no banned weapons stockpiles.

“It was the stockpile … that made it more of a real and present danger and threat to the region and the world. The absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus. It changes the answer you get,” he told the Washington Post (see GSN, Feb. 3, 2004).                  

Today’s MessageTop administration officials now are stressing the preventive case, saying Iraqi “intentions” and “capabilities” indicated Iraq would one day attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction.

“The right thing was done. … I think it was clear that this was a regime with intent, capability, and it was a risk the president felt strongly we could not take,” Powell said on Feb. 3.

Bush reiterated the preventive war justification during the Sunday interview, saying Kay “did report to the American people that Saddam had the capacity to make weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with weapons. 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.”

UCS expert Dean said even though administration officials are stressing the preventive war justification it will not likely be used to justify an attack on another country soon.

“My view is that you’re not going to get the American electorate to back the costs, human and material costs, for the invasion of another country on the idea that they might have WMD,” he said.

Kerry, along with the other top Democratic candidates, indicated opposition to the prevention rationale in responses to a questionnaire last fall.

“I support the right of pre-emption in the face of an imminent threat, but the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war is a dangerous departure from the time tested principles of American foreign policy that have kept us safe,” he wrote.

February 12, 2004

WASHINGTON — Over the past two weeks, senior Bush administration officials appeared to have abandoned one of their principal justifications for the Iraq invasion last year: the idea that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that required the United States to conduct an urgent, pre-emptive war.