Operation Iraqi Occupation: A Decade, Century, or More?

How long will the American occupation of Iraq last? Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton figures at least through her first term, if she is elected. Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the deputy U.S. commander in Iraq, says five to ten years. President George W. Bush says at least a decade.

Lt. Gen. James Dubik, head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq, figures Baghdad won’t be able to handle its own international security for as much as a dozen years. Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House aide nominally in charge of Afghanistan and Iraq, opines "that a long-term relationship with the United States is in our mutual interest." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks of a "long term" relationship with Iraq.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed a "long and enduring presence" and pointed to Japan and South Korea as occupation models – U.S. troops have been in both nations since the end of World War II, that is, for more than 60 years. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain says maybe U.S. forces should stay for a century. Back when some people still celebrated the genius of the neocons in carrying out the Iraq invasion, the Pentagon began planning creation of four permanent, aka "enduring," super-bases. All that’s left is for someone to advocate that American troops stay until the Second Coming.

John McCain isn’t president yet, but his support for a well-nigh permanent occupation of Iraq demonstrates that things could get worse after President Bush mercifully leaves office. Perpetual war around the globe seems to be the Republican presidential candidate’s goal, with Iran and North Korea also in his gunsites.

Moreover, to cow his opponents he plays a demagogue with forked tongue. For instance, when attacking Mitt Romney, McCain claimed that to set a withdrawal date for Iraq would mean to "surrender and wave a white flag." The result would be "chaos, genocide." Yet we’ve already had chaos, thanks to the invasion and botched occupation. And who is going to perpetrate this genocide against whom? The virulent ethnic cleansing of late was awful, but actually made mass killing less likely by separating feuding populations. A nasty civil war is possible, but that’s not the same as genocide. Anyway, such a struggle might be inevitable, and better that U.S. personnel be out of rather than inside of such a fight.

Whether or not McCain wins, it will almost certainly be up to Congress to end the occupation. The Bush administration currently is negotiating with Baghdad to maintain U.S. troops in the country. "The pact will cover the tasks of U.S. troops in Iraq and their mission in the next phase," said Hoshiyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister. He insisted that a permanent occupation was a "red line" that would not be crossed. Similarly, the Iraqi government’s national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, said that "permanent forces or bases in Iraq for any foreign forces is a red line that cannot be accepted by any nationalist Iraqi." Defense Secretary Robert Gates affirmed that "we have no interest in permanent bases."

Yet will the present and future U.S. presidents respect Iraqi wishes? President Bush says we could "easily" stay in Iraq for a decade or more. Indeed, in the same sentence in which he disclaimed any intention of establishing permanent bases, he spoke of the need to "enter into an agreement on how we are going to conduct ourselves over the next years."

On Iraq, Sen. Clinton is running as Bush-lite. She criticizes the war she voted to authorize, but is not inclined to end America’s participation in the conflict. She says U.S. troops would stay throughout her first term. Anyone schooled in Washington – and aware that her husband’s promised one-year military deployment to Bosnia, begun in 1995, continues to this day, albeit with lower troop levels – should expect the troops to be in Iraq during her second term as well.

Sen. Obama is more likely to abandon President Bush’s bloody policy, having opposed it from the start. But he would come under enormous pressure to be "reasonable" and avoid a "precipitous" troop drawdown. It’s no surprise, then, that while most Americans want to bring home U.S. troops, they doubt that Washington’s political class will soon clean up the mess that it made in Mesopotamia.

What if Baghdad said go? Presumably Washington would feel some pressure to respect the wishes of the elected Iraqi government. Nevertheless, Washington has tremendous clout, since American rather than Iraqi security forces ensure the survival of the official Iraqi government.

Yet attempting to maintain a lengthy U.S. occupation would intensify internal tensions in Iraq. Foreign Minister Zebari says that the length of stay of U.S. forces must be negotiated, and that "their presence will not be open-ended." A majority of Iraqi legislators signed a petition last May calling on the U.S. to set a withdrawal timetable. Journalist Dahr Jamail contends that the U.S.-Iraqi accord, reached in November, setting principles for a continuing occupation, "violated both the Iraqi constitution and the resolution passed earlier [last] year by the Iraqi Parliament."

Unfortunately, little in U.S. behavior so far suggests the Bush administration is ready to abandon its dysfunctional client. Construction proceeds apace on the almost $600 million U.S. embassy, a mammoth project plagued by an astonishing $144 million in overruns. The new embassy covers 104 acres. The 21 buildings will include more than 600 apartments, recreational facilities, school, and an "American Club" in which diplomats can relax.

Administration officials told the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler that this vast compound was "a key element of building a sustainable, long-term diplomatic presence in Baghdad." But only diplomatic? This does not sound like the sort of facility that a retiring power would construct. Perhaps the administration believes that it can run Iraq through the State Department. But without a heavy U.S. military presence, Baghdad is unlikely to listen attentively to American government demands.

Moreover, the Bush administration is pushing to include the right to undertake combat operations and hold Iraqi prisoners, and to exempt U.S. personnel, including civilian contractors, from Iraqi law. If Washington cannot use its troops to fight, why keep them there?, one anonymous administration official told Bloomberg News. True, but the proponents of an extended occupation of Iraq, like Sen. McCain, promised that Iraq would become like South Korea, a bucolic land filled with friendly people showering their foreign occupiers with love. So much for that theory.

Indeed, those most interested in controlling Iraq from Washington expect to forge an Iraqi role likely to be very unpopular among Iraqis – and thus enforceable only if the U.S. maintains coercive tools, such as tens of thousands of combat troops, capable of exerting significant pressure on the Iraqi authorities. For instance, Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the recent joint U.S.-Iraqi communique "marks the beginning of the normalization of relations between allies in a common fight against al-Qaeda and against Iranian efforts to dominate the Middle East."

At this stage, few Iraqis support al-Qaeda – in Iraq. But there is no evidence that Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, who only recently turned against the Sunni-based terrorist group, are interested in joining Washington in a crusade against al-Qaeda outside of Iraq. Would any Iraqi government, of whatever political or sectarian complexion, deploy Iraqi soldiers to, say, Afghanistan, where the battle against al-Qaeda also has taken military form? Not likely.

Equally unlikely is an alliance against Iran. The shared Shi’ite faith of a majority of Iraqis and Iranians does not alone eliminate political differences between the two countries. Nevertheless, the shared religious identity is very strong. Baghdad certainly won’t be attacking Iran, absent a military threat from Iran. And while Iraqis might not favor an Iranian nuclear weapon, they aren’t likely to threaten Tehran with military action, even (or especially) alongside the U.S. Even client states can be pushed only so far. Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh insisted that "Iraq will not be used as a passage to attack any of the neighbors."

Further, discussions over administrative questions involving an "enduring" troop presence will inevitably slop over into the length of U.S. access to Iraqi bases. When asked about "permanent bases," Gen. Lute responded: "That’s another dimension of continuing U.S. support to the governmen of Iraq, and will certainly be a key item for negotiation next year." White House spokeswoman Dana Perino attempted to quiet the resulting controversy by intoning that "We do not seek permanent bases in Iraq."

Casting further suspicion on the Bush administration’s truthfulness regarding current negotiations is its attempt to cut Congress out of any decision-making role. This isn’t surprising. After all, administration officials have promoted the idea of the "unitary executive," that is, that the president is basically a reincarnation of Louis XIV, the famed Sun King, around whom the entire government revolved. In this view, Congress is largely a ceremonial appendage with the duty to ratify whatever the president decides.

Thus, the administration is insisting that it will use an executive agreement, which does not require congressional approval or Senate ratification, to provide the framework for a continued U.S. occupation of Iraq. Gen. Lute explained that "We don’t anticipate now that these negotiations will lead to the status of a formal treaty which would then bring us to formal negotiations or formal inputs from the Congress." Translation: Congress should bug off.

And not just the Congress. Gen. Lute added that the November U.S.-Iraqi "declaration of principles" regarding "developing a long-term relationship" does not even "rise to that level of negotiated document," that is, an international "agreement," for which the Iraqi constitution specifically requires legislative authorization. Translation: the Iraqi legislature should bug off.

In fact, however, the ultimate agreement is expected to have far more than typical diplomatic boilerplate, requiring that it receive serious consideration. Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) asked: "Where have we ever entered an agreement to defend a foreign country from external and internal attack that was not a treaty." The U.S. and Iraq agreed to include "security assurances and commitments to the Republic of Iraq to deter foreign aggression." But the commitment to protect Iraq is even more dangerous applied domestically: the accord includes support for Baghdad for combatting terrorist groups as well as "all other outlaw groups regardless of affiliation." Thus, American troops will face continued involvement in sectarian conflict, civil war, and guerrilla combat.

Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman cites 1955 State Department guidelines that "emphasize the need for congressional approval when an agreement ‘involves commitment or risks affecting the nation’." In 1969 the Senate adopted the National Commitments Resolution which indicated that any promise of military aid would be a "national commitment" requiring a "treaty, statute or concurrent resolution," that is, congressional assent. For this administration, however, that was then, this is now. Even Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a hawkish Republican from California, criticized the administration for "arrogance," noting that any security guarantees would require congressional approval.

Hawks promise that the security situation will continue to improve, but they’ve been mostly wrong since the invasion began. For them even the recent improvement is a surprise, since there was not supposed to have been any bad from which to improve. Utopia was supposed to have arrived alongside U.S. forces. Virtually everything that has happened in Iraq since has been a surprise for them.

Moreover, the U.S. government’s Realpolitik deal with the Sunnis could easily break down the longer the U.S. occupies Iraq. The Sunni tribes have joined with Washington based on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If al-Qaeda is beaten, then the joint enemy disappears. And if the U.S. attempts to stay, it could become the new joint target, especially if al-Qaeda reinvents itself, focusing its attacks on American troops rather than Iraqi civilians.

The White House has made its contempt for Congress clear in another way. Last year Congress used its "power of the purse" to bar use of funds to construct permanent bases: no money can be spent "to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq." That would seem to be clear enough. But National Public Radio reported that the administration considered using the terms "continuing" or "enduring" instead of "permanent" to circumvent the congressional restriction.

In the end, however, President Bush took a more direct approach. He issued one of his infamous "signing statements," indicating that he would ignore Congress. Although he claims to have no interest in establishing permanent bases, the president asserted the unilateral right to disregard the legislative prohibition. It is an outrageous contention. If the president believes that Congress is infringing upon his constitutional power, he has an obligation to veto the bill, not ignore the law.

Further, the U.S. Navy opened a facility at Iraq’s Khor al-Amaya oil terminal in November. The Pentagon asserted that that the base was not permanent, since the Iraqi Navy would take it over as soon as possible. However, a viable, independent Iraqi navy is even more distant than a viable, independent Iraqi army. One is entitled to suspect that Washington expects to deploy Navy personnel to Khor al-Amaya for an "enduring" if not "permanent" period of time.

Certainly the Bush administration believes we are in Iraq for the long-haul. Moreover, it seems determined to lock its successor into its own foolish plan for an eternal American military presence in Mesopotamia. Indeed, it is tempting to believe that the administration chose to govern incompetently in order to create a geopolitical mess that would forever entangle the U.S.

Unfortunately, administration manipulations won’t be necessary if John McCain is elected president. Then he will be in a position to push for an expansive occupation throughout his term, as well as attempt to entrench America’s presence to get the 100-year-occupation that he desires. Moreover, he could extend the war to Iran and other Middle Eastern states, creating even more opportunities for "enduring" occupations.

The only way to prevent this is for the American people to vote their conscience. They must base their votes in November on their opposition to the war. It makes no sense to elect an "independent" candidate who would reinforce the Bush administration’s worst mistakes in the most important area of policy today.

Moreover, Congress must do more, far more, to carry out its constitutional responsibilities. If the president, any president, lawlessly ignores congressional restrictions on war appropriations, then Congress must challenge him in the courts of law and public opinion. Legislators also should retaliate, making the life of the president, and especially of his staff, miserable – defund selected White House, State Department, and Defense Department agencies and sections, eliminate the pay of recalcitrant officials, and hold hearings highlighting presidential abuses and lawlessness. The Democrats should start now. There’s no reason to wait for a new administration.

As most Americans realize, the decision to invade Iraq was a tragic mistake. There were no WMDs to threaten the U.S. or Baghdad’s neighbors, and Iraq could have been deterred in any case. Democracy was not ready to spring forth fully formed with but a gentle tug from the U.S. Marines.

Saddam Hussein was a thug, but the U.S.-initiated war has resulted in the death, maiming, and wounding of hundreds of thousands, and probably millions, of Iraqis. Pervasive murder, kidnapping, torture, extortion, and other crimes have destroyed Iraq’s fragile civil society. Ethnic cleansing and violence have wrecked Iraqi families and communities.

Moreover, the war has become another cause celebre for terrorists, spurring their recruitment around the globe. Dismantling the Iraqi state has empowered the Iranian regime, which long has been more dangerous than Iraq.

Unfortunately, the foolish decision to go to war cannot be redeemed by a lengthy occupation and permanent bases. To the contrary, doing so will simply cost more lives, waste more money, and make more enemies without enhancing U.S. security. Indeed, America’s influence and reputation will suffer further erosion, and not only in the Middle East, but around the world.

There is no easy way to clean up the mess made by the Bush administration in Iraq. But future policymakers should not compound the administration’s many mistakes by making the U.S. military occupation permanent. The debate today should be over how quickly America should withdraw, not how long its military forces should remain.