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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.