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Time for a Real Conversation About War
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My oldest son is handsome, smart, and, in the words of my old boss Ann Richards, very nearly perfect. I love him boundlessly, so it hurts me to know that his homeland has been at war for every single day of his life except for a few months in 2001 when he couldn’t yet crawl. Now he’s shaving, and for the first time in his life he might get to witness a real discussion about going to war.
For his sake, I hope Congress is capable of having an adult conversation about whether to authorize war against ISIS. We could get by with the war authorization passed in 2001 that grants broad powers to fight international terrorism, but boy howdy, this conversation is long overdue.
For a president whom Republicans brand as an America-hating traitor, Obama has overseen drone strikes in Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, and Pakistan, war in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and counterterrorism operations across the globe. But because all of these are covered by the congressional war authorization needed to fight Al-Qaeda, we’ve been at war constantly without once talking about whether it’s a good idea.
Well, we did once. Remember yellow cake? Aluminum tubes? Weapons of mass destruction? “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”?
The trumped-up pretext to invade Iraq was our national-security Watergate. We were misled into a war that ideologues prosecuted badly, running up a moral and financial debt that’s still on our books. The 2002 Iraq War authorization hangs over us; what, exactly, are we getting into with ISIS?
That’s what Jeb Bush had to address when he recently gave his foreign policy speech in Chicago. His speech was remarkable not for his delivery or the content but for the unwanted subtext he has to answer: Would he lead us into war like his brother did? As much as he wanted to get away with “I won’t talk about the past,” Jeb had to talk about the elephant in the room.
Jeb is a useful catalyst in the discussion about whether to authorize war against ISIS. The literal question is whether fighting a land war against ISIS is in our national interest. The unspoken question is the same one Jeb is facing: Is this going to be like the liquor store robbery against Iraq in the early ‘90s that George Bush the elder fought (In & out, no one got hurt) or the disastrous one that George Bush the lesser started a decade later.
To paraphrase Raymond Carver, this is what we talk about when we talk about war. As much as Jeb has to position himself as the anti-Obama, he largely agreed with the President’s stance on warfare, even using the same words on ISIS. Said Jeb in Chicago, “You’ve got to tighten the noose, and take them out.” Said Obama some months ago, we have to “to take out” Islamic State militants.
The real challenge for Jeb is to create some daylight between him and his big brother, and listening to all the same advisers who created the pretext for invading Iraq isn’t helping.
That’s why it was so important for Jeb to say, “I’m my own man” in his foreign policy speech in Chicago last week. He can’t disavow his brother-the Bushes prize loyalty-but he can’t get elected dogcatcher in this country if he owns his brother’s war record.
Jeb damned his brother with faint praise when he called the troop surge a “heroic act of courage,” which sounded a little like congratulating the arsonist for putting out a fire he started. Left upraised and unmentioned were the decisions to invade in the first place and then expect flowers to be thrown in front of unarmored Humvees. It’s between those lines we are meant to read.
The Bush family isn’t the only one facing these questions. I’ll be talking with my sons about why we go to war and teach them that in a democracy they will be expected to participate in these decisions soon. Who knows? Maybe some day soon, they’ll experience a whole day when their country is not at war.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford