War of Necessity, War of Choice

A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Read an excerpt of War of Necessity, War of Choice.

CFR President Richard N. Haass was one of a handful of top government officials—along with Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Bob Gates—involved in the decision-making process during both Iraq conflicts. In his new book, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (Simon & Schuster), Haass—a member of the National Security Council staff in the George H. W. Bush administration and the State Department director of policy planning for George W. Bush—argues that the first Iraq war was both necessary and well-executed, and that the second was a war of choice, and a bad choice at that, as unwarranted as it was poorly conceived and implemented.

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Wars and Conflict

Haass explains precisely how and why the two Iraq wars resulted from two very different policymaking processes and two fundamentally different approaches to U.S. foreign policy, as well as two vastly different presidential personalities. Moreover, Haass looks to the future as much as the past, joining the ongoing debate about America's purposes in the world and how it should go about achieving them.

The two Iraq wars, Haass contends, are of great importance not only in and of themselves, but for what they represent: the two dominant and competing schools of American foreign policy. The first represents a more traditionalist school, often described as "realist," that sees the principal purpose of what the United States does in the world as influencing the external behavior of states and relations among them. What goes on inside states is not irrelevant, but it is secondary. This was the approach of the country's founders, of FDR and Harry Truman, of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and of Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. The second Iraq war reflects an approach to foreign policy that is at once more ambitious and more difficult. It believes that the principal purpose of what the United States does in the world is to influence the nature of states and conditions within them, both for moral and ideological reasons as well as for practical ones, in the sense that mature democracies are judged to make for better and more peaceful international citizens. This was the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson, to some extent that of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and clearly that of George W. Bush.

Haass defends the first Iraq war as necessary for reasons both symbolic and strategic, judging that it was largely successful in its aims at a relatively modest cost. He also notes that the first Iraq war is consistent with the precepts of the just war: it was fought for a worthy cause, it was likely to succeed, it was undertaken with legitimate authority, and it was waged only as a last resort. On the other hand, Haass declares, "The second Iraq war was not necessary.... The United States could well have accomplished a change in regime behavior and a change in regime threat without regime change."

Further, Haass disagrees strongly with those who concede that the second Iraq war was not necessary but argue that it was justifiable or desirable nonetheless. The ouster of Saddam Hussein was a positive development, to be sure, but Haass maintains that any benefit from it is far outweighed by the war's devastating human, military, economic, moral, diplomatic, and political costs. Mindful that events in Iraq are still unfolding, Haass nevertheless remains highly skeptical that any additional benefits from an increasingly stable Iraq would ever come close to outweighing those costs.

Haass, who first visited Iraq some thirty years ago and was most recently there this April, also takes issue with those who argue that the main problem with the second Iraq war was its implementation rather than its rationale. Even if the United States had conducted the war and its aftermath with far more troops and much better handling of Iraqi reconstruction, it is far from certain that the outcome would have been successful. In short, Haass concludes, "Using military force to oust regimes and build democracies is simply too costly and too uncertain in results to constitute a sustainable approach to U.S. foreign policy."

More on:


Wars and Conflict

Yet Haass's point is not to rule out all wars of choice. He writes: "The standards for wars of choice must be high if the human, military, and economic costs are to be justified. There are unlimited opportunities to use military power—but limited ability to do so.... Even a great power needs to husband its resources. American democracy is ill-suited to an imperial foreign policy where wars are undertaken for some 'larger good' but where the immediate costs appear greater than any benefit. Wars of choice are thus largely to be avoided—if only to make sure there will be adequate will and ability to pursue wars of necessity when they materialize."

A Council on Foreign Relations Book

Reviews and Endorsements

Named to the New York Times Book Review's Paperback Row for July 1, 2010

Timely and important.


Haass' style is clear ... [his] insider account provides extra value.




Part recent history, part wide-ranging personal memoir, part case study in decision-making ... deserves to be read carefully. ... Haass was a top foreign policy official who provides a perceptive insider's account of deliberations at the top of the U.S. government that, within a dozen years, resulted in U.S. engagement in two significant wars with Iraq. The book's significance is to be found in the wider lesson that a future U.S. secretary of state or U.S. national security adviser should draw for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Foreign Affairs

A devastating insider account.


A unique perspective on how war policy was formed by two very different presidents.

Kirkus Reviews

Recommended for all readers interested in U.S. foreign policy.

Library Journal

This is not your usual foreign policy tome. It is a vivid, honest account of recent history from the author's unique vantage points inside the White House and the State Department. Richard Haass is always intelligent. In this book he teaches us a great deal about how American foreign policy should be made, what it should seek to accomplish, and how it should be carried out. The result is a fascinating memoir and a primer for the future.

Fareed Zakaria, editor, Newsweek International, author, The Post-American World

This important book, written with style and polish, is what history needs more of: first-person testimony on crucial events from those who were there. Haass takes us into the heart of the decision making of the first Gulf War and witnesses the morass that produced the Iraq invasion. But it is also, at bottom, a personal primer on what it is to dissent on policy from the inside, on when to stay in government, and when to go. A narrative that moves forward at a great pace but with real historical and academic ballast.

Peggy Noonan, columnist, Wall Street Journal, author, Patriotic Grace

In this compelling and important volume, a world-class scholar and diplomat takes us behind the scenes of both American wars against Saddam Hussein. Richard Haass's book is full of surprises. It will do much to shape the way historians come to understand the American experience in Iraq. But more crucial, Haass's story deserves every American's attention now to make sure that we all learn from both the victories and the tragedies.

Michael Beschloss, author, Presidential Courage

When a nation faces that gravest of decisionsis—it justified in going to war?—abstract moral principles alone don't suffice. Richard Haass, an insider who participated in the making of two very different wars with Iraq, provides a finely textured account that applies the writings about just and unjust wars to the real world. His blend of conceptual thinking and concrete experience makes for an engrossing tale that educates in every sense.

Peter Steinfels, codirector, Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, author, A People Adrift

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