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A War of Choice or of Necessity?

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Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

Eight months after the Bush administration got us involved in a bloody war in Iraq, we are now told by one of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's closest advisers that Iraq was a war of choice after all. According to Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Department until June 2003 and still the Bush administration's special envoy to Northern Ireland, the administration "did not have to go to war against Iraq, certainly not when we did. There were other options." Really?

This is not what the administration told us before the war and continues to tell us to this day. On March 20, as he was sending troops into Iraq because the regime of Saddam Hussein allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al Qaeda, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told them, "We are at the point at which the risk of not acting is too great to wait longer. As you prepare, know that this war is necessary . . ." Some three weeks into the war, Powell, who had made the case for war to the United Nations, stated: "We do not seek war. We do not look for war. We don't want wars. But we will not be afraid to fight when these wars are necessary to protect the American people, to protect our interests, to protect friends."

Even after it had become abundantly clear that the arguments the Bush administration advanced for going to war were specious, both Vice President Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz explicitly rebutted Haass's position. In an Oct. 10 speech to the Heritage Foundation in which he lashed out at those who said we had a choice about invading Iraq, the vice president said: "Some claim we should not have acted because the threat from Saddam Hussein was not imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?" On Nov. 4 Wolfowitz stated: "But one of the things that Sept. 11 changed was that it made it a war of necessity, not a war of choice."

The president himself continues to proclaim how necessary the war was. On Nov. 22 he said at a press conference in London, "Our mission in Iraq is noble and it is necessary." On Thanksgiving Day the president told the troops in Baghdad: "You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq so we don't have to face them in our own country."

Even more surprising is Haass's contention that despite its public pronouncements, the Bush administration knows that, because this is a war of choice, Americans will not support it unless it is relatively short and cheap. This is why the administration has changed its policy and accelerated the timetable to hand over increasing political responsibility to Iraqis, even if it means reducing what it is trying to accomplish.

Haass weakens his own case by arguing that the first Persian Gulf War was a real war of necessity and Vietnam was only a war of choice. Even those who argued against the recent invasion of Iraq would not contend that it was less necessary than the first Persian Gulf War. As Secretary of State James Baker noted in 1990, that war was really about oil. And Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as such defense hawks as Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), wanted to give sanctions more time to work before invading Iraq. (If it was so necessary, why did the administration of the elder Bush not invade until it got other nations to fund the war?)

It is equally absurd to argue that the first Gulf War was more necessary than Vietnam. In the mid-1960s many Americans, including most of us who were in the armed forces, believed that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists all of Southeast Asia would soon follow and the containment policy would be undermined. This is why the American people supported that conflict through the Tet offensive of 1968, even though more than 30,000 Americans had died by then.

Ironically, while Haass is wrong about Vietnam and the first Gulf War, he is right about Iraq. It is a war of choice — a bad choice as it turns out. Unfortunately, he was unwilling to go public with his views, as did Gen. Eric Shinseki, while he could have made a difference. This article should have been written nine months ago when Congress and the American people had a choice. Now our only real choice is to continue to stay and absorb the casualties and the cost.

Lawrence J. Korb is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information.

This story first appeared in the Washington Post on Dec= 8, 2003.

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