How War Becomes Necessary

Posted May 4, 2009 at 4:16pm

It is remarkable to see how many Democratic lawmakers and even a few Republicans on Capitol Hill boast about finally having an administration with clear strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For nearly seven years, they say, Iraq was a disastrous venture that cost the U.S. an estimated $1 trillion (and counting), international prestige and, tragically, the lives of too many men and women.

Looking back at the administration of George W. Bush, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) noted recently: “Iraq was treated like a pickup ballgame— in its lack of planning. It is not surprising that Skelton’s list of priorities for the new administration led with the need to “develop a clear strategy to guide national security policy.—

But years before the war, and long before the Bush White House adopted U.S. Central Command chief David Petraeus’ “surge— strategy, credited with stabilizing Iraq, several military officials and think-tank scholars had proposed to the Bush team other effective approaches for Iraq. They were not used.

In “War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars,— Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass reveals he had the proper approach for Iraq and handed it over to the Bush administration before the invasion.

Haass starts out by explaining that wars of necessity are just that — essential to the democratic welfare of a country — while wars of choice carry with them the burden on the aggressor to demonstrate the “overall or net results of employing force will be positive … the benefits outweigh the costs.—

Haass wants readers to believe that his account about what really happened behind the scenes before the invasion is not his way of saying, “I told you so.— But that’s exactly what this book is. Such a plea seems comical, since after the first few chapters — in which Haass takes too long to establish his credentials as a formidable foreign policy thinker — he points out in machine-gun-like repetition the many instances where the Bush team failed to listen to outsiders with alternative views on Iraq.

For instance, Haass offers a September 2002 memo to his then-boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, which suggests he had the right strategy for Iraq. “We need to be prepared to win the ensuing peace,— he wrote, adding: “We should begin now to identify the international structures that will assist not only the security arrangements in a post-Saddam Iraq, but also our efforts at humanitarian aid.—

And he went on in the memo to lay out the foundation for a reconstruction that would rely on a local work force, a political process based on mutual diplomacy and a “smart power— assault that would use a large force.

The memo is haunting, because the administration opted for a strategy that was almost precisely the opposite. It leaves readers wondering what would have happened if Bush had adopted Haass’ thinking.

Haass does not shy away from attacking Bush. He argues Bush was wrong when “Meet the Press— asked him about Haass’ November 2003 Washington Post opinion piece where he articulates his ideas about wars of choice and of necessity.

Tim Russert: “Do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?—

Bush: “War of necessity … we had no choice.—

When he dissects Bush’s approach toward Saddam Hussein — the antithesis of what Bush senior did — Haass reveals the erroneous one-track view that Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (and her staff), and the leadership at the Pentagon possessed when they carried out the Iraq War.

“We now know that Saddam and Iraq had no involvement in 9/11 and little involvement with terrorism,— Haass writes. “The few contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida appear to have been inconsequential. But it is worth noting that the first instinct of the president was to push the bureaucracy to find a connection between Saddam and the attacks.—

And he goes on to lay out more: No weapons of mass destruction were found, Saddam was overseeing a weak military, and Bush based some of his policy on his religious fervor.

Haass also recounts his clashes with many Bush administration officials, notably Philip Zelikow, who would go on to direct the 9/11 commission. The book recounts the push that led to the 11th-hour change of course in 2007 to try to avoid a humiliating defeat in Iraq.

Haass’ commentary about Iraq ultimately is very similar to that of the late author Kurt Vonnegut, who marveled at the Bush team’s audacity to think the U.S. could establish a democracy in Iraq within months, since it has taken mature democracies centuries to perfect theirs. While Vonnegut focused on audacity, Haass relies on a different word to classify the Bush administration’s blunder: assumption.

“Many involved in decision making also assumed that coalition forces would be well received by the population and that Iraq would quickly evolve into a model society that would stimulate democratic reform throughout the region,— he writes. “It is difficult to exaggerate just how inaccurate these assumptions turned out to be. It is essential that a culture and procedures be created within the government in which even basic and widely shared assumptions are challenged and tested and alternative explanations are put forward and subjected to scrutiny.—

It now remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will be audacious or presumptuous in the Middle East.