The two wars the United States has waged in Iraq have defined the post-Cold War era, argues Richard Haass in War of Necessity, War of Choice. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, served as principal adviser to Colin Powell from 2001 to 2003 and as special assistant to George H. W. Bush from 1989 to 1993. Haass spoke with U.S. News about the significance and validity of both Iraq wars. Excerpts:
Why did you write this book?
I wrote this book in part because the two Iraq wars turned out to be two of the defining moments of this era of history. And I was fortunate enough to be involved and up close. But also because I wanted to shed some light on why it was that U.S. policy turned out so differently in the two cases. And lastly, because like all good case studies, the two Iraq wars hold out lessons for much larger things, in this case the purposes of American foreign policy. Basic questions of when you go to war and so forth.
What's the difference between a war of necessity and a war of choice?
A war of necessity is simply a war that is fought for vital interests when it is judged correctly that there are no viable policy alternatives other than the use of force. A war of choice is when the interests are less than vital and there are alternatives.
Do all wars fit neatly into these categories?
Most wars fit neatly into one or the other, though at times you can have very interesting conversations about whether in fact the interests were vital, whether in fact there were alternatives. Just to give you an example, wars like Vietnam and the second Iraq war I believe neatly fit into wars of choice—as do the Balkan wars, Kosovo and Bosnia. World War II was a clear necessity. The first Iraq war I would suggest was a clear war of necessity. But I'm not going to deny [there's] an element of subjectivity.
You say that you were 60/40 against going to war in Iraq the second time. Can you explain what that means?
I was opposed to the war, but my opposition was muted. I thought that the Iraqis did possess chemical and biological weapons. I believed the Iraqis were not in full compliance with various U.N. resolutions. So I understood the argument for war. I just thought that there were viable alternatives and that the costs of going to war would be far greater than the advocates predicted. On balance, I came out against the war as simply ill-advised.
Is there anything you wish you had done that you did not do during that period?
I've asked that question of myself a lot. The honest answer is I probably could have found opportunities to have added some decibels to my opposition. But on the other hand, I'd say two things. This administration was not inclined to give me a day in court to make this case. As you recall, this decision to go to war was made without a formal National Security Council meeting. And secondly, even if the president and those around him had said, 'OK, Haass, we're going to give you an hour to press your case,' I don't believe for a second it would have made a difference.
What do you think would surprise George H. W. Bush about this book?
I would think he would find it an accurate and fair depiction of his administration. I'd be surprised if he were surprised.
What would surprise George W. Bush?
Several years ago, I believe it was 2004, when he was on Meet the Press—months after I'd written the column on the idea of wars of choice and wars of necessity in the Washington Post—Tim Russert asked him flat out how did he see Iraq. He seemed perplexed by the idea that it might be anything else but a war of necessity. I think he would simply take issue with it. From the get-go, he had persuaded himself or been persuaded that this was something the United States had to do. And I believe that was simply wrong. We had options. So not only was this a war of choice, but what he'll probably also disagree with is that it was a bad choice. I don't know if he'd ever say that it was simply badly implemented. It's hard to argue with that. Even the advocates of the war mostly agree that it was poorly implemented. But I don't think he will come around to the idea that it was either a war of choice or a bad choice at that.
Do you think his unpopularity is deserved?
History is going to be very critical of him. I believe that history is going to judge that the 43rd president entered office with a rare opportunity. The United States was economically strong, we were growing at 3 percent or so a year, our budget was in surplus, our military was at rest, and even after 9/11, the United States enjoyed a position in the world that was quite unprecedented if one looks at the sweep of history. When one looks at what the United States did with that position of economic strength and international primacy, I believe historians are going to be extraordinarily critical. They're going to say we squandered a moment where the United States could have put into place international machinery that could have helped bring about a world that was protective of our interests for decades to come. I also think history will be quite generous toward the 41st president, seeing him as an effective steward of America's position in the world at a time of transition from the Cold War to the post-Cold War era.
Should Obama read your book?
I would hope he would because, like all good case studies, I'd like to think there are lessons for the present and future about decision making. He is facing and will face some of the same decisions about wars of necessity and choice. I would suggest he's already embarked on a war of choice in Afghanistan. I believe he will have to decide whether to keep U.S. forces in Iraq for longer than he signed up for. And he may well have to decide whether to use force against North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran.
Will he decide to use force against any of those three countries?
Well, he's already decided it in a limited way in Pakistan with the drone attacks. I can imagine if political instability in Pakistan were profound, the United States would find itself using force either to go after terrorists or to protect or secure nuclear materials.