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War of Necessity, War of Choice -- part recent history, part wide-ranging personal memoir, part case study in decision-making -- deserves to be read carefully. This is so not only because Richard Haass has impressive credentials -- he was a top foreign policy official and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations -- or because he provides a perceptive insider's account of deliberations at the top of the U.S. government that, within a dozen years, resulted in U.S. engagement in two significant wars with Iraq. The book's additional significance is to be found in the wider lesson that a future U.S. secretary of state or U.S. national security adviser should draw for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Haass took part in the decision to wage the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in his capacity as the senior National Security Council staffer for the Middle East. In that role, he helped the national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, define Saddam's sudden seizure of Kuwait as an unacceptable act of aggression that threatened the stability of the Middle East and the survival of the pro-U.S. regime in Saudi Arabia. Haass makes it clear that President George H. W. Bush himself held this view from day one. Both Bush and Scowcroft are the heroes of the memoir.

Critical to the U.S. response, as Haass recounts, was the fact that Washington undertook a systematic diplomatic campaign to mobilize international support in order to prevail on Saddam to withdraw -- and, eventually, to compel him by force to do so. In the end, when force was used, the U.S.-led military campaign involved significant European and (geopolitically more important) Arab and Muslim military contingents. Even Syria took part.

The military campaign itself -- the "war of necessity" -- was focused on the clearly limited strategic objective of destroying Saddam's military capability and evicting Iraq from Kuwait. Both goals, it was clear in advance, were attainable, and they were attained. Neither objective was driven by extraneous motivations, and the policy itself reflected a cold calculus of the potentially grand costs of inaction versus the more limited costs of a clearly focused military reaction. It bears noting here that prior to the 1991 collision, the United States had quietly supported Iraq in its war against Iran; that, as Haass writes, the United States did not object to Iraq's using chemical weapons against Iran; and that Haass himself favored expanding the U.S. relationship with Iraq. U.S. policy, in brief, was guided by hard-nosed textbook realism.


Haass was -- as he himself describes it -- a "peripheral" player in the decisions that led to the second war, undertaken a little more than a decade later. By then, he was director of policy planning in the State Department, under Secretary of State Colin Powell. Over the years, the influence of the policy planning office had waned. By the time Haass took over, its responsibilities ranged from speechwriting for the secretary of state to occasionally recommending specific policy initiatives, but never again would it reach the hallowed status associated with actually shaping U.S. grand strategy, as it had done under the directorship of George Kennan, at the outset of the Cold War.

Powell himself was not the dominant figure in the small cluster of officials whom President George W. Bush consulted about his post-9/11 fixation on Saddam and his alleged weapons of mass destruction. Already by July 2002, according to Haass, the president -- driven by the dynamics of a "war on terror" that he had declared -- had decided to go to war against Saddam, come what may. Condoleezza Rice, then serving as the national security adviser (in the first Bush administration, she had been Haass' colleague and friend on the National Security Council), bristled when she dismissed Haass' misgivings about the rush to war. The issue of war or peace, she indicated firmly, was closed.

It is now abundantly clear -- and Haass' account provides a powerful confirmation -- that the "war of choice" was not the product of careful deliberation but a choice based on conviction. It was made by the great "Decider," who was prone to Manichaean oversimplifications, and it was passionately promoted within his administration by a cluster of neoconservative advocates. In Haass' telling, the antiheroes -- in addition to the younger Bush -- are Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.

Especially damning is Haass' account of the inadequacy of the decision-making process. Haass notes repeatedly that the State Department was marginalized (unlike when James Baker ran it during the first Iraq war), with Bush holding it in "low regard." In early 2003, Haass himself produced a memorandum for Powell in which possible alternatives to immediate military action were outlined. He reports, "I wanted Bush to know he retained a way out." But the memorandum went nowhere.

The credibility of Haass' account is heightened by his honest admission that initially he was open to considering the "war of choice." As he puts it, "I myself harbored no doubts" regarding Saddam's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. Although troubled by the arbitrary and one-sided character of the decision-making process, his uneasiness "was not fundamental."

This admirably frank admission is pertinent to the key distinction that Haass emphasizes and that he uses as the title of his book. As he puts it, a war of necessity (the first Iraq war) is one in which the United States reacts to external actions of other states and goes to war when it is judged that those actions threaten vital U.S. interests. A war of choice, in contrast, is one in which the United States seeks to alter the character of other states and justifies going to war with ambitious ideological and moral goals.


Herein lies the problem: any decision to go to war, unless it is in response to an attack on one's state, is the consequence of a judgment regarding the definition of "necessity" made in reaction to some ominous foreign event. Haass strongly supported the first war (because of the "necessity" resulting from Saddam's invasion of Kuwait) and did not oppose the second one (because of the threat allegedly posed by the weapons of mass destruction, which Haass initially believed Saddam actually had). Hence, in Haass' terminology, at that point in his thinking, both wars were driven less by choice than by perceived necessity.

Until the outcome of a war becomes known, the difference between necessity and choice is rather ambiguous. Short of a war imposed on the United States by a direct attack, policymakers always have to make a contingent judgment (a choice) whether to initiate military action. How they go about making that decision is therefore absolutely critical, and their intellectual and personal biases, as well as their ideological predispositions, influence their judgment.

Obviously, the less emotion there is in the process and the more reasoning applied to it, the better the outcome. A systematic weighing of options, deliberative analysis, and a careful examination of intelligence (including a sensitivity to what is not known or is uncertain) -- not to mention a rigorous appraisal of the likely costs and international consequences of a decision to go to war -- are all needed. Last but not least, a decision to go to war has to involve clarity in the definition of that war's aims: the ideologically ambitious aims of the second Iraq war, in contrast with the limited geopolitical ones of the first, proved to have catastrophic consequences.

Once a war's outcome is known, the difference between necessity and choice is brutally simple. The ex post facto verdict of history is inevitably derived from a simple maxim: nothing fails like failure, and nothing succeeds like success. Had the second Iraq war not only involved a quick military triumph but also been followed by the prompt emergence of a stable Iraqi democracy -- with the "liberated" Iraqis gratefully embracing the American soldiers and eschewing the anti-American insurgency -- the war in all likelihood would have been retroactively viewed as a justified necessity even if not a single weapon of mass destruction had been found. Conversely, if the first Iraq war had produced a prolonged insurgency in Iraq, preventing U.S. disengagement, drawing the United States into a five-year-long campaign of pacification, and provoking regional unrest, the liberation of Kuwait would certainly have been viewed retroactively as a misguided strategic choice. (Of course, the fact that neither of the above counterfactual outcomes actually did occur reinforces the presumption that the critical difference between the two wars was the degree to which the respective decision-making processes were based on deliberative rationality and critically tested realism.)

It is now evident that in the case of the second war, the national shock induced by 9/11 -- abetted (for whatever reason) by a campaign to stimulate public fear, fueled by demagogic and undiscriminating language about "Islamofascists," "jihadists," and "Muslim terrorism," not to mention apocalyptic references to "mushroom clouds" and "World War III" -- created a toxic atmosphere. A democratic society was stampeded into endorsing (note the large number of Democratic senators who de facto voted for war) what initially only a few top decision-makers ardently desired. The president himself, as the national cheerleader, at one point even discussed with British Prime Minister Tony Blair the possibility of generating a casus belli for a war that he fervently believed was necessary.


Haass' reflections give rise also to broader questions regarding the performance of the United States during the last several decades in shaping the geopolitics of the Middle East, especially with regard to the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The outcome of the first Iraq war could have been the point of departure for a more decisive and constructive U.S. policy regarding this troubled region. Coinciding with the fall of the Soviet Union, it stamped the United States as the winner in the prolonged but peacefully concluded global geopolitical and ideological conflict. The United States stood tall, basking in global admiration.

As Haass notes, there were signs at the time that the first President Bush was ready to assert U.S. leadership in order to end the historically bitter and regionally radicalizing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 1991 Madrid peace conference was the first tangible fruit of his evident determination. The United States pressured the Palestine Liberation Organization to moderate its stand regarding Israel's existence, and at the same time, Bush voiced strong objections to Israel's continued construction of settlements on Palestinian lands. His secretary of state, Baker, in a major statement to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (known as AIPAC), had earlier urged Israel "to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel." (The speech was drafted by Haass, along with Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer.)

Shortly after the war, and in spite of congressional pressures, Bush stared down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir when the latter demanded substantial U.S. loan guarantees while insisting on the continued construction of settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli public soon thereafter rejected Shamir and elected the war hero Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister. The prospects for peace rose dramatically. But as Haass' account makes clear, Bush's electoral defeat in late 1992 took the steam out of the U.S. effort, and Rabin's assassination some time later deprived Washington of a serious and courageous Israeli partner in the quest for peace. The Clinton administration waffled, not making any determined effort again until the belated and rather improvised -- and eventually inconclusive -- Camp David II meeting near the end of Bill Clinton's second term.

Although he is circumspect on this, Haass does provide some hints as to what he would favor if he were to have a third crack at policymaking in the U.S. government. In his view, a genuine peace must provide security for the Israelis and fairness for the Palestinians. To that end, he argues, the U.S. president should explicitly define in a major speech the key elements of a genuine peace of compromise and eventual reconciliation. George W. Bush's failure to do so led a vague "roadmap" to peace to become a roadmap to an unknown destination; meanwhile, Bush's public endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "a man of peace" further alienated the Arabs. The result has been a fatalistic intransigence on the part of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. In Haass' frankly stated verdict, the United States has failed to act.

President Barack Obama should draw an important lesson from Haass' insightful memoir. If the new president is to avoid in the Middle East not only the gross errors of his immediate predecessor but also the much too long-lasting passivity of the Clinton years, he truly has to lead. Admittedly, making matters more difficult for him is the legacy of the last 16 years, when a subtle shift took place in the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the United States moved from being a genuine mediator seeking to nudge both sides toward peace to holding a posture of thinly veiled partiality in favor of one of the parties to the conflict. The result has been detrimental to the prospects for peace -- for without engaged and genuinely forthright U.S. mediation, the two parties to the conflict have shown themselves to be unable to reach a genuine compromise.

To make matters worse, Islamist extremism is gaining ground among a growing number of Palestinians, and Israeli politics are currently moving in an increasingly intransigent direction. In the months to come, the next Israeli prime minister may try to prod the United States to go to war with Iran, while arguing disingenuously that the Palestinians must first become economically more developed before an Israeli-Palestinian peace can be seriously considered. The argument regarding the Palestinian issue, in effect, will be for leaving things as they are, notwithstanding the danger that the prolonged stalemate (with its periodic violence and the relentless expansion of the settlements that it allows) is already poisoning the prospects for a two-state solution.

In these circumstances, continued U.S. passivity in the face of ugly necessity and painful choice will hurt the United States' own national interest, show disregard for the suffering of the Palestinians, and eventually threaten Israel's survival. In the Middle East, it is already quite late -- although still not too late -- for the United States to finally demonstrate the needed audacity of leadership.

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  • ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI was U.S. National Security Adviser from 1977 to 1981. His most recent book is Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower.
  • More By Zbigniew Brzezinski