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Past is prologue

Doing war on the cheap has its price

Past is prologue

The swimming pool at Balad Air Base in 2005 (Associated Press/Photo by Jacob Silberberg)

In February 2003 Army chief of staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki told Congress it would require “several hundred thousand” U.S. military personnel to occupy Iraq. Some Pentagon commanders put the number at 500,000. By the end of that year—nine months after the fall of Baghdad and with U.S. occupation underway—American forces in Iraq numbered about 150,000. Without a strategy to deal with a rising insurgency, the United States sent 40,000 of those forces home. At the same time, it demobilized an Iraqi army numbering about 400,000.

Why recount old history? For one, the past is prologue. For another, when I’m asked what the United States can do or should have done differently in the Middle East, if anything, to thwart the rise and spread of Islamic State, I have to go back to 2003. There’s a lot of mischief and misinformation that floats around about our “failed mission” in Iraq, but sending an insufficient force to take and hold a militarized, industrialized country of 28 million is where it began. 

The decision to go to war on the cheap has dogged us ever since. Twelve years and multiple insurgencies later, with U.S. drones and jet fighters once again flying over Iraq, and the first American combat death last month, going in cheap has turned out to be very expensive. 

It was possible then and it’s possible now to craft a coherent Middle East policy.

In short, the United States went in with too few men, took a backseat view of America’s strategic and military interests, and at the same time meddled mightily in Iraqi politics. Our leaders promoted Shia strongmen to rule Iraq rather than promoting a truly nonsectarian government both Presidents Bush and Obama told voters back home they favored. 

Besides giving rise to Sunni-led ISIS, the meddling paved over the interests of Christians, Yazidis, and other viable minorities in Iraq. And finally, President Obama failed to leave a follow-on force of any substance in place with U.S. withdrawal.

The cost and scope of the Obama administration’s sudden withdrawal in December 2011 continue to unfold, most notably evident in ongoing revelations about vehicles and weaponry captured by ISIS. Also left behind: strategic bases situated at the heart of the Middle East capable of defending our interests and simply by their presence asserting our seriousness. Balad Air Base is one I visited in those war years, built by Yugoslav contractors working under Saddam Hussein in the 1980s smack in the center of the country and nearly in the center of the volatile region. Balad has two 2½-mile runways capable of handling C-130s and the latest jet fighters. Two. 

The Pentagon spent millions on facilities improvements at Balad (including a Pizza Hut and a swimming pool), only to abandon them completely. Many facilities at bases like Balad went dormant. The Iraqi army had no strike capability, no way to take advantage of those superlong runways until the long-delayed delivery of four F-16s just a few months ago.

In two months’ time, between U.S. departure in December 2011 and February 2012, Arab Spring mayhem erupted. Rulers were forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and massive uprisings were underway in eight countries. Street protests in Syria in 2012 quickly escalated into a civil war, and we know the rest of that ongoing story.

The point of the Monday quarterbacking: It was possible then and it’s possible now to craft a coherent Middle East policy. One that matches resources to strategic goals for the region, one that looks hard at rather than the other way at the humanitarian costs of doing war on the cheap, and of doing nothing. Preserving strategic interests and human life are surprisingly compatible goals when pursued forthrightly.

The Arab Spring upheaval demonstrated that democracy agendas were boiling underneath the surface. But the lack of security meant they would become free-for-alls, ultimately hijacked by jihadists. 

What we’ve seen in the months and years since is that it isn’t only about oil in the Middle East, or about weapons of mass destruction, or one dictator. The region sits at a crossroads to three continents, a gateway to the largest populations of the world and home to the world’s great religions. When it bleeds, we all feel it.


Listen to Mindy Belz discuss her column on The World and Everything in It.


  • William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:14 am

    But the strategy will only work from a judeo-christian perspective. So unless we understand the world as it really is, nothing's going to change. Our government is led by Christian hating Muslim. What can you do when that is the reality?

  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:14 am

    Excellent article.  I hope some folks in Congress read it.

  • Postmodern Redneck
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:14 am

    Charles, it has proved a lot more difficult to transplant responsible self-government than our elites of both parties ever realized.  They don't really know their own history.  The English-speaking countries did it--but they had a tradition of local self-government that went back to Anglo-Saxon times (and William the Conqueror was wise enough to leave it in place after 1066).  The Scandinavian countries shared some of that heritage as well (and the Vikings reinforced it in England).  In contrast, the French, just across the Channel from England, had a revolution in 1789; it took them until after 1870 to make a stable republican government.  Most of the world's nations do not have a history of self-government, so if they try to import it, it usually collapses into another tyranny, because it is not part of their culture.  It takes time, even generations, to establish such a thing in a culture that has never had it before.

  • hawaiicharles
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:14 am

    This is probably going to sound very politically incorrect, but I think it needs to be asked anyway.  All of the Arab countries are ruled by either monarchies, strong men, or some other form of tyrant.  Whenever we have toppled a strong man in the Arab world, or after Arab Spring burned through the region, every country quickly gravitated towards another tyranny.  So my question is this:  is there something in the Arab cultural mindset that makes people incapable of ruling themselves?

  • WORLD User 94453
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:14 am

    Well said.  Tragic opportunities missed.  Thank God my hope is in God and His wisdom, not in DC politicians.  There is always HOPE.  Soli Deo Gloria. .