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Wars of Necessity vs Wars of Choice

In March 2003, James Baker, former Secretary of State, said of the war in Iraq: "This is a war of choice, more so, perhaps, than a war of necessity." President Barack Obama told veterans at the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Phoenix Aug. 17, 2009 that " ... we must never forget: This is not a war of choice, this is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. ... If left unchecked, extremists will secure an even larger safe haven for al-Qaida to plot to kill more Americans, Obama said. "So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people."

On June 4, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his promised address to Muslim communities around the world. " Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.... The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America's goals, and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al Qaeda and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice; we went because of necessity."

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell, offers a combination of memoir and analysis on two wars that began in 1990: Desert Storm, the response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Haass describes Saddam's attack on Kuwait as undertaken in the face of US efforts to persuade him to stand down. The 2003 war emerges as a consequence of 9/11, a radical initiative to oust Saddam and restructure the Middle East. In a pattern common to senior advisers without ultimate responsibility for decisions, Haass repeatedly describes perceptive memoranda ignored and perceptive insights rejected by those at the levers of power. He claims neither prescience nor precognition.

Instead he presents himself as a realist and a moderate, preferring diplomacy to force while recognizing the necessary synergy of soft and hard power. Haass concludes that the first war succeeded because its limited aims were accomplished: Iraq was defeated and Kuwait's sovereignty restored. Whether or not Iraq eventually stabilizes, the second war ultimately failed because it was neither necessary, desirable nor just. Bungled execution only highlighted the waste of finite moral and material resources. Wars of choice are not inevitably mistaken, Haass concludes, but they are best avoided.

It seems premature to call the Second Gulf War a disaster. However, there is an emerging consensus that the war was unnecessarily launched and that the subsequent occupation was poorly planned and implemented. Haass served Bush I as senior director of the National Security Council from 1989 to 1983 and was director of policy planning for the State Department under Bush II. Privy to the planning and execution of both Gulf wars, Haass paints a stark contrast between them. He asserts that the first war was one of necessity, since diplomatic options had proved futile and Saddam Hussein's control of Kuwait was a clear threat to our national security. He also illustrates how a patient, competent administration carefully got diplomatic ducks in a row before acting. Haass views the second war as one of choice, planned to transform the nature of regimes in the area. He reveals an administration that, at the highest levels, refused to seriously consider alternatives to war.

Writing in 2003, Jeffrey Record noted the " ... casualty phobia among the political and military elites, which produced a series of timid U.S. military interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, only one of which committed US ground forces to possible combat. But the interventions of the 1990s were wars of choice; most Americans continue to regard the war against Iraq as a war of necessity, and therefore worth much greater risk in blood and treasure."

Writing in 2007, Jeffrey Record noted "the presidential addiction to selling all wars as vital. Every major US combat intervention overseas since 1945 has been attended by White House declarations of the presence of threatened vital interests. Presidents are politically compelled to bill wars of choice as wars of necessity - even though every war the United States has waged since V-J Day, with the sole exception of the war against al-Qaeda, has been a war of choice. Additionally, one of the hallmarks of being a great power is a willingness to fight for less-than-vital interests. Most wars that engage great-power participation are wars fought with limited forces for limited objectives on foreign territory against enemies posing no threat to the great power's homeland."

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:36:35 Zulu