An insider's critique of two Iraq wars

By Jim Chiavelli
Globe Correspondent / May 21, 2009
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There are, broadly, two schools of thought in US foreign policy, writes Richard Haass: those who believe in "influencing the external behavior of states and relations among them," and those who believe the United States should "influence the nature of states and conditions within them."

George H.W. Bush, firmly in the former school, built a coalition and worked through the United Nations to address Iraq's invasion of another state. George W. Bush largely bypassed the world community to invade Iraq and change its regime. Thus father and son embody the fundamental foreign policy schism, argues Haass, who served in the administrations of both presidents and watched the run-up and execution of two Iraq wars. In "War of Necessity, War of Choice" Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, shares details that illuminate the policy choices, and it's abundantly clear that his sympathies lie with the father.

The elder Bush came to office after decades of US policy in the Mideast had unraveled with the Iranian revolution; America then bolstered Iraq to counter Iran. Haass served on the National Security Council staff in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a move he and his colleagues failed to foresee because they thought it so counter to Iraq's self-interest. The president immediately understood that allowing a state to overrun its neighbor threatened the world order, and so began planning a "war of necessity."

Haass, who had earlier worked under Presidents Carter and Reagan, says there was less infighting in the first Bush administration than its predecessors because of the tone set by the president. That tone extended internationally, as Bush sought broad cooperation, a sanctions regime, and a dozen United Nations resolutions before driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

George H.W. Bush did not invade Iraq, Haass says, because "we would have become an occupying force in a hostile land with no exit strategy." Beyond that, Bush "felt he had made a deal with the rest of the world," and didn't want to "diminish trust in American commitments."

George W. Bush came into office with no Iraq agenda, Haass says, but after 9/11 he targeted Saddam because he "believed [it] would enhance his presidency and change the course of history in the critical region of the Middle East." His administration set about making the case for war, including the assertion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

Haass himself was only "60/40 against going to war" by 2003; then in the State Department, he accepted the now-discredited weapons intelligence, but wanted to give sanctions more time and teeth. Had he known there were no WMD, he writes, he would have been 90/10 against, and he believes the war would probably not have been launched.

The younger Bush, Haass says, was "much smarter," than his critics believed, but "quick to reach conclusions . . . and often viewed changing course as a sign of weakness."

The consequences of that "war of choice," Haass says, will be long lasting. The biggest, he argues, is "the squandering by the United States of a rare and in many ways unprecedented opportunity to shape the world." Instead, US abilities are now "much diminished" by the loss of economic power and international prestige.

That cost is the legacy of the Iraq War. "Wars of choice are . . . largely to be avoided," he writes, because "even a great power needs to husband its resources" against the next, inevitable, war of necessity.

Jim Chiavelli was with the NATO-led force in Afghanistan in 2005-06 and visited the country again in 2007. He works at Northeastern University.

WAR OF NECESSITY, WAR OF CHOICE: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars Richard N. Haass

Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $27

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