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    Middle East
     Jun 5, 2007
Bush's Korea specter in Iraq
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - While US President George W Bush appears, however belatedly, to be embracing recommendations by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to begin withdrawing US combat troops by early next year, he has implicitly rejected the ISG's call to renounce any intention to establish permanent military bases in Iraq.

Indeed, confirmation by his spokesman, Tony Snow, last week that Bush favors a "Korean model" for Iraq where Washington would provide "a security presence" and serve as a "force of 



stability [for] a long time" spurred new questions about the administration's aims in Iraq and whether they indeed included a permanent military presence.

Adding to the speculation were remarks last Thursday by both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the overall field commander of US forces in Iraq, Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, suggesting that Washington favors a protracted, if not permanent, troop presence similar to the one that has seen a minimum of 30,000 US soldiers deployed to bases in South Korea since the Korean War more than 50 years ago.

"I think it's a great idea," Odierno told reporters during a video conference from Baghdad when asked about the South Korea analogy.

"That would be nothing but helping the Iraqi security forces and the government to continue to stabilize itself, and continue to set itself up for success for years to come, if we were able to do that," he said.

Meanwhile, Gates offered during a visit to Hawaii that the presence of "some force of Americans ... for a protracted period of time" would help reassure US allies in the region that Washington would not abandon them.

The Korea analogy has spurred some consternation among analysts in Washington for a variety of reasons, not least because when Iraqis have been surveyed on their views about permanent US military bases in their country, the response - except among the minority Kurdish population - has been overwhelmingly negative.

"It's unhelpful to handling the politics of our presence in Iraq," Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution who has been sympathetic to the Bush administration's goals in Iraq, told the Los Angeles Times last week.

But experts also reject the notion that the situation in Iraq, where US forces find themselves in the middle of a number of internal sectarian conflicts, bears any relation to that of South Korea, where US troops have been deployed as a "trip-wire" along the Demilitarized Zone to deter North Korean forces for more than 50 years.

The analogy "is either a gross oversimplification to try to reassure people [the Bush administration] has a long-term plan, or it's just silly", said retired Lieutenant-General Donald Kerrick, a former US deputy national security adviser who served two tours of duty in South Korea.

In recommending that Bush explicitly renounce a permanent military presence in Iraq last December, the 10-member ISG, which was co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, argued that such a declaration would reassure two key constituencies.

"The United States can begin to shape a positive climate for its diplomatic efforts [in stabilizing Iraq], internationally and within Iraq, through public statements by President Bush that reject the notion that the United States seeks to control Iraq's oil, or seeks permanent military bases within Iraq," it said, urging Bush to "state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases" there.

Congress has also implicitly encouraged the administration to make such a commitment. In the past two years, it has passed two laws that prohibit the government from spending any money to establish a permanent US military presence in Iraq.

Yet as the latest statements suggest, Bush has ignored these calls, while the Pentagon, which has been turning over smaller military bases to Iraqi forces in a number of provinces in the past year, has built up and retained four "super-bases" around the country capable of housing tens of thousands of military personnel.

In congressional testimony early last year, the then-chief of the US Central Command, General John Abizaid, laid out a number of reasons Washington would want to retain at least permanent access to those bases, although he stressed at the time that a policy on long-term US presence in Iraq had not been formulated.

In particular, 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 carry out counter-terrorist operations.

"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," he said in remarks that gained little attention at the time.

Despite the rapid descent into sectarian civil war in Iraq, as well as the plunge in public support in the US for the war that was made clear by the Democratic landslide in congressional elections last November and the publication of the ISG's recommendations, since Abizaid's testimony, the administration does not appear to have reconsidered its position.

"Of course, our original plans called for 13 permanent military bases, and the grand scheme was to deploy large numbers of troops there to exercise military hegemony over the Middle East," said retired Lieutenant-General John Johns in a teleconference arranged last Friday by the National Security Network. "That still is in the back of the mind of President Bush and some of his advisers.

"I can't take seriously that they would compare the Korea situation with Iraq," he noted, adding, "What bothers me is that it's an umbrella for staying the course."

Given prevailing popular sentiment in Iraq, maintaining a permanent military presence there could also undermine Washington's ostensible goal to promote democracy there, according to Charles Smith, an expert on the Persian Gulf region at the University of Arizona.

"This model requires the approval and cooperation of an Iraqi government, the gaining of which is highly doubtful. So if the US wants official approval, it will have to place its own man in power and keep there by force," he said. "In that case, the model to refer to is South Vietnam in the early 1960s, and we all know what happened there."

At least one Korea specialist said there are indeed parallels between the two situations, but only in a negative sense.

"Korea and Iraq are both examples of Americans stumbling into an unknown political, social and civilizational thicket, thinking they will solve some problem quickly, only to find that they cannot get out - ever, apparently," said University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, who stressed that Washington first became militarily involved in Korea immediately after Japan's defeat in World War II to prevent guerrillas led by North Korean founder Kim Il-sung from taking over the South.

"Then the Pentagon perpetual-motion machine takes over, and we have a new set of military bases to go with the roughly 735 [others] that we have around the world," he said.

Another prominent Northeast Asia specialist at the University of California at San Diego, Chalmers Johnson, described the analogy as potentially "disastrous".

"The Koreans have not asked us to stay there for the past 50 years. It's become one of the most anti-American countries that we've been allied with for some time now, in large part due to the bases we have there," said Johnson, who has published several books on Washington's global military deployment, including The Sorrows of Empire.

(Inter Press Service)

A dirge for the 'surge'
Jun 2

The colossus of Baghdad
May 31

The case for imperial liquidation
May 17

The changing South Korean position
Feb 7

 

 
 



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