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The Iraq Invasion Ten Years Later: A Wrong War

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 14, 2013

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Ten years after the U.S. invasion, the war in Iraq represents "a poor choice poorly implemented," says CFR President Richard N. Haass, who was then a senior State Department official. Haass says the cost--in terms of U.S. blood and treasure and a shaky Iraq--was clearly not worth it. The Iraq campaign, along with the current war in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, he says, "show the folly of overlooking local realities, be they political, cultural, or historic, and trying to impose our views on these societies and trying to remake these societies using large amounts of American military might."

In your book, War of Necessity, War of Choice, you ask the question "How did George W. Bush reach this point?"--that is, to go to war with Iraq in March 2003. Have you since learned anything more on this?

Essentially, the president was persuaded that large things could be accomplished at small costs.

I wouldn't say I've learned in the sense that I've discovered some hitherto unknown piece of information. But I've thought about it and I've read what people have said and written. And my bottom line is that it was still objectively a war of choice; it was not a war that needed to be started at the time. Our interests were less than vital and we had alternatives, but I believe the president decided to go to war not so much because of the belief that the Iraqis possessed weapons of mass destruction, but more for three other reasons. After 9/11, he and others wanted to send a message to the world that the United States was not, to borrow Richard Nixon's phrase, a pitiful helpless giant. Secondly, he believed that Iraq could be transformed into a democracy, and once that was accomplished, the rest of the region would not be able to resist going down the same path. And thirdly, that this could be done at very little expense. Essentially, the president was persuaded that large things could be accomplished at small costs. And given that calculation, from his point of view it made good sense.

There never was a formal meeting of the National Security Council or with Secretary of State Colin Powell in the decision to go to war. You said you learned about it when you were the State Department's Policy Planning head, when Condoleezza Rice, who was then the NSC director, told you in July 2002 that the president had already decided to go to war. This was unusual, wasn't it?

It was unusual for a decision of this magnitude. My sense is that it was done this way in part because this was the style of this administration. There was an informality in the workings of the administration. The president knew where everybody stood. But still, that is not a substitute for a collective meeting, and it is certainly not a substitute for bringing people into the room who might have disagreed. I'm almost tempted to use the passive voice; it's not a decision that was made so much as it "happened." That's a poor way to make major policy decisions, simply because formality of decision making brings with it a degree of precision and protection. It forces advocates to think through the likely costs and benefits, and protects the president from groupthink, or the lack of thinking anything through.

Back in January 1991, when the first Iraq War occurred, it was difficult to get a vote in Congress to support the war before it happened. Whereas in October 2002, there were huge majorities in both houses for the war. Is this because of 9/11?

I believe it was because of 9/11, and possibly also because people who were against the first Gulf War, eleven years earlier, were for the most part proven wrong. So the combination of the history as well as the desire after 9/11 to support the president, show strength, rally around the flag, all came together. I'd add one other thing. There was a widespread genuine belief that the Iraqis did possess some weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical and biological weapons. And after 9/11, there was understandably very little tolerance for taking any risk in that realm. Obviously that belief about the Iraqis was later proven wrong. But at the time, it was genuine. So even people like me who had doubts about going ahead with the war, my opposition was not 90 to 10 but 60-40. If I had known then that the Iraqis had not possessed any weapons of mass destruction, then it would've moved up to 90-10. But we simply didn't know that at the time.

I remember reading in the fall of 2002 Kenneth M. Pollack's book, The Threatening Storm, where he more or less laid out a case for going to war against Iraq, claiming that they were really into these weapons. And the press was running articles from unnamed officials saying that Iraq was trying to get these pipes for nuclear weapons, etc.

There were a lot of assumptions. There was a lot of what turned out to be faulty intelligence. But that only became clear in retrospect. What was flawed was not only the intelligence but also the assumptions: that it was going to be quick and easy. That the Iraqis were going to welcome the Americans as liberators. That it was only going to be a short amount of time before we could safely depart and leave behind an Iraq that was filled, as I once sarcastically put it, by people reading the Federalist Papers in Arabic translation. And what this teaches you is that assumptions can be dangerous things. If you assume away most or all of the questions or difficulties, you can persuade yourself of just about anything. And that's what happened here.

I can still remember the shock I had at all the looting going on in Baghdad and elsewhere in the aftermath of the invasion. I remember Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld came to the Council in May 2003 and talked it away as incidental, happens in all wars.

What happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam set back prospects for democratic reform in the region as many came to associate political change with chaos.

He used the infamous phrase, "stuff happens." But again, this was predictable. There were some things that were not predictable. When I was at the State Department at the time, I commissioned the CIA to do certain studies of the likely aftermath. And the CIA produced a series of reports that predicted with startling accuracy what would unfold: the chaos, the sheer messiness of the aftermath. Many people in the administration chose to dismiss this analysis and predictions, and there was no way of proving that they would come to pass. But again, it shows how policymakers often rejected analysis that didn't conform to their preferences, and that's what we had here.

Looking back now, looking at Iraq today, are we in a better place with Iraq?

What's better about Iraq is that Sadaam Hussein is no longer in power, its oil production is somewhat up, it is politically a more open place than it was, and it poses less of a threat to its neighbors. So all of that is on the positive side of the ledger. On the other hand, the degree of internal violence remains considerable. There are still millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. Iraq is no longer able to be a counter to Iran. To the contrary: At times Iraq is now an instrument of Iranian foreign policy such as we have seen vis-ŕ-vis Syria. And you also have to ask yourself, however you judge Iraq today, about the cost. And I don't see how you can overlook the cost, whether it was more than 4,400 American lives, more than 30,000 U.S. casualties, more than $1 trillion of immediate spending. And that doesn't include the long-term health-care costs as well as the cost of lost earning power. So are you asking me was it worth it? Was this a good set of decisions well implemented? The answer I would say is absolutely not. This war was a war of choice that represented a poor choice poorly implemented.

One of the goals of the war was to inspire democracy in the Arab world. Do you think it had such an influence?

No. The Arab upheavals had their roots in the rage associated with humiliation and frustration. If anything, what happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam set back prospects for democratic reform in the region as many came to associate political change with chaos.

The Iraq war ended militarily on a high note because of the success of the so-called "surge," which brought Sunnis who had been fighting the Americans into the fold. Isn't that something valuable that supporters of the war can point to?

The surge (along with CIA payments to Sunni tribes) helped reorient Sunni loyalties. But it was a tactical success wrapped in a larger strategic misadventure that was the Iraq war itself.

By coincidence, the month of March is also the fortieth anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Vietnam. Was Vietnam in your category as a war of choice?

Absolutely. The United States did not have vital national interests, and there were many other things we could have done in Vietnam to have promoted those interests we did have. But the wars have much in common. They both show the folly of overlooking local realities, be they political, cultural, or historic, and trying to impose our views on these societies and trying to remake these societies using large amounts of American military might. That seems to be the clear lesson of Vietnam, the clear lesson of Iraq; it's also the clear lesson of Afghanistan. And we've got to be more modest and more discriminating in what we believe we can accomplish against the backdrop of military force. But we've now had three enormous wars of choice.

In your book you say you initially supported a much larger presence in Afghanistan.

Two things: It began as a war of necessity after 9/11. There was a strong rationale to go into Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government that had invited in and facilitated al-Qaeda. And when they wouldn't jettison al-Qaeda, it was fully warranted for the United States to oust the Taliban, lest, for all we knew, they allow al-Qaeda to continue mounting operations against Americans out of Afghanistan. I also thought that in that moment right after the Taliban government was ousted, the United States, working with the international community, had a good chance to build up a functioning Afghan state. But there was no interest on the side of the Bush administration at the time.

Interestingly, the Bush administration, as ambitious as it was about Iraq, was hesitant about Afghanistan. And ironically enough, when the United States finally did decide to get ambitious about Afghanistan, it was under the Obama presidency, when U.S. force levels were tripled and when our goals were expanded. And by then, any window to do this had slammed shut. And the United States did it with only modest international support. By the time we morphed, or grew the Afghan war from a war of necessity to a war of choice, the opportunity for success had all but disappeared.

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