John Bolton: Bush never said Saddam was 'imminent threat'
Former ambassador to the UN John Bolton on CNN's Late Edition today made the case that, over four years into the Iraq war, removing Saddam Hussein was "unquestionably" the right thing to do, even though he did not turn out to have the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that formed the basis for the Bush administration's case for going to war.
"[Saddam Hussein] and his regime were the threat to international peace and security. The president never made the argument that he constituted an imminent threat," Bolton said.
However, on more than one occasion, administration officials used the term "imminent threat" to describe Iraq in the run up to the war.
"This is about imminent threat," said then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan on February 10, 2003.
"When did the attack on September 11 become an imminent threat? Now, transport yourself forward a year, two years or a week or a month...So the question is, when is it such an immediate threat that you must do something?" was Donald Rumsfeld's message in November 2002, implying that Iraq would need to attack the US to become more of an immediate threat than it was.
Vice President Dick Cheney in August 2002 used the similar term "mortal threat" saying, "What we must not do in the face of this mortal threat is to give in to wishful thinking or to willful blindness."
Denying that the White House used the specific nomenclature "imminent threat" is a common defense of Bush administration officials.
In 2004, then-Director of the CIA George Tenet defended his organization's prewar estimates of Saddam Hussein's military might by saying, "They never said there was an imminent threat."
A video clip of Bolton appearing on CNN's Late Edition follows:
Transcript of clip:
BLITZER: So what should the U.S. be doing about this?
BOLTON: Well, I think the president has got a very aggressive strategy in response. And I think the Iranians need to know that we will pursue their agents, their military, their intelligence people inside Iraq and that the president has full constitutional authority, whether it is through the doctrine of hot pursuit or whatever else he needs to do, to protect Americans from Iranian attacks.
BLITZER: The Iraq situation, from your assessment four years into this war, is what?
BOLTON: I think there are analytically two questions that you have to ask about Iraq. The first is, should we have overthrown Saddam Hussein? I think the answer to that, based on all we know now, remains unquestionably yes. That was the right thing to do.
BLITZER: Even though he didn't have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction?
BOLTON: He himself and his regime were the threat to international peace and security. The president never made the argument that he constituted an imminent threat. It was the existence of the regime that was the threat. And that is why it was right to overthrow it.
BLITZER: But the president, with all due respect, and the secretary of state, when he went to the U.N. Security Council, they gave the impression there was an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.
BOLTON: No, sir.
BLITZER: That he was about to use those stockpiles in an awful way.
BOLTON: No, sir. In the 2003 State of the Union message, the president took on the imminent threat argument and rejected it. He said, some have argued that the threat must be imminent, but since when have terrorists or dictators ever given advance notice of their intentions?
It was the regime that constituted the threat as large majorities of both houses of Congress had recognized in the late 1990s.
BLITZER: So even though the intelligence was wrong, and there were no stockpiles, you still think the U.S. should have gone to war against Saddam Hussein, even though many other analysts then and obviously since then, felt he was contained in a box with the no-fly zones, the sanctions, and he really wasn't causing much harm to people outside of his own country?
BOLTON: I think the decision to overthrow him was unquestionably correct. I don't think somebody like him or Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong- Il are really susceptible to classic theories of deterrence.
I think there is a second question analytically that it's fair to ask, and that is, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, was the conduct of policy correct? And I think on that question, reasonable people can disagree.
In hindsight I'd have turned responsibility back to the Iraqis a lot earlier than we did. The question now going forward is, what is the best strategy? I think the president's surge is really the only strategy there is.