Imagine a foreign politico-military encampment in the capital city, covering an area roughly equivalent to the whole space between Parliament Square, Charing Cross, and Buckingham Palace, or the offices round Whitehall plus St James’s Park.
Its area is similar to that of the Vatican City, in Rome; but unlike the Vatican, it is surrounded by high walls five metres thick. It contains its own power generators, water wells, drinking-water treatment plant, sewage plant, fire station, irrigation system, fuel depot, food and supply warehouses, vehicle-repair garage, and workshops.
That is the new US embassy in Baghdad, the biggest embassy in the world. Construction began in mid-2005, and US officials are due to move in soon.
The embassy complex symbolises what George W Bush's US administration has been demanding in negotiations with the Shia-Kurdish coalition government in Iraq over terms for US troops to stay in Iraq after their UN authorisation expires on 31 December 2008.
US negotiators have demanded complete freedom of movement in Iraq for the US military; powers to launch military operations without seeking Iraqi government permission; control over Iraqi air space; authority to arrest and detain Iraqis without reference to Iraqi courts; immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for American troops, contractors and corporations in Iraq; and 58 long-term bases in the country.
The US offered no promise to defend Iraq from outside attack or to defend democratic institutions in Iraq. Plausible speculation is that the US's medium-term plan is to "harden" the Iraqi army enough to make possible a "deniable" military coup. After that, the US would hope for Iraq to be kept stable and US-friendly under a "soft" dictatorship led by one of the Iraqi army officers whom the US army is now assiduously trying to train, rather than having to deal with a fragile parliamentary regime like the current one, dominated by pro-Iranian Shia-Islamist parties.
The US is softening its demands in negotiation. But its opening bid tells us what the Bush administration wants.
The same Bush administration that seeks such drastic powers in Iraq makes no complaint about:
* the continuation on the statute books of Saddam's anti-union laws, so that almost all the new unions which have emerged since 2003 are theoretically illegal;
* decree 8750, passed by the Baghdad government in 2005, giving the government powers to seize all trade-union funds;
* the Baghdad government's threat in June 2007 to arrest leaders of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions when oil workers struck over issues around the plans to privatise Iraqi oil;
* recent moves by the Baghdad government to sack union activists and other workers and managers in the southern oil industry.
The Bush administration’s attitude to the Iraqi labour movement can be no surprise. But what do the negotiations tell us about the USA’s long-term strategic plans?
Back in 2003, then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (in press conference on 21 April) said that any suggestion that the United States is planning a permanent military presence in Iraq was "inaccurate and unfortunate."
At the start of the current negotiations, late last year, the Guardian reported (26 November 2007): “Iraq's government is preparing to grant the US a long-term troop presence in the country and preferential treatment for American investors in return for a guarantee on long-term security...
“Iraqi officials said that, under the proposed formula, Iraq would get full responsibility for internal security and American troops would relocate to bases outside cities. The proposals foresee a long-term presence of about 50,000 US troops, down from the current figure of more than 160,000”.
A u-turn by the USA? No. In fact, Rumsfeld was either lying, or drunk on the neo-con illusion that a simple short, sharp shock by compact, high-tech military force would set Iraq on course to McDonalds/Coca-Cola capitalism with little further ado, or both. By the time he spoke it was already clear that the US plan would include a drive to get permanent bases in Iraq.
On 20 April 2003 the New York Times reported that "the US is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region".
Influential US ruling-class advocates of the invasion had already said in 2002 that “Iraq... is the most logical place to relocate Middle Eastern US bases in the twenty-first century...
“This conclusion stems not from any imperialist triumphalism but from its opposite: the realization that not only do our current bases in Saudi Arabia have a bleak future, but the Middle East in general is on the brink of an epochal passage that will weaken US influence there in many places. Indeed, the relocation of our bases to Iraq would constitute an acceptance of dynamic change rather than a perpetuation of the status quo...
“The real question is not whether the American military can topple Saddam's regime but whether the American public has the stomach for imperial involvement of a kind we have not known since the United States occupied Germany and Japan”. (Robert D Kaplan, a visiting professor at the Annapolis Naval Academy, in The Atlantic Monthly, November 2002).
Opponents of the invasion said so too. “Since 1990, each large-scale US intervention has left behind a string of new US military bases in a region where the US had never before had a foothold. The US military is inserting itself into strategic areas of the world, and anchoring US geopolitical influence in these areas... [For example] the 1991 Gulf War left behind large military bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and basing rights in the other Gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates...
“The US military interventions in former Yugoslavia resulted in new US military bases in five countries: Hungary, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and the sprawling Camp Bondsteel complex in southeastern Kosovo... Iraq is certainly the primary target for a new US war...” (Zoltan Grossman, Counterpunch, 2 February 2002).
Independent professional analysts of US military strategy agreed. They noted that since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 the US had been working through a major readjustment of its huge network of overseas military bases. The network is far, far bigger than any other country’s. Exact numbers are impossible to get, because the Pentagon uses legal quibbles to “define away” many bases, but the USA probably has about 1000 overseas military bases.
In 1990, prior to the Gulf War, the United States had no bases in South Asia and only 10 percent as many in the Middle East/Africa as in 1947. In Latin America and the Caribbean the number of US bases had declined by about two-thirds between 1947 and 1990. Since 1991, the US has been running down military bases in Europe – where it once had nearly 500 – and increasing bases in areas of the world where they were sparse.
Thus John Pike, director of the US think-tank GlobalSecurity.org, had no hesitation about it in 2003. "A lot of those forces that were deployed from Germany down to Iraq are just going to stay in Iraq, and a lot of American bases in Germany are going to get closed."
The USA announced the closure of its bases in Saudi Arabia soon after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 – because it thought it could now site its Middle East bases more securely in Iraq, not because it wanted to withdraw from the region.
However, current US policy in Iraq is more than a continuation of that long-term shift. The theory of the late 1990s was that higher military technology could make the US military much more quick-footed.
The doctrine, as GlobalSecurity.org reports it, was this: "Gone are the days of massive bases in places like Germany, Japan and South Korea that look like small US towns. Replacing them will be a global network of what Pentagon planners call 'lily pads' - small forward bases in remote, dangerous corners of the world that can act as jumping-off points when crises arise...”
Quickly the US administration found that the neo-con ultras, like Rumsfeld, Perle, and Wolfowitz, who had argued that miracles would be produced by a short, sharp shock in Iraq, with relatively few ground troops, had been deluded.
The US military in Iraq were not nimble frogs perched on lily pads, but ponderous toads. Perle, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld, one after the other, left the administration. The USA settled in for a toad-like waddle, rather than frog-like leaps.
In March 2004 it was reported that US engineers were constructing 14 "enduring bases” for the US military in Iraq – solid concrete edifices, built to last decades. We commented in Solidarity: “a central US objective in the war was to secure US military bases in Iraq, to protect its regional interests” (Solidarity 3/54, 24 June 2004).
Also in 2004, planning started for the new US embassy in Baghdad, which will be a sizeable military base in itself.
In 2002-3, in Workers’ Liberty 2/3, we raised the possibility that the US invasion of Iraq might trigger a sequence of events similar to the 1882 British invasion of Egypt.
That 1882 invasion was planned as a short, sharp blow to ensure interest payments on debts were met. The leaders of the British Liberal government which ordered it opposed any continuing British politico-military presence in Egypt not only in public reassurances, but in private correspondence at the time. But Britain found it impossible to construct a stable, reliable Egyptian government to deal with, and gradually got drawn into asserting semi-colonial control over Egypt – for the next seventy years.
Does the USA’s “toad” policy tell us that the “Egypt” scenario is in fact being played out?
Many people on the left described the USA’s role in Iraq as indistinguishable from old-style “high imperialism” right from the start. Thus when Socialist Worker (7 June) screamed about the “new US plan for total control... strip the country of its sovereignty... the US wants unlimited access to, and control over, the country’s wealth... total subjugation", it was unconvincing, because Socialist Worker had been saying the same sort of thing right from the start.
But is Socialist Worker here like the stopped clock which is nevertheless right twice a day?
To think so would be grossly to underestimate the fiasco of US policy in Iraq. Despite its enormous military investment, the US has been unable to secure political control in Iraq. What Britain could do, even reluctantly, in an Egypt where most people were illiterate peasants with little “national” awareness, is impossible for the USA in an Iraq which is highly urbanised, literate, and saturated with nationalism (in rival strands, hostile to each other, but all also hostile to the USA). Doubly impossible in an era where the US public can see overseas wars on TV and will not tolerate casualties in them even a fraction of, say, the British Army’s 20,000-plus in the Boer War.
Even Bush’s circle knows that. Bush’s “strategy” at present may well be little more than to find ways of lasting out in Iraq until early 2009, when he can hand over the mess to a new President; but all serious US ruling-class figures, whatever their rhetoric, very much want to find ways to reduce the US military presence in Iraq and move it more into the background.
If it were not that the USA knows its weaknesses, it would not be negotiating with an Iraqi government whose dominant parties have very close ties to the USA’s chief enemy in the region, Iran, and which has failed to carry through any of the political measures demanded of it by the USA after the USA’s big review of Iraq strategy in late 2006.
The US is demanding “belt and braces” in the new military agreement precisely because it is hard-pressed. It wants to get as much as it can now, when the Iraqi government knows that it will fall without US military backing, and thus must, however complainingly, sign a deal to keep the troops there.
US strategists will know they can get no absolute guarantees. When the US left the Philippines in 1947 (they had been a US colony since 1902), it had an agreement which guaranteed US bases there until 2046. Until 1991 the Philippines held the biggest US overseas military base in the world – and it must have been one of the biggest overseas military bases of any power, ever, in peacetime – Clark Air Base, with a permanent population of 15,000 in 1990.
Yet the unrevolutionary, and by no means strongly anti-US, “People’s Power” movement of 1986 scuppered that. Cory Aquino, installed as president after the fall of the dictator Marcos, was forced to demand US withdrawal, and in 1991-2 the US evacuated Clark Air Base and most of its other bases in the Philippines.
The USA wants to use the clout it has now to gain as many positions of strength as it can for the future.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain was in the Rumsfeld-Perle-Wolfowitz camp on Iraq in 2002 ("I believe that success will be fairly easy” – 24 September 2002). When asked recently about the prospect of US troops being in Iraq for many years, he replied bullishly: "Make it a hundred [years]! We’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea 50 years or so. That would be fine with me”.
But the same McCain also admitted that “if the Bush administration’s plan had not produced visible signs of progress by the time a McCain presidency began, he might be forced... to end American involvement in Iraq” (New York Times, 15 April 2007).
McCain now says that Bush’s plan has produced progress. But he also knows for reasons of US political, economic, and military overstretch, he has to find some way to scale down the US military presence in Iraq soon. “Many Iraqis resent American military presence”, he admits. “As soon as we can reduce our visibility as much as possible, the better I think it is going to be”. He has explained away his notorious “hundred years” comment by saying that it is about US bases kept in Iraq by Iraqi agreement and not involved in any Iraqi politics.
Socialists should oppose the USA’s attempts to gain positions of strength in Iraq, and champion Iraqi self-determination. But at the same time we should not let facile agitation, falsely equating the USA’s role in Iraq with old-style governor-general imperialism, seduce us into giving credence or de facto support to the clerical-fascist militias in Iraq.
Those sectarian militias will never win self-determination for Iraq, but rather, tear it apart and destroy the Iraqi labour movement which is the only plausible champion of democratic Iraqi self-determination.