President George W. Bush has a case for going to war. It’s a slim case, but a case. And he keeps undermining it with dishonest remarks. During his Thursday night press conference–only the eighth news conference of his presidency (Bill Clinton had logged 30 by this point in his first term)–Bush once again tried to argue for war. He offered nothing new. And, to be fair, at this stage of the game–after months of prep work–no one should expect to hear much in the way of fresh argument. But Bush took one more shot at explaining his thinking.
He asserted that “Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country, to our people, and to all free people. If the world fails to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime…free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risk….We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction. We are determined to confront threats wherever they arise.”
In the post-9/11 world, any possibility of a brutal dictator with anti-American sentiments acquiring nuclear, biological and chemical weapons has to be considered worrisome and worthy of a vigorous response. Bush and his crew are right: one cannot assume that absence of evidence (of weapons of mass destruction) is the same thing as evidence of absence (of WMD). The US government ought to identify potential foes and potential attacks and develop the means to neutralize them early. Perhaps it might even be prudent in some circumstances to move against such threats before undeniable proof can be assembled, more so if the targets are known murderers, torturers, and thugs who do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Even if questions remain about a preemptive course of action, it may still be warranted, particularly if the potential threat were sufficiently dire. (If Washington had sketchy indications that Kim Jong Il was poised to sell a nuclear bomb to a terrorist outfit, how long should it wait–how much evidence should it amass–before deciding to intervene and forcibly stop the transfer?)
One could argue that while the actual danger posed by Saddam Hussein (and whatever weapons he might possess or might develop) is difficult to assess, the United States cannot risk guessing wrongly. At the news conference, Bush declared, “My job is to protect the American people.” Clearly, his expansive view of that mandate includes going to war against a tyrant whose actions may end up threatening the United States.
Bush’s problem has been that a case for war based on the potential threat from Iraq is, obviously, not as compelling as a case predicated on an actual and immediate threat. If a nation faces a potential threat, it has the luxury of weighing–and debating–various aspects of going to war: the moral legitimacy of the action, the possible consequences and costs, how other governments and populations will react, the alternatives to an invade-and-occupy response. Many of these concerns, though, could be shoved aside, if the United States were confronting a clear-and-present danger.