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The Realist’s Guide to Categorizing Wars

In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, realist Zbigniew Brzezinski reviews realist Richard Haass’s book about the two Iraq wars — “War of Necessity, War of Choice” – and in the midst of praising it, effectively eviscerates the distinction that forms the title of the book:

Herein lies the problem: any decision to go to war, unless it is in response to an attack on one’s state, is the consequence of a judgment regarding the definition of “necessity” made in reaction to some ominous foreign event. Haass strongly supported the first war (because of the “necessity” resulting from Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait) and did not oppose the second one (because of the threat allegedly posed by the weapons of mass destruction, which Haass initially believed Saddam actually had).

Brzezinski is right about Haass’s unconvincing necessity/choice distinction, because neither Iraq war was a response to an attack on America; each was a choice (Margaret Thatcher initially thought Bush 41 might go wobbly and make the wrong one); each choice was perceived as compelling at the time (re-read the long list of reasons in the Congressional Authorization of the second Iraq war); and each was authorized by Congress after a full debate.  Many more Democrats voted for the 2003 “war of choice” than the 1991 “war of necessity.”

But Brzezinski’s own categories are no better.  For him, the distinction is between a war involving a “systematic weighing of options, deliberative analysis, and a careful examination of intelligence” and a war “abetted” by a “campaign to stimulate public fear, fueled by demagogic and undiscriminating language about ‘Islamofascists,’ ‘jihadists,’ and ‘Muslim terrorism'” that a “democratic society was stampeded into endorsing.”

I too prefer weighing, deliberating, and carefully examining to abetting, fueling, and stampeding, but I have more difficulty than Brzezinski in actually applying his categories.  The first Iraq war followed Bush 41’s informing the American public that Saddam was “worse than Hitler” and Secretary of State Baker telling them the war involved “jobs, jobs, jobs.”  The “stampede” leading to the second Iraq war followed 17 UN resolutions and a bipartisan Congressional vote, deposed a virulently anti-American dictator who “virtually everyone” (in Haass’s words) thought had WMD, and ultimately led to the establishment of a new democracy in the heart of the Arab world.

The second Iraq war was necessitated in part by the inconclusive ending to the first one.  They may be better viewed as two battles in a larger war not yet over, whose outlines will be clearer to future historians than they are to us.  But while we are in the middle of history, not at its end, it seems safe to say that historians trying to evaluate the two Iraq wars are going to need more sophisticated analyses than those provided by either Haass or Brzezinski.



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