Meanwhile, Gates said the presence of "some force of Americans ... for a protracted period of time" would help reassure U.S. allies in the region that Washington would not abandon them.
The Korea analogy has spurred some consternation among analysts in Washington. Most experts are aware that when Iraqis have been surveyed on their views about permanent military bases in their country, the response -- except among the minority Kurdish population -- has been overwhelmingly negative.
"It's unhelpful to handling the politics of our presence in Iraq," Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution who has been sympathetic to the administration's goals in Iraq, told the Los Angeles Times this week.
Experts also reject the notion that the situation in Iraq, where U.S. forces find themselves in the middle of a number of internal sectarian conflicts, bears any relation to that of South Korea, where a minimum to 30,000 U.S. troops have been deployed as a "trip-wire" along the demilitarized zone to deter North Korean forces on the other side for more than 50 years.
The analogy is "either a gross oversimplification to try to reassure people [that the administration] has a long-term plan, or it's just silly," said retired Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick, a former deputy national security adviser who served two tours of duty in South Korea.
In recommending that Bush explicitly renounce a permanent military presence in Iraq last December, the 10-member Iraq Study Group, which was co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., argued that such a declaration would reassure two key constituencies.
"The United States can begin to shape a positive climate for its diplomatic efforts, internationally and within Iraq, through public statements by President Bush that reject the notion that the United States seeks to control Iraq's oil, or seeks permanent military bases within Iraq," it said, urging Bush to affirmatively "state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases" there.
Congress has also implicitly encouraged the administration to make such a commitment. In the last two years, it has passed two laws that prohibit the government from spending any money to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Yet, as the latest statements suggest, Bush has ignored these calls, while the Pentagon, which has been turning over smaller military bases to Iraqi forces in a number of provinces in the past year, has built up and retained four "super-bases" around the country. The bases are capable of housing tens of thousands of military personnel.
In congressional testimony in early 2006, then-chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, laid out a number of reasons why Washington would want to retain at least permanent access to those bases. At the time, however, he stressed that a policy regarding the United States' long-term presence in Iraq had not been formulated.
In particular, he cited the "need to be able to deter ambitions of an expansionistic Iran," to ensure the "free flow of goods and resources on which the prosperity of our nation and everybody else in the world depend," and to carry out counterterrorist operations.
"No doubt there is a need for some presence in the region over time primarily to help people to help themselves through this period of extremists versus moderates," he said in remarks that gained little attention at the time.
Despite the rapid descent into sectarian civil war in Iraq, as well as the plunge in U.S. public support -- which was made clear by the Democratic landslide in congressional elections last November and by the publication of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations -- the administration does not appear to have reconsidered its position since Abizaid's testimony.
"Of course, our original plans called for 13 permanent military bases, and the grand scheme was to deploy large numbers of troops there to exercise military hegemony over the Middle East," said retired Lt. Gen. John Johns in a teleconference arranged Friday by the National Security Network. "That still is in the back of the mind of President Bush and some of his advisers."
"I can't take seriously that they would compare the Korea situation with Iraq," he noted, adding, "What bothers me is that it's an umbrella for staying the course."
Given prevailing popular sentiment in Iraq, maintaining a permanent military presence there could also undermine Washington's ostensible goal to promote democracy there, according to Charles Smith, an expert on the Gulf at the University of Arizona.
"This model requires the approval and cooperation of an Iraqi government, the gaining of which is highly doubtful. So if the U.S. wants official approval, it will have to place its own man in power and keep [him] there by force," he said. "In that case, the model to refer to is South Vietnam in the early 1960s, and we all know what happened there."
At least one Korea specialist said there are indeed parallels between the two situations but only in a negative sense.
"Korea and Iraq are both examples of Americans stumbling into an unknown political, social and civilizational thicket, thinking they will solve some problem quickly, only to find that they cannot get out -- ever, apparently," said University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, who stressed that Washington first became militarily involved in Korea immediately after Japan's defeat in World War II, in order to prevent guerrillas led by Kim Il Sung from taking over the south.
"Then the Pentagon perpetual-motion machine takes over, and we have a new set of military bases to go with the roughly 735 [others] that we have around the world," he said.
Chalmers Johnson, another prominent Northeast Asia specialist at the University of California in San Diego, described the analogy as potentially "disastrous."
"The Koreans have not asked us to stay there for the past 50 years. It's become one of the most anti-American countries that we've been allied with for some time now, in large part due to the bases we have there," said Johnson, who has published several books on Washington's global military deployment, including "The Sorrows of Empire."
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Albion Monitor June
8, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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