The Bush Administration recently pointed to the over-five-decades-long US military presence in South Korea as a successful model for Iraq. The implications of this comparison seemed to escape them. General Raymond T. Odierno, who oversees daily military operations in Iraq, called it “a great idea,” as if agreeing with the suggestion by a colleague to order take-out sushi for lunch.
While it would be nice to think that this was just a seat-of-the-pants spin job, it is unfortunately more likely a rare admission of U.S. intent to maintain a long-term, imperial military presence in Iraq and in the Middle East region. The consensus among military officials reported by The Washington Post on June 11 forecast at least 40,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq for a decade.
Nor would this plan necessarily change under a Democratic president. According to a recent NPR commentary by veteran reporter Ted Koppel, Hillary Clinton has privately said she expects a significant number of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for the next ten years, even if she were to serve two terms as president. (She dares not say this publicly, for fear of angering anti-war Democratic primary voters.) The most recent “end the war” congressional proposals would likewise leave tens of thousands of troops in Iraq as trainers, embassy protectors, and al-Qaeda chasers (as would presidential candidate Barack Obama’s plan).
The South Korea comparison cracked the door open on a mostly closed-door consensus in “official Washington” that the United States should retain an imperial military presence in Iraq indefinitely.
This bi-partisan view should be challenged, and it will be, by the people of Iraq and the broader Middle East. Earlier this month the Iraqi parliament passed a binding resolution reserving its right to block an extension of the UN mandate that allows U.S. troops to remain in Iraq.
Rather than providing a model for permanent bases in Iraq, the South Korea comparison should open up a debate on the role of the 700-plus U.S. overseas bases throughout the world. There has long been strenuous opposition in Korea to the U.S. military presence that continues today (though conservatives and the otherwise left-leaning South Korean ruling party have supported the maintenance of U.S. military presence). Prostitution, rape committed by U.S. military personnel, environmental degradation, and challenges to national sovereignty are just some of the problems that U.S. bases create. The U.S. military is currently realigning its base structure in Asia and elsewhere. While some bases are closing, others, such as Camp Humphries in Pyongtaek, are expanding. Farmers there are actively struggling to prevent the U.S. military from taking their land. There are ongoing protests at other bases.
The U.S. presence in South Korea and elsewhere in East Asia has exacerbated tensions and likely slowed progress toward reunification with North Korea. The occupation has established a very uneasy tripwire that could have led (and still could lead) to war, perhaps even involving nuclear weapons, on the Korean peninsula. When President Bill Clinton went to Korea in 1994, he called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) one of the most dangerous places in the world. Contrary to its name, the DMZ that separates North and South Korea has long been one of the most heavily militarized, dangerous patches of land on the planet (recently overtaken for that dubious honor, presumably, by the road to the Baghdad airport). Finally, the U.S. military occupation directly and indirectly thwarted the development of democracy by tacitly approving of a brutal military dictatorship that lasted over three decades in South Korea.
Even if one puts all that aside and calls the U.S. military presence in South Korea a success, Iraq is an entirely different situation. Anyone who reads a newspaper or watches television knows that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is fiercely resisted by many Iraqis and others in the region. Even George W. Bush himself, in a rare moment of candor and lucidity, quipped, “No one likes to be occupied.”
Any enduring U.S. military presence in Iraq, indeed any military occupation in the region, will generate fierce resistance. Anger over the presence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia was clearly a significant factor in radicalizing and empowering al-Qaeda and the radical Wahabi Sunni sect. Most of the September 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, and the presence of U.S. military power in the holy land of Islam was and is an understandable grievance shared by millions of Muslims worldwide.
A decades-long U.S. military occupation in Iraq is about the best thing our government could do to ensure instability and sow resentment and hatred of the United States in the region, thereby perpetuating insecurity, fear, and anxiety for Americans. It would be a self-fulfilling strategy to ensure a clash of civilizations or an endless, futile (except for the war profiteers) “war on terror.” It would be nakedly imperial, more evidence to the rest of the world that American ideals of democracy, freedom, and human rights do not apply to U.S. foreign and military policy. Any puppet or client regime supporting, or indeed relying on, such a U.S. occupation would be perpetually unstable, and deservedly so, as the Iraqi people would and should oppose such a regime.
As many others have noted, the United States can be a democratic republic or it can be an empire, but it cannot be both. Now is the time to decide. The American people, for our own good as much as anyone else’s, must resoundingly reject empire and demand the immediate end to the occupation of Iraq.