President Bush and his top advisors have never said the United States wants to establish permanent military bases in Iraq. But they have never ruled out the possibility either.
Larry Diamond, a former consultant to the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, thinks so. In fact, he considers it a crucial step toward ending the insurgency.
Diamond is an expert on promoting democracy and the editor of a respected journal on the subject. Though he considers himself a Democrat, he works as a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. There he came to know Condoleezza Rice during her time as a Stanford professor and administrator.
In November 2003, Rice asked Diamond to help the Coalition Provisional Authority design plans for holding elections and constructing a permanent Iraqi government.
Diamond had opposed the war but accepted the assignment, and he spent three months in early 2004 in Iraq as a consultant to senior U.S. officials charting the path toward Iraqi sovereignty.
Diamond recently published a gripping book on his experience, which balances praise for the commitment of his co-workers with disillusionment over the administration’s postwar planning. His title efficiently summarizes his conclusion: “Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.”
In articles discussing the book, Diamond has laid out four principles “for diminishing the violent resistance in Iraq.” He believes the United States should “declare some sort of time frame” -- but not a rigid deadline -- for withdrawing troops.
He thinks the United States should negotiate more with Sunni political groups connected to the insurgency, and he wants to enlist other countries as an “honest broker” in such efforts.
But at the top of Diamond’s list is an unambiguous, unconditional pledge from Bush not to establish permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq.
“Intense opposition to U.S. plans to establish long-term military bases in Iraq is one of the most passionate motivations behind the insurgency,” Diamond wrote last week on the liberal website TPMCafe.com. “Neutralizing this anti-imperial passion -- by clearly stating that we do not intend to remain in Iraq indefinitely -- is essential to winding down the insurgency.”
Other experts question whether such a pledge would calm the insurgency as much as Diamond hopes; certainly many of the foreign fighters strapping on suicide bombs don’t need much incentive to kill Americans beyond the fact that they can.
But Diamond believes that explicitly rejecting an open-ended military presence could widen the opportunity for negotiations with pragmatic elements in the Sunni community that could ultimately isolate the insurgents.
So far the administration has downplayed the possibility of permanent bases without excluding it. In Senate testimony in February, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said flatly: “We have no intention at the present time of putting permanent bases in Iraq.” Pentagon officials echo that insistence today.
But Rumsfeld last winter said he could not rule out the idea because the United States and the permanent Iraqi government would make the final decision.
Bush took a similar line in January in an interview with Arabic television. “That’s going to be up to the Iraqi government,” the president said. "[It] will be making the decisions as to how best to secure their country, what kind of help they need.”
Leaks from the Pentagon have deepened the uncertainty. In May, the Washington Post reported that military planning did not envision permanent bases in Iraq but rather stationing troops in nearby Kuwait. But the report noted that the Pentagon was also planning to consolidate U.S. troops in Iraq into four large fortified bases.
On the theory that concrete speaks louder than words, critics see such work as a sign the administration is planning to stay longer than it has acknowledged.
John E. Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, points to another indication. Although the United States is systematically training Iraqis to fight the insurgents, he notes, the Pentagon has not taken key steps -- like making plans for acquiring tanks or aircraft -- to build an Iraqi military capable of defending the country against its neighbors.
To Pike that means that although the United States might reduce its troop level in Iraq, the fledgling nation, like Germany or South Korea, will require the sustained presence of a large American contingent, perhaps 50,000 soldiers. “We are building the base structure to facilitate exactly [that],” he says.
Whatever Iraqi politicians say publicly, Pike believes, in private many will prefer such a long-term U.S. presence, which might also provide insurance against a potential military coup. Diamond says he takes Pike’s point, but still thinks the United States would improve its leverage in Iraq by making clear that Iraqi, not American, needs will determine the circumstances of our departure.
“I don’t know why,” Diamond says, “we just can’t say, ‘It is not our goal to set up for the indefinite duration military bases in Iraq, from which we can operate in the Middle East for our own geopolitical purposes. Our goal is to help the new Iraqi state secure the country and defend itself, and once we mutually judge that goal is achieved, we will leave.’ ”
The dispute over bases parallels the debate over setting a deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. In both cases, war critics believe that signaling America’s determination to leave will help marginalize the insurgency. War supporters fear the same signal will embolden insurgents to try to outlast the United States.
The most ominous, and perhaps most likely, possibility is that insurgents and Islamic extremists will wage war against an Iraqi government allied with the United States whether we stay or go.
Permanent U.S. bases might stoke the fire, but it is probably too much to hope that it will burn out without them.