A Tale of Two Wars

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War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars

By Richard N. Haass

Simon & Schuster, May 2009 (352 pp)

Read a Q&A with author Richard Haass about his new book.


Richard Haass faced a dilemma.

Having served faithfully in the administration of George H.W. Bush, the former NSC go-to guy on Near East and South Asian affairs was once again ready to leave the ambiguous world of academia and get back to the business of government. When he got the call in early 2001 from Secretary of State Colin Powell, Haass agreed, albeit reluctantly, to become director of Policy Planning at the State Department.

Haass quickly found himself becoming frustrated. With an Iraq invasion imminent, the head of policy planning for the State Department believed that the administration of President George W. Bush had become myopic in its foreign policy. “The president had locked into 9/11 as a foreign policy template,” and such an outlook was “too black-and-white for a world that often required a foreign policy that was gray and nuanced.”

In his latest book, “War of Necessity, War of Choice,” Richard Haass takes us through the backroom discussions and debates behind two critical wars in American history. Using both Iraq wars as his examples, Haass makes the case for an American intervention policy based on clearly defined goals, multilateralism and national interests. Wars of necessity, when not fought for immediate self-defense and vital interests, should otherwise be reserved as last resort in the face of international belligerence and defiance of international law.

Wars of choice – those conflicts lacking a clear endgame, while often exhausting political capital at home – can push the protagonist into a rigid and inflexible corner. It was this corner that Richard Haass feared the United States would find itself in if the 2003 Iraq invasion were to proceed. Worse yet, it would leave the country’s leadership with fewer options on other critical issues, such as North Korea, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. With the White House and the civilian leadership at the Pentagon seemingly calling all of the shots, Haass came to believe the second Bush administration was indifferent to internal dissent and disinterested in scenarios that conflicted with its Iraq war strategy.

It wasn’t always this way. For Haass, the differences between the first and second Gulf wars were night and day. Unlike the sometimes unilateral policies of his son, George H.W. Bush organized a burden-sharing alliance – codified by the United Nations several times over – of the world’s powers to hold Saddam Hussein to account. Realizing the negative perception such an invasion could convey, Bush 41 and his team labored to bring regional actors on board to eject Hussein from Kuwait. This included the Arab League, Ba'athist Syria, and even the Soviet Union. Unlike the 2003 invasion, the 1991 Persian Gulf War hinged greatly on pulling public opinion to the war cause. Forced to justify American involvement in a faraway border dispute, the elder Bush relied on the UN sanctions process to demonstrate to the world that Hussein had exhausted all peaceful opportunities to withdraw from Kuwait. “We needed,” Haass explains, “to demonstrate to domestic and international audiences that we had tried lesser remedies.”

George W. Bush, by Haass’ account, showed little interest in multilateralism and deliberation. Whereas the elder Bush coddled and cajoled international and domestic policymakers into action – only to win narrow approval for the war from Congress – George W. Bush benefited from a post-9/11 security atmosphere. Standing on the sanctions and containment regime his father helped build, the 43rd president, according to Haass, proceeded to abandon the international community. The pervasive sense throughout the State Department was that war would soon be upon them.

All of the considerations from a decade prior – the risks of regional instability, the danger of empowering Iran vis-à-vis a weakened Iraq, and the sheer costs likely to be incurred in an Iraq nation-building project – all left a bad taste in his mouth. He typed up a policy memo offering some alternatives to an Iraq invasion: A more rigorous inspections regime, tighter sanctions, and a public diplomacy campaign to oust Hussein, among other suggestions. Secretary Powell took the letter and placed it in his pocket for safekeeping. “I wanted Bush to know,” Haass explains, that “he retained a way out.” Attempting the policy equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, Haass armed Powell with the tools and talking points needed to dissuade the President.

But it was too late. For reasons Richard Haass still struggles to understand to this day, the Bush administration was decided on invasion, and no memo would change that fact. It’s this dilemma that ties “War of Necessity, War of Choice” together. Haass felt there had been a breakdown in policymaking. According to him, the younger Bush “paid a price for the informality of national security decision making.” Certain officials – such as Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld – were on a higher pedestal than the policy dissenters within the administration. In describing the timeline to war, Haass portrays a sort of echo chamber for White House wisdom; a political clique of the Beltway.

This then begs the question: why didn’t Haass resign? The veteran analyst devotes pages to this decision, arguing that “no organization could function if people left every time they lost out on a 60/40 decision.” That being said, one might wonder why someone so professionally stifled would stick around as long as Haass did. If the State Department’s role – especially his own efforts – had been so marginalized, why not resign in protest? If his desire was to serve an underserved President, why not publicly demonstrate the administration’s internal deficiencies?

Much like the bulk of his peers in Washington, Haass believed that Saddam Hussein possessed the WMDs used to justify war. Indeed, it was the first Persian Gulf War that first revealed the advanced stage of Hussein’s weapons program, as well as his cynical propensity to use them on the innocent. Haass concedes that few of the analysts and experts he knew could dispute President Bush’s weapons claim. If so, who could then blame the President for embarking on an arguably necessary war of choice? If popular and expert opinion assumed Iraq was an imminent threat, does that not constitute a war of necessity? On this point, the lines between necessity and choice become slightly blurred.

Haass agrees that policy can’t be applied in retrospect, and this is one of the broader points articulated in “War of Necessity, War of Choice.” For government to make good choices, he concludes, there must be a culture of accountability and debate. Far from being a polemic against war, the book instead serves as a critique of a government process gone awry. Assumptions, rather than being force-fed, must be tested, challenged and dissected, so that leaders can make the best possible choices in war – be they wars of necessity, or choice.

And on this we can likely all agree.

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