No. That was not the president's case. It was, on occasion, Tony Blair's, and that is why Blair is in such political trouble in Britain. But in Bush's first post-9/11 State of the Union address (January 2002), he framed Iraq as a part of a larger and more enduring problem, the overriding threat of our time: the conjunction of terrorism, terrorist states and weapons of mass destruction. And that unless something was done, we faced the prospect of an infinitely more catastrophic 9/11 in the future.
Later that year, in a speech to the U.N., he spoke of the danger from Iraq not as ``clear and present'' but ``grave and gathering,'' an obvious allusion to Churchill's ``gathering storm,'' the gradually accumulating threat that preceded the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. And then nearer the war, in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush plainly denied that the threat was imminent. ``Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent.'' Bush was, on the contrary, calling for action precisely when the threat was not imminent because, ``If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions ... would come too late.''
The threat had not yet even fully emerged, Bush was asserting, but nonetheless it had to be faced because it would only get worse. Saddam was not going away. The sanctions were not going to restrain him. Even his death would be no reprieve, as his half-mad sons would take over. The argument was that Saddam had to be removed eventually, and that with Saddam relatively weakened, isolated and vulnerable, now would be more prudent and less costly than later.
He was right.
In fact, Bush's case was simply a more elaborate and formal restatement of Bill Clinton's argument in 1998 that, left unmolested, Saddam would ``go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal.''
That was true when Clinton said it. It was true when Bush said it. The difference is that Bush did something about it.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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