War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars, Richard N. Haas.

Simon & Schuster ISBN 978-1416549024

Richard Haass has played a unique role in US policy making towards Iraq during the past two decades. Along with Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, he was in the corridors of power in Washington during both wars against Saddam Hussein.

In 1991, as the special White House assistant for Middle East affairs, he helped encourage the Bush Sr administration to wage what he says was a  “conservative”, “reactive” and “limited” war that was a well-managed response  to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

In 2003, as director of policy planning in Powell’s State Department, he set out policy alternatives to discourage the Bush Jr administration from waging a “radical”, “pre-emptive” and “open-ended” war that he says was a badly executed exercise in “transforming not just a country, but a region”.

For those who believe that foreign policy must deal with the world as it is, War of Necessity, War of Choice is hard-nosed textbook realism. In contrast, those on both the Left and Right, who embrace a more moralistic world view, will be mugged by reality.

As this latest book by Haass shows, realists oppose squandering blood or treasure on unnecessary military campaigns or ideological crusades; they possess a sound historical perspective and do not get carried away with the parochialism of the present (think of the understandable sense of emotionalism and outrage that clouded US attitudes in the aftermath of September 11); they are sceptical of grandiose plans for nation building and exporting democracy; and they believe that military force should be used only when vital national interests are at stake. Not for them any grand, noble causes.

The first Bush—like his senior foreign policy advisers Powell, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger—was a realist. And his war, according to Haass, was a war of necessity that involved vital national interests, a lack of promising alternatives to the use of force, and a certain and considerable price to be paid if the status quo prevailed.

Bush Sr was focused on the clearly limited strategic objective of evicting Iraq from Kuwait. He mobilised a UN-backed and genuinely global burden-sharing alliance. (Even Syria took part.) But he did not invade Iraq, Haass says, because “we would have become an occupying force in a hostile land with no exit strategy”.

The second Bush, however, was nothing like his father. He was infused with moralism and showed little interest in multilateralism. In the post-9/11 era, he insisted, the doctrine of preventive war should replace the containment regime that his father helped build and Bill Clinton continued.

Along with Cheney and Wolfowitz, Bush Jr downplayed or ignored the dangers of the unintended consequences of an invasion: regional instability, empowering Iran vis-a-vis a weakened Iraq, and the sheer costs in blood and treasure. The war he waged, moreover, was a war of choice that lacked a clear endgame.

As Powell’s right-hand man, an uneasy Haass supported alternatives to an invasion. In a revealing episode in July 2002—nine months before the invasion—Haass tried to warn Condoleezza Rice, then serving as national security adviser, about the perils of a preventive war. Rice cut him off. “You can save your breath, Richard,” he quotes her as telling him. “The president has already made up his mind on Iraq.”

Much of Haass’s analysis is first-rate and he combines intellectual rigour with insider detail. He is surely right, for instance, to argue that if Bush Sr had marched onto Baghdad and toppled Saddam in 1991, the US would have suffered the same fate that has bedevilled it since regime change in 2003. It is for good reason that The Economist says Haass is “just the sort of man who should be running America’s foreign policy”.

There is just one problem with Haass’s narrative: his failure to recognise how the twin pillars of Cold War strategy—containment and deterrence—can still work against nuclear-armed rogue states. Haass says his opposition to the second Iraq war was not fundamental, because he’d accepted the now discredited intelligence that Iraq possessed at least some weapons of mass destruction (WMD). He was 60:40 against the decision to go to war. Had he known there were no WMD, he argues, he would have been 90:10 against. 

But this logic is not convincing. Even if Saddam possessed chemical or biological weapons, why couldn’t he still be contained and deterred as he had been for 12 years? If nuclear-armed Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung could be held in check at the height of the Cold War, why couldn’t the Iraqi tyrant be kept in a box? Haass does not explain.

True, containment and deterrence can’t work against terrorists, who can run and hide. But rogue states are different: they have a return address. And Saddam, who lusted for power, not martyrdom, knew that if he used WMD or passed them on to terrorists, whom he could not control, he would have guaranteed retaliation—perhaps annihilation—from Washington.

Still, War of Necessity, War of Choice is a direct and bracing argument, more useful than anything other former advisers to either Bush have said about foreign policy in recent years. As President Obama contemplates how to deal with Iran and North Korea, not to mention Afghanistan, Haass’s book should be required reading in the White House.