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Dr. Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a position he has held since July 2003.  He is the author or editor of eleven books on American[…]

As Richard Haass argues in his book, “War of Necessity, War of Choice,” many conflicts in recent U.S. history were far from vital to national security.

Richard Haass: I’m Richard Harass and I’m president of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Question: When are wars necessary?


Richard Haass: Generically, wars in necessity are wars were I think the vital interest of the nation are at stake in which there are no viable alternatives to the use of force.

For example, diplomacy doesn’t look appealing or attractive or it’s been shown to be unsuccessful, sanctions aren’t going to do the trick and living with the certain situation is deemed to be unacceptable.

A war of choice is very different. A war of choice usually has two qualities.

One is that the interest at stake tend to be less than vital and secondly there are in fact other policies that are available. It could be diplomacy or it could be simply tolerating a situation or it could be sanctions or what have you.

And just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that war of choices are per se undesirable or wrong or bad but simply they are just that, they are wars of choice and they only make sense if you believe that the cause and benefits not only line up to the benefit or greater than the cause but also that the cause and benefits of using military force make more sense than using alternative foreign policies.


Question: What were the unnecessary wars in American history?


Richard Haass: One of the most obvious one that many people will recall is Vietnam. Vietnam was not a war of choice the United States had to fight. It was clearly not central. I would argue to the overall balance say between the United States and the Soviet Union and the United States invested a great deal in large part because it exaggerated the stakes that were in fact there. So, that’s the most obvious contemporary war of choice.

More recently you have wars like Kosovo and Bosnia, where again the United States did not have to intervene. The interests at stake were important arguably. There were some strategic interest, there were some humanitarian interest more than anything else but no vital national interests were at stake, so those are the obvious wars of choice. The most obvious war of necessity other than the one I wrote about the first Iraq War, I would say is the Korean War in 1950, when the North Koreans went across the 38th parallel and before that World War 2.


Question: Why was the second Iraq war unnecessary?


Richard Haass: Well, two things.

One is I didn’t think that Saddam Hussein say in 2001, 2002, 2003 had done anything that’s particularly new, that was particularly threatening to the United States or another way of putting it, I did not think the status quo that the [George W.] Bush administration inherited in 2001 was per se unacceptable or intolerable. I thought that Saddam Hussein, to use Colin Powell’s phrase at that time, was in something of a box. He had lost control over most of the North of his country. You had US and Coalition aircraft flying over the North and over the South. He was really limited in his way over his own country. We thought mostly he had some biological and some chemical weapons. He had not been able to rebuild his conventional military after it got decimated in the previous war after he invaded Kuwait.

We did not think of get anything in the way of nuclear weapons. We did not think he was in anyway associated with the terrorist, so we simply didn’t think he represented a vital threat to US interest in the region rather he was quite diminished.

Secondly, there was a sanction’s regime an extensive sanction’s regime that was in placed and though it had eroded to some extent and clearly money was reaching Saddam Hussein that should not have been and the like. That I believe there were options to shore up the sanctions regime not to make it air tight, not to make it impermeable but again I thought we could have improved it so that again it would have not eliminated the threat but it would’ve contained the threat. So essentially I believe the containment of Saddam Hussein was a viable, perfectly adequate option.


Question: What alternatives to the war did you know of at the time?


Richard Haass: There weren’t a great deal of conversations. There are only a few that I recall.

Looking a little bit at the whole question of sanctions in a fairly desultory way the one move that Colin Powell promoted was called Smart Sanctions and if you recall at that time the United States was coming under tremendous criticism in the Arab world, also from the left, in this country and around Europe because the sanctions were alleged to be hurting innocent Iraqis. It wasn’t true in my view.

The sanctions had all sorts of humanitarian exceptions and if there was any suffering that was going on in Iraq it was because Saddam Hussein was causing the suffering but wanted the sanctions to be blamed for it. It was part of his strategy to undermine international support for the sanctions but Powell’s idea was essentially to challenge him that game.

So the whole idea of Smart Sanctions was to make it possible for Saddam Hussein to import a far larger range of goods and services that would not have military consequences to essentially take away from him the argument that sanctions were somehow causing suffering leading to disease and so forth on the part of Iraqis and we thought that if we could do that, then that would have the effect in the part of rebuilding regional and global support for sanctions. That was probably the principal set of conversations about Saddam Hussein.


Question: Is Afghanistan a necessary war?


Richard Haass: You asked the question about Afghanistan, he [Barack Obama] is also embarking of what I would call something of a war of choice in Afghanistan.

Taking a step back for a second, the [George W.] Bush administration, after doing very little in Afghanistan initially post -9/11, it’s rather it got more and more inflated about Afghanistan, so you had the Bush administration talking about bringing democracy to Afghanistan, but the Bush administration never resourced that policy.

So the Obama administration has come in, an interestingly enough, it increased the resources you’re seeing more combat troops, more trainers and it decreased the rhetoric that now has no longer talking about democracy. But instead it’s talking about building a self sustaining Afghan government.

But, they’re also talking about taking the fight to the Taliban. Essentially what Mr. Obama is doing is making the United States now a protagonist in Afghanistan’s civil war and what they’re hoping is that the United States can weaken the Taliban and then provide time and space for the Afghan Government to build up its capacities so we can deal with the Taliban and it can deal with Al Qaeda.

I would call this something of a war of choice. The United State could have more modest goals in Afghanistan it could also have more modest meanings if it was only going after Al Qaeda. But the Obama administration has, it has made two interesting foreign policy decisions so far. One is to establish the timelines in Iraq, and the other is the build up in Afghanistan, both are significant decisions.

The phrase war of choice is a neutral phrase. It’s a description. All I’m trying to do is distinguish it from a war of necessity but the United States, you can argue whether we have a vital national interest in Afghanistan. We have a vital national interest in seeing that Afghanistan is not used as a terrorist platform following 9/11 but I don’t think we have a vital national interest in the quality of Afghan society so the United States might then say well, we’re just going to limit ourselves to going after the terrorist when we see them.

We’re mainly going to use; whatever mix of military intelligence, and other foreign policy tools we’ll put together. All I’m trying to say is in Afghanistan, the United States has come up with a particular mixed of tools and it’s decided that it’s going to basically to take the Taliban on along with the Afghan government in the civil war, that’s a war of choice.

Now, I’m prepared to say it’s a defensible choice and it’s worth trying. I am a little bit sceptical whether it will succeed and my prediction is that roughly a year or year and a half from now the Obama administration is going to have to make some additional choices.

And if I’m wrong and things are going very well in Afghanistan, one choice will be whether we stick with it or whether we even increase our ambitions. For example, should democracy building become war of the [IB]? A more likely future is were things are not going well in Afghanistan, we put in extra troops and the general situation in the country is not improving and the question then is, what do we do. Do we put in more resources or do we perhaps dial down our goals and that could be a very intense foreign policy debate roughly in a year.


Recorded on: May 08, 2009