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Choice or Necessity

Pedro Vilas-Boas By WILLIAM SAFIRE Published: May 8, 2009 On a “Meet the Press” in February 2004, Tim Russert asked President George W. Bush whether, in light of not finding weapons of mass destruction, “you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?” Bush replied: “It’s a war of necessity. In my judgment, we had no choice when we look at the intelligence I looked at that says the man [Saddam Hussein] was a threat.” The question was probably bottomed on a combination of phrases in a Washington Post op-ed article that appeared not three months before by Richard Haass, who was a foreign-policy adviser in both Bush administrations and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Haass, a longtime pal despite our different foreign-policy mind-sets, has a book out this month that is an insider’s memoir of the two U.S.-Iraq wars titled, “War of Necessity, War of Choice” (Simon & Schuster, $27). The competing phrases are likely to be the rhetorical fulcrum of debate for the next months or years about the war in Afghanistan, and each is fraught with opinion. (Fraught is academese for “weighted, freighted, laden,” usually married to “with danger.”) As the two collocations line up “realists” (like the elder Bush and Obama) against “idealists” (like Reagan and Bush the younger), the clashing words deserve analyses of their origins and contrast. Haass cites Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish scholar, as differentiating “obligatory” wars of religion and defense from more “optional” campaigns extending boundaries. Grant Barrett, partner in the new online dictionary, has found the first English use placing both phrases in direct opposition in The Times (London) of 1801. Lord Romney (later Earl of Romney, no kin to our Mitt) wrote about the war between France and England that led to the

Treaty of Amiens a year later: “It was not a war of choice on our part, but a war of necessity. . . . We engaged in it for the protection of our Laws, our Constitution, our Liberty, and Religion; and in this object we succeeded.” Note that in this first instance of the phrases used together, the war of choice was mildly derogated while the war of necessity was used to denote a justifiable war of self-protection. Along came Napoleon; and Britain’s Prince Regent, who later became George IV, told Parliament in November 1813 that “the war, in which the allied powers are engaged against the ruler of France, is a war of necessity to defeat “his views of universal dominion.” For more than the century and a half that followed, the phrase war of necessity dominated, and war of choice seemed to fade. But Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister — who may well have studied Maimonides — speaking in Hebrew on Aug. 8, 1982, to the National Defense College in Jerusalem about Israel’s “Operation Peace for Galilee” war in Lebanon, contrasted what was officially translated as “wars of no alternative” with “wars of choice.” He included the War of Independence and the Yom Kippur War as “no alternative,” fighting for the nation’s very existence, but the Sinai campaign and the Six-Day War and the Lebanon operation as “wars of choice” — akin to what others would call “preventive war” — quite justifiable for self-defense but with alternatives arguably available. One year later, the Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote, “In Israel there were and are deep divisions over what is called a ‘war of choice’ — not of necessity.” Through the next decade, Barrett reports, both phrases were used about a variety of conflicts, including a war of choice in Bosnia. On March 9, 2003, Thomas Friedman brought the two phrases up to date regarding Iraq: “This is not a war of necessity. That was Afghanistan. Iraq is a war of choice — a legitimate choice to preserve the credibility of the U.N., which Saddam has defied for 12 years.” Haass’s Times op-ed in November of that year also called Iraq a war of choice as counterpoint to necessity but gave it a clearly pejorative connotation, which probably led to Russert’s popularization of the contrasting collocations. (Curiously, choice, as in “pro choice,” is a word warmly embraced by most liberals, as it is in “health care choice” by most conservatives.) Today, war of necessity is used by critics of military action to describe unavoidable response to an attack like that on Pearl Harbor that led to our prompt, official declaration of war, while they characterize as unwise wars of choice the wars in Korea, Vietnam and the current war in Iraq. Contrariwise, more hawkish groups reject the phrase war of choice as loaded against the legitimate use of armed forces to destroy terror bases, protect national interests or combat egregious human rights abuses or genocide. In this regard, supporters of the current Obama policy of continuing to commit United States combat troops to the war in Afghanistan may have to reconsider the pejorative connotation of war of choice. The tricky lexical part is this: When an attack is thought to be impending and preventive or preemptive attack is being urged, the argument is made that the choice is an urgent necessity. INSIDERS OUT

This has been a lively time for foreign-policy-insider books. Along with Haass’s work, I have been reading the late Peter Rodman’s “Presidential Command” (Knopf, $28), Douglas J. Feith’s “War and Decision” (Harper, $28), Leslie Gelb’s “Power Rules” (Harper, $28) and, to be published next month, Martin and Annelise Anderson’s “Reagan’s Secret War” (Crown, not $28 but $32.50). That full handful of literate memoirs yanks us every which way, but history and language are being well served. Send comments and suggestions to:

Letters Choice or Necessity?
Published: May 29, 2009 Regarding William Safire’s On Language column (May 10): Necessity, which John Milton aptly called “the tyrant’s plea,” is a word beloved of political leaders who seek to evade responsibility for their acts. When our Great Decider chose to invade Iraq without clear proof that it threatened either us or its neighbors, he called it “a war of necessity . . . we had no choice.” But in October 1962, when surveillance photographs clearly showed that Soviet missiles deployed in Cuba threatened the American mainland, President John F. Kennedy overruled all those — and there were many — who thought war was necessary. Choosing instead to blockade Cuba until the Soviets withdrew their missiles, he showed what can be freely done by a commander in chief bent on avoiding war until it becomes absolutely necessary. JAMES HEFFERNAN Hanover, N.H. William Safire, master of words, bar none, has striven in his column to convince us that a “war of choice” is, and has historically been, a country’s means of defending its security when it perceives an implied or potential threat. He cleverly aligns that concept with a “war of necessity,” which he describes as one in which there is a direct and imminent danger to security. Finally, his comparison narrows the gap between the two, so that there is overlapping definition. What is egregiously absent in his article is the prevailing, almost certain, reason to believe that the war in Iraq was neither one of choice nor necessity but contrived and invented for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with preserving our safety. For that kind of war we are paying dearly in lives, injuries, financial costs and international respect. STANLEY JONAS North Bay Village, Fla.