By David E. SangerNew York Times
June 3, 2007
For the first time, the Bush administration is beginning publicly to discuss basing American troops in Iraq for years, even decades to come, a subject so fraught with political landmines that officials are tiptoeing around the inevitable questions about what the United States' long-term mission would be there. President Bush has long talked about the need to maintain an American military presence in the region, without saying exactly where. Several visitors to the White House say that in private, he has sounded intrigued by what he calls the "Korea model," a reference to the large American presence in South Korea for the 54 years since the armistice that ended open hostilities between North and South.
But it was not until Wednesday that Mr. Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, publicly reached for the Korea example in talking about Iraq - setting off an analogy war between the White House and critics who charged that the administration was again disconnected from the realities of Iraq. He said Korea was one way to think about how America's mission could evolve into an "over-the-horizon support role," whenever American troops are no longer patrolling the streets of Baghdad. The next day, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also mentioned Korea, saying that establishing a long-term American garrison there was a lot smarter than the handling of Vietnam, "where we just left lock, stock and barrel." He added that "the idea is more a model of a mutually agreed arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence but under the consent of both parties and under certain conditions."
Korea is an attractive analogy for the Bush White House for a host of reasons: a half-century later, South Korea is a raucous democracy and one of the world's biggest economies. The North is a broken, isolated state, though one that, improbably, has not only survived for more than 50 years but has built a small nuclear arsenal. But Korea is also the kind of analogy that stokes the fears of those who see Iraq leading to unending war. The model suggests a near-permanent presence in Iraq, though presumably with far fewer troops than the nearly 150,000 now in place.
In a Democratic-controlled Congress, which continues to press for a troop withdrawal deadline, talk of permanent bases is not welcome, though many Democrats acknowledge that the United States cannot simply leave Iraq in chaos. Nor is the idea popular in the Middle East, though some countries are desperate for a strategic counterweight to Iran's growing power. Critics on the left who have argued for years that the Iraq war was really about oil leap on such talk as evidence that the administration's real agenda is to put its forces right on top of Iraq's still-broken pipelines. Those who fear the next target is Iran - including the Iranians - will see the permanent bases as staging areas, in case the United States decides to take military action against Iran's nuclear program and deal with the repercussions later.
And the analogy rankles analysts who believe the situation is far less similar to Korea than it is to Vietnam in the '60s or Beirut in the '80s, where American bases became the No. 1 targets, and a rallying call for extremists, in an endless guerrilla war. "It's not that Iraq isn't vital," said Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council of Foreign Relations, and one of the many experts organized by groups opposing Mr. Bush's Iraq strategy to shoot back in the analogy war. "It's just that Korea bears no resemblance to Iraq. There's no strategy that can create victory."
Historical analogy has been a problem for this administration since the start of the Iraq war in 2003. In the months before the invasion, there was talk of modeling a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq after the successful occupations of Japan and Germany. But even then, historians and analysts were warning against such comparisons, arguing that those were two cohesive societies that were exhausted by years of war and bore little resemblance to the fractured Iraqi society and its potential for internal violence. The core problem with the Korea comparison, many experts on Asia note, is that when the war ended in 1953, there were bright lines drawn across the 38th Parallel, separating the warring parties. That hardened into the formal Demilitarized Zone, exactly the kind of division that the Bush administration has said it wants to avoid in Iraq.
And while there have been incursions across the Korean border over the years - a famous ax murder, underground invasion tunnels, a few commando raids by boat - those were mostly long ago. Nothing there has approached the Hobbesian state of chaos that is everyday life in Baghdad and Anbar Province. Some of Mr. Bush's critics see an effort to reach for any comparison other than Vietnam. "If we can make this like Korea, then we have been successful," said the Donald L. Kerrick, a retired general who spent 30 years in the military and has now emerged as one of a cadre of generals criticizing Mr. Bush's strategy. He said that he did not believe the analogy fit.
Mr. Bush himself has made clear, while in Hanoi late last year for a summit meeting, that he believes America's mistake in Vietnam was that it gave up too early. "We'll succeed unless we quit" he told a small group of reporters who asked him what lessons he drew for Iraq. He declined to engage in deeper comparisons, including the fact that President Lyndon Johnson's dire warnings about what would happen if the United States pulled out of Vietnam - that Communism would spread across Asia - never came to pass. 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.
"They are all places we could fly in and out of without putting Americans on every street corner," said one senior official deeply involved in the development of Iraq strategy. "And our mission would be very different - making sure that Al Qaeda doesn't turn Iraq into a base the way it turned Afghanistan into one." A long-term presence is envisioned by many experts, and it has been raised as a possibility by the Baker-Hamilton Commission, whose report on Iraq has now been embraced by President Bush - five months after he all but dismissed its conclusions. But the problem, as one senior administration official acknowledged last week, is that there is little reason to believe that American bases will stop Iraq from being "the great jihadist training camp it is today." As in Korea, the bases may be an effort to prevent calamity and invasion. The question is whether, in the firestorm of Iraq, their contribution to security would outweigh their roles as symbols of occupation or targets of terrorism.