Jeffrey LewisRumsfeld on the imminent threat from Iraq has a new ad out that works Rumsfeld over his claim that neither he nor the President described Iraq as an imminent threat. Tom Friedman confronts Rumsfeld with two quotes from the SECDEF using “imminent” and “immediate,” leaving SECDEF stammering.

It seems odd to me that Rumsfeld is now trying to pretend he never said Iraq was an imminent threat: On literally dozens of occasions – Go to google and type Rumsfeld imminent – Rumsfeld argued that we ought to change the way we define imminent or immediate threat:

“How do we, how do you, how do all of us, how do the people in the world decide the imminence of something? And I would submit that the hurdle, the bar that one must go over, changes depending on the potential lethality of the act.”

He clearly said that Iraq met that hurdle, often warning Saddam Hussein might transfer WMD to Al-Qaeda:

“When did the attack on September 11th become an imminent threat? When was it sufficiently dangerous to our country that had we known about it that we could have stepped up and stopped it and saved 3,000 lives?

“Now, transport yourself forward a year, two years, or a week, or a month, and if Saddam Hussein were to take his weapons of mass destruction and transfer them, either use them himself, or transfer them to the al Qaeda, and somehow the al Qaeda were to engage in an attack on the United States, or an attack on U.S. forces overseas, with a weapon of mass destruction you/’re not talking about 300, or 3,000 people potentially being killed, but 30,000, or 100,000 of human beings.

“So the question is, when is it such an immediate threat that you must do something, is a tough question. But if you think about it, it/’s the nexus, the connection, the relationship between terrorist states and weapons of mass destruction with terrorist networks that has changed our lives, and changed the security environment in the world.”

The idea that we should change the definition of imminent is not Rumsfeld/’s invention. It was central to the doctrine of pre-emption in the National Security Strategy:

“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. Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of an imminent threat – most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.

“We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today/’s adversaries. Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means. They know such attacks would fail. Instead, they rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction – weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning.”

As much as I enjoy watching Rumsfeld squirm, I/’d like to see him get a grilling about changing the definition of imminence (a decision he still defends). Iraq is an object lesson for two of the best objections to the strategy: Bruce Blair argued that pre-emption places an impossible burden on intelligence (reprising an argument from Bayes/’ Theorem that he made with John Steinbruner about the impossible burden that launch on warning placed on command and control performance); while Steinbruner warned the re-definition “sets an inherently discriminatory and implicitly imperial standard, however, that has no chance of ever being broadly accepted, and in forfeiting legitimacy it promises to incite an interminable process of clandestine retribution.”

There is a reason that there used to be a distinction between pre-emption and prevention.