A Basis for Enduring Relationships in Iraq

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[Note for Tomdispatch readers: For anyone interested in the often ignored but crucial subject of the U.S. garrisoning of the planet and the Pentagon’s system of imperial basing, there is a single indispensable book: Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire, volume two of his Blowback Trilogy. The third volume, Nemesis, The Last Days of the American Republic, is almost as relevant on basing (and riveting in its own right). Tom]

Iraq as a Pentagon Construction Site
How the Bush Administration “Endures”
By Tom Engelhardt

The title of the agreement, signed by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki in a “video conference” last week, and carefully labeled as a “non-binding” set of principles for further negotiations, was a mouthful: a “Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship Between the Republic of Iraq and the United States of America.” Whew!

Words matter, of course. They seldom turn up by accident in official documents or statements. Last week, in the first reports on this “declaration,” one of those words that matter caught my attention. Actually, it wasn’t in the declaration itself, where the key phrase was “long-term relationship” (something in the lives of private individuals that falls just short of a marriage), but in a “fact-sheet” issued by the White House. Here’s the relevant line: “Iraq’s leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America, and we seek an enduring relationship with a democratic Iraq.” Of course, “enduring” there bears the same relationship to permanency as “long-term relationship” does to marriage.

In a number of the early news reports, that word “enduring,” part of the “enduring relationship” that the Iraqi leadership supposedly “asked for,” was put into (or near) the mouths of “Iraqi leaders” or of the Iraqi prime minister himself. It also achieved a certain prominence in the post-declaration “press gaggle” conducted by the man coordinating this process out of the Oval Office, the President’s so-called War Tsar, Gen. Douglas Lute. He said of the document: “It signals a commitment of both their government and the United States to an enduring relationship based on mutual interests.”

In trying to imagine any Iraqi leader actually requesting that “enduring” relationship, something kept nagging at me. After all, those mutual vows of longevity were to be taken in a well publicized civil ceremony in a world in which, when it comes to the American presidential embrace, don’t-ask/don’t-tell is usually the preferred course of action for foreign leaders. Finally, I remembered where I had seen that word “enduring” before in a situation that also involved a “long-term relationship.” It had been four-and-a-half years earlier and not coming out of the mouths of Iraqi officials either.

Back in April 2003, just after Baghdad fell to American troops, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt reported on the front page of the New York Times that the Pentagon had launched its invasion the previous month with plans for four “permanent bases” in out of the way parts of Iraq already on the drawing board. Since then, the Pentagon has indeed sunk billions of dollars into building those mega-bases (with a couple of extra ones thrown in) at or near the places mentioned by Shanker and Schmitt.

When questioned by reporters at the time about whether such “permanent bases” were in the works, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the U.S. was “unlikely to seek any permanent or ‘long-term’ bases in Iraq” — and that was that. The Times’ piece essentially went down the mainstream-media memory hole. On this subject, the official position of the Bush administration has never changed. Just last week, for instance, General Lute slipped up, in response to a question at his press gaggle. The exchange went like this:

“Q: And permanent bases?

“GENERAL LUTE: Likewise. That’s another dimension of continuing U.S. support to the government of Iraq, and will certainly be a key item for negotiation next year.”

White House spokesperson Dana Perino quickly issued a denial, saying: “We do not seek permanent bases in Iraq.”

Back in 2003, Pentagon officials, already seeking to avoid that potentially explosive “permanent” tag, plucked “enduring” out of the military lexicon and began referring to such bases, charmingly enough, as “enduring camps.” And the word remains with us — connected to bases and occupations anywhere. For instance, of a planned expansion of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a Col. Jonathan Ives told an AP reporter recently, “We’ve grown in our commitment to Afghanistan by putting another brigade (of troops) here, and with that we know that we’re going to have an enduring presence. So this is going to become a long-term base for us, whether that means five years, 10 years — we don’t know.”

Still, whatever they were called, the bases went up on an impressive scale, massively fortified, sometimes 15-20 square miles in area, housing up to tens of thousands of troops and private contractors, with multiple bus routes, traffic lights, fast-food restaurants, PXs, and other amenities of home, and reeking of the kind of investment that practically shouts out for, minimally, a relationship of a distinctly “enduring” nature.

The Facts on Land — and Sea

These were part of what should be considered the facts on the ground in Iraq, though, between April 2003 and the present, they were rarely reported on or debated in the mainstream in the U.S. But if you place those mega-bases (not to speak of the more than 100 smaller ones built at one point or another) in the context of early Bush administration plans for the Iraqi military, things quickly begin to make more sense.

Remember, Iraq is essentially the hot seat at the center of the Middle East. It had, in the previous two-plus decades fought an eight-year war with neighboring Iran, invaded neighboring Kuwait, and been invaded itself. And yet, the new Coalition Provisional Authority, run by the President’s personal envoy, L. Paul Bremer III, promptly disbanded the Iraqi military. This is now accepted as a goof of the first order when it came to sparking an insurgency. But, in terms of Bush administration planning, it was no mistake at all.

At the time, the Pentagon made it quite clear that its plan for a future Iraqi military was for a force of 40,000 lightly armed troops — meant to do little more than patrol the country’s borders. (Saddam Hussein’s army had been something like a 600,000-man force.) It was, in other words, to be a Military Lite — and there was essentially to be no Iraqi air force. In other words, in one of the more heavily armed and tension-ridden regions of the planet, Iraq was to become a Middle Eastern Costa Rica — if, that is, you didn’t assume that the U.S. Armed Forces, from those four “enduring camps” somewhere outside Iraq’s major cities, including a giant air base at Balad, north of Baghdad, and with the back-up help of U.S. Naval forces in the Persian Gulf, were to serve as the real Iraqi military for the foreseeable future.

Again, it’s necessary to put these facts on the ground in a larger — in this case, pre-invasion — geopolitical context. From the first Gulf War on, Saudi Arabia, the largest producer of energy on the planet, was being groomed as the American military bastion in the heart of the Middle East. But the Saudis grew uncomfortable — think here, the claims of Osama bin Laden and Co. that U.S. troops were defiling the Kingdom and its holy places — with the Pentagon’s elaborate enduring camps on its territory. Something had to give — and it wasn’t going to be the American military presence in the Middle East. The answer undoubtedly seemed clear enough to top Bush administration officials. As an anonymous American diplomat told the Sunday Herald of Scotland back in October 2002, “A rehabilitated Iraq is the only sound long-term strategic alternative to Saudi Arabia. It’s not just a case of swopping horses in mid-stream, the impending U.S. regime change in Baghdad is a strategic necessity.”

As those officials imagined it — and as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz predicted — by the fall of 2003, major American military operations in the region would have been re-organized around Iraq, even as American forces there would be drawn down to perhaps 30,000-40,000 troops stationed eternally at those “enduring camps.” In addition, a group of Iraqi secular exiles, friendly to the United States, would be in power in Baghdad, backed by the occupation and ready to open up the Iraqi economy, especially its oil industry to Western (particularly American) multinationals. Americans and their allies and private contractors would, quite literally, have free run of the country, the equivalent of nineteenth century colonial extraterritoriality (something “legally” institutionalized in June 2004, thanks to Order 17, issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority, just before it officially turned over “sovereignty” to the Iraqis); and, sooner or later, a Status of Forces Agreement or SOFA would be “negotiated” that would define the rights of American troops garrisoned in that country.

At that point, the U.S. would have successfully repositioned itself militarily in relation to the oil heartlands of the planet. It would also have essentially encircled a second member of the “axis of evil,” Iran (once you included the numerous new U.S. bases that had been built and were being expanded in occupied Afghanistan as part of the ongoing war against the Taliban). It would be triumphant and dominant and, with its Israeli ally, militarily beyond challenge in the region. The cowing of, collapse of, or destruction of the Syrian and Iranian regimes would surely follow in short order.

Of course, much of this never came about as planned. It turned out that, once the Sunni insurgency gained traction, the Bush administration had little choice but to reconstitute a sizeable, if still relatively lightly armed, Iraqi military (as a largely Shiite force) and then, more recently, arm Sunni militias as well, possibly opening the way for future clashes of a major nature. It had to accept a Shiite regime locked inside the highly fortified Green Zone of the Iraqi capital that was religious, sectarian, largely powerless, and allied to some degree with Iran. It had to accept chaos, significant and unexpected casualties, continual urban warfare, and an enormous strain and drain on its armed forces (as well as a black hole of distraction from other global issues). None of this had been predicted, or imagined, by Bush’s top officials.

On the other hand, the Bush administration has demonstrated significant “endurance” of its own, especially when it came to the linked issues of oil and bases. In a recent report for Harper’s Magazine, “The Black Box, Inside Iraq’s Oil Machine,” Luke Mitchell describes traveling the southern Iraqi oil field of Rumaila with a petroleum engineer working for Foster Wheeler, a Houston engineering firm hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “to oversee much of the oilfield reconstruction,” and protected by private guards employed by the British security company Erinys. He describes what’s left of the Iraqi oil industry after decades of war, sanctions, civil war, sabotage, and black-market theft — a run-down industrial plant with a rusting delivery system that, at a technical level, is now largely in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Energy, the State Department, and private contractors like KBR, the former division of Halliburton. At the most basic level, he reports that many of “Iraq’s native oil professionals,” who heroically patched up and held together a broken system in the years after the first Gulf War, have (along with so many other Iraqi professionals) fled the country. He writes:

“The Wall Street Journal in 2006 called this flight a ‘petroleum exodus’ and reported that about a hundred oil workers had been murdered since the war began and that ‘of the top hundred of so managers running the Iraqi oil ministry and its branches in 2003, about two-thirds are no longer at their jobs.’ Now most of the [oil] engineers in Iraq are from Texas and Oklahoma.”

Similarly, in Baghdad, the government of Prime Minister Maliki is not expected to handle the crucial energy problems of its country alone. Here’s a relevant (if well-buried) passage from a recent New York Times piece on the subject: “Earlier this month, the White House dispatched several senior aides to Baghdad to work with the Iraqis on specific legislative areas. They include the under secretary of state for economic, energy and agricultural affairs, Reuben Jeffery III, who is working on the budget and oil law” This is what passes for “sovereignty” in present-day Iraq.

In this context, the following line of text about agreed-upon subjects for negotiation in last week’s Bush/Maliki “declaration” caused eyebrows to be raised (at least abroad): “Facilitating and encouraging the flow of foreign investments to Iraq, especially American investments, to contribute to the reconstruction and rebuilding of Iraq.” As the British Guardian put the matter: “The promise was immediately seen as a potential bonanza for American oil companies.” A BBC report commented, “Correspondents say US investors benefiting from preferential treatment could earn huge profits from Iraq’s vast oil reserves, causing widespread resentment among Iraqis.” (American coverage regularly ignores or plays down the oil aspect of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies, even though that country has the third largest reserves on the planet.)

Bases, Bases Everywhere

Among the most tenacious and enduring Bush administration facts on the ground are those giant bases, still largely ignored — with honorable exceptions — by the mainstream media. Thom Shanker and Cara Buckley of the New York Times, to give but one example, managed to write that paper’s major piece about the joint “declaration” without mentioning the word “base,” no less “permanent,” and only Gen. Lute’s slip made the permanence of bases a minor note in other mainstream reports. And yet it’s not just that the building of bases did go on — and on a remarkable scale — but that it continues today.

Whatever the descriptive labels, the Pentagon, throughout this whole period, has continued to create, base by base, the sort of “facts” that any negotiations, no matter who engages in them, will need to take into account. And the ramping up of the already gigantic “mega-bases” in Iraq proceeds apace. Recent reports indicate that the Pentagon will call on Congress to pony up another billion dollars soon enough for further upgrades and “improvements.”

We also know that frantic construction has been under way on three new bases of varying sizes. The most obvious of these — though it’s seldom thought of this way — is the gigantic new U.S. Embassy, possibly the largest in the world, being built on an almost Vatican-sized plot of land inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. It is meant to be a citadel, a hardened universe of its own, in, but not of, the Iraqi capital. In recent months, it has also turned into a construction nightmare, soaking up another $144 million in American taxpayer monies, bringing its price tag to three-quarters of a billion dollars and still climbing. It is to house 1,000 or so “diplomats,” with perhaps a few thousand extra security guards and hired hands of every sort.

When, in the future, you read in the papers about administration plans to withdraw American forces to bases “outside of Iraqi urban areas,” note that there will continue to be a major base in the heart of the Iraqi capital for who knows how long to come. As the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler put it, the 21-building compound “is viewed by some officials as a key element of building a sustainable, long-term diplomatic presence in Baghdad.” Presence, yes, but diplomatic?

In the meantime, a relatively small base, “Combat Outpost Shocker,” provocatively placed within a few kilometers of the Iranian border, has been rushed to completion this fall on a mere $5 million construction contract. And only in the last weeks, reports have emerged on the latest U.S. base under construction, uniquely being built on a key oil-exporting platform in the waters off the southern Iraqi port of Basra and meant for the U.S. Navy and allies. Such a base gives meaning to this passage in the Bush/Maliki declaration: “Providing security assurances and commitments to the Republic of Iraq to deter foreign aggression against Iraq that violates its sovereignty and integrity of its territories, waters, or airspace.”

As the British Telegraph described this multi-million dollar project: “The US-led coalition is building a permanent security base on Iraq’s oil pumping platforms in the Gulf to act as the ‘nerve centre’ of efforts to protect the country’s most vital strategic asset.” Chip Cummins of the Wall Street Journal summed up the project this way in a piece headlined, “U.S. Digs In to Guard Iraq Oil Exports — Long-Term Presence Planned at Persian Gulf Terminals Viewed as Vulnerable”: “[T]he new construction suggests that one footprint of U.S. military power in Iraq isn’t shrinking anytime soon: American officials are girding for an open-ended commitment to protect the country’s oil industry.”

Though you’d never know it from mainstream reporting, the single enduring fact of the Iraq War may be this constant building and upgrading of U.S. bases. Since the Times revealed those base-building plans back in the spring of 2003, Iraq has essentially been a vast construction site for the Pentagon. The American media did, in the end, come to focus on the civilian “reconstruction” of Iraq which, from the rebuilding of electricity-production facilities to the construction of a new police academy has proved a catastrophic mixture of crony capitalism, graft, corruption, theft, inefficiency, and sabotage. But there has been next to no focus on the construction success story of the Iraq War and occupation: those bases.

In this way, whatever the disasters of its misbegotten war, the Bush administration has, in a sense, itself “endured” in Iraq. Now, with only a year left, its officials clearly hope to write that endurance and those “enduring camps” into the genetic code of both countries — an “enduring relationship” meant to outlast January 2009 and to outflank any future administration. In fact, by some official projections, the bases are meant to be occupied for up to 50 to 60 years without ever becoming “permanent.”

You can, of course, claim that the Iraqis “asked for” this new, “enduring relationship,” as the declaration so politely suggests. It is certainly true that, as part of the bargain, the Bush administration is offering to defend its “boys” to the hilt against almost any conceivable eventuality, including the sort of internal coup that it has, these last years, been rumored to have considered launching itself.

In an attempt to make an end-run around Congress, administration officials continue to present what is to be negotiated as merely a typical SOFA-style agreement. “There are about a hundred countries around the world with which we have [such] bilateral defense or security cooperation agreements,” Gen. Lute said reassuringly, indicating that this matter would be handled by the executive branch without significant input from Congress. The guarantees the Bush administration seems ready to offer the Maliki government, however, clearly rise to treaty level and, if we had even a faintly assertive Congress, would surely require the advice and consent of the Senate. Iraqi officials have already made clear that such an agreement will have to pass through their parliament in a country where the idea of “enduring” U.S. bases in an “enduring” relationship is bound to be exceedingly unpopular.

Still, a formula for the future is obviously being put in place and, after more than four years of frenzied construction, the housing for it, so to speak, is more than ready. As the Washington Post described the plan, “Iraqi officials said that under the proposed formula, Iraq would get full responsibility for internal security and U.S. troops would relocate to bases outside the cities. Iraqi officials foresee a long-term presence of about 50,000 U.S. troops”

No matter what comes out of the mouths of Iraqi officials, though, what’s “enduring” in all this is deeply Pentagonish and has emerged from the Bush administration’s earliest dreams about reshaping the Middle East and achieving global domination of an unprecedented sort. It’s a case, as the old Joni Mitchell song put it, of going “round and round and round in the circle game.”

[Note: Spencer Ackerman has been offering especially good coverage of developments surrounding the recent Bush/Maliki declaration at TPM Muckraker. I’d also like to offer one of my periodic statements of thanks to Iraq-oriented sites that give me daily aid and succor in gathering crucial material and analysis, especially Juan Cole’s invaluable Informed Comment,, and Paul Woodward’s The War in Context.]

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has recently been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt