'Imminent': A word that issues a warning that means 'war'

Much of the debate over the Iraq war surrounds the question of whether Saddam posed an 'imminent' threat

By William Safire


Sunday, Feb 08, 2004, Page 9

"I have always been against George Bush's war in Iraq," General Wesley Clark said the week before the New Hampshire primary. "Not because Saddam Hussein wasn't a threat. But because Saddam wasn't an imminent threat."

Next day, in a televised debate, Howard Dean, prefacing a statement with "My words are not always precise, but my meaning is very, very clear," stated, "Iraq was not an imminent threat to the United States."

That adjective has emerged as central to the charge being made by those critical of Bush's decision to invade Iraq that there was no urgent reason -- no triggering impetus in international law -- to justify our pre-emptive military action to overthrow Saddam's regime.

(In my other columnar life, I am an unreconstructed Wilsonian interventionist; In On Language, however, I knock myself out to play it straight.)

First, let's handle the easy part: the difference between "immanent" and "imminent." The one with the "a" means "inherent," rooted in the Latin for "remaining within;" you can believe that God is immanent in humans.

"Imminent" means something else entirely, rooted in the part of a mountain that projects overhead, threatening those below. "Overhanging" is its essence -- an immediate threat, a sinister event close at hand -- unlike "impending," which is not so near in time. It looms ominously, with none of the hopeful connotation of the voguish "upcoming." (Vermont Royster, the late editor of The Wall Street Journal: "If I see upcoming in the paper again, I'll be downcoming and someone will be outgoing.") "Imminent" is alarming, its menace nigh: "Something bad is on the way and soon."

Now to the political controversy surrounding the word. On Sept. 17, 2002, just after the first anniversary of the terrorist attack of 9/11, the Bush White House issued a white paper spelling out the need for "preemption" (not hyphenated) in the national security strategy of the US. "For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack."

The legitimacy of "preemption" was often conditioned "on the existence of an imminent threat -- most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies and air forces preparing to attack." Because rogue states and terrorists strike without such warning, "we must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today's adversaries." Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, brought this bureaucratese down to earth with "New technology requires new thinking about when a threat actually becomes `imminent.'"

Did Bush ever apply that adjective to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? Two weeks after the white paper, the president in a radio address on Sept. 28, 2002, said of Saddam's regime, "The danger to our country is grave, and it is growing." He said that Iraq "could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes," but he did not use the legal trigger word "imminent."

Evidently Bush had been briefed on the weight of that word. On Oct. 21 of that year, asked by Ron Fournier of The Associated Press whether North Korea was "an imminent threat to the US" in its nuclear buildup, the president replied carefully: "You know, that's an operative word ... I believe we can do it peacefully."

A White House spokesman used the word in February last year in the context of NATO protecting Turkey from retaliation, but Bush used it in his 2003 State of the Union address in a way that disputed its necessity: "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?"

Pentagon reporters aware of the trigger word followed that up in asking Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld if Saddam's threat was imminent. He answered with a question of his own: "At what moment was the threat of Sept. 11 imminent? ... Was it imminent a week before, a month before, a year before, an hour before? Was it imminent while you could still stop it, or was it imminent only after it started and you couldn't stop it?"

Though pressed further, he would say only that the Saddam regime, with weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorist activities, was "a danger to the United States and a danger to the region."

Senators supporting and opposing the president's girding for war showed their understanding of the operative word. "The threat posed by Saddam Hussein may not be imminent," Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, said on Oct. 10, 2002, "but it is real, it is growing and it cannot be ignored." John Kerry, basing his judgment on the intelligence supplied him and on the Bush address, picked up Daschle's adjective on Jan. 23 last year: "So the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real...."

At the same time, Ted Kennedy saw that the president had deliberately avoided the use of the trigger word and demanded "convincing evidence of an imminent threat" before committing troops to war, although a resolution authorizing the use of force had been passed months before.

So ... did Bush claim an imminent threat? Interrogated in detail on this by Tony Snow of Fox News, Senator Jay Rockefeller, ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, who said in 2002 that "I do believe that Iraq poses an imminent threat," replied about the Bush address in 2003: "If the word `imminent threat' wasn't used, that was the predicate, that was the feeling that was given to the American people and to Congress."

In case you've been wondering why this adjective has been the focus of so much attention, such careful use and nonuse -- you've just seen why. It's a word that issues a warning that marches a nation to war.