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War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars, by Richard N. Haass Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $27

"Mayberry Machievellis," "fucking crazies": The neoconservatives in George W. Bush's White House were called lots of things in their day. Even by their colleagues: Bush's first secretary of state, Colin Powell, is said to be the father of the latter appellation.

Richard Haass, author of "War of Necessity, War of Choice," would probably agree. In the early 1990s, as a senior staffer in the National Security Council and a special assistant to president George H.W. Bush, Haass played a key role in forging the policy that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. A little over a decade and one Iraq war later, in the administration of Bush the younger, a far different spirit prevailed. Serving under Powell as the State Department's director of policy planning, Haass, who resigned in 2003, learned what it was like to go up against the crazies.

The results of the second war include the more than 4,000 American dead and the tens of thousands of lost Iraqi lives. They also include the sectarian bombings that continue into the present day. Such devastation has been recounted in many tomes about the war, but Haass' account comes from one of the few non-neocons to serve near the top of government during both conflicts.

Haass, a Jewish boy from Long Island who wound up with a doctorate from Oxford, has worked for every U.S. president since 1979 save Clinton and Obama. He has written around a dozen books on foreign policy, many of them when he was out of office during the Clinton years. He is currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

No alternative

The theme of Haass' current work will be no mystery to many Israelis; the notion of a "war of no alternative" has been part of the discourse here for decades. In the 1991 "war of necessity," a large international coalition removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait after he made the mistake of thinking he could use force to extend his borders. The administration under Bush Sr. was simply following the traditional "realist" approach to foreign policy that stresses containment, and in which U.S. efforts aim to affect states' external behavior in particular. The architects of the 2003 "war of choice," however, tried to impose regime change - and offered their very own domino theory - while the coalition of major partners was far narrower with far fewer troops. Such is the background for the two Iraq wars, and Haass' behind-the-scenes account is likely to become both a key source on prudent policy making (the first war ) and a primer on when a public official should resign (the second ).

The days of the first conflict were, in effect, Haass' glory days, and the book devotes more than twice as many pages to the first war as it does to the second (in between come chapters on "The Clinton Interregnum" and "The 9/11 Presidency" ). There was plenty of glory to go around. Even an American who voted for Dukakis can feel a kind of pride about the time when, instead of shock-and-awe neocons, the United States had mild-mannered Republicans like Brent Scowcroft who were not afraid to tell Prince Bandar, representing the hesitant Saudis, that they "had a choice between being defended and being liberated."

Haass notes how Scowcroft has been quoted as saying that Dick Cheney, the defense secretary under Bush Sr. and the vice president under Bush Jr., changed for the worse over the years. As Haass puts it, this is perhaps due to Cheney's age and health, to 9/11 and to the fact that he was no longer an "outlier" among "pragmatic internationalists." The new leadership configuration "allowed Cheney to be himself." Haass says that of the four presidents he worked for, there was considerably less infighting among those working for the elder Bush, not least because of Scowcroft, the national security advisor: "Brent told [secretary of state] Jim Baker at the outset that he would not give speeches or go on television without first discussing it with him. After three months, Baker essentially told Brent just to do what he thought correct."

Even more noteworthy is the reminder of how Americans still suffered from the Vietnam Syndrome in the early '90s. There's an amusing section midway through the book on the difficulty of convincing Congress, the public and the media to go to war in 1991. Former president Jimmy Carter was actually advising other countries on the UN Security Council to block the United States, while even hawkish senator Sam Nunn was against attacking. At a working lunch in New York, Haass had no success in trying to persuade the New York Times editorial board that sanctions would not suffice to get Iraq out of Kuwait. At the Council on Foreign Relations, more than a decade before Haass would become its president, a member came up to him and asked if he had read David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" - the early-'70s opus on how America's Vietnam policy went wrong. (Of course he had. ) The eventual Senate vote on the UN resolution endorsing the use of force was a cliffhanger, unlike the landslide over a decade later.

"This was a war of necessity if there ever was one," Haass says, noting that if Iraq had remained in Kuwait it would have controlled 20 percent of the world's oil reserves, and an appeased Hussein would have been poised to further menace hisneighbors. "This was the biggest improvement of the modern era over the Middle Ages. A world in which states regularly used force to settle their disputes and realize their ambitions would be a Hobbesian world of never-ending violence."

Haass says no one in the administration wanted to push on to Baghdad and "become an occupying force in a hostile land with no exit strategy" and without authorization from Congress or the UN Security Council. Recent experience in Panama in the ousting of military dictator Manuel Noriega had proved that cities were no place for American forces to show off their high mobility and technology. And the administration thought, wrongly, that Saddam Hussein was unlikely to survive in power after his defeat. When Hussein did survive, the Bush I team and its allies enforced no-fly zones in the north and south to protect the Kurdish and Shi'ite refugees.

Israel, meanwhile, comes out well in Haass' opinion for not attacking Iraq when hit by its missiles during the first war; this helped keep the Arab and Muslim states in the international coalition on board. Right-wing prime minister Yitzhak Shamir "in particular rose to the occasion": "I thought it was true statesmanship and a rare example of an elected politician demonstrating courage and choosing the long term over the immediate." This jibes with the depiction in Avi Shlaim's 2007 biography of Jordan's King Hussein. Jordanian sources told the Israeli historian how, in a summit just before the fighting, Shamir was pleasant and trustworthy, taking the king at his word that his mobilization of troops was purely defensive.

Haass repeatedly notes that it was U.S. policy to keep Iraq strong enough so it would remain a buffer against Iran - that the Israelis were concerned about Iran, not Iraq. "It was thus with more than a little bemusement when, years later, I read the book by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer that criticized what the authors saw as the exaggerated impact of the so-called Jewish lobby, suggesting that Israel was partially responsible for pushing us into the second Iraq war."

So did Haass have any problems being a Jew in such sensitive positions? It seems the stickiest situation occurred just before his posting to the Bush I team, when syndicated columnist Rowland Evans wrote a letter to then-deputy national security adviser Robert Gates; Evans was irked in part because of "rumors that I was 'too much of a Zionist,' code for being Jewish and overly sympathetic to Israel."

No kiss-and-tell

It's a memoir, but don't expect a kiss-and-tell epic. Haass' style is clear, like his declassified memo to Powell at the end of the book that prescribes nation-building to prevent chaos after the 2003 war. You'll need Bob Woodward if you want to hear about Bush's legs nervously dancing under the table at meetings or Pentagon undersecretary Douglas Feith's characterization (by General Tommy Franks ) as the "dumbest bastard ... on the face of the earth." Instead, Haass uses polite terms like "lack of any meaningful interagency process," or "virtually no systematic, rigorous, in-house debate," to convey his take on the George W. Bush administration's dubious concentration of executive power.

In foreign policy, this concentration was overseen by a dysfunctional national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, during the bulk of Bush Jr.'s first term. As Haass explains it, this official needs to be the honest broker who sifts through policy proposed by the State Department, Pentagon, CIA and other agencies. No one did this better than Bush Sr.'s man, Brent Scowcroft. Rice, however, "emerged as someone more intellectually and politically conservative than the person I was familiar with. Why this happened I do not know."

Rice had gone a long way from being Haass' peer in the Bush Sr. administration to being a superior during Bush II. Haass doesn't mention her stint as a board member of several multinational corporations during the '90s. In July 2002, eight months before the war, when Haass asked Rice if she really wanted to make Iraq the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, Rice cut him off and said, "You can save your breath, Richard. The president has already made up his mind on Iraq."

Not surprisingly, we also learn about the muzzling of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. But Haass' insider account provides extra value. About a month after the author's exchange with Rice in the White House, Scowcroft, a decade out of office, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal strongly urging the administration to avoid going to war with Iraq. Two weeks later, vice president Dick Cheney gave a speech insisting that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction. Cheney, it turns out, had simply told Bush that he would be giving a speech on Iraq; Haass expresses bewilderment that an address on such a vital topic could be given without clearance from the CIA and National Security Council.

This was not the least of his problems: "Dick Cheney and I always got on well, or at least I thought so until I learned that his staff was reading accounts of my conversations abroad supplied by U.S. intelligence agencies."

With friends like these, why didn't Haass resign sooner? Haass notes that his wife had begun calling him an "enabler"; the administration was trotting out the likes of him and Powell to speak its belligerent case to allies and the media. As Haass quotes Franklin D. Roosevelt's long-serving secretary of state Cordell Hull, he was "tired of being relied upon in public and ignored in private." When the job to lead the Council on Foreign Relations opened up, he let his name be considered and took the post when accepted.

Haass says that with incoming intelligence showing that Iraq still had biological and chemical weapons, he was only "60/40" against a war. Otherwise he would have been "90/10." He uses an American football analogy to illustrate his role as an "independent voice" - saying "one is more likely to influence policy if one argues for changes that would move the ball a few yards down the field than if one suggests a total change in game plan." This sounds a bit like the lifelong communist party official in Eastern Europe who stayed on board to influence things from the inside.

Unlike Powell, Haass can't blame it on a military background - that is, on a propensity to carry out orders. Haass notes how Powell kept a portrait of George Marshall in his office, another top general who became secretary of state. "You don't take a post of this sort and then resign when the man who has the constitutional responsibility to make decisions makes one you don't like," Marshall once said. Of course, the decision this time, as Haass points out, was the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.

Steven Silber is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.

Haaretz Books, September 2009