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A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars

Review by Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph.D.image

Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009, ISBN 978-1416548024, pp. 336, $27.00

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written an important new book comparing the wars against Iraq that the United States led in 1991 and 2003.  Haass was a senior official in the administration during both wars— at the NSC during the first war and at State during the second— so he has special credentials to speak about the process of decision making on the two occasions. But the book is most interesting and unique in its second half when he talks about the 2003 war.  His views on the 1991 conflict are well known from his earlier writings, including “The Reluctant Sherriff” (1997). But until now he has not spoken in detail on what he observed in the runup to the 2003 war, and most of the other officials who were privy to those internal discussions have not written about it either.

There has been considerable speculation about what went on in the policy discussions inside the Bush administration that led to the war of 2003. Many have assumed that Powell was opposed to the war but wondered why he lost the argument and why he did not resign after making the case for war at the UN in February 2003 when it turned out that Saddam did not in fact have Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Others have wondered what role was played by Rice, who as National Security Advisor was supposed to be neutral and assure that the president heard all opinions and that all options were thoroughly discussed. And many assumed Cheney was a strong advocate for war but if so why did he reverse the position he took in 1991 when he opposed regime change in Baghdad? And what was the view of the senior Bush, who wrote in his memoirs that it would have been a mistake in 1991 to go to Baghdad; did he also think it was a mistake in 2003?

That Haass helps us answer all these questions makes this a fascinating book. It took him six years to speak out, but now he has made an important contribution to understanding the Bush legacy.

The book’s picture of the role of Condoleezza Rice is that of an enabler of the neocon approach rather than a neutral party helping the president hear all relevant views (pages 184-85, and 222-23). Moreover, he says the national security process she managed was “deeply flawed.” What is most striking about the decision to go to war, as described by the author, is that it lacked any careful or deliberate process that considered the costs and benefits of various options. Bush never held any meetings to debate the pros and cons, and he made the basic decision to go to war before he consulted his secretary of state (pages 5, 214-20 and 234-35).

Haass confirms that Powell was basically against the war and that he did argue against going ahead with it but only after the basic decision had been made. Many had suspected that but Haass, who was Powell’s director of Policy Planning, offers an explanation of the secretary’s motivations. Between the summer of 2002 when President Bush made up his mind in principle to go to war, and March 2003 when the war started, Powell thought he still had a chance to prevent it and he made his case to the president. As a career military man and a dedicated patriot, he respected the president’s right to make the decision, and a “powerful sense of loyalty and duty and patriotism” kept him from resigning. But although Powell was a superb integrator of information that had made him an excellent Joint Chiefs Chairman and NSC director, he was not so effective as an advocate “when the playing field was tilted against him as it often was”(pages 186, 214-15, 248).

Haass explains that Powell’s powerful argument at the UN in February 2003 that Saddam had WMD – a performance applauded at the time but that in retrospect damaged Powell’s reputation – was based on faulty information from the CIA, not any duplicity on Powell’s part. Yet Haass freely accuses others in the administration of using the WMD strictly as “window dressing” to cover their ulterior motives (pp.234-35, 241-42).

Haass says President Bush became “locked into 9/11 as a foreign policy template” and decided to go to war because he believed it would change the course of history in a critical region of the world. He says Bush saw the world in black and white terms and regarded multilateralism and the UN as a constraint rather than a force multiplier. “Bush and those closest to him wanted to send a message to the world that the United States was willing to act decisively. Liberating Afghanistan was a start but in the end it did not scratch the itch.” Bush did not like a divided staff. He was “too quick” to reach conclusions and regarded changing course as a sign of weakness, apparently unconcerned with complications that developed afterwards. As for Powell’s arguments, Haass says Bush “thought Powell was exaggerating the costs and consequences of attacking Iraq” although he may have believed the expected benefits were worth it (pages 169, 186, 196, 210-15, 234-37).

The author is harsh in his criticism of Vice President Cheney, who he says made arguments that “did not bear even cursory scrutiny”, distorting the intelligence to make his arguments. He made speeches that were not vetted by policy or intelligence experts as they should have been. Haass says that the reason Dick Cheney did not argue for regime change in Iraq in 1991 but he did in 2003 was because the context inside and outside the administration had changed. In 1991 Cheney was an outlier surrounded by pragmatic internationalists, including the senior Bush, who did not want to go to Baghdad and remove Saddam. But in 2003, “his views were shared to a large extent by the president and other senior aides except Powell, a situation that allowed Cheney to be himself ” (pages 219-21). And as Vice President, he had unique access to the ear of the president.

When Brent Scowcroft published an oped in the Wall Street Journal on August 15, 2002, many speculated that he was speaking for his close friend and former boss, the elder Bush. But the previous president of course has never criticized his son’s presidential decisions, and comments about the relationship between Bush 41 and Bush 43 have been pure speculation. Haass adds an intriguing comment to that part of story.  He says Scowcroft did not discuss the oped at all in advance with the former president “lest he put the forty-first president in an awkward position, especially as he sensed that the elder Bush  largely agreed with what he had written.” (pages 218-19). Together with what Bush 41 wrote in his own memoirs about not going to Baghdad in 1991, we have some glimpses of the differences of opinion that probably existed between the two Bushes.

When Haass discusses his own role, he admits that he found himself defending in public policies that he opposed in private. He says he was 60-40 against the war and this was not enough to persuade him to resign, but if he had known that the WMD intelligence was wrong he would have been 90-10 against the war and probably would have resigned (pages 247-49). It is inevitable that other direct participants who publish their own memoirs (Rice and Cheney are apparently working on theirs as is Bush himself) will have different views of these events. But the story Haass tells has a ring of credibility that may help it stand the test of competing narratives.

The book comments on other issues as well. Haass’ arguments in favor of multilateralism are familiar from his earlier writings. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, he makes the important point that the “road map” endorsed by Bush was badly flawed since it required the Palestinians to end violence unilaterally and embrace democracy as prerequisites to progress in the peace process. That “sequentialism” and the absence of clarity about the end result of negotiations were fatal serious mistakes, he argues. “Requiring that they first be democratic all but assured that there would never be a real peace process, something that may have been the real motive of some who advocated that position” (pages 205-09). (That speculation, without naming names, will tantalize careful readers of this book.)End.

William A. Rugh
William A. Rugh

Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph.D. is the author of Arab Mass Media and many articles on Middle Eastern subjects, as well as two books on public diplomacy. He was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 30 years, and served at embassies in six Arab countries, including as American Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1992-95) and Ambassador to Yemen (1984-87). He held several public diplomacy positions, including Area Director for Near East and South Asia (1989-92), and PAO in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He was President of AMIDEAST, an American non-profit organization (1995-2003) and is currently the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the board of directors of the Public Diplomacy Council.


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