"Spend What Is Necessary" No Longer Applies to U.S. Wars

On Sept. 7, 2003, President George W. Bush gave a broadcasted speech about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying “[The war on terror] will take time and require sacrifice. Yet we will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror, to promote freedom and to make our own nation more secure.” Wow, how times have changed: Bush was essentially requesting a blank check for war operations.

The speech is insightful reading in the context of the current debate over military engagement in Afghanistan because it reminds us that just eight years ago policies of American engagement overseas and military funding were very much in vogue.

At the time, support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was relatively high, and a strong economy seemed like a free pass for additional government spending, even if borrowed to support Bush’s request for additional war appropriation of $87 billion.

President Barack Obama could never use the words “spend what is necessary” in front of the American people. He would no doubt be lambasted from the left and derided by the right, including by many of the then-neoconservatives who supported American intervention in Iraq. Liberal leaders today would ask how Obama is different than Bush, and conservatives would criticize debt spending and foreign intervention. 2011 is eons from 2003.

In his speech, Bush described Iraq as the “central front in a long war on terrorism." Today, only Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner is more infamous than his description of Iraq as the “central front.” Of course, the Iraq war became increasingly unpopular over the next few years, and American troops are still on the ground aiding in the transition to a democratic and stable Iraq.

There are many lessons to be learned from Bush’s actions. For one, any military operations overseas must be focused and precise. War is never desirable, but if determined necessary, the goal must remain specific. The perpetrators of the September 11 attacks were members of Al-Qaeda based in Afghanistan. Therefore, the goal of the U.S. military should always have been to fight terrorist cells in Afghanistan alone. Instead, the Bush administration distracted itself with Iraq, a war that Defense Secretary Robert Gates would undoubtedly cite as “war of choice.”

The second lesson is that money matters. Writing blank checks to fight nebulous concepts like “terrorism” is a recipe for disaster. Public opinion may overlook debt spending in good economic times, but opinion ratings can fall faster than a stock market crash. America cannot afford such actions in 2011. We couldn’t in 2003, either, but we pretended that that the rules of economics did not apply.

Lastly, we must learn that the greatest threat to the American homeland can be American hubris. We can be bold, we can lead, we can engage our allies and our enemies on diplomatic fronts, but we can never fight wars like Iraq and Afghanistan again.

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