A Tale of Two Wars: An Interview with Richard Haass

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Editor's Note: Richard Haass is a veteran of two Bush presidencies, and the author of multiple books on foreign policy. In 2003, he became president of the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations, a position he still holds today. In his latest book, “War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars,” Haass retells of his experiences with both administrations, and how they differed in dealing with Iraq. RealClearWorld met with Mr. Haass to discuss his new book, the future of Iraq, Afghanistan, and America's reputation abroad.

RCW: Wars of necessity and wars of choice. What is the difference?

HAASS: Wars of necessity are wars that involve vital interests, where there simply aren’t available, viable policy alternatives. Wars of choice tend to be wars where the interests are less than vital, where there are viable policy alternatives, or both. Wars of necessity are straightforward in the sense of decision making, whereas wars of choice are anything but straightforward - they pose some of the most fateful decisions for any president.

RCW: You make this distinction in your latest book, wherein you compare and critique both Persian Gulf wars. What were a few of the key differences between the two?

HAASS: It’s hard to exaggerate the differences. The first Gulf War was reactive, for the most part. It was extraordinarily multilateral; it was done with numerous UN resolutions; it had a specific and limited purpose, that being, to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The second war was much more discretionary in the way it was launched, and it wasn’t in reaction to anything new. The threat posed by Iraq and Saddam Hussein had in no way increased. It was largely unilateral, with meaningful help from the British and virtually no one else. It was done with only one UN resolution, and the goals were anything but specific and limited. In a sense the idea was to transform Iraqi society, and the whole concept of that in and of itself was quite general; it was never clearly stated how the U.S. would bring democracy to Iraq.

The other difference was in the actual decision making. The process in the first war was far more rigorous, disciplined and formal. The first war was consistent with the so-called Powell Doctrine, utilizing massive amounts of forces. The second war was fought with as few forces as possible, and clearly an inadequate number.

RCW: You’ve also applied the concept of specific and limited engagement to the conflict in Afghanistan. President Obama recently met with both the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Using necessity and choice as the litmus, how do you view that conflict today?

HAASS: After 9/11, it’s fair to say that Afghanistan constituted a war of necessity. What Al-Qaeda had done – operating out of the country with the complicity of the Taliban – posed a direct threat to the United States. Three-thousand people lost their lives, and the response was an act of self defense. If that wasn’t a war of necessity, I don’t know what is.

I became frustrated, however, because after the Taliban was ousted the United States narrowed its objectives in Afghanistan to simply going after Al-Qaeda. There were no Afghan objectives in Afghanistan. The mission instead became focused on making sure that Afghan territory was not being used for terrorist activity. The United States did not join the International Security Assistance Force, and limited the range of that force to Kabul. It was my view at the time that my colleagues held a pessimistic view of what could be done in Afghanistan, and they were reluctant to commit to it. I was essentially alone in arguing for a more ambitious policy in Afghanistan.

What the administration then went on to do was sort of odd. It articulated extraordinarily ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and the word ‘democracy’ was frequently raised. Yet they didn’t provide the proper resources. There was a tremendous gap between the rhetoric and the resourcing.

The Obama administration has inherited a dramatically deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. What you’re seeing from him is an interesting reaction: a reduction in objectives. You no longer hear the word ‘democracy.’ What you hear is about building up the Afghan government so that it has a greater ability to look after itself and sustain conditions of security within its territory. You also hear more about increasing resources; 17,000 more combat troops, 4,000 more trainers, and so forth.

But I would call it something of a war of choice. The administration is not simply going after Al-Qaeda. It is, as the President put it in his speech several weeks back, going to ‘take the fight’ to the Taliban. Now, wars of choice can be good, and wars of choice can be bad. It’s simply my analysis that this policy shift away from fighting Al-Qaeda has been made clear, and it is one of the two fateful foreign policy decisions made by Mr. Obama thus far; the other being the timeline for withdrawing from Iraq.

RCW: In your book, you refer to how the first Bush administration pursued a “Goldilocks outcome” in Iraq. In other words, they wanted a weaker and more pliant Iraq, but not one so weak that it wouldn’t be able to balance and deter Iran. Why did the second Bush administration seemingly ignore this concern?

HAASS: Iran’s strategic gain is in some ways one of, if not the principle strategic result of America’s Iraq policy. Iran is dominating in Lebanon through Hezbollah, they are dominating in Gaza through Hamas, and they are now closer to realizing their nuclear ambitions.

I think this reflects the absence of knowledge of local realities. The United States tends to get into trouble when it has grand or broad designs, and then tries to impose them on local realities. Assuming that Iraq would stay united, be pro-western, be this democratic bastion and counter Iran was all wrong, or mostly wrong. Even now Iraq is in no position to counter Iran or anyone else. On the contrary, Iran is now – along with the United States – the most powerful external influence inside Iraq.

RCW: How badly has American influence in the Middle East been damaged?

HAASS: The U.S. strategic position has worsened: Iran is much stronger, Iraq is weak and divided, Afghanistan is going in the wrong direction, and moderate Palestinians have lost ground to radical Palestinians. What we used to call the peace process is on its heels. Sunni Arab regimes are fearful of Iran, and to some extent, the Shia populations within their own countries.

The next era of Middle Eastern history – which we are already in – will be worse for the United States. The era after the Cold War – where for fifteen or so years the U.S. had no great power competitor, amassed the coalition that won the first Iraq war, and helped promote a peace process that nearly reached closure – is now over. We’re now in an era where Iran, various militias and terrorists now have a much larger share of power. We’re still the most important external actor in the region, but our position has clearly suffered.

RCW: Do you support President Obama’s Iran policy?

HAASS: Rapprochement with Iran is a far more difficult task than it was ten years ago, because Iran is now much further along in its nuclear program. The one thing going in our favor is the declining price of oil, which has put the Iranian economy under some stress.

What the Obama administration has done correctly is reintroduce diplomacy into U.S. foreign policy. I wrote countless memos – which went nowhere – for the previous administration arguing that we should try to negotiate with Iran. The Bush administration wouldn’t touch it, believing that the regime in Tehran was shaky and would soon fall. I warned that this was not a strategy, but rather a wish. As was often the case, I did not prevail.

This administration accepts the fact that the Iranian revolution, for at least the foreseeable future, is a reality. They are willing to negotiate with Tehran in an effort to cap their nuclear capabilities. Doing this will require getting the Russians and Chinese to join us in threatening Iran with serious sanctions, or worse, unless the Iranians are willing to compromise. For our part, we would have to put together an attractive package outlining what the Iranians will be allowed to do. I’d be prepared to allow the enrichment of some uranium, so long as it is limited and transparent.

Can Obama negotiate that? I don’t know, but it’s worth trying. The only two alternatives would be a very messy war of choice against Iran, or simply living with a nuclear Iran. Both alternatives are unattractive, which reinforces the current administration’s position on the matter.

We should be ready to make an attractive offer to Iran, and make it public. That would help us garner support for our position, and it would also help us place pressure on the Iranian regime from within. Offer the Iranians two paths: one is a much higher standard of living with full integration into the world, or, remain an isolated pariah. If we make that kind of choice public we may be in a better position to negotiate.

RCW: Your relationship with certain members of the previous administration seemed to evolve, or change, over time. This seems especially true with Condoleezza Rice. What caused her evolution of thought on the Iraq issue?

HAASS: Condi is going to tell her story, as she should. As will Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and George W. Bush. All administrations fight for their interpretation of history. This one will probably do so more than most, especially since the history looks so negative for it at the moment. I think the prevailing view is that the Bush administration left things worse than they inherited.

Rice didn’t have much of a role in Iraq during the previous Bush administration. Her account at that time was the Soviet Union, and her goal was to get Gorbachev on board with the war and he was. In the second Bush administration, I thought that on most occasions she sided with Cheney, Rumsfeld and the President, and I told Colin Powell early on that every time we walked into the room it was already 2.5 against 1. The civilians at the Pentagon, the Vice President’s office and the National Security Council (NSC) under Condi Rice were all leaning towards war, and I felt that the State Department was behind from the get-go.

I was, despite my friendship with Condoleezza Rice, quite critical of the NSC. I felt they didn’t perform the intellectual balancing act that the NSC must, and as a result, George W. Bush got the NSC he wanted and not the one he needed. Presidents need NSC’s that make them uncomfortable. They’ve got to ask the awkward questions and challenge the conventional wisdom. This NSC didn’t do it, and thus President Bush was not well served.

RCW: Why didn’t you resign?

HAASS: I was only 60/40 against the war. I believed Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons. Never once, in all my years in government, did some analyst take me aside and say otherwise.

I thought the war was a mistake, but you can’t fall on your sword every time you oppose a certain decision. Had I known then that there were no WMD’s I probably would have resigned. I eventually did leave because – aside from the lure of my current job with the Council on Foreign Relations – Iraq wasn’t an isolated incident.

I argued for a new Iran policy and lost. I argued for a diplomatic approach to North Korea and lost. I argued for a serious approach to the Palestinian issue and lost. I wanted to deal with Syria, and I lost on that. I also didn’t understand the allergy to international institutions. At some point, you run out of fingers to add up your disagreements.

I wasn’t having meaningful influence, and due to the NSC system, rarely got to make the argument for alternative policies. So when another opportunity to leave presented itself, I took it.

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