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War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.

War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars. By Richard Haass. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. 307 pages. $27.00. Reviewed by Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University.

Richard Haass has written an illuminating book, although the light cast by War of Necessity, War of Choice differs from what the author likely intended. Currently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Haass has for decades rotated in and out of government, rising to the level of senior functionary. This memoir focuses on two particular periods of service, the first during the administration of George H. W. Bush when Haass handled the Middle East portfolio for the National Security Council, the second during George W. Bush's first term, when Haass presided over the State Department's policy planning staff.

For Haass, the main event during Bush I's tenure was the Iraq War of 1990-91. Under Bush II, the main event was the Iraq War that began in 2003 and still continues today. The first of these two conflicts, in Haass's estimation, qualifies as a "good" war; the second--unnecessary, ill-advised, and grotesquely mismanaged--qualifies as anything but good. Here in a nutshell lies Haass's thesis, which may possess some merit but falls well short of being revelatory.

A conviction that, as he puts it, "I had a significant role in shaping significant history" moved Haass to offer this memoir of these two wars. Yet the account he offers fails to sustain this claim, especially when it comes to Haass's own role. He offers little evidence of having shaped policy or having personally affected crucial decisions. True, Haass sat in on Oval Office meetings, jetted around the world on diplomatic missions, and penned memos that passed across the desks of top-ranking officials. Whether or not things would have turned out differently absent such exertions is not at all clear. Unhappy with the policies that produced the second Iraq War, Haass's wife chided him for being an "enabler." As an assessment of her husband's overall contribution to US foreign policy, the term is an apt one.

Haass describes his participation in these events as "quite a journey." During the course of that journey, he "learned a great deal." The reader hungers to share in that education. Yet the tidbits of learning offered up turn out to be thin and pedestrian.

The author reveals no secrets and drops no bombshells. In bland, if serviceable, prose, Haass for the most part affirms what we already know from newspaper accounts and documentaries. Suspicions that the younger Bush never rendered a formal decision to invade Iraq--that "there was no meeting or set of meetings at which the pros and cons were debated," with alternatives to war examined--are correct, he writes. The decision for war simply "happened. It was cumulative." That the Bush Administration lunged into Iraq intent on "transforming not just a country but the region" as a whole--that serious strategic analysis had given way to a presidential hankering "to change the course of history"--is also true, according to Haass. That Condoleezza Rice was completely out of her depth as National Security Adviser; that in the rush for war Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld outmaneuvered the risk-averse State Department at every turn; that Rumsfeld, having achieved the "effective silencing of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," shaped the war plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom with one eye fixed on advancing his personal vision of military "transformation;" that the Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, a "clever, manipulative self-promoter," seduced naive Pentagon officials into embracing him as the George Washington of democratic Iraq; that the early weeks and months of the US occupation of Iraq amounted to amateur hour on the Euphrates: Sadly, all these too are true. But we hardly need Richard Haass to tell us any of these things.

History acquires value when it offers us fresh perspectives. On that score Haass's memoir possesses negligible value. His assessment of the events that he witnessed is relentlessly conventional and devoid of imagination. Ironically, however, here is where his book achieves a sort of perverse significance, documenting the cramped and sterile mindset that defines the present-day American foreign policy establishment.

Committed to his good war/bad war dichotomy, Haass cannot bring himself to recognize that the two Iraq wars actually form parts of a single episode, with the ambiguous outcome of round one creating conditions from which round two emerged. Nor, seemingly, does Haass possess the capacity to place our Iraq misadventures in a larger historical and strategic context that might suggest that Bush I's war was just as unnecessary as Bush II's--both of them stemming at least in part from follies perpetrated by earlier administrations, all of them populated by people who would see Richard Haass as a kindred spirit.
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Author:Bacevich, Andrew J.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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