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March 24, 2006

Are US Intentions More 'Base' Than Honorable?

by Jim Lobe

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 year.

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 of Iraqis."

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 grown.

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 and Iraq."

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)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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