May 24, 2013
The Great American Disconnect
Posted on Jun 10, 2007
Note: This article was originally published on TomDispatch
The Great American Disconnect
Iraq Has Always Been “South Korea” for the Bush Administration
Finally, the great American disconnect may be ending. Only four years after the invasion of Iraq, the crucial facts-on-the-ground might finally be coming into sight in this country—not the carnage or the mayhem; not the suicide car bombs or the chlorine truck bombs; not the massive flight of middle-class professionals, the assassination campaign against academics, or the collapse of the best healthcare service in the region; not the spiking American and Iraqi casualties, the lack of electricity, the growth of Shiite militias, the crumbling of the “coalition of the willing,” or the uprooting of 15% or more of Iraq’s population; not even the sharp increase in fundamentalism and extremism, the rise of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, the swelling of sectarian killings, or the inability of the Iraqi government to get oil out of the ground or an oil law, designed in Washington and meant to turn the clock back decades in the Middle East, passed inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone—no, none of that. What’s finally coming into view is just what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, the top officials of their administration, the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, and their neocon followers had in mind when they invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003.
But let me approach this issue another way. For the last week, news jockeys have been plunged into a debate about the “Korea model,” which, according to the New York Times and other media outlets, the president is suddenly considering as the model for Iraq. (“Mr. Bush has told recent visitors to the White House that he was seeking a model similar to the American presence in South Korea.”) You know, a limited number of major American bases tucked away out of urban areas; a limited number of American troops (say, 30,000-40,000), largely confined to those bases but ready to strike at any moment; a friendly government in Baghdad; and (as in South Korea where our troops have been for six decades) maybe another half-century-plus of quiet garrisoning. In other words, this is the time equivalent of a geographic “over the horizon redeployment” of American troops. In this case, “over the horizon” would mean through 2057 and beyond.
This, we are now told, is a new stage in administration thinking. White House spokesman Tony Snow seconded the “Korea model” (“You have the United States there in what has been described as an over-the-horizon support role ... as we have in South Korea, where for many years there have been American forces stationed there as a way of maintaining stability and assurance on the part of the South Korean people against a North Korean neighbor that is a menace. ...”); Defense Secretary Robert Gates threw his weight behind it as a way of reassuring Iraqis that the U.S. “will not withdraw from Iraq as it did from Vietnam, ‘lock, stock and barrel,’ ” as did “surge plan” second-in-command in Baghdad, Lt. General Ray Odierno. (“Q: Do you agree that we will likely have a South Korean-style force there for years to come? GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I think that’s a strategic decision, and I think that’s between us and—the government of the United States and the government of Iraq. I think it’s a great idea.”)
“Administration officials and top military leaders declined to talk on the record about their long-term plans in Iraq. But when speaking on a not-for-attribution basis, they describe a fairly detailed concept. It calls for maintaining three or four major bases in the country, all well outside of the crowded urban areas where casualties have soared. They would include the base at Al Asad in Anbar Province, Balad Air Base about 50 miles north of Baghdad, and Tallil Air Base in the south.”
Critics—left, right, and center—promptly attacked the relevance of the South Korean analogy for all the obvious historical reasons. Time headlined its piece: “Why Iraq Isn’t Korea”; Fred Kaplan of Slate waded in this way: “In other words, in no meaningful way are these two wars, or these two countries, remotely similar. In no way does one experience, or set of lessons, shed light on the other. In Iraq, no border divides friend from foe; no clear concept defines who is friend and foe. To say that Iraq might follow ‘a Korean model’—if the word model means anything—is absurd.” At his Informed Comment website, Juan Cole wrote, “So what confuses me is the terms of the comparison. Who is playing the role of the Communists and of North Korea?” Inter Press’s Jim Lobe quoted retired Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick, a former U.S. deputy national security adviser who served two tours of duty in South Korea this way: “[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.”
None of these critiques are anything but on target. Nonetheless, the “Korea model” should not be dismissed simply for gross historical inaccuracy. There’s a far more important reason to attend to it, confirmed by four years of facts-on-the-ground in Iraq—and by a little history that, it seems, no one, not even the New York Times which helped record it, remembers.
How Enduring Are Those “Enduring Camps”?
At the moment, the Korea model is being presented as breaking news, as the next step in the Bush administration’s desperately evolving thinking as its “surge plan” surges into disaster. However, the most basic fact of our present “Korea” moment is that this is the oldest news of all. As the Bush administration launched its invasion in March 2003, it imagined itself entering a “South Korean” Iraq (though that analogy was never used). While Americans, including administration officials, would argue endlessly over whether we were in Tokyo or Berlin, 1945, Algeria of the 1950s, Vietnam of the 1960s and ‘70s, civil-war torn Beirut of the 1980s, or numerous other historically distant places, when it came to the facts on the ground, the administration’s actual planning remained obdurately in “South Korea.”
The problem was that, thanks largely to terrible media coverage, the American people knew little or nothing about those developing facts-on-the-ground and that disconnect has made all the difference for years.
Let’s review a little basic history here:
You remember, of course, the flap over Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki’s February 2003 claim before a Congressional committee that “several hundred thousand troops” would be needed to effectively occupy a “liberated” Iraq. For that statement, the Pentagon civilian leadership and allied neocons laughed him out of the room and then out of town. Sagely pointing out that there was no history of “ethnic strife” in Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz termed Shinseki’s estimate “wildly off the mark.” His boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, concurred. “Far off the mark,” he said and, when the general retired a few months later, pointedly did not attend the ceremony. After all, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were planning to take and occupy Iraq in a style that would be high-tech and, in manpower terms, lean and mean. Given an administration-wide belief that the Iraqis would greet American troops as liberators or, at least, make them at home in their country, they expected the occupation to proceed smoothly—on a “Korea model” basis, in fact.
Here’s what Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks wrote in Fiasco, his bestselling book about the occupation, on the administration’s expectations that February: “[Paul] Wolfowitz told senior Army officers ... he thought that within a few months of the invasion the U.S. troop level in Iraq would be thirty-four thousand, recalled [Johnny] Riggs, the Army general then at Army headquarters. Likewise, another three-star general, still on active duty, remembers being told to plan to have the U.S. occupation force reduced to thirty thousand troops by August 2003. An Army briefing a year later also noted that that number was the goal ‘by the end of the summer of 2003.’ ”
At present, approximately 37,000 American troops are garrisoned in South Korea. In other words, the original plan, in manpower terms, was for a Korea-style occupation of Iraq. But where were those troops to stay? The Pentagon had been pondering that, too—and here’s where the New York Times has forgotten its own history. On April 19, 2003, soon after American troops entered Baghdad, Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt had a striking front-page piece headlined, “Pentagon Expects Long-Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq.” It began:
“The United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration officials say. American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future: one at the international airport just outside Baghdad; another at Tallil, near Nasiriya in the south; the third at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert, along the old oil pipeline that runs to Jordan; and the last at the Bashur air field in the Kurdish north.”
The Pentagon, that is, arrived in Baghdad with at least a four-base strategy for the long-term occupation of the country already on the drawing boards. These were to be mega-bases, essentially fortified American towns on which those 30,000-40,000 troops could hunker down for a South-Korean-style eternity. The Pentagon was officially not looking for “permanent basing,” as it slyly claimed, but “permanent access.” (And on this verbal dodge, an administration that has constantly redefined reality to fit its needs has ducked its obvious desire for, and plans for, “permanency” in Iraq. As Tony Snow put the matter this way only the other day, “U.S. bases in Iraq would not necessarily be permanent because they would be there at the invitation of the host government and ‘the person who has done the invitation has the right to withdraw the invitation.’ ”)
When the reporting of Schmitt and Shanker came up in a Rumsfeld news conference, the story was essentially denied (“I have never, that I can recall, heard the subject of a permanent base in Iraq discussed in any meeting. ...”) and then disappeared from the New York Times for four years (and most of the rest of the media for most of that time). It did not, however, disappear from Pentagon planning. Quite the contrary, the Pentagon began doling out the contracts and the various private builders set to work. By late 2003, Lt. Col. David Holt, the Army engineer “tasked with facilities development” in Iraq, was quoted in a prestigious engineering magazine speaking proudly of several billion dollars already being sunk into base construction (“the numbers are staggering”). Bases were built in profusion—106 of them, according to the Washington Post, by 2005 (including, of course, many tiny outposts).
For a while, to avoid the taint of that word “permanent,” the major American bases in Iraq were called “enduring camps” by the Pentagon. Five or six of them are simply massive, including Camp Victory, our military headquarters adjacent to Baghdad International Airport on the outskirts of the capital, Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad (which has air traffic to rival Chicago’s O’Hare), and Al-Asad Air Base in the western desert near the Syrian border. These are big enough to contain multiple bus routes, huge PXs, movie theaters, brand-name fast-food restaurants, and, in one case, even a miniature golf course. At our base at Tallil in the south, in 2006, a mess hall was being built to seat 6,000, and that just skims the surface of the Bush administration’s bases.
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