The Bush Escalation: Occupying Iraq, Forever

Rather like the Hotel California in the famous Eagles song, the U.S. will be able to check out of Iraq but never leave if President George W. Bush has his way. He says he hopes Iraq will become like Korea – where U.S. combat forces remain today, 57 years after they arrived.

White House presidential press secretary Tony Snow explained that “you get to a point in the future where you want it to be a purely support model.” He added: “The Korean model is one in which the United States provides a security presence, but you’ve had the development of a successful democracy in South Korea over a period of years, and, therefore, the United States is there as a force of stability.”

But, Snow adds, that doesn’t mean America’s military presence would be permanent since we would be there only at the Iraqi government’s invitation, and “the person who had done the invitation has the right to withdraw the invitation.” Said Snow: “I think the point [Bush is] trying to make is that the situation in Iraq, and indeed, the larger war on terror, are things that are going to take a long time. But it is not always going to require an up-front combat presence. The president has always said that ultimately you want to be handing primary responsibility off to the Iraqis.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates now talks of “a long and enduring presence but under the consent of both parties” and of troops remaining in Iraq for “a protracted period of time, but in ways that are protective of the sovereignty of the host government.” The Korean model, he adds, was better than Vietnam, “where we just left lock, stock and barrel.” Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who manages daily military operations in Iraq, said of this approach: “I think it’s a great idea.”

But the president’s ambition is modest compared to a proposal from Mark Alexander, publisher of the Patriot Post. He contends that “one closely guarded objective in securing a free Iraq is to establish a forward-deployed presence in the Middle East,” a goal that he describes as “critical, given that it will ensure our military presence in the heart of Jihadistan, and an ability to project force in the region.”

Moreover, we can never leave. Writes Alexander: “Not only should we not set a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, but we should seek to establish an alliance with the Iraqi government in order to maintain a strong military presence in the region. How long? As long as there are Islamofascists bent on detonating a nuclear device in some U.S. urban center and sending our nation into economic ruin.”

Administration officials once told us that Iraq was like Germany and Japan. The occupation would quickly pacify the nation, establish a democratic system, and return the country to normalcy. Oops.

Now, we are told, the model is South Korea. Never mind that South Korea is nothing like Iraq.

Never mind that Korea was not conquered in war: the U.S. and Soviet Union divided the peninsula at the end of World War II, replacing the Japanese colonial administration. Never mind that Korea is ethnically homogenous, a real country with an ancient heritage.

Never mind that religious conflict was unknown in Korea. Never mind that there was no religious conflict between Koreans and Americans. Never mind that the U.S. had never before warred against Korea or imposed sanctions on Korea. Never mind that Koreans bore no animus towards Americans.

Never mind that South Koreans never shot at or bombed occupying American soldiers. Never mind that the vast majority of South Koreans welcomed the U.S. presence five, ten, fifteen, twenty, and more years later. Never mind that the U.S. forces still formally fulfill a combat, not a support role, in deterring North Korea.

Moreover, never mind that Iraq faces no equivalent of North Korea, an enemy that must and can be deterred. Turkey cares about Kurdistan, which it invaded on Wednesday, not the rest of Iraq. Syria is too weak to contemplate aggression, and Iran is America’s, not Iraq’s, problem.

Indeed, Iran to Iraq is nothing like North Korea to South Korea. Since the Bush administration helpfully created in Baghdad a Shi’ite-dominated government filled with friends and co-religionists of the fundamentalist Shi’ite Iranian regime, Tehran is unlikely to attack. Indeed, a U.S. military presence is likely to inflame relations between Iraq and Iran, especially since the latter would correctly see Washington’s primary objective as intimidating and possibly attacking Iran.

As is obvious to anyone outside of the administration, ongoing sectarian violence/civil war, not possible foreign aggression, is Iraq’s problem. A largely sectarian government rules a fractured people, some of whom (Kurds) want nothing to do with the central government, while the others (Sunnis) want to control it again. This conflict is exacerbated, not ameliorated, by the American presence, since Washington is the de facto ally of the Shi’ite government.

Finally, never mind that, if Alexander is correct, the Bush administration has been lying about its “closely guarded objective” of establishing “a forward-deployed presence in the Middle East.” Only last year America’s ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, testified to Congress that “We have no goal of establishing permanent bases.”

Washington doesn’t need permanent bases in Iraq. Washington doesn’t need temporary bases in Iraq. Washington should bring home U.S. troops. Tony Snow explained that the administration has to constantly adjust policy, to “take a look at the facts on the ground.” That makes sense: too bad the administration didn’t take a look at the facts on the ground before invading Iraq.

Already the Iraq war has cost over 3500 American lives. Some 25,000 Americans have been injured. Thousands of U.S. personnel have lost limbs or suffered debilitating brain injuries. Yet casualties are rising as the Bush escalation puts American soldiers more deeply into hostile neighborhoods.

Tens, no, hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis have died as a result of their “liberation.” Many are “collateral damage” to U.S. military action, families hit by errant bombs, for instance, or riding in cars shot up while speeding towards American military checkpoints. Other Iraqi civilians die in the midst of anti-insurgency raids. Many others perish in the sectarian violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion. And millions of Iraqis have fled their country to avoid death or injury.

The U.S. already has spent $400 billion on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the cost rises $6 billion every month. Harvard economist Linda Bilmes figures that the butcher’s bill, including treating America’s wounded, could hit $2.5 trillion. The care for just one soldier suffering from brain trauma could cost $4.3 million or more.

But apparently this is not enough for President Bush. He expects America to hang around in Iraq for not years, but decades. If the U.S. military remains in Iraq as long as South Korea, American personnel will still be on station in 2060. How many more dead, American and Iraqi, are necessary? How much more money must be spent? How much more horror must be suffered?

The American people must say no.

From day one the Bush administration has existed in a fantasy world. It concocted phantom threats. It claimed phantom obligations. It promised phantom benefits. And it continues to concoct phantom threats, claim phantom obligations, and promise phantom benefits.

And the administration does so despite the collapse in public support.

A Gallup poll conducted in late May found that 39 percent of Americans want to simply end the conflict. Twelve percent advocate a clear exit strategy. Five percent say the U.S. should train the Iraqis to do the job.

Six percent say Washington should admit to past mistakes. Seven percent say it should work with the United Nations and other groups, to solve the issue. Four percent say the government should focus on domestic issues.

Just a quarter want Washington to stay the course or put more troops into Iraq.

A New York Times and CBS News poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq; only 35 percent believe the invasion was the right policy. Almost two-thirds want the U.S. to set a timetable for withdrawal, with only 34 percent opposed.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 61 percent of people disapprove of the war. The same number don’t believe the Bush administration’s escalation will restore order in Iraq. A majority don’t believe that the war has improved U.S. security and want to cut force levels in Iraq. Nearly 30 percent believe that U.S. forces should be withdrawn immediately or by the end of the year.

But public opinion obviously has little impact on policy. The Democratic congressional majority is running scared; most GOP legislators continue to back the president. As a result, money continues to flow for the war.

Of course, there is no easy way to escape from Iraq. But the Bush scenario is a fantasy. A majority of Iraqis already say they want Washington to leave and justify attacks on U.S. forces. They aren’t likely to tolerate an American military presence for five more years, let alone 50 more years.

The Alexander argument is even more fantastic. The number of Iraqis who want the American government to use their nation as an advanced regional base for attacking their neighbors probably can be numbered on one hand.

Moreover, such a strategy would be a disaster for the U.S. There are many reasons why people hate America, but Islamic terrorists are not attacking the U.S. because they hate Disneyland. As they have repeatedly made clear, they are striking America because they believe that the U.S. government has been attacking Muslims.

That doesn’t mean they are right, or that anything Washington has done warrants terrorism. But historically, terrorists use violence against established political regimes to achieve political objectives. For instance, more than a century ago anarchists wanted to depose the Tsar.

Moreover, perceived “foreign occupation” is one of the most potent grievances that sparks terrorism. The Irish Republican Army wanted the British out of Ireland. Tamil Tigers want a homeland in Sri Lanka. Chechnyan terrorists want Russia to abandon its grip on their homeland. Indeed, Robert A. Pape of the University of Chicago studied more than 300 terrorist incidents since 1980 and found that they were uniformly directed against foreign occupation.

Muslims are no different. Those who hate the U.S. government (far more than the number who hate average Americans, polls show) want Washington to abandon several forms of “occupation” – underwriting corrupt authoritian regimes in the Middle East, supporting Israel’s oppressive rule in Palestinian lands, and now killing Iraqis. This should surprise no one. American Marines died in Lebanon in 1983 because U.S. forces were introduced to support a Christian faction in a multi-sided civil war. The Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia were bombed in 1996 because U.S. forces were on station to buttress the monarchy. American sailors died on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 because it sailed to Yemen to demonstrate U.S. support for the government.

Even Paul Wolfowitz, the ivory tower neocon who so completely mismanaged the war that he had so enthusiastically promoted, admitted that American occupation forces were a cause of terrorism. He told Vanity Fair magazine four years ago:

"There are a lot of things that are different now [after the invasion of Iraq], and one that has gone by almost unnoticed – but it’s huge – is that by complete mutual agreement between the U.S. and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It’s been a huge recruiting device for al-Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina. I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things."

Imagine the consequences of keeping U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq for decades to come. They would provide a target for both Iraqi nationalists and international terrorists, most of whom would never contemplate attempting to reach, let alone be able to reach, American shores. Although bases in Kurdistan would be more secure, assuming Turkey doesn’t end up in a lengthy war with Iraqi Kurds, a permanent American presence would create another problem. Worries the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter: “Arabs would likely regard Kurdistan as ‘another Israel’ – a second alien U.S. client state in their region.” Thus, U.S. forces based anywhere in Iraq would add yet another Arab and Islamic grievance to an already long list.

President Bush might believe that Washington can never leave Iraq, but the American people don’t agree. Indeed, an amazing 60 percent of Americans say they don’t even trust the administration to honestly report security threats, let alone respond to them intelligently and competently.

Since the American people can’t rely on the Bush administration to do what is right, they should make clear that they will not be satisfied until they find a president and Congress who agree with them. Iraq is not Germany, or Japan, or South Korea – or the Hotel California. America can check out of Iraq, and it can leave. And it should do so as soon as possible.