The President of the USA interviewed by Tim Russert on Meet The Press 2/8/04
RUSSERT: The night you took the country to war, March 17th, you said this: "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."
RUSSERT: That apparently is not the case.
(Bush nevertheless goes on to defend all aspects of the war without qualification.)
Something disturbing has happened. By admitting that the pre-war claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction were wrong but continuing to defend all aspects of the war, the president of the USA has in effect confirmed the existence of a new national security problem. Commonly held understandings about what constitutes a serious threat to the USA can no longer be assumed, and consequently the technical ability of the government to evaluate real danger is sharply compromised. For the time being, there is no official distinction in the USA between a threat that requires immediate military intervention and a threat that does not require immediate military intervention. Until the Bush administration states their understanding of this distinction, communication about potentially very real threats will continue to be seriously compromised and ineffective.
Critical domestic commentators accustomed to USA dominance have rightly focused on the aggressive aspects of the ever-widening re-definition of “pre-emptive war.” Noam Chomsky, refusing to go along with the total distortion of the term “pre-emption”, correctly calls it a version of “preventive” war, and noted already last fall that “with the discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction, the doctrine has been changed so that now the United States has the right and authority, sovereign right, to attack any country that has the intent and ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.” Another important but less discussed aspect of the ever-widening definition is the damage that is being done thereby to national security in the USA. The president may pretend that nuclear weapons are no less dangerous than the ability to develop them but civilian populations are, for their own safety and peace of mind, likely to want a distinction to be made. Officially, the distinction that current USA foreign policy makes is that it protects and promotes nuclear proliferation in undemocratic regimes from Pakistan to Iran and more generally while it selectively attacks Iraq for “the ability to make weapons”. Apart from the incitement of widespread rage against the USA, the damage to national security is now caused also by the undermining of the ability to communicate meaningfully about realistic national security issues at the decision making level.
If national security is to mean anything at all, it must mean effective defense against dangers and threats. Unfortunately the definitions of “danger” and “threat” have now become entirely fluid if not meaningless in defense of the Bush administration’s wars. National security means correspondingly less and less. For simple historical reasons, coping with real foreign threats to the national territory itself (as opposed to the national “interests”) is not an activity that anyone in the USA can claim to have much experience doing, and it shows in the irresponsible behavior of the designated leaders. But it appears it would be a mistake to assume that coping effectively with such threats is even intended as a priority of the current administration. In the event of a genuine emergency that requires immediate pre-emptive action, the executive branch which has full access to the intelligence apparatus will need to have previously articulated to the Congress and to the nation the crucial distinction between threats that require immediate military intervention and those that do not. Unless this articulation occurs well in advance of any practical application, such as in an emergency, it will be unreliable and maybe even meaningless. Until that articulation occurs the nation is less able to defend itself.
If the citizenry and their representatives in Congress are not given enough information to understand what exactly the executive branch means when they say “threat” then either an over-reaction or an under-reaction will result. Civilians will bear the painful cost of this margin of error, either abroad as is traditional, or domestically which is new, or both. Does this matter?
So far, this logic is of no interest to policy makers but I think it’s important for others to ask, “What will happen now in the event that threats far more real and severe than Saddam Hussein do become actively engaged against USA targets?” What will the president, reacting to intelligence reports, be able to say to explain the urgency of the situation if in fact it is urgent? The crucial question on everybody’s mind then will be: “What is the nature of the threat?” – a question that, alarmingly, has now become nearly incomprehensible at the relevant decision making level -- especially if the intelligence includes anything about biological, chemical, and/or nuclear weapons, distinct possibilities in the current context crafted by the Bush administration.
No principled defensive action is possible without some confidence and consistency in the meaning of relevant information. Without such confidence the only choice will necessarily be one between no defense and unprincipled aggression -- both unacceptable and dangerous.
But is there really anything novel about this situation? Hasn’t the USA always acted with little regard for principle? Haven’t the boys cried wolf more or less continuously? Sure, official truth is always a mess of inconsistencies and fabrications but as far as civilian safety in the USA goes, the wolf never really came around until recently. Lying about national security was of course much less dangerous for the domestic civilian population when there were no real threats from outside. Faceless and nameless foreigners paid the heavy costs. But the national history of privileged security and impunity has enabled a habitual dishonesty regarding national security that is disadvantageous in the changed situation. The same national security lies that may have always rationalized convenient USA brutality and indifference have now rendered the nature and specifics of real and unprecedented threats to the USA inexpressible and incomprehensible.
Terrorists could hardly ask for better luck. A week ago the dimensions and nature of an impending terrorist action in the USA could have been meaningfully described by the Bush administration. Today, in a country where weapons of mass destruction no longer officially have anything to do with danger, such a crucially important description would be indistinguishable from the admitted falsities and empty platitudes of the current Iraq war. That is a real national security problem, much more real than Saddam Hussein, if one cares about the defense of the national territory of the USA. Whether this new national security problem can be understood within the USA remains to be seen. Concerned people should demand that the Bush administration immediately articulate to the Congress and to the nation the necessary real distinction between threats that require immediate military intervention and those that do not.
Yokoyama Yutaka, born in Tokyo and a citizen of the USA, is a retired gas station attendant.