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Milken Institute | Events | War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars
War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars
Richard Haass

May 19, 2009
4:30 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Santa Monica

  Energy | Global Economy | Middle East | Public Policy

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Two wars in Iraq. Two presidents named Bush. Two wildly different outcomes.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars," gave an insider's view of what he has deemed the orderly, systematic vetting that led the first President Bush to the war in Iraq and the isolated decision-making that led his son to send troops to the same soil 12 years later.

A veteran of both administrations, Haass advised the senior Bush and later Colin Powell, the younger Bush's secretary of state. As the title of his book suggests, Haass believes the elder Bush fought a justifiable war, triggered by Iraq's designs on neighboring Kuwait and Bush's fear that allowing Kuwait to be occupied would send the wrong message to the rest of the world. Diplomacy, sanctions and outright threats had been ignored by Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, Haass said, so all other avenues had been exhausted.

The younger Bush fought a war of choice, he said. The decision wasn't triggered by long-rumored weapons of mass destruction, oil interests or pressure from the Israeli government, Haass said, adding that Israel considered Iran to be the real threat. Bush was motivated in part by the fear that the war in Afghanistan had done little to make the United States less vulnerable to terrorism after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Haass said. Bush also believed that regime change in Iraq would be easy and would have a domino effect, possibly bringing democracy to the Middle East, which Haass called "wildly optimistic."

While Haass disagreed with the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, he was most critical of what he termed the lack of a rigorous discussion beforehand. He told a now well-known anecdote from his book in which he approached National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in July 2002 to discuss rumors that an invasion was inevitable.

"You can save your breath, Richard," Rice told him. "The president has already made up his mind about Iraq."

"It went ahead before people like me had a chance to argue it," Haass said.

Haass drew several lessons from the two wars:

  • People and ideas matter. "It didn't have to turn out this way," he said, if not for the specific people and ideas involved.
  • Process matters, he said, because it can protect the nation from people and ideas. The process leading to the first war in Iraq was "orderly and systematic," he said. But in the second war, not everyone "spoke truth to power," so a rigorous process was critical.
  • Implementation matters. If the administration had deployed more troops, allowed the screening of Baathist officials instead of dismissing them wholesale and kept the Iraqi army intact, the war's outcome might have been different, he said.
  • Local knowledge matters. The administration didn′t understand the culture and the tensions between the religious sects and tribes, he said.
Haass called the two wars important case studies representing two competing schools of thought in the debate about America's purpose in the world. One camp sees war as a way to shape the behavior of others - for example, responding to a country's acts of aggression. The other camp sees it as a way to change the internal nature of other societies, he said.

He recommended that the lessons of the two wars serve as a guide for U.S. policies in Iran and Afghanistan, which Haass called President Obama's "war of choice."

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