Bush pledges on Iraq bases a ruse
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Two key pledges made by the George W Bush administration on
military bases in its negotiations with the government of Iraq have now been
revealed as carefully worded ruses aimed at concealing US negotiating aims from
both US citizens and Iraqis who would object to them if they were made clear.
The talks are intended to establish the legal conditions under which US troops
will remain in Iraq after their United Nations mandate expires at the end this
Recent statements by Iraqis familiar with US demands in
negotiations on the US-Iraq "strategic framework" agreement have highlighted
the fact that administration promises that it would not seek "permanent bases"
or the use of bases to attack Iran or any other neighboring countries were
deliberately misleading. The wording used by the Bush administration appears to
have been chosen to obscure its intention to have both long-term access to
Iraqi bases and complete freedom to use them to launch operations against Iran
When Defense Secretary Robert Gates first informed the public about US aims in
negotiating on January 24, he renounced the aim of "permanent bases" in Iraq.
Gates said the US-Iraq agreement "would not involve - we have no interest in
permanent bases". The same day, State Department spokesman Tom Casey, asked if
the agreement would include any reference to "permanent bases", replied, "We're
not seeking permanent bases in Iraq. That's been a clear matter of policy for
Casey went on to say, "No, the agreement is not a basing agreement."
In congressional testimony on April 8, US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said
the agreements "will not establish permanent bases in Iraq and we anticipate
that it will expressly foreswear them".
These public reassurances, moreover, mirrored the actual language used in the
US draft of the agreement given to the Iraqi negotiators. A draft dated March
8, which was leaked to The Guardian's Seumas Milne and reported on April 8,
includes the statement that the US "does not desire permanent bases or a
permanent military presence in Iraq".
That commitment, which seems definitive at first glance, actually incorporates
deliberate ambiguity on at least two different levels. The term "permanent
military base" appears to represent a substantive legal term, but it is in fact
is a completely misleading term.
When Democratic Senator James Webb asked the State Department's David
Satterfield, "What is a permanent base?" Satterfield tried to avoid answering
the question. But assistant defense secretary Mary Beth Long was more
responsive. She said, "I have looked into this. As far as the department is
concerned, we don't have a worldwide or even a department-wide definition of
Webb then observed, "It doesn't really mean anything," to which Long replied,
"Yes, senator, you're right. It doesn't." She added that "most lawyers ...
would say that the word 'permanent' probably refers more to the state of mind
contemplated by the use of the term".
Iraqi officials quickly figured out that the real significance of the draft's
wording on access to military bases was that it contained neither a time limit
on access to Iraqi bases nor any restrictions on the US to "conduct military
operations in Iraq and to detain individuals when necessary for imperative
reasons of security".
Authorization for such operations was called "temporary", but the absence of
any time limit makes that seemingly reassuring term meaningless as well.
The Bush administration's renunciation of "permanent bases" was a ploy to lull
the key committees of the US Congress on an issue that had aroused many
Democratic critics of the war, who had repeatedly used that term in demanding a
legal commitment on the issue.
The administration also used such ambiguous language to help the Iraqi
government sell the agreement to Iraqi nationalists who object to long-term US
bases in their country. Thus as early as last December, Iraqi National Security
adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubayi declared in a television interview, "The Iraqi
people reject the presence of permanent bases in Iraq" and reassured Iraqis
that the government would not accept such bases "in any form whatever and will
not approve, and I believe the Council of Representatives will not approve it".
As Iraqi sources have now revealed to Western reporters, however, the US has
proposed access to dozens of military bases without a time limit that would be
technically Iraqi bases but which would actually be fully under US control.
The ploy of turning over legal control of US bases to a client regime is one
that US administrations have used on at least two previous occasions to get
around legal and political problems associated with continuation of US base
In the 1973 Paris peace agreement that ended the Vietnam War, the US pledged to
dismantle all of its military bases in South Vietnam within 60 days. But it had
already secretly transferred the deeds to the bases and equipment to the South
Vietnamese government and then had them "loaned back" to the United States. US
officials then claimed that there were no US bases to dismantle.
Because of nationalist opposition to US military bases in the Philippines, the
US gave nominal "sovereignty" over the bases to the Philippines in 1978 and put
a Philippine officer in nominal command of each base, while insisting on US
"effective command and control" as well as "unhampered military operations".
Another issue on which the Bush administration inserted language in its draft
to suggest a major concession to Iraqi political sensitivities while keeping
its own freedom of action is the US use of Iraqi bases to carry out military
operations against another country. That was an obvious red line for the Nuri
al-Maliki regime and its ally, Iran. Premier Maliki's spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh
insisted last January that US troops must "not be used against [Iraq's]
neighbors" because, he said, it could put the country's security in jeopardy.
Dabbagh said this was one the principles that Iraqi negotiators would seek to
spell out in the agreement.
The March 7 draft includes a statement that the US "does not seek to use Iraqi
territory as a platform for offensive operations against other states". That
commitment leaves plenty of room for the Bush administration to argue that it
is responding defensively to an Iranian threat to its troops or other
Iraqi negotiators were well aware of the ambiguous nature of the US language.
And a US demand for control over Iraqi airspace below 29,000 feet, reported by
more than one Iraqi official in recent weeks, fueled intense suspicions of the
"Senior Iraqi military sources" were quoted by GulfNews as saying the agreement
gave the US "the right ... to strike, from within Iraqi territory, any country
it considers a threat to its national security". That interpretation was based
on the absence of specific language ruling out US military operations without
the prior consent of the Iraqi government.
It now appears that the Bush administration's ambitions to establish a legal
framework to legitimize the occupation before the end of Bush's term will be
frustrated by strong opposition to the pact from pro-Iranian Shi'ite political
parties on whose support the Maliki regime depends. The government is under
strong pressure from legislators belonging to Maliki's own Da'wa party and the
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council to scuttle the pact and to wait for the next
US administration before negotiating on the status and role of US forces in
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.