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updated 5/16/2009 3:33:44 AM ET 2009-05-16T07:33:44

For two weeks, the U.S. intelligence community had monitored the gradual buildup of Iraq’s armed forces along its southern border with Kuwait. The prevailing view within the administration of George H.W. Bush was that Iraqi military activity constituted a crude attempt to bludgeon Kuwait—oil rich, loaded with cash, and widely resented for the arrogance often displayed by its leaders—into lowering its oil output and dropping its objection to a higher price for the precious commodity. It was a view that I shared, much to the consternation of Charlie Allen, the crusty, veteran national intelligence officer for warning, who was convinced before anyone else that the Iraqis were not bluffing.

By August 1, 1990, however, it had become clear to all of us working on the issue that what we were seeing unfold was a good deal more than simply another act in the long-running theater of Arab diplomacy. Iraq had amassed too many troops and was doing too many of the things it would have to do if it were actually going to attack Kuwait rather than just threaten it. The Central Intelligence Agency issued an alert that predicted an attack was imminent. A special meeting of the “deputies” (the subcabinet group of senior officials representing the principal departments and agencies most involved in foreign and defense policy) was convened in one of the seventh-floor conference rooms at the State Department to discuss what was known and what the United States might do about it. It being August, many of the most senior people were away, escaping Washington’s notorious heat and humidity. Secretary of State James Baker was off meeting in Siberia with his Soviet counterpart and was scheduled to go to Mongolia; Larry Eagleburger, his deputy, was taking the day off. Bob Kimmitt, normally the number three person at State but that day the acting secretary, chaired the session, as Bob Gates, the deputy national security advisor and the normal chair of the deputies, was on vacation. Besides others from various bureaus at State, there were representatives of several of the intelligence agencies and from both the civilian and military sides of the Defense Department. As the senior director for the Near East and South Asia on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) and special assistant to the president, I was the principal person in attendance from the White House.

The meeting dragged on for most of the day as intelligence reports, ever more alarming, dribbled in. Saddam Hussein was up to something, although what that “something” was no one in the room knew. By late afternoon, a consensus had formed that we ought to make one last effort at dissuading the Iraqis from doing anything military. Given that Iraq was essentially a one-man show and that our ambassador was out of the country, this meant getting President Bush to contact Saddam. I was called upon to persuade the president to do so.

Normally I walked the half mile or so between the State Department and the White House, as time for exercise was hard to find given the long hours inevitably required by jobs such as mine. But with Iraq poised to attack Kuwait, the day was hardly one for a leisurely stroll. I got into the first cab I could find and rushed over to the West Wing office of my boss, Brent Scowcroft, formally the assistant to the president for national security affairs, commonly known as the national security advisor. I quickly laid it all out for him. He agreed that while it as a long shot—it was the middle of the night in Baghdad and it would be next to impossible to reach Saddam, much less affect his thinking—it made sense at least to present the option to the president.

By then, it was early evening in Washington. Brent picked up the phone, got the president on the line, and asked if the two of us could come to see him. Bush instantly agreed. We walked over to the sick bay on the ground floor of the residence, where the president was lying facedown on a doctor’s examination table, having heat applied by the White House nurse to several joints sore from hitting a bucket of golf balls. I summarized the situation as best we knew it. An Iraqi attack of unknown scope and purpose seemed imminent, and the interagency group concluded we had nothing to lose by trying to reach Saddam and get him to call it off. The president shared our wonder that Saddam would actually do such a brazen thing as well as our skepticism that we could accomplish anything at this hour. But he agreed to try. The three of us then began to discuss just how to reach Saddam—whether it was best to go through our embassy in Baghdad (headed up at the time by Deputy Chief of Mission Joe Wilson, who years later would find himself a political target of the second Bush presidency when he questioned that administration’s claim that Iraq was seeking to buy the raw material for a nuclear bomb) or through their embassy in Washington—when the phone rang. It was Bob Kimmitt on the line. He gave us the news that our embassy in Kuwait was reporting that firing had been heard in the streets. Iraq had invaded, although little else was clear. Our plan to phone Saddam had just become OBE—overtaken by events. Promising to stay in close touch with the president as we learned more, Brent and I returned to his office to discuss what steps needed taking right away. We then walked down to the Situation Room in the basement and convened a senior-level interagency meeting over the secure, closed-circuit television system that had been installed not too long before. The Gulf crisis, what would become the first major test of the post-Cold War world, was under way.

Nearly twelve years later, in early July 2002, I again found myself going from the State Department to the same West Wing office, now inhabited by President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice. It was one of my regular meetings with Condi, whom I had gotten to know well when we both worked on the NSC staff for Brent Scowcroft and with whom I’d stayed in close touch.

I was seeing Condi in my capacity as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, a position I had accepted with Colin Powell, whom I had also gotten to know well when we worked with each other in the previous Bush administration. Most of my job involved being an all-purpose advisor and counselor to the secretary of state as well as the person who oversaw his in-house think tank. I also drew special assignments in my other role as a roving ambassador for the United States, something that made me the U.S. envoy to the Northern Ireland peace talks and, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. coordinator for the future of Afghanistan. My meetings with Condi were not part of any formal interagency process but rather something informal, reflecting more than anything else our personal relationship.

As usual, I prepared on a yellow pad a list of the half-dozen or so issues I wanted to discuss during what normally was a thirty- to forty-five-minute meeting. At the top of my list was Iraq. For several weeks, those on my staff who dealt with Iraq and other Middle East issues had been reporting back that they sensed a shift, namely, that those at their level working at the Pentagon, the NSC, and the vice president’s office who favored going to war with Iraq were sending signals that things were going their way. I did not share this enthusiasm for going to war, believing that we had other viable options and fearing that going to war would be much tougher than the advocates predicted. My related concern was that it would take an enormous toll on the rest of American foreign policy at the precise moment in history that the United States enjoyed a rare opportunity to exert extraordinary influence.

I began my meeting with Condi by noting that the administration seemed to be building momentum toward going to war with Iraq and that I harbored serious doubts about the wisdom of doing so. I reminded her that I knew something about this issue given my role in the previous Bush administration and my background in and with the Middle East. So I asked her directly, “Are you really sure you want to make Iraq the centerpiece of the administration’s foreign policy?”

I was about to follow up with other questions when Condi cut me off. “You can save your breath, Richard. The president has already made up his mind on Iraq.” The way she said it made clear that he had decided to go to war.

I was taken aback by the blunt substance and tone of her answer. Policy had gone much further than I had realized—and feared. I did not argue at that moment, for several reasons. As in previous conversations when I had voiced my views on Iraq, Condi’s response made it clear that any more conversation at that point would be a waste of time. It is always important to pick your moments to make an unwelcome case, and this did not appear to be a promising one. I figured as well that there would be additional opportunities to argue my stance, if not with Condi, then with others in a position to make a difference.

Also accounting for my uncharacteristic reticence was the fact that my own opposition to going to war with Iraq was muted. At a recent dinner with two close friends, I had said I was 60/40 against initiating a war. My opposition was not stronger because of my assumption (derived from the available intelligence) that Iraq possessed both biological and chemical weapons. I also believed that if we went to war we would go about it in a way reminiscent of how we had gone about the previous Iraq war, that is, only with considerable international and domestic backing and only with enough forces and sensible plans. Had I known then what I know now, namely, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the intervention would be carried out with a marked absence of good judgment and competence, I would have been unalterably opposed. Still, even then, I leaned against proceeding, fearing it would be much more difficult than predicted given both the ambitious aims that would inform any new war and the nature of Iraq.

Condi and I went through the rest of my list in a desultory fashion. I rushed back to the State Department, calling Colin Powell’s secretary, Marjorie Jackson, and asking to see him as soon as he was free. Told to come right over, I quickly went down the hallway into the reception area, through his large outer office that he rarely used except for formal meetings, and then into the small study in the back where he sat at his desk. Sitting on the small couch there, I told Powell what had happened in my meeting with Condi. He was typically relaxed, skeptical that things had gone so far, thinking either Condi was exaggerating or I had misread “my girlfriend,” as he teasingly tended to refer to her in my presence.

He was wrong. By the time Colin Powell had his dinner meeting in the White House residence with the president and Condi a month later, the issue on the table was not whether to go to war against Iraq but how. Should the United States go beforehand to the U.N. Security Council? What about Congress? In the end, these proved to be important but second-tier issues. The fundamental decision to go to war against Saddam’s Iraq had effectively been made by a president and an administration with virtually no systematic, rigorous, in-house debate. Less than a year later, the second Iraq war in just over a decade had begun. It was a war that would prove to be one of the most contentious, unpopular, and costly in American history.

At first blush, the two wars appear similar. Both involved a president Bush and the United States in conflicts with Iraq and Saddam Hussein. There, however, the resemblance ends:

-The first was a limited, in many ways traditional war, one that sought to reverse Iraq’s external aggression and restore the status quo ante; the second was an ambitious, even radical, initiative designed to oust and replace Iraq’s leadership and, in so doing, create the foundations for a very different Middle East.

-The first war was essentially reactive and consistent with the universally accepted doctrine of self-defense; the second was a case of preventive war that enjoyed far less legal underpinning and political support.

-The first Iraq war was a truly multilateral affair, with dozens of countries ranging from Russia and Japan to Egypt and Syria forming an unprecedented international coalition and contributing in ways both varied (diplomatic, military, economic) and significant; the second war was for all intents and purposes unilateral, with the United States supported meaningfully by Great Britain and few others.

-The first Iraq war came about after more than a dozen U.N. Security Council resolutions failed to dislodge Saddam from Kuwait. The second war was launched with the backing of one new Security Council resolution and after the United States concluded it could not gain support for a second.

-For the first Iraq war, the United States went to the United Nations to gain backing that the administration believed would make it less difficult to build domestic and above all congressional support for using armed force; for the second war, the United States went to Congress first and then sought U.N. authorization.

-The first war made use of more than 500,000 U.S. troops and was premised on the Powell Doctrine’s bias toward employing overwhelming military force; the second war was designed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to minimize the number of U.S. armed forces (approximately 150,000) committed to the effort.

-The first Iraq war began with a prolonged phase in which airpower alone was used by the United States; the second war involved U.S. ground forces early on.

-The first war took place against the backdrop of a “false negative,” in which most intelligence analysts and policy makers believed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that Saddam would not invade Kuwait; the second war took place against the backdrop of a “false positive,” in which most intelligence analysts and policy makers believed (again incorrectly) that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, in the run-up to the first war, the United States and the international community placed relatively little emphasis on weapons of mass destruction, although it later became clear that the world had badly underestimated the scale of Iraq’s programs; in the run-up to the second Iraq war, considerable emphasis was placed on weapons of mass destruction, although it later became clear that U.S. officials badly overestimated Iraqi capabilities.

-Those who opposed the first Iraq war underestimated the costs of allowing the status quo to stand and overestimated the costs of going to war to evict Iraq from Kuwait; those who favored the second Iraq war underestimated the costs of going to war and overestimated the costs of allowing the status quo to stand.

-The first Iraq war proved to be controversial at home at the outset but ended up being wildly popular; the second Iraq war was initiated with broad congressional and public backing but over time became widely unpopular.

-The first Iraq war cost considerably less than $100 billion and, because of the contributions of coalition states, cost the U.S. government next to nothing. The second war has cost the United States as much as $1 trillion and possibly (depending on the accounting) considerably more. The tab is still rising and there is no chance of getting anyone to share more than a modest piece of it if that.

-The first war claimed a few hundred American lives; the latter more than four thousand.

What else can be said about these wars? Wars can be defined any number of ways: civil wars, wars of national liberation, world wars, cold wars, counterinsurgencies, a global war on terrorism, wars of attrition, defensive wars, nuclear wars, limited wars, just wars, and preventive wars all come to mind. What these and other such descriptions tend to reflect is scale, purpose, duration, the means employed, the nature of the conflict, and/or the nature of the undertaking.

There is, however, another way to think about war. Wars can either be viewed as essentially unavoidable, that is, as acts of necessity, or just the opposite, reflecting conscious choice when other reasonable policies are available but are deemed to be less attractive.

History offers us numerous examples of each. Any list of modern wars of necessity from the American perspective would include World War II and the Korean War. Wars of choice undertaken by the United States would include Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, and, a century before, the Spanish-American War.

The distinction is by no means confined to the United States. Menachem Begin, the former prime minister of Israel, differentiated between what he called “wars of choice” and “wars of no alternative.” Speaking in 1982 during Israel’s war in Lebanon (Operation Peace for Galilee), he stated his view that Israel had fought three wars of necessity: its 1947-1949 struggle for independence, the “war of attrition” between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula during the late 1960s, and the October 1973 Israel-Arab war. He described the 1956 Suez war (in which Israel, France, and Great Britain acted jointly against Egypt) as a war of choice. More surprising was his decision to describe the 1967 “Six Day” war as one of choice. “The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that [Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.” He even anticipated the argument that Egyptian actions left Israel with no alternative. “While it is indeed true that the closing of the Straits of Tiran was an act of aggression, a casus belli, there is always room for a great deal of consideration as to whether it is necessary to make a casus into a bellum.”

What characterizes wars of necessity? The most common situation involves self-defense. More generally, wars of necessity involve the most important national interests, the absence of promising alternatives to the use of force, and the certain and considerable price to be paid if the status quo is to stand. Wars of necessity do not require assurances that the overall results of striking or resisting will be positive, only the assessment that the results of not so doing will be unacceptably negative and large.

Wars of choice tend to involve stakes or interests that are less clearly “vital,” along with the existence of viable alternative policies, be they diplomacy, inaction, or something else but still other than the use of military force. One result is that wars of choice tend to increase the pressure on the government of the day to demonstrate that the overall or net results of employing force will be positive, that is, that the benefits outweigh the costs. If this test cannot be met, the choice will appear to be ill-advised and in fact most likely is.

The distinction between wars of necessity and wars of choice is obviously heavily subjective, inevitably reflecting an individual’s analysis and politics. I introduced the phrases into the Iraq war debate in an op-ed in the Washington Post on November 23, 2003, five months after I left the administration. The piece argued that the first Iraq war was a classic war of necessity, the second a classic war of choice. Not surprisingly, President George W. Bush did not share my views. Asked by Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press on February 8, 2004, about my contention, the president protested, arguing that the second Iraq war was in fact a war of necessity. The full exchange merits quoting. Russert began with a question. “In light of not finding the weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?” The president seemed perplexed and had clearly not thought about the war in these terms. “I think that’s an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice or a war of necessity? It’s a war of necessity. We—in my judgment, we had no choice when we look at the intelligence I looked at that says the man [Saddam Hussein] was a threat.” History, I believe, will show otherwise.

As it turns out, the concept of wars of necessity and wars of choice was less original than I thought. (Note to self: Just because something appears new does not make it so.) Maimonides, one of the great scholars in the annals of Judaism, wrote more than eight centuries ago of wars he judged to be obligatory and those he termed optional. The former were those waged by the king for narrowly defined religious causes and in self-defense, i.e., “to deliver Israel from the enemy attacking him.” He distinguished such necessary wars from those discretionary conflicts undertaken by a king against neighboring nations “to extend the borders of Israel and to enhance his greatness and prestige.”

The two Iraq wars also constitute two fundamentally different approaches to American foreign policy. The first represents a more traditional school, often described as “realist,” that sees the principal although not sole purpose of what the United States does in the world as influencing the external behavior of states and relations among them. It is the external actions of others that most directly affect U.S. interests, while U.S. power is more suited to affect what others do rather than what they are. What goes on inside states is not irrelevant, but it is secondary. This is a U.S. foreign policy that focuses on foreign policy, and was the bias of the country’s founders, of FDR and Harry Truman, of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and of Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush.

The second Iraq war reflects an approach to foreign policy that is at once more ambitious and more difficult. It believes the principal purpose of what the United States does in the world is to influence the nature of states and conditions within them, both for moral and ideological reasons as well as for practical ones in the sense that mature democracies are judged to make for better and more peaceful international citizens. This is the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson, to some extent that of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and clearly that of George W. Bush.

The difference between a foreign policy designed to manage relations between states and one that seeks to alter the nature of states is critical, and constitutes the principal fault line in the contemporary foreign policy debate. The two Iraq wars are of great import, both for what they were (and are) and for what they represent: the two dominant and competing schools of American foreign policy. They thus constitute a classic case study of America’s purpose in the world and how it should go about it.

For me, all this is as personal as it is political. I have been contemplating writing a book about the United States, Iraq, and the broader Middle East for some three decades now. My interest goes back to the summer of 1974, when I first went to Washington, D.C., as something other than a tourist. I had just completed my first year of graduate school in England and was looking for a summer experience that would bring me back to the United States and, if all went well, provide me with an idea for the thesis required for an Oxford graduate degree. Thanks to an introduction, I got a job as an intern in the office of U.S. senator Claiborne Pell, a liberal Democrat from Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Against the backdrop of the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, I was assigned the issue of Diego Garcia, a small Indian Ocean island owned by Great Britain that the U.S. Navy wanted to develop for ships that would be spending time in and around the Persian Gulf. Although the money at stake was small by Pentagon budget standards—only some $26 million for a modest logistic support base, subsequently reduced to a limited communications facility in the face of congressional resistance—the request triggered a surprisingly intense debate. Many in the Senate saw this request as the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent, fearing it would only be a matter of time before the Defense Department would be back asking for much more. However, what made the debate so heated was not so much the funds per se but rather what they symbolized. Many believed that what was at stake was nothing less than the course of U.S. foreign policy after Vietnam, where U.S. involvement was fast approaching its inglorious end. Following debate and votes, the coalition opposing the new commitment lost, and the Navy got its funds for the facility. And I had my thesis topic.

I went back to Oxford to complete my doctorate and, in 1977, joined the staff of the first of many think tanks at which I would work over the years, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, located in London. There I wrote about U.S.-Soviet naval arms limitation talks in the Indian Ocean, one of a number of arms control initiatives launched by President Jimmy Carter. By 1979 I found myself back in Washington, in this case the Department of Defense, where I was one of several relatively junior civilians (working in a windowless office in the bowels of the Pentagon) tasked with developing contingency plans and U.S. capabilities for crises in the Persian Gulf. Much of our time was taken up with planning how best to stop a Soviet offensive across the Zagros Mountains of northern Iran; in the wake of the Iranian revolution that ousted the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the taking of the American hostages in Tehran, the focus of the planning shifted and the urgency increased.

With the election of Ronald Reagan, I shifted from the Department of Defense to the Department of State. Although Iraq and Gulf-related issues constituted only a small percentage of my job (first in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, later in the Bureau of European Affairs), at times they dominated the administration I worked for and, in the case of Iran-Contra, almost brought it down. Following nearly five years at State, I moved to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where I spent three and a half years teaching graduate students about decision making and American foreign policy. Little did I realize that I was about to become my own case study.

This book is the result of all these experiences, but principally those that came after and were associated with my time working for George H.W. Bush, the forty-first president, and George W. Bush, the forty-third. I was the principal Middle East hand on the staff of the National Security Council for the initial President Bush, and for the first time, I had a significant role in shaping significant history—or, in this case, histories, as I was heavily involved in the making of U.S. policy toward Iraq before and after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and toward Israel and its Arab neighbors both before and after that crisis.

I departed government in January 1993—along with others working for the forty-first president of the United States, I received, in the immortal words of Winston Churchill, “the Order of the Boot” upon the inauguration of Bill Clinton. I returned to government eight years later, in January 2001, and once more a good portion of my time was devoted to Iraq and the Gulf region. It was a very different experience, though: I was at the State Department, not the White House; I was on the periphery rather than at the center of policy making; I was uncomfortable with the policy, not one of its principal champions. I stayed for two and a half years, until June 2003, when I took up my current position as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher based in New York.

The Iraq war, which had begun just months earlier, was still very much going on when I left government, with results all too much in line with my pessimistic predictions. I was increasingly unhappy with the policy, one that I believed was threatening to undermine a rare moment in which the United States could reshape the world, an idea that informed a general book on U.S. foreign policy that I published in 2005, The Opportunity. Some of my frustration with Iraq policy surfaced in a chapter in that book, some in the op-ed already mentioned. Called “Wars of Choice,” the piece argued that the Iraq war was a manifestation of an imperial foreign policy, in that the United States went to war for reasons other than vital national interests. “The debate can and will go on as to whether attacking Iraq was a wise decision, but at its core it was a war of choice. We did not have to go to war against Iraq, certainly not when we did. There were other options: to rely on other policy tools, to delay attacking, or both.”

I have written hundreds of op-eds over the years, and few generated the reaction or garnered as much attention as this one. It was this combination of concern on my part and interest on the part of others that led to my decision to write this book. It is the first time I have ever written a book of this sort. Most of my previous work could be described as foreign policy analysis, about the ends of American foreign policy, how it is made, or the military, diplomatic, and economic tools used to implement it. This is different. It is foreign policy analysis and history to be sure, but also personal reflections and recollections. I was one of only a few individuals, along with such disparate people as Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz, to be involved at relatively senior levels of government with both Iraq wars. I want to give a sense of why things happened and their consequences. My intention, however, is not to settle scores or to say “I told you so” on those occasions when I may have been more correct than others. It is not simply that it is too soon to make confident judgments as to who was right, but also that I made my share of mistakes and then some.

Last, I am well aware that events in Iraq are still unfolding as I write this. My own thinking continues to evolve as well. My late dear friend David Halberstam said it best: “A book like this does not have a simple, preordained linear life. A writer begins with a certainty that the subject is important, but the book has an orbital drive of its own—it takes you on its own journey, and you learn along the way.” This has been quite a journey, and I have learned a great deal.

Excerpted with permission from “War of Necessity, War of Choice” (Simon & Schuster) by Richard N. Haass.

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