President George W. Bush has long assured the
world that his intentions in Iraq are strictly honorable – to set the country
on a clear and stable path toward democracy and withdraw U.S. troops as soon
as Iraqi forces can take control, "and not one day more."
But more recent statements by top U.S. officials, including Bush himself, have
cast the latter intent into some doubt, heightening the belief among both Iraqis
and U.S. citizens, according to recent polls, that Washington actually intends
to establish permanent military bases in Iraq.
And the description by U.S. reporters of what are being called "super-bases"
that have already been built in Iraq only adds to the impression that the Pentagon
has no intention of passing up an opportunity – if it can be sustained – of
embedding itself deeply into heart of the oil- and gas-rich Middle East and
Gulf regions for permanent strategic advantage over any possible rival.
At al-Asad base in Iraq's western desert, wrote Charles Hanley of the Associated
Press earlier this week, "the 17,000 troops and workers come and go in
a kind of bustling American town, with a Burger King, a Pizza Hut, and a car
dealership, stop signs, traffic regulations, and young bikers clogging the roads."
"I think we'll be here forever," Hanley quotes one airman, at yet
another mega-base called Anaconda at Balad, as telling him in an article entitled
"Huge Bases Raise Question:
Is U.S. in Iraq to Stay?" The article notes that Washington has authorized
or proposed one billion dollars for U.S. military construction in Iraq this
The administration has long denied that it intends to build "permanent
bases" in Iraq, although Pentagon briefers have talked about "enduring"
bases without clarifying the difference.
As early as April 2003 – that is, less than a month after the U.S. invasion
– The New York Times reported that the administration was planning
to establish and maintain as many as four military bases in Iraq for an extended
period of time.
Later that year, Tom Donnelly, a military analyst at the American Enterprise
Institute (AEI) and the new editor of the influential Armed Forces Journal,
took Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld to task in the neoconservative Weekly
Standard for not "fess[ing] up" to the fact that bases in Iraq
were entirely consistent with the changes Rumsfeld was trying to effect in Washington's
global military posture.
Iraqi airfields in particular, he wrote, "are ideally located for deployments
throughout the region. … There's plenty of space, not only for installations
but for training," he wrote, adding, "And they are enough removed
from Mesopotamia that they would not be 'imperial' irritants to the majority
That, of course, was in the early days of the Sunni-dominated insurgency when
the neoconservative theorists who assured the public before the war that U.S.
forces would be greeted with "flowers and sweets" by grateful Iraqis
were still riding high in the administration and Congress. As the insurgency
has gained strength, the neocons have steadily lost influence.
Yet there is little evidence that the basic strategic goal of establishing
at the very least "permanent access" to Iraqi bases has changed.
In some ways, that has always been implicit in the administration's repeated
comparisons between Iraq and the occupations of Germany and Japan after World
War II. Those precedents have been cited with increasing frequency by Bush and
other top officials in recent months as public disaffection with the war has
While Bush and his aides have cited the two Axis powers as evidence of their
contention that Washington could successfully transform previously authoritarian
or even totalitarian states into democracies over time, critics noted that that
evolution was achieved in the context of a large U.S. military presence that
persists to this day.
In fact, the postwar "status of forces" agreement with Japan was
put forth as a model for a similar accord with the Iraqi Governing Council in
2004 by a Washington law firm that also represented the Iraqi National Congress.
In addition, the Pentagon has become increasingly concerned about its military
position in the region, according to Middle East expert Gordon Robinson, who
cited the effective expulsion of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan
and growing anti-U.S. feeling in Turkey as important setbacks. He described
Washington's hopes of acquiring bases in Iraq as "the elephant in the room."
Despite repeated appeals by independent analysts, including some, like Michael
O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who initially supported the war, for
the administration to solemnly forswear permanent bases or anything resembling
a permanent military presence as a way to reduce anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq
and thus weaken the insurgency, top officials have generally avoided doing so.
The one exception has been Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who during his confirmation
hearings late last year repeatedly stressed the importance of reassuring Iraqis
that Washington really did want to leave Iraq, permanently, as soon as possible.
His advice has been taken to heart by a growing number of lawmakers, Democrat
and Republican alike. Indeed, in a potentially significant move last week, the
House of Representatives approved a measure by voice vote to bar the Pentagon
from using any funds in the most recent appropriations bill for the purpose
of "enter[ing] into a basing rights agreement between the United States
That vote came on the heels, however, of the most explicit statement by a responsible
official to date about long-term U.S. military intentions in Iraq, one that
appeared to confirm that one of the original motivations for going to war there
was precisely to establish a permanent military presence.
In testimony before a House committee, the head of the U.S. Central Command,
Gen. John Abizaid, insisted that it "would be premature for me to predict"
whether Washington would indeed gain permanent access to military bases in Iraq.
He then proceeded to state some of the reasons why such access might serve specific
U.S. interests in the future.
He cited the "need to be able to deter ambitions of an expansionistic
Iran," ensure the "free flow of goods and resources on which the prosperity
of our nation and everybody else in the world depend," and prosecute the
"global war on terror" in the region among possible reasons.
"Clearly, our long-term vision for a military presence in the region requires
a robust counter-terrorist capability," he said. "No doubt there is
a need for some presence in the region over time primarily to help people to
help themselves through this period of extremists versus moderates."
Bush himself added to the speculation during his press conference Wednesday
when he was asked whether there would come a day when there would be no U.S.
forces left in Iraq. In a departure from his "not-one-day-more" mantra,
he insisted that was "an objective," but added, "And that will
be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." Bush's
term ends in January 2009.
But recent opinions polls both here and in Iraq show the idea of retaining
permanent bases is deeply unpopular in both countries.
Seventy-one percent of U.S. respondents, including 60 percent of Republicans,
in a recent
survey by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes
(PIPA), said they opposed the creation of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.
Even greater cynicism about Bush's "not-one-day-more" promises reigns
in Iraq, according to a PIPA
poll released at the end of January [.pdf]. It found that 80 percent of
Iraqis believe Washington intends to maintain bases there.
(Inter Press Service)