This spring's debate over a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq may have implied that the US presence there is likely to wind down soon, but recent comments from both the administration and military officials suggest a different scenario.
In Washington and among American military officers in Iraq, the idea of establishing permanent US bases there is under discussion – with one official citing as an example the decades-long presence of US troops in Korea. The aim would be to keep American soldiers on Iraqi soil well into the century as a support for the Iraqi government against outside aggression, a means of training and developing a new Iraqi military, and a platform from which the US could fight Al Qaeda and other war-on-terror opponents.
Yet as early proposals in notebooks at the White House and the Pentagon are slowly revealed to a US public increasingly opposed to the Iraq war, many Iraq and Middle East experts warn that any plan for permanent bases would cement the US image in Iraq and the region as that of an occupying force.
"This is a really bad idea, one that will only feed the image of the US as the occupier, the colonial power," says Larry Diamond, a former official with the American provisional authority that governed Iraq in the two years after Saddam Hussein's ouster. "There's no way long-term military bases are going to be acceptable to a majority of the Iraqi population."
Mr. Diamond, now an expert in democratization at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., has argued for more than two years for the US to relinquish any plans for permanent bases. Such a step, perhaps more than anything else the US could do, he says, would cool the conflict and ease the deadly opposition to the 160,000 US troops now on Iraqi soil.
Even supporters of a permanent American presence in Iraq say now is not the time to stoke flames of anti-American feeling by openly discussing prospects for permanent bases.
"We'd be stupid not to be planning for what I see is the probability of long-term bases," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer specializing in the Middle East. "But it's premature to openly discuss the prospect until you win the war, so I'd have to say the floating of these ideas was not very artfully done."
WHAT GATES AND SNOW BROACHED
In recent comments to the press, White House spokesman Tony Snow broached the idea of a long-term US military presence in Iraq and specifically drew a comparison to Korea and the 30,000 troops the US keeps there five decades after the end of the Korean War. At the same time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke of a "protracted" US presence in Iraq.
Such comments from the civilian leadership increasingly mirror the perspective of US military leaders on the ground in Iraq. An Army officer who requested anonymity on the issue because he is not authorized to discuss long-term policy said, for example, that a consensus is growing among US military leaders for the need for long-term training of Iraqi forces and a continued US presence to fight Al Qaeda.
In making public statements about the possibility of permanent bases in Iraq, the Bush administration sought to send a signal to the Iraqi government, say some experts.
"The reason these ideas were floated out of the White House now basically lies in the context of all the speculation and congressional debate over a big drawdown being just over the horizon," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military affairs expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"This is the Bush administration wanting to send a message of resolve, to Americans but mostly to the Iraqi people," he adds. "If Iraqi leaders believe we are getting ready to leave, they are more likely to focus on preparing for full-blown civil war and less on the steps needed for national reconciliation."
The Korea comparison and comments from military officers in Iraq suggest the US may be contemplating a long-term presence in Iraq of 30,000 to 50,000 troops – perhaps one-quarter of the numbers there today. But many experts caution against equating Iraq in the 21st century with South Korea in the 20th.
"The analogy doesn't make sense," says Mr. O'Hanlon. "South Korea was threatened by an external enemy. Iraq is threatened by internal chaos."
Others single out the perception of US forces as the essential difference between the two cases.
"Korea was pro-American, and there was a sense of common cause in the face of the communist threat," says Stanford's Diamond.
Planning permanent bases in Iraq could backfire and set back the progress the US has made against Al Qaeda by turning some newly acquired US allies back into opponents, Diamond adds.
"Certainly this would not sit well with the Sunnis, who are finally willing to engage with us and ally with us against Al Qaeda," he says. "If we start talking about permanent bases with 30,000 troops, they'll go back to seeing us as something they need to resist."
AN AIR-GROUND COMBO IN THE NORTH?
Mr. Peters takes a different view, however, saying the minority Sunnis are starting to see the American presence in a different light as they wrangle with the majority Shiite population and government over Iraq's future. Still, even he assumes that any permanent US bases would have to be in the "pro-American" Kurdish north.
"I don't think we'd try to keep open bases the Iraqis didn't want," Peters says. His assumption is that the US plan would call for one or two air bases jointly located with ground-forces bases – something comprising about 30,000 troops.
Peters says he sees US discussion of permanent bases as part of planning for the possibility that Iraq may not hold together. A continued US presence then becomes a kind of caution light against jittery neighbors that may step up their intervention and openly take sides.
But he also sees some sense in the Korea analogy.
"The point is, our forces in Korea really have kept the peace, and they did allow South Korea, a country that was in ruins, to develop," he says. "By talking about Korea, they're talking about giving Iraq time to develop."
That reasoning assumes that a long-term US presence will aid in Iraq's stability and development – something not everyone agrees can be assumed.
"We are going to have to be in Iraq for a number of years still, but to talk in terms of a number of decades is not helpful," says Brookings' O'Hanlon. "Despite our best efforts, we have been part of the reason for the turmoil in Iraq. We should not presuppose that our long-term presence will be beneficial."