“Ripeness is all” declares Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear, and this is the great lesson of Richard Haass’ account of his role in two U.S. wars against Iraq. The first, in 1990-91, was necessary, launched only after circumstance and great diplomatic effort had allowed it to “ripen.” Failing to respond to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait would have set a destabilizing precedent at the dawn of the post-Cold War era, so the George H.W. Bush administration ensured that the United Nations and a coalition of able partners were prepared to stand together and share the burden of war, its cost, and its aftermath. The 2003 war, by contrast, was fought by choice. In Haass’ estimation, it was more than a blunder: It was unjust. “The worthiness of the cause, the likelihood of success, the legitimacy of the authority to undertake it—all were questionable. Not even its advocates could argue it was a last resort.” It was unripe, and that made all the difference.
Early in 2003, Haass wrote a last-ditch memo for the president outlining alternatives to war, “on the off chance Bush was having second thoughts and was feeling trapped.” Colin Powell took the paper and stuffed it in his pocket, and the nation rolled on toward war.
During the first Gulf War, Haass was the senior director for the Near East and South Asia on the National Security Council staff. During the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Haass served as director of policy planning in Colin Powell’s State Department. The value of Haass’ insight is that most people experienced the two conflicts—separated by a dozen years—from vastly different vantage points. But he was a senior policymaker during both conflicts, and so is almost uniquely situated to draw lessons from the paired experience. His conclusions in this excellent book are valuable and devastating.
Haass, now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, blends history, memoir, and policy pith to great effect. “The key to understanding George Herbert Walker Bush and what made him tick,” he writes, “was his sense of decorum.” The president, who insisted that his staff always wear their suit jackets in the Oval Office, “was genuinely offended by the Iraqi invasion… of Kuwait. It was simply not how civilized countries behaved toward one another.”
The broader lesson here is that people matter. “It was anything but axiomatic that the United States would decide to deploy half a million troops halfway around the world to rescue a country that few Americans could find on a map.” The most fateful decisions of a presidency, Haass concludes, are often those forced without much warning. “It is why basing one’s vote on judgment and character might be best.”
Judgment appears to be the supreme metric by which Haass evaluates policymakers. According to this yardstick, retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft is the hero of the book, and Defense Secretary-turned-Vice President Dick Cheney is its villain. Scowcroft, as National Security Adviser under George H. W. Bush, was the traffic cop overseeing the process by which the executive branch made foreign policy. “The trick is to make sure that the role of counselor does not get in the way of guarantor of due process; if it does, the system breaks down as everyone does end runs to get to the president.” A decade after managing that process “better than anyone who has held this job before or since,” Scowcroft emerged from private life to fire an opening salvo against the second Iraq war in an August 2002 Wall Street Journal op-ed: “An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.” Vice President Cheney’s response was swift. In a speech to the VFW in Nashville later that month, Cheney declared, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction… Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.”
Scowcroft’s warning is poignant not only as a counterpoint to Dick Cheney (who, Haass notes, favored invading Iraq in 1991 even without Saudi agreement or the support of the U.S. Congress), but also as a reminder that the long preoccupation with Iraq has a sad parallel narrative: the neglect of Afghanistan and Pakistan. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, U.S. interest there faded, but U.S. interests did not. Pakistan filled the vacuum, fueling radicalism and then developing a nuclear deterrent after the U.S. cut off most of its military aid. Twelve years later, the neglect continued, although Haass seems to doubt this: “Iraq increasingly garnered extraordinary high-level attention, but it is not clear any of this came at the expense of Afghanistan. Also not clear is that Iraq in fact drew economic or military resources that otherwise would have gone to Afghanistan.” Given that decision-makers’ time and military resources are inherently finite, this claim strains credulity. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan has been chronically under-resourced by nearly every conceivable measure: troops, development dollars, diplomatic attention. Indeed, as late as December 2007, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, testified before Congress, “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” The tide has begun to turn in 2009, but only because U.S. forces are being withdrawn from Iraq.
In the end, Haass’ most interesting and introspective musings are on his own thought process as he advocated for and implemented policies with which he disagreed. He describes his position as 60/40 against going to war in 2003, and observes—correctly—that no organization could function if people left every time they lost out on a 60/40 decision. A more salient question, because it may have drastically altered the course of history, is what it would have taken for his boss, Colin Powell, to resign. Haass points out that Powell kept a portrait of George Marshall, the other general who became secretary of State, on his wall. When Marshall lost a debate with Truman over the decision to recognize the new state of Israel, his aides asked if he would resign. “No, gentlemen. You don’t take a post of this sort and then resign when the man who has the constitutional responsibility to make decisions makes one you don’t like.”
Early in 2003, soon before the invasion, Haass wrote a last-ditch memo for the president outlining alternatives to war, “on the off chance Bush was having second thoughts and was feeling trapped. I wanted Bush to know he retained a way out.” Powell took the paper and stuffed it in his pocket, and the nation rolled on toward war. “I wrote it,” Haass admits, “as much as anything for my own peace of mind.” When the contradictions became too much—and his wife called him an “enabler”—he stepped down.
Haass writes that all wars are fought three times: the political struggle over whether to go to war, the war itself, and then the sunset battle over what was accomplished and the lessons of it all. His book is a welcome addition to the long-running third phase of these wars, with lessons and insights for everyone they touched.
Nathaniel Fick is the chief operating officer of the Center for a New American Security. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine Corps infantry officer.