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Richard Haass Warns Afghanistan Could Become Obama's War Of Choice

First Posted: 06/01/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:20 PM ET


Former State Department official Richard Haass says he was not happy when he learned that Vice President Dick Cheney had spied on him.

"Cheney or someone on his staff thought I was having unauthorized contacts with Iranian officials," writes Haass in his forthcoming memoir, "War of Necessity, War of Choice,".

"Surprised would be putting it mildly," says Haass of his reaction to the spying revelation in an interview with the Huffington Post.

Haass says that he was completely unaware of the surveillance until he read about it in Barton Gellman's Cheney biography, Angler.

"One of the members of the vice president's staff at the time called me to say that he wasn't the source -- not to deny that it happened but just to say that it didn't come from him," says Haass, who calls Cheney's suspicions unwarranted. "I disagreed with the policy of not talking to Iran but I would not go and talk to them on my own."

Haass, the current president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former top official for both presidents Bush, was one of the few high-level officials involved in decision making in both Iraq conflicts. That experience prompted him to write "War of Necessity, War of Choice," in which Haass lays out his argument that the Gulf War -- a short and well-executed mission prompted by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait -- was a war of necessity while the Iraq War was President Bush's war of choice.

Haass says he is encouraged by President Obama's emphasis on multilateralism but warns that his strategy for Iraq and Afghanistan might not succeed

Though Obama is taking some noteworthy steps -- "the arrows are in the right direction" -- Haass remains skeptical about Obama's plans for the region, warning that Afghanistan could become the president's war of choice.

"Afghanistan has the making of his first war of choice, taking the fight to the Taliban," he says, expressing doubt about the impact of the recent surge in U.S. troops in that country. "The jury is out on whether the larger military presence and activity will pay off. It's a close call. From where I sit, I'm skeptical but it's worth trying. Given the nature of Afghanistan, it will be difficult. What you you have to do militarily runs the risk of alienating people politically... Afghanistan is not amenable to foreign or central government influence."

As for Iraq, Haass questions the logic of adhering to strict withdrawal timelines. "It makes sense to draw down [troops], but I question the timelines. We don't want to tie ourselves to specific dates or to commit to leaving. The optimal policy is not to get out no matter what but to the lowest level of possible troops and maintain a decent level of security and stability."

Haass, who just returned from Iraq, has been in discussions ("consulted is too strong a word," he emphasizes) with people in the administration and seems relieved that his thoughts are being taken seriously, which he contrasted to his experience with the previous administration, where he served as director of policy planning in the State Department.

Among the many mistakes made in the Iraq War, Haass highlights several: "I am not persuaded the administration had explored the alternatives of going to war, shoring up the sanctions," he says. "They went about it in a way that was almost guaranteed to give you poor results and raise the cost. Not enough troops, allowing the looting. It was frustrating for someone like me that a lot of these issues should not have come as a surprise."

Haass says that his advice was routinely ignored which was "immensely frustrating." Besides losing key arguments to the hawkish members of the administration, Haass' advice was rebuffed on increasing troop commitments to Afghanistan, conditional packages of incentives tied to behavior changes to North Korea and Iran, a more ambitious approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and constructive alternatives to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court. Haass resigned in the summer of 2003.

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