Two Bushes, Two Wars

In a candid interview, Richard Haass talks to Warren Hoge about what he learned on the policy frontlines of both Iraq conflicts—and why he finally decided to quit W.’s administration.

Hadi Mizban / AP Photo

Richard Haass was a senior Washington policymaker during both Iraq wars—a member of the National Security Council staff in the George H.W. Bush administration and the director of policy planning for Secretary of State Colin Powell under George W. Bush. During beach strolls with me on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 2000, he suggested he would return to government if a second Bush administration happened. It did, and he did, but the experiences turned out to be very different. His new book, War of Necessity, War of Choice, tells the story of the two wars and the two Bushes in a richly anecdotal style to delight an old journalist. I caught up with Richard to talk about it last month in his offices at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he has become a president himself.

Why was the first Iraq War one of necessity and the second one of choice?

The first Iraq War was one of necessity because vital U.S. interests were at stake and we reached the point where no other national-security instruments were likely to achieve the necessary goal, which was the reversal of Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. The second was a war of choice simply because U.S. vital interests were not engaged at that point. I thought there were other policy instruments that the U.S. could lean on, largely using diplomacy, strengthening sanctions and so on.

“There’s a pattern in Bush 43’s presidency of being attracted to the big and the bold, and my whole reading of him is that he was instinctively uncomfortable with what you might call a modulated foreign policy.”

You say in the book that Vice President Cheney or someone on his staff was reading U.S. intelligence accounts of your conversations abroad because they thought you might be having unauthorized contacts with Iranian officials. Were they trying to get you fired?

I would have thought that with all the things on his plate, the vice president had bigger things to worry about than me, particularly since he was winning almost all the arguments in the administration, and I was losing all of them. But if I had been doing something unauthorized, that would have given people grounds for canning me. I thought we were making a tremendous mistake by not talking to Iran. The administration had what it thought was a strategy that somehow regime change was going to come, and if only we isolated them enough, the Iranian government and the revolutionary Islamic regime were going to disappear. I thought that was just a fantasy.

To what extent was the son’s persistent desire to topple Saddam motivated by the wish to make the younger Bush appear stronger and more resolute than the father ?

I never heard him talk in those terms. There’s a pattern in Bush 43’s presidency of being attracted to the big and the bold, and my whole reading of him is that he was instinctively uncomfortable with what you might call a modulated foreign policy—a foreign policy of adjustment, of degree. So I don’t think you have to put someone on a couch to say he wanted to complete what his father began. He was conscious about not becoming a second and third term of his father’s foreign policy.

Click Here To Read An Excerpt of War of Necessity, War of Choice

Why did the first President Bush stop the war and not take out Saddam and go all the way in 1991? You say in the book that that was a decision about which there was no internal dissent.

We were very afraid that many of the things that did happen a decade later would happen if we had marched on to Baghdad. Indeed there were some eerie similarities between some of the memos I wrote in the spring of 1991 and what I wrote in 2002 and 2003. There wasn’t an advocate for toppling Saddam in the room, and that includes Dick Cheney when he was secretary of Defense and Paul Wolfowitz when he was undersecretary of Defense.

Why do you think Colin Powell didn’t resign, and if he had, would it have made a difference ?

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Powell is an optimist. He thought that over time things would swing his way. Ironically, they did, but it was after he had left. I think as a military man he had a real sense of responsibility, of loyalty. He also had a powerfully developed sense of public service and a belief in what he could do. Not in the arrogant sense but in the optimistic sense. Had he resigned, I'm not sure it would have turned things around. My hunch is that if Powell had resigned, he would have resigned quietly. That's his style, it’s in the man's DNA.

Why wasn't the military success in Afghanistan enough retaliation for the 9/11 attacks?

Afghanistan never did it for this administration. Iraq was the country that excited them.

You had what you called a “two and a half to one” theory where Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, the vice president's office and, to your surprise, your old friend Condoleezza Rice, were against State. You lost over Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Israel, and the Palestinians, the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court. Why didn't you quit?

Ultimately I did leave, after two and a half years. For the first few years, there was no one single issue which I felt was such a matter of principle or life or death that I believed in quitting. Even on the Iraq war, my opposition was only 60/40. You don't quit over the 60/40s. It takes an accumulation before you say, "Gee there's a pattern here. And this isn't working." By definition that took time.

You also had to argue in public against decisions that you were in favor of.

That was always wretched. I would go speak before some group and someone would disagree with the policy and say, "There are three reasons why I disagree with the policy," and they would happen to be the same three I had argued in some memo or Washington meeting. And then I had to rebut the arguments that I thought were pretty good. It's OK to do that from time to time, but a steady diet? You have to ask yourself why are you doing what you're doing.

Then you go home and your wife Susan calls you an “enabler.”

Did I put that in there?

You did. Though you didn't give it quite the stress I just did.

It's too painful.

What about the future of Iraq?

My guess is that in a couple of years, Iraq does not look that different than it looks now. It’s not a shining city on a hill, but it’s also not a civil war. Instead, it’s a place that’s quite divided among Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, a place where Iran has a tremendous amount of influence, where the millions of people who lost their homes and were effectively ethnically cleansed have not gone back, where violence still continues on a regular basis—not to the level where life can’t go on, but as part of the woodwork. Iraq remains a slightly messy country would be my guess. I’m hoping it’s not dysfunctional, but also it’s not going to be the model that the advocates of this war of choice hoped it would be.

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Warren Hoge is the Vice President and Director of External Relations at the International Peace Institute. For more than three decades, he was an editor and foreign correspondent at the New York Times, he served as bureau chief in Rio de Janeiro, London, and the United Nations, deputy metropolitan editor, foreign editor, editor of the New York Times Magazine, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s culture, book review, style, travel, and sports sections.