Going over the transcript of Tim Russert's interview with President Bush, a disturbing question comes to mind: Is the president telling lies and playing with semantics, or is he unaware of what's going on—including inside his own administration?
Two sections of the interview particularly stand out in this regard: a) Bush's defense of the war in Iraq, despite his concession that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction; and b) his views on the war in Vietnam.
Russert asked Bush what he made of the recent comments by David Kay, who recently resigned as the CIA's chief weapons inspector, that Iraq did not have biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons after all. Bush replied:
David Kay did report to the American people that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to make weapons. … There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America … because he had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon … and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network. … He could have developed a nuclear weapon over time. I'm not saying immediately, but over time, which would then have put us in what position? We would have been in a position of blackmail.
There are many remarkable things about this statement, but let us note just two.
First, President Bush seems to be vastly enlarging his doctrine of pre-emptive warfare. This doctrine originally declared that the United States has the right to attack a hostile power that possesses weapons of mass destruction. The idea was that we must sometimes strike first, in order to prevent the other side from striking us.
Now, however, the president is asserting a right to strike first not merely if a hostile power has deadly weapons or even if it is building such weapons, but also if it might build such weapons sometime in the future.
The original doctrine, though controversial, at least stemmed from the logic of self-defense. Bush's expansion of the doctrine, as implied in his remarks to Tim Russert, does not.
If no commentators have noted, or perhaps even noticed, this new spin on American military policy, it may be because they don't take Bush's unscripted remarks seriously. (It's just Bush, talking off the top of his head. No sense parsing the implications.) That in itself is quite a commentary on this president. But it's not clear that these particular remarks were unscripted. Bush used the same phrase—"a capacity to make a weapon"—three times; it was almost certainly a part of his brief. Either the statement means something—that we now reserve the right to wage pre-emptive war on a hostile power that has the mere capacity to make weapons of mass destruction—or it's empty blather. It's unclear which would be more unsettling.
Second, unless the president is defining the "capacity to make a weapon" in an extremely loose sense, David Kay said nothing of the sort. When Kay said he'd concluded that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction in the months leading up to the war, he elaborated with this comment: "We don't find the people, the documents, or the physical plants that you would expect to find if the production was going on."