US Keeps its Iraqi Bases Covered  
by Jim Lobe
December 2, 2003

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Now that the Bush administration has decided to sharply accelerate the transfer of full sovereignty to an Iraqi government, why does it not invite the United Nations to help with the transition? At this point, an invitation appears logical. At a minimum, it would give the occupation greater international legitimacy and encourage other countries to contribute both troops and more reconstruction assistance, easing Washington's burden.

Moreover, the world body has much more recent experience than the US in governing traumatized societies around the world. It would also go far to heal the wounds opened so painfully between Washington and its western European allies as the administration of President George W Bush rushed headlong to war earlier this year, at times showing its general contempt for "Old Europe".

The move would clearly boost Bush's re-election chances. Two-thirds or more of US voters, according to a string of polls dating back a full year, have consistently supported giving the UN control over post-war Iraq. After all, the costs of the occupation in US blood and treasure represent by far the greatest threat to Bush's chances next November.

So why then, the reluctance to ask the world body for help? Several answers suggest themselves, not least of which is pride. Even though the administration has made a series of U-turns in its management of the occupation, it steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that previous policies might have been mistaken. Policy changes of 180 degrees are instead described as "mid-course corrections". Bush hawks also no doubt fear that giving the UN responsibility for administering Iraq would create a highly undesirable precedent for future US military action.

Then there is the conviction that the world body is fundamentally incompetent, although it would be very difficult to top the policy zigzags and confusion generated by the excruciatingly isolated Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), as pointed out by Italy's former representative to the CPA, who resigned abruptly in exasperation earlier this month.

Of course, all those contracts to big US companies amounting to many billions of dollars might also play a role. A UN administration could embarrass Bush by confirming the relationship between contracts and political contributions or even force some of the deals to be cancelled.

But while most or all these arguments might be contributing to the administration's obstinacy, perhaps the most powerful one is the least discussed. Is it possible that the most compelling reason for the administration to retain control of the transition is its determination to build permanent military bases in Iraq, bases that it knows would under no circumstances be approved by veto-wielding potential strategic rivals on the UN Security Council, namely China, Russia and, according to some neo-conservatives, France.

In other words, by retaining exclusive control over the transition, does the administration believe that its chances of negotiating a permanent military presence in Iraq with a successor government are much greater than if the Security Council were given a say in the process?

Since the New York Times reported in April that the administration was planning to establish and maintain as many as four military bases in Iraq for an extended period of time, much has been written about radical redeployments of US forces in Europe and Asia. The changes, it has been said, would enhance the forces' ability to strike quickly, lethally and, if necessary, preemptively along an "arc of instability" that not coincidentally covers both key oil-producing areas from the Gulf of Guinea across the Persian Gulf and into Central Asia and critical points that could be used to contain Russia and China from the Caucasus across to East Asia and the western Pacific.

According to these plans, which are now being discussed formally with affected allies, much of the US military based in Germany and the rest of Western Europe during the Cold War is to be shifted to central Europe and the Balkans, closer to the oil-producing-and-transiting Caucasus and Middle East.

Since September 11, 2001, Washington has also established bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that it used in attacking Afghanistan, bases that it shows no sign of leaving. Similarly, forces in Japan and South Korea might be partly redeployed, while Washington has made clear its interest in re-acquiring access to bases in the Philippines and Australia. Last week's visit by a US warship to Vietnam - the first since 1975 - also suggested a renewed interest in that country, which borders both China and the potentially oil-rich South China Sea.

As for the Middle East and the Gulf countries themselves, major shifts - most notably the abandonment of a major air force base in Saudi Arabia and the redeployment of US warplanes to Qatar - have also been under way. But Qatar and even Kuwait, which has acted as a de facto military base for Washington since 1990, could not substitute for the kind of strategic depth and flexibility offered by the four bases identified by the Times as those to which the administration wants permanent access.

They are: Baghdad international airport; Talil Air base near Nasariyah; a base in the western desert near Syria; and Bashur air field in the Kurdish region near the convergence of the borders of Turkey, Iran and Iraq and only 500 kilometers, as F-16s fly, from Baku, the capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea.

Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld denied that Washington had plans to build those bases when the Times article was published. But since then, he and his chief aides have been remarkably coy about how long US forces intend to remain in Iraq. And on his recent emergency trip to Washington, where it was decided to accelerate the transition timetable, CPA chief L Paul Bremer suggested that whoever takes power in Iraq will undoubtedly want to sign a "SOFA" - a Status of Forces Agreement that governs the relationship between the US military and host countries.

Despite Rumsfeld's denial, Tom Donnelly, a military specialist at the American Enterprise Institute with close links to Pentagon planners, published an article in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard that took Rumsfeld to task for not "fess[ing] up" that bases in Iraq were entirely consistent with changes in Washington's global military posture. Iraqi airfields in particular, he wrote, "are ideally located for deployments throughout the region ... There's plenty of space, not only for installations but for training," he said, adding confidently, "And they are enough removed from Mesopotamia that they would not be 'imperial' irritants to the majority of Iraqis."

In September, according to Jessica Tuchman Matthews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who participated in a delegation of foreign policy specialists the Pentagon took to Kuwait and Iraq after the war, the administration's future basing plans were a major mystery. "We were told [by senior military briefers] in Kuwait that we needed $2 billion to improve housing for US troops for, quote, 'enduring' bases in Iraq, but I did not get to ask what 'enduring' meant," she said.

In January 2003, she added, "a senior [administration] official" had told her that "we're going to move our forces out of Saudi Arabia into Iraq", an account echoed by other sources at the same time. "The conquest of Iraq will not be a minor event in history," noted George Friedman, chairman of the Stratfor.com private intelligence agency in February. "It will represent the introduction of a new imperial power to the Middle East and a redefinition of regional geo-politics based on that power."

Building bases in Iraq is consistent with the neo-conservatives' long-held argument for invading Iraq in order to both "remake the face" of the Middle East and to transform and enhance Washington's global military posture to ensure its domination of key strategic resources. In the words of a 2000 study by the Project for the New American Century, such a move would "project sufficient power to enforce Pax Americana". Global peace and stability "demand American political leadership rather than that of the United Nations", asserted the report, whose charter members include Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and half a dozen other top national security officials in the Bush administration.

Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org). He also writes regularly for Inter Press Service. He can be reached at: jlobe@starpower.net


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