Richard Haass with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (left) and former IBM Chairman Louis Gerstner (seated)

Iraq, Wolfowitz told Congress in March 2003, can “really refinance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon” thanks to abundant oil revenues. However, as the Government Accountability Office noted in a July 2005 report, the U.S. has spent in excess of $200 billion on Iraq and continues to spend about $5 billion a month. Iraq’s crude oil production and overall power generation remains “lower than before the 2003 conflict.”

The militant idealists were similarly upbeat in predicting how many U.S. soldiers would be needed to secure the country, with Wolfowitz declaring before the war that he could not “imagine” the United States needing a large and sustained occupying force.

Instead, as of late August 2005, nearly 1,800 U.S. servicemen and women had been killed in Iraq—about 1,600 of them dying after major combat operations were declared over. Roughly 14,000 Americans had been wounded. About 25,000 Iraqi civilians died in violence during the first two years of the U.S. occupation, according to a generally respected estimate from a British group called Iraq Body Count.

“A dramatic military victory has been overshadowed by chaos and bloodshed in the streets of Baghdad, difficulty in establishing security or providing essential services, and a deadly insurgency,” a Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored report summed up in late July 2005.

Haass and his fellow realists seemed to get it right.

“I felt,” Haass says, “it would be extraordinarily difficult to transform Iraq and transform the region.”

Haass fleshes out his thoughts in The Opportunity, responding to the post-war assertions that the world was surely better off without Saddam Hussein. Human, financial, and political opportunity costs can offset undeniable benefits, Haass notes. In the case of Iraq, those additional costs include diminished White House credibility, the alienation of other countries, and the diversion of resources away from fighting Al Qaeda and rebuilding Afghanistan.

“What matters in business—as well as in foreign policy—is the balance or relationship between costs and benefits,” Haass wrote, leading to his “judgment that the war against Iraq was unwarranted … the direct costs to the United States were and are simply too high, given what was at stake.”

These, of course, are the kinds of arguments one wants heeded before rather than after the shooting starts. Unfortunately, Haass says, “the State Department was often the odd man out” during the Bush administration’s pre-war deliberations. War was going to be the way. Debate was over. Once that direction was set, Haass says, he had to “train (his) thoughts” to support the effort.

This, too, is the nature of government—and it can force the players into choosing between principle and power. Once policy is set, individual thoughts become subsumed. Some might want to make a statement by resigning, but then they’re no longer at the table. The table where things happen.

Even as Haass critiques the substance of the administration’s Iraq policy, he remains discrete about some of the characters making the policy.

Like John Bolton, the smart, combative, and divisive State Department appointee named by Bush to be ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton, naturally, is a Council on Foreign Relations member. Speaking shortly before Bolton became the nation’s first U.N. ambassador in history to slip into office through a presidential recess appointment, Haass politely but firmly sidestepped invitations to dish. It’s slightly disappointing—one just knows Haass has got some great stories—but it’s undeniably prudent for a man maintaining his future viability.

The Council on Foreign Relations sought out Haass and recruited him not long after Bush declared the end of major Iraq combat operations in mid-2003. Haass says his move was not one of protest nor an act of frustration; simply, the chance to be president of the Council on Foreign Relations was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Many big thoughts have percolated within the council. It’s where men like Henry Kissinger made their initial mark with their Cold War calculations. Before that, the Council’s War and Peace Studies Project laid the intellectual foundation for such international efforts as the Marshall Plan, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

“It was most influential in the planning for the world after World War II,” says Holly Sklar ’76, editor of a 1980 book called Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management.

Since then, Sklar suggests, “elite planning institutions” may have lost some of their cachet. Even the term Wise Men—the white men from Washington and Wall Street who strode the earth with the likes of Dwight Eisenhower—now carries a somewhat sardonic punch.

Many provocative thoughts still fly. From his new perch, Haass says he enjoys “greater independence” than in government, when he was partaking of “the proximity to power, and sometimes even power itself.” Television shows tap him for his expertise, and elite circles have considered his latest book respectfully.

The reviews have been mixed. James Mann, writing in the Washington Post, contended that Haass “offers a foreign policy that suits the detached mind-set of corporate headquarters, investment banks, and think tanks.” On the other hand, the New York Review of Books lauded Haass for an assessment that is “realistic, constructive, and conservative in the old sense of the word.”

Writing the book in the early mornings, late evenings, and occasional weekends took a toll on his family, Haass acknowledges. Even without such labors, the Council on Foreign Relations’ presidency is more than a full-time job. It has its compensations, of course; small ones, like being able to walk several blocks to work; and large ones, some of which may not pay off for years.

“It’s helping to set the intellectual agenda, raise resources, and get our ideas out there,” Haass says. l

Michael Doyle ’78 is a reporter in the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers.