In a big speech yesterday at the Citadel in South Carolina, Jeb Bush announced that he, if elected to the White House, would be the third President Bush to deploy American forces to fight a war in Iraq and the Middle East. Jeb’s speech was a response to the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, which hardened the resolve among Republican lawmakers that the U.S. must deepen its military involvement in the fight against the Islamic State and take a more active role in bringing an end to the Syrian civil war.
This is obviously an awkward position for Jeb to be in. He wants to reinvade Iraq to defeat ISIS, which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq, which did not exist until his brother invaded the country. He’s now coming before the country promising that one Bush-led international military coalition will fix what the last Bush-led international military coalition left broken. Unfortunately for us, Jeb wasn’t especially forthcoming with any details as to how this would work.
Instead he laid out the broader strategic objective of using “overwhelming force” to “stamp out ISIS.” The precise definition of “overwhelming force,” he said, will be determined by what “our military generals recommend, not politicians.” This focus on troop deployments and sussing out just how many boots would have to be on the ground distracts from the larger problem of what happens if/when ISIS is defeated militarily. The lesson of the Iraq occupation was that a military strategy doesn’t do you much good if you have no plan for maintaining political stability in the occupied territory. Jeb’s proposal assumes that not only can we finally get the Iraqi army and the government in Baghdad whipped into shape, but that we can also do the same with the Syrian failed state. “To take out ISIS, we must end Assad’s brutal war against his own people,” Jeb said, “and create a political solution that allows for a stable Syria.”
One thing I will say for Jeb is that he’s at least sort of acknowledging that this is an extraordinarily difficult undertaking that he’s proposing we get ourselves into, and it will cost American lives. “Let there be no doubt – this isn’t going to be easy,” he said to the Citadel cadets. “Some of you in this room will serve on the front lines of that fight against ISIS, and against radical Islamic terrorism. You will sign up for an uncertain fate on foreign fields of battle because your country and the cause of freedom are calling you.” This doesn’t come anywhere close to capturing the insane complexity of the situation and the high likelihood that aggressive intervention will result in yet another quagmire involving high numbers of civilian and military casualties. But, recent history notwithstanding, Jeb clearly believes that this course of action is correct and necessary.
However, that brings up another important question: How, exactly, will all of this be paid for? While Jeb is recommitting troops to another conflict in the Middle East for an undetermined period of time, he’s also going to preside over a massive buildup of the military: more soldiers, more warships, new submarines, new bombers, missile defense, cybersecurity and more of pretty much everything else you can think of. There’s a hefty price tag associated with all of this – the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will end up costing somewhere between $4 trillion and $6 trillion (assuming our role in Afghanistan ends any time soon). Jeb wasn’t overly specific in just how much he’d bump up military spending, but from the outline he sketched out, the number will be somewhere between “a lot” and “god damn that’s a lot.”
While Jeb is proposing this, he’s also proposing a tax cut plan that will cost, by his campaign’s own estimates, somewhere between $1.2 trillion and $3.4 trillion over a decade. A less optimistic estimate from Citizens for Tax Justice puts the cost of Jeb’s plan at more than $7 trillion. Jeb also favors a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
Basic math says he can’t do all these things at once. Nor can Marco Rubio, who is also promising massive tax cuts, balanced budgets, much higher military spending, and an aggressive military posture abroad. Thanks to Bush’s older brother, we already know the bloody consequences of prolonged military adventures in the Middle East, and we already know the unworkability of embarking on nation-building exercises while gutting government revenues. Let’s not let Jeb or any other Republican pretend that the next time will be any different.