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50 More Years in Iraq?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 31, 2007; 12:52 PM

The White House, long irritated by the frequent use of Vietnam as a metaphor for Iraq, embraced its own analogy yesterday: South Korea.

There's an undeniable attraction to holding up America's military presence in South Korea as a model for Iraq: Our soldiers stationed there aren't dying in large numbers every month.

But in other ways, the analogy is troubling. And flawed. And dangerous. And telling.

It's troubling because American troops have been in South Korea for more than 50 years -- while polls show the American public wants them out of Iraq within a year.

It's flawed because in South Korea, unlike Iraq, there's something concrete to defend (the border with North Korea); and because Iraq, unlike South Korea, happens to be in a state of violent civil war.

It's dangerous because the specter of a permanent military presence in Iraq is widely considered to be one of the most inflammatory incitements to Iraq's ever-growing anti-American insurgency, and may even be destabilizing to the entire region.

And it's telling because it gives credence to persistent suspicions that establishing a long-term strategic presence in the Middle East was a primary motivation for this misbegotten war in the first place.

The Coverage

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush envisions a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq similar to the one in South Korea where American forces have helped keep an uneasy peace for more than 50 years, the White House said Wednesday. . . .

"'I think the point he's trying to make is that the situation in Iraq, and indeed, the larger war on terror, are things that are going to take a long time," [White House spokesman Tony] Snow said. "But it is not always going to require an up-front combat presence."

But, Hunt writes: "The comparison with South Korea paints a picture of a lengthy U.S. commitment at a time when Americans have grown weary of the Iraq war and want U.S. troops to start coming home. . . .

"Asked if U.S. forces would be permanently stationed in Iraq, Snow said, 'No, not necessarily.' He said that the prospect of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq were 'not necessarily the case, either.'

"Later, Snow said it was impossible to say if U.S. troops would remain in Iraq for some 50 years, as they have in South Korea. 'I don't know,' he said. 'It is an unanswerable question. But I'm not making that suggestion. . . . The war on terror is a long war.'"

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "The United States has had thousands of U.S. troops in South Korea to guard against a North Korean invasion for 50 years. . . .

"Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement he believes it is time for Bush to 'recognize the reality on the ground in Iraq,' that U.S. troops are mired in an Iraqi civil war and a change in course is urgently needed."

Holland also notes: "Iraq's neighbors have raised concerns about the possibility of the United States maintaining permanent bases in Iraq, and some U.S. lawmakers have said they think the Iraqi insurgency may have been fueled by perceptions the United States wants a permanent presence in the country."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates . . . has said that a long-term U.S. military presence would help stabilize the region and provide for U.S. national security.

"'It's important to defend this country on the extremists' 10-yard line and not our 10-yard line,' Gates said this month."

Richter also writes: "Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at Brookings Institution, said Snow's comparison of Iraq and South Korea would hurt efforts to convince Iraqis and others that the United States does not plan an indefinite military stay.

"'In trying to convey resolve, he conveys the presumption that we're going to be there for a long time,' O'Hanlon said. 'It's unhelpful to handling the politics of our presence in Iraq.'"

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune that Snow's remarks were "enough to raise eyebrows about intentions for the U.S. military in Iraq."

Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo blog is all over the South Korea analogy. Here are some comments from one TPM reader: "When the public rationales evaporate, or when events make the achievement of any of the rationales still being offered in fact impossible of achievement, the White House will still keep troops on the ground -- even when their presence makes the stated goals even harder to achieve (e.g. reconciliation between Iraq's factions), the White House will find some other justification for staying, no matter how weak. Because staying is itself the objective.

"Occam's Razor supports me in this; the creation and maintenance of a long-term military presence is the only policy objective that unifies, aligns and makes sense of everything Bush has done. If any other goal is posited, his policies and actions are incoherent; but if this goal is posited, they all make sense."

The Transcript

The South Korea conversation actually started in the morning White House gaggle, when redoubtable Hearst columnist Helen Thomas asked Snow whether he could confirm a report in the New York Times last week, in which David E. Sanger and David S. Cloud reported that administration officials were saying that "proposals being developed envision a far smaller but long-term American presence, centering on three or four large bases around Iraq."

Sanger and Cloud wrote: "Mr. Bush has told recent visitors to the White House that he was seeking a model similar to the American presence in South Korea."

Here's the transcript of Snow's mid-day briefing.

The Issue of Permanent Military Bases

Some of us have been trying for some time to get some clarity from the Bush administration on its long-term intentions regarding Iraq. The question is whether the United States intends to have a permanent presence on the massive military bases it has been building at great expense in Iraq.

In August 2005, writing on the NiemanWatchdog.org Web site (where I am deputy editor) I called upon my fellow journalists to pin the White House down on this one.

The few peripatetic attempts to do so have been inconclusive.

Here's Bush in an October 25, 2006 press conference:

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Does the United States want to maintain permanent bases in Iraq? And I would follow that by asking, are you willing to renounce a claim on permanent bases in Iraq?

"THE PRESIDENT: Jim, any decisions about permanency in Iraq will be made by the Iraqi government. And, frankly, it's not in much of a position to be thinking about what the world is going to look like five or 10 years from now. They are working to make sure that we succeed in the short-term. And they need our help. And that's where our focus is.

"But remember, when you're talking about bases and troops, we're dealing with a sovereign government. Now, we entered into an agreement with the Karzai government. They weren't called permanent bases, but they were called arrangements that will help this government understand that there will be a U.S. presence so long as they want them there. And at the appropriate time, I'm confident we'll be willing to sit down and discuss the long-term security of Iraq. But right now we're discussing how to bring security to Baghdad, and what do we do in al Anbar province, where al Qaeda still uses violent methods to achieve political objectives."

But the administration's goal has been sort of an open secret for a long time.

On Feb. 1, 2006, former President Jimmy Carter told CNN's Larry King: "What I believe is that there are people in Washington now, some of our top leaders, who never intend to withdraw military forces from Iraq and they're looking for ten, 20, 50 years in the future . . . because that was the reason that we went into Iraq was to establish a permanent military base in the Gulf region and I have never heard any of our leaders say that they would commit themselves to the Iraqi people that ten years from now there will be no military bases of the United States in Iraq."

Charles J. Hanley wrote for the Associated Press in March 2006 from Balad Air Base in Iraq: "The concrete vanishes into the noonday glare, 2 million cubic feet of it, a mile-long slab that's now the home of up to 120 U.S. helicopters, a "heli-park" as good as any back in the states.

"At another giant base, al-Asad in Iraq's western desert, the 17,000 troops and workers come and go in a kind of bustling American town, with a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and a car dealership, stop signs, traffic regulations and young bikers clogging the roads.

"At a third hub down south, Tallil, they're planning a new mess hall, one that will seat 6,000 hungry airmen and soldiers for chow.

"Are the Americans here to stay? Air Force mechanic Josh Remy is sure of it as he looks around Balad."

Michael Hirsh wrote in Newsweek in May 2006: ""[T]he vast base being built up at Balad is also hard evidence that, despite all the political debate in Washington about a quick U.S. pullout, the Pentagon is planning to stay in Iraq for a long time -- at least a decade or so, according to military strategists. . . .

"U.S. officials routinely deny that America intends to put down permanent bases. 'A key planning factor in our basing strategy is that there will be no bases in Iraq following Operation Iraqi Freedom,' says Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for CENTCOM in Baghdad. 'What we have in Iraq are 'contingency bases,' intended to support our operations in Iraq on a temporary basis until OIF is complete.' . . .

"Technically, Colonel Johnson may be telling the truth about the Pentagon's long-term plans. But it is also true that the U.S. government has never drawn up plans for 'permanent' military bases, even when it ended up staying for half a century. In Korea, where tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers have been deployed for 55 years, since the end of the Korean War, 'they're only just now moving American troops out of temporary facilities like huts to real buildings,' says John Pike, a Washington security expert. A White House official, asked last week about long-term U.S. plans, himself made the analogy to Asia and to Germany. In every conflict the United States has recently been involved in, except Vietnam, U.S. forces have remained in the country, said the official, who asked for anonymity because the matter is considered sensitive."

Author Chalmers Johnson told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in February: "[O]ne of the reasons we had no exit plan from Iraq is that we didn't intend to leave.... You can never get our ambassador, the Department of Defense, the President, or anybody to say unequivocally we don't intend to have bases there."

What You'd Tell Bush

Frank Newport announces a new Gallup Poll: "What would Americans say to President Bush if they could talk to him about the situation in Iraq for 15 minutes?

"The majority of Americans -- if they could literally file through the Oval Office and talk to the man they elected to be the top executive and commander in chief of the country -- would tell President Bush to focus on developing an exit strategy from Iraq and removing U.S. troops from that country. A smaller group of one in four would tell the president to stay the course or even to be more aggressive in Iraq. Six percent would tell the president to own up to his mistakes in Iraq and apologize. About 7% would advise the president to work with study groups or the United Nations to figure out a solution to the Iraq dilemma. Only 5% would have nothing to say to Bush about what Americans' currently rank as the nation's most important problem."

The new poll finds 54 percent generally advising President Bush to focus on removing the troops.

Interestingly enough, the same poll in September 2005 found 53 percent saying just the same thing: 41 percent said pull the troops out and come home, compared to 39 percent now; 6 percent said come up with and execute a well thought-out exit strategy, compared to 12 percent now; 6 percent said get them trained and let them run their own country, compared to 5 percent now.

In other words, the public has hated this war and wanted out for a long time. Politicians are only now catching up.

In Their Own Words

Gallup today released -- exclusively to me -- some examples of the actual wording respondents used in response to the open-ended question. A nonscientific sampling:

* "Leave Iraq. Get his head out of the sand. I would tell him that his expectations are unrealistic and that his friends are making too much money on the war and that there are people dying. Also, if it's such a good idea, he should be sending his daughters."

* "Continue doing the job he is doing and not worry about the press."

* "I would tell him I appreciated him being the president, but I would like him to bring those people in Iraq home, because there has been enough suffering."

* "It's not a disgrace to admit you made a mistake. Stand up tall and be a man and say, 'Hey, I blew it.' Bring the troops home because you are just making it worse."

* "I would say what is wrong with your crazy [swear word], what the hell are you doing, we went over there to get oil and straighten these people out, and we are paying out of the nose for gasoline now."

* "Quit giving out so damn much information."

* "Admit up front that what we set out to do is going to take up to 40 years to do."

* "Stay the course and finish it."

* "Get out. Let them fight for themselves."

* "Get out of Iraq and start thinking about the American people and not about himself."

* "Hold his ground and do what he knows is best."

* "Get out."

* "Shut his mouth and get out."

* "Enlist."

But Bush Isn't Listening

Georgie Anne Geyer writes in her Dallas Morning News column that when it comes to his war in Iraq, "by all reports, President Bush is more convinced than ever of his righteousness.

"Friends of his from Texas were shocked recently to find him nearly wild-eyed, thumping himself on the chest three times while he repeated 'I am the president!' He also made it clear he was setting Iraq up so his successor could not get out of 'our country's destiny.'"

Beware the Withdrawal Plans

Greg Jaffe and Yochi J. Dreazen write in the Wall Street Journal: "Pentagon officials and the White House are developing rough proposals to begin withdrawing tens of thousands of soldiers sometime next year as a way of defusing some of the public fury over the war and making it less of an issue in next year's presidential and congressional elections. White House officials caution that the efforts are preliminary and that President Bush has yet to sign off on them. One aide acknowledged that the White House has developed similar withdrawal plans in the past, only to abandon them when violence in Iraq continued to climb."

U.S. Attorney Watch

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times about Tom Heffelfinger, the widely admired Republican U.S. attorney for Minnesota. "By the time Heffelfinger resigned last year, his office had collected a string of awards and commendations from the Justice Department.

"So it came as a surprise -- and something of a mystery -- when he turned up on a list of U.S. attorneys who had been targeted for firing.

"Part of the reason, government documents and other evidence suggest, is that he tried to protect voting rights for Native Americans.

"At a time when GOP activists wanted U.S. attorneys to concentrate on pursuing voter fraud cases, Heffelfinger's office was expressing deep concern about the effect of a state directive that could have the effect of discouraging Indians in Minnesota from casting ballots. . . .

"Politics have always played a role at Justice and other Cabinet-level departments. But, critics say, Bush administration strategists went beyond most of their predecessors -- Democratic or Republican -- in seeking ways to convert control of the federal government into advantages on election day."

Expanded Investigation

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "The Justice Department has launched an internal investigation into whether Bush administration officials violated civil service rules by favoring conservative Republicans when hiring lawyers in the Civil Rights Division, the department disclosed yesterday in a letter to Congress.

"The probe will also examine whether the administration illegally used a political litmus test when vetting candidates for non-partisan positions elsewhere in the Justice Department, according to the heads of the department's offices of inspector general and professional responsibility."

Savage broke an important part of this story last July: "The Bush administration is quietly remaking the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights, according to job application materials obtained by the Globe."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The widening inquiry is likely to pose an additional challenge for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who is already facing lawmakers' calls for his resignation and a potential no-confidence vote by the Senate. While the U.S. attorney dismissals have prompted wide political criticism, improper hiring practices could be deemed a violation of the law."

Talking Points Memo has the letter announcing the expansion.

Margaret Talev and Greg Gordon write for McClatchy Newspapers: "It couldn't be determined whether the . . . inquiry will be expanded to include what direction [former Gonzales aide Monica Goodling] received from higher-ups within the department or the White House. . . .

"In other development, the Justice Department said Wednesday that Tim Griffin, the interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., since last December, would resign his post effective June 1.

"Griffin, a former Republican Party opposition researcher, has been a controversial figure in the firing controversy because of his close ties to White House political adviser Karl Rove and allegations that he was part of a GOP effort in 2004 to get minorities knocked off of voting rolls. Republican Party officials have denied any impropriety.

"To make way for Griffin, the White House and Justice Department last year sought U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins' resignation.

"Griffin at one point might have stayed on through the remainder of Bush's term. But when it was revealed that he was installed using a change to the USA Patriot Act that took away the Senate's power to reject him, Griffin said he would stay on only until a permanent replacement was nominated."

Immigration Watch

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "[I]s Bush too late to the game to make a difference?

"When he arrived in Washington more than six years ago, Bush told reporters that immigration reform would be one of his top legislative priorities--a plan delayed by the 9/11 attacks and the administration's subsequent focus on international terrorism. . . .

"Behind the scenes, [political adviser Karl] Rove and his colleagues have been reaching out to prominent GOP activists on immigration, hoping to win their support, but it's unclear if their campaign to win hearts and minds is working.

"One GOP activist and longtime ally of the White House, who declined to be named so as not to further inflame tensions with administration officials, tells Newsweek he was 'incensed' by Bush's comments Tuesday, particularly at a time when White House officials have been working to win support of people like him behind the scenes. '[The White House] has lost credibility with conservatives,' the activist told Newsweek. 'Their arrogance on this issue... it's just astounding. Their attitude is that if you disagree with them, you're wrong. It's just unbelievable.'"

Forget Something?

Here is Bush's speech at a New Jersey Republican fundraiser last night.

Abundantly aware that the issue has split his party and might earn him boos, Bush chose to mention his big immigration push exactly zero times.

Better to stick to safer stuff, like accusing "people in Washington" of not wanting to support the troops: "And I believe this: No matter what the opinions of people in Washington may be, when we've got our troops in harm's way, they need all the support, they need all the support they can get from the U.S. government. (Applause.)"

Putin Visit

Peter Baker and Peter Finn write in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday launched a high-stakes effort to repair the dramatically deteriorating U.S. relationship with Russia by inviting President Vladimir Putin to visit the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, after weeks of rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War.

"The White House has grown increasingly alarmed lately with the harsh tone coming out of Moscow and its hardening positions on issues that include Iran's nuclear program, Kosovo statehood and missile defense. Administration officials said privately that the situation has reached a crisis stage and needs to be reversed before it gets worse.

"Although the president's aides do not expect to resolve the stickiest issues dividing the two sides during the visit to the Bush family retreat on the rocky Maine coast July 1-2, they hope the relaxed setting will restore U.S.-Russian relations to a more constructive footing. In more than six years as president, Bush has never asked any foreign leader to join him at his parents' seaside home until now, and aides hope Putin will be impressed with the show of intimacy."

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek: "Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that a new cold war wasn't possible because the vast ideological differences that separated America and Russia no longer existed. But is that so true any longer? Once an eager student of Washington's free-market, democratic reforms, the Russia of today has become another beast entirely, says a senior Bush administration official. . . .

"This is, sadly, a shift in the post-cold war world that is becoming all too familiar. Compared to a decade or so ago, the belief in the messianic power of democracy and markets has reached a new low. Bush has helped the trend along by allowing Iraq to disintegrate from a would-be model into a morass, turning the country into perhaps the most powerful example of democracy's drawbacks since the Weimar Republic, and by hypocritically embracing the rhetoric of democracy while giving big hugs to its most flagrant detractors, like Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt."

AIDS Watch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's call for a doubling of the U.S. commitment to battling the global AIDS crisis was met yesterday with broad support uncommon in Washington. International aid organizations, advocacy groups and members of Congress from both parties offered praise for the proposal -- even if some argued that the proposed increase is insufficient."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that the move is "part of a White House effort to burnish Mr. Bush's humanitarian credentials before he meets leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations next week. . . .

"[White House counselor Dan] Bartlett said the president was convinced America's image in the world would improve because of it."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Experts say it's an uphill struggle for a president even more unpopular around the world than he is in his own country."

Routing Around the Filter

U.S. News reports: "Current and former Bush administration communications officials tell the US News Political Bulletin that they now believe they relied too heavily on traditional media and the White House press corps to get out the President's message about the broader war on terrorism and the booming economy. 'We didn't use the new tools of communication' like the Internet, blogs and mobile technology, said a former key official. As a result, added another official, the President's message was filtered through the mainstream press which eventually got bored with the story and stopped reporting the President's repetitive messages. 'You've got to use the new tools. They can reach far more people than TV or the papers,' said an administration official. 'A video on the Internet or some blogging can reach millions and we should have played with that much more,' said the official. White House insiders, however, dismissed the complaints, mostly from former communications officials, claiming that they have worked with bloggers and non-traditional media but that the tide has turned against them."

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