Claims that the Iraq War was a reckless “war of choice” – rather than a prudent war of “necessity” – are a standard element of the anti-Bush narrative. The latest critic to make this claim is former White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
But a close look at American history shows that this distinction makes little sense. All wars are wars of choice, because it is almost always possible not to fight. The real question is whether the price of peace outweighs the costs of war.
Although the U.S. has resorted to armed force hundreds of times, it had engaged in only 10 major conflicts before 9/11, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War. In each instance, American leaders chose to go to war because they believed national interests were at stake. However, in only three of these conflicts was the nation’s existence even arguably threatened. And, even in each of these instances, options other than war were available.
The Revolutionary War was necessary, but only if the goal was American independence. Otherwise, colonial grievances could have been compromised. In 1776, Admiral Lord Richard Howe arrived in New York Harbor with a British Army and offers of pardon for most patriot leaders. As George Washington reported to Congress, Admiral Howe had “great powers” to negotiate a settlement. Indeed, as late as 1778, the British government offered to meet all colonial demands short of independence. America’s leaders, however, chose to fight on instead. By then, independence was the very point.
Likewise, the Civil War was a war of choice. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln chose to confront secession with force. The seceding states had not invaded the north, and the abolition of slavery was not – at this point – a war aim. Lincoln chose to fight because he genuinely believed in the Union’s constitutional indivisibility, and that the future of democracy rested on its survival, especially on vindicating the proposition that constitutional government was impossible if part of the country could simply opt-out after losing an election. However, there would still have been a United States if the South had gone, and many serious people thought the South would prevail. Britain’s William Gladstone spoke for many when he said, early in the war, that “We may anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern States.” Lincoln bet differently.
At the beginning of World War II, when Japan actually attacked Pearl Harbor, the country could nevertheless have chosen not to fight. It was perhaps politically unthinkable, but America would not have ceased to exist if it had abandoned its position as a great power in the Far East. The principal U.S. territory there – the Philippine Islands – was a colonial conquest from Spain; its other interests were economic and, of course, ideological. Was containment possible? Fortunately, Franklin Roosevelt did not explore that possibility.
Similarly, American engagement against Nazi Germany was also a matter of choice. Hitler declared war on the U.S. but had not invaded any U.S. territory. Should Roosevelt have explored a peaceful settlement and then, again, sought to contain an Axis Europe? Was his later demand for “unconditional surrender” necessary, or did it prolong the war? Some Americans – in ways eerily reminiscent of today’s efforts to decouple the Iraq war from the war in Afghanistan – argued at the time that the European campaign against Hitler was a distraction from the Pacific war against Japan.
Of course, it would have been morally unacceptable, and not in the national interest, to pursue any of these opportunities for peace – but they did exist. The question then, and now, is not whether war was unavoidable, but whether force is legally and morally justified in light of the circumstances.
In 2003, President Bush chose to confront Saddam Hussein – who indisputably was hostile to the U.S., who had used weapons of mass destruction in the past, and who had given aid to terrorist groups (though not directly to Osama bin Laden). The president may well have acted on faulty intelligence – as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence now claims – but he did not ignore or suppress intelligence proving that Saddam wasn’t a threat after all. Rather, he acted on available intelligence and in light of Iraq’s past record.
Going to war may have been a choice others wouldn’t have made. But it was no more a war of choice than any of our other wars.