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The Grim Lessons for America from Iraq

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
December 16, 2011
Financial Times


Asked at a recent press conference whether he still considered Iraq to be "a dumb war," President Barack Obama carefully replied: "I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq."

Now that the last US combat soldier has departed Iraq, thereby bringing to an end almost nine years of American fighting, it is not too soon to take the president up on his challenge and to start writing history.

The most salient point is that this was not a war that had to be fought. It was a classic war of choice. American interests were arguably less than vital, and even if one disagrees with this assessment, there were alternative policies available for safeguarding those interests. Shored-up sanctions and limited applications of military force would have been enough to contain Saddam Hussein – someone who was not involved in the September 11 2001 attacks or terrorism and who, we now know, no longer had weapons of mass destruction.

The fact that the 2003 Iraq war was a classic war of choice does not automatically make it a mistake; it does, however, raise the bar. Unlike wars of necessity, which by definition must be fought no matter what the costs given the stakes and the absence of alternatives, wars of choice are only justified when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.

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