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May 18, 2004 3:04 pm


Imminence and Intelligence



New York City television is currently blanketed with wall-to-wall coverage of the 9/11 commission hearings, which are taking place today in Manhattan. Seeing these images again of the attack on the World Trade Center, listening to a re-creation of the time-line of the events as they unfolded ... well. It's still painful, especially for those of us who lost colleagues, friends, and neighbors. Kudos to the commission chair, Tom Kean, for asking for a moment of silence. All the more reason, today, to continue our discussion of the nature of the current Iraq war, which, in my view, has little to do with the Al Qaeda attack on the United States.

Replying to an essay,"Lesser Evils," written by Michael Ignatieff, Irfan Khawaja asks:"Do We Have to Get Our Hands Dirty to Win the War on Terrorism? And What Does that Mean Exactly?" Khawaja, who is currently participating in a provocative discussion with Gene Healy and Keith Halderman, raises some troubling issues about ends and means, while defending the view that there is and should be no trade-off between"liberty" and"security."

Khawaja, however, is disturbed by those who use"imminent threat" as a litmus test for military action. He thinks that"imminence" remains either undefined or too loosely defined. He writes:

One difficulty here is that it’s not clear that the concept of imminence can consistently be applied before an event as opposed to after it. It is much easier to say that something was imminent than to say that it is—a serious liability for a concept with the strategic importance that “imminence” has now come to acquire.

The issue of"imminence" is, indeed, an epistemic one. That's why the accuracy and reliability of intelligence and the effectiveness of the intelligence community are so crucially important to our assessment of any risk as a clear and present danger to the lives and liberties of American citizens. In the context of Iraq, the US had to assess the probable existence of weapons of mass destruction, the ability of Hussein's regime to deliver such weapons in a first-strike against"US interests" (something that is, in this day and age, far more difficult to define than the doctrine of"imminence"), and the ties between Hussein's regime and other groups or states that have targeted US interests in the past, specifically the ties (or lack thereof) between Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Part of that assessment would have included Hussein's own testimony, which, as Khawaja argues, could not be trusted. While I agree that Hussein was a"liar" and a"serial miscalculator," as Khawaja observes, one thing seems certain: He put a high priority on his own survival, and boasted that because he survived the first Gulf War, he was actually the victor. It is for that reason that containment under threat of assured destruction works, even with the most irrational of people. Josef Stalin was, by all measures, a paranoid liar, and a more prolific murderer than Hussein, but he was"rational" enough to know that a strike against the US would have been met with massive and catastrophic retaliation.

In the end, however, the US did not have to rely on the rationality or believability of Hussein's claims; it needed to evaluate, as Gene Healy has done, Hussein's track record and the countervailing interests at work in the region, to assess the threat level. Considering the testimony of a parade of disgruntled former Bush administration employees, who have argued that the neoconservative policy-makers were hell-bent on going to war in Iraq, knowing full well that there was no connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attack, one must wonder if claims of"imminent threat" or"grave and gathering threat" were a mere cover for a predetermined course of action.

The US government had information at its disposal, in the days leading up to the invasion, which undermined its own case for invasion. But the administration chose not to place any priority on that information, selecting only those claims that bolstered its favored conclusions, in order to justify the commitment of tens of thousands of US troops to this nation-building folly. Even Colin Powell has said that the intelligence, which drew from Iraqi defectors who had a political agenda of their own, was"inaccurate and wrong and, in some cases, deliberately misleading."

Tragically, the US government disregarded accurate information or acted on misleading information in the Iraq war, while it ignored or failed to coordinate lots of information about explicit warnings that might have prevented the September 11th attack. That attack represents one of the greatest failures of government—to preserve, protect, and defend—in US history.

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Jason Pappas - 5/19/2004

I won’t review the case against Saddam because Saddam is a minor detail and detour (and aren't we all sick of reviewing the damn details). Defeating Saddam was fairly easy. It’s the nation-building that’s an impossible task and shouldn’t have been undertaken even if one agrees to remove Saddam.

Unfortunately, in a war waged by covert means there will be false positives and false negatives. Reducing both is the challenge.

But the main point of our discussion is the need to rely on a deterrent and ultimately avoid actual combat. I hope we agree on that. However, we disagree on what is a deterrent. I would have thought that Clinton’s bombing of bin Laden’s camp would have made a rational person reconsider their actions. I was wrong. Will our current success in Afghanistan do the trick? I don’t think so. Bin Laden and many like him believe the Soviet withdrawal proves that they will triumph eventually. Our support of the Afghans in the war with the Soviets was a major blunder. Although I believe the Soviets would have withdrawn eventually.

Now, I’m not saying we need a bigger and wider war. I think we need a smarter war. And I don’t see that proposed in any quarter.


Keith Halderman - 5/19/2004

What covert attacks by Saddam are you talking about? Not one Iraqi paticipated in the 9-11 attacks. The bombings in Kenya, the USS Cole, the first attack on the WTC, Lockerbie Scotland, the disco in Berlin, the marines being blown up in Beruit, I do not remember any of those events being linked to Hussein. The biggest sponsors of terrorism against Israel are Iran and Syria. As far as being a paper tiger, the first attack on American soil that did real damage, 9-11, led directly to the justified invasion of Afghanistan, which I am not ashamed to say I supported wholeheartedly. Ask the Taliban if they think we are a paper tiger, they used to be in charge there but they did not give up Bin Laden and rightly paid for it. All the war on Iraq has done is gotten in the way of taking care of our real enemies. Until Osama Bin Laen is dead the war on terror can only be considered a failure.


Jason Pappas - 5/18/2004

Again, you seem to know so much about what Saddam thinks, Keith. However, given the last 30 years of appeasement in the face of covert attacks, Saddam and many other Arabs believe we are a paper tiger. Just look at their actions. They don't look scared - they look emboldened.

Now, I agree if we maintained an appropriate deterrent and a consistent policy to make it credible, we'd have few problems and avoid most if not all wars.


Keith Halderman - 5/18/2004

If Hussein had actually attacked the U.S. there is no doubt whatsoever that we would have destroyed him immediately. He knew that and he knew that we would know it was him. Whatever France or the U.N. thought would have been irrelevant. Therefore, he never attacked us or even threatened to attack us. All he ever did was have the potential to attack us (just like say Canada) and as it turns out not even very much of that. So why should he worry about retaliation since he had not done anything.


Jason Pappas - 5/18/2004

I respect your doubt about the threat. However, I emphatically agree about the absurdity of nation-building. Many people are now having second thoughts about nation-building and joining our camp in that regard.


Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 5/18/2004

That's very true, Jason. In a schoolyard fight, the ~threat~ of retaliation must be a genuine threat, or a potential combatant will walk all over you. Let me say, however, that I do not believe UN or French approval is necessary for the US to take action to defend its ~legitimate~ interests.

I just didn't believe Saddam Hussein constituted a threat, imminent or not. Saddam's army was 1/3 the size of its 1991 incarnation, and there was much evidence to suggest, in the days leading up to the invasion, that the WMD speculations were bloated. And the key---any connection between Hussein and Al Qaeda---was never demonstrated. If all these factors had coalesced, especially a WMD-Hussein-Al Qaeda link, I think my evaluation of this situation would have been dramatically different, even though I would never have advocated "nation-building."

How to deal with a threat---however imminent---reminds me of the Israeli attack on Iraq's nuclear plant. The Israelis judged it to be a threat to their national security, and simply took it out. As I said on another thread: They didn't send consultants to advise Iraq on alternative sources of energy, and didn't send legislators into Baghdad to help advise them on alternative sources of governance. They simply took decisive action on the basis of accurate intelligence.


Jason Pappas - 5/18/2004

Chris: "He [Saddam] put a high priority on his own survival, and boasted that because he survived the first Gulf War, he was actually the victor. It is for that reason that containment under threat of assured destruction works, even with the most irrational of people."

That is true only if Saddam believes the threat. But why should he? We refused to take him out the 1st time. More importantly, France assured him that the UN wouldn't approve an attack this time.

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