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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.