President Obama recently defended American combat in Afghanistan as a "war of necessity," not a "war of choice." He borrowed this deceptively neat distinction from Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a recent book on the subject. And proving how unhelpful it can be, Haass quickly corrected the president. No, Afghanistan is a "war of choice," he declaimed in the New York Times, "Mr. Obama's choice."
The president has walked into a murky swamp that is best avoided. There have been few if any clear-cut wars of necessity in America's history. Not the Revolution, where both the colonists and the British had other and, in the British case, better choices. Not the Civil War, which some historians still believe was an unnecessary and catastrophic spilling of American blood. (Slavery, they wrongly argue, would eventually have died of natural causes.) And never mind the war with Mexico, the Spanish-American War, the many interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, or, in the view of many, World War I.
Haass's own examples don't fit the bill either. He cites the Persian Gulf War as a "war of necessity," but as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, 48 members of the U.S. Senate and just about every self-described "realist" in the punditocracy argued at the time, the United States could have drawn the line at defending Saudi Arabia and tried to "contain" Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. A bad policy? Yes, and with all kinds of negative consequences for the Middle East and the world. But there also would have been many negative consequences had the United States not gone to war in 2003 and had Hussein remained in power these past six years.
Even the risk of a serious strategic setback does not automatically require going to war to prevent it. It partly depends on the cost. It would have been bad if the United States had not defended South Korea in 1950 -- another of Haass's "necessary" wars -- but it would not have been the end of the world, either. The United States and the West suffered far more from the Soviet Union's stationing of the Red Army across Eastern Europe after World War II, but no one, including Haass, claims it was necessary to go to war with Stalin in 1945.
The fact is, unless the nation is invaded or its very survival is imminently threatened, going to war is always a choice. So what is the point of trying to make this elusive distinction anyway? For many, including Obama, the present purpose is to distinguish Afghanistan from Iraq, Obama's "good" war from George W. Bush's "bad" war. But it won't work. As Haass correctly argues, right or wrong, they were both wars of choice.
But there is a deeper reason, as well, for Obama to claim necessity in Afghanistan. It is part of what increasingly seems to be a striving for moral purity in international affairs by this administration. Obama and his top advisers apologize for America's past sins, implicitly suggesting they will commit no new ones. And that goes for fighting wars. No one can blame you for fighting a war if it is a war of necessity, or so they may believe. All the inevitable ancillary casualties of war -- from civilian deaths to the occasional misbehavior of the troops to the errors of commanders -- are more easily forgiven if one has no choice. The claim of necessity wipes away the moral ambiguities inherent in the exercise of power. And it prevents scrutiny of one's own motives, which in nations, as in individuals, are rarely pure.
This hoped-for escape from moral burdens is, however, an illusion. Just because America declares something necessary doesn't mean that the rest of the world, and especially its victims, will believe it is just. The claim of necessity will not absolve the United States, and Obama, from responsibility for its actions.
As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out long ago, Americans find it hard to acknowledge this moral ambiguity of power. They are reluctant to face the fact that it is only through the morally ambiguous exercise of their power that any good can be accomplished. Obama is right to be prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, and he should do so even more vigorously. But he will not avoid the moral and practical burdens of fighting this war by claiming he has no choice. An action can be right or just without being necessary. Like great presidents in the past, Barack Obama will have to explain why his choice, while difficult and fraught with complexity, is right and better than the alternatives.