Since the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began making increasingly clear that it wanted a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, neo-conservatives have been making increasingly clear that they want none of it, and that their hope all along was to establish a permanent military presence to assert U.S. power in the heart of the Middle East.
Their position has become more explicit over the course of the last three weeks as Maliki, combined with McCain’s attacks on Obama’s withdrawal plan, effectively moved the debate over how long U.S. troops would stay in Iraq — and for what purpose — in a direction that is causing growing unease among the hawks inside the administration and out. Since then, not only has the Bush administration signed on to a “time horizon” demanded by Maliki, but Maliki himself effectively endorsed Sen. Obama’s proposed timetable for withdrawing all U.S. combat troops by mid-2010. Finally, Sen. McCain, the neo-cons’ candidate, allowed (however cluelessly and however much he has since tried to confuse the issue) that the 2010 timetable was “pretty good”, subject, of course, to “conditions on the ground.”
This evolution appears to be deeply troubling to the neo-cons, not so much for the reasons they most often cite — that a democratic transition in Iraq is too fragile to endure the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and/or that a resurgence of sectarian violence and even civil war would deal a devastating blow to U.S. (already severely diminished) credibility and influence in the region (although that is indeed a major neo-con worry) — as for the concern that Washington will lose Iraq as a base from which to project its military power in the region, particularly against Iran.
Consider the way the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial writers reacted after Maliki first suggested during a visit to the United Arab Emirates on July 7 that his goal was “terminating the foreign presence on Iraqi lands and restoring full sovereignty [to Iraq].”
“Our view is that Iraq and Mr. Maliki would benefit from striking a security agreement this year while Mr. Bush is still in office. Despite Iraq’s impressive security gains, Iran can still do plenty of mischief through its ‘special group’ surrogates. The U.S. can help deter Iranian trouble, especially with Iraq elections scheduled for this year and next.
“Inside Iraq, a significant long-term U.S. presence would also increase the confidence of Iraq’s various factions to make political compromises. And outside, it would improve regional stability by giving the U.S. a presence in the heart of the Middle East that would deter foreign intervention [Emphasis added, but not the unintended irony.] This is the kind of strategic benefit that the next Administration should try to consolidate in Iraq after the hard-earned progress of the last year.”
The Journal went on to suggest that all of the talk about withdrawal emanating from Iraq is just a lot of nonsense and bluff anyway. “Our sense is that, with the exception of the Sadrists, all of Iraq’s main political factions want the U.S. to remain in some significant force,” it claimed.
Writing one day later, on July 10, in Commentary‘s Contentions blog, Max Boot repeated some of the same talking points.
“Despite recent gains in security,” he wrote, “the situation remains fragile and U.S. forces will need to remain in Iraq for years to nurture this embattled democracy — and not so incidentally to protect our own interests in the region.” [Emphasis added.] At the time, Boot worried that Maliki’s rhetoric — this was even before Maliki endorsed Obama’s proposal — might have serious implications for the U.S. presidential campaign. “The danger is that rhetoric intended for domestic political consumption in Iraq will warp our own political discussion by providing fodder for those who, like Obama, are now citing the success of U.S. forces, as they once cited their failure, as evidence that we can pull out safely.”
It’s obvious that Boot was prescient, at least on that point, as he felt compelled to go after Maliki hammer and tongs after the prime minister endorsed Obama’s 2010 timetable. In a Washington Post op-ed July 23 entitled “Behind Maliki’s Games,” he expressed his fury, accusing the premier essentially of being anti-American and hypocritical (“hardly an unwavering friend of the United States — at least in public. …[H]e was not a proponent of the U.S.-led invasion”); serial ingratitude (“Even now, when the success of the surge is undeniable, Maliki won’t give U.S. troops their due”); cluelessness when it comes to military matters (“Keep in mind also that Maliki has no military experience and that he has been trapped in the Green Zone, relatively isolated from day-to-day life. For these reasons, he has been a consistent font of misguided predictions about how quickly U.S. forces could leave”); and lacking in any real authority (“Of course, if the Iraqi government tells us to leave, we will have to leave. But, the prime minister’s ambiguous comments notwithstanding, the Iraqi government is saying no such thing…”).
But it fell to Charles Krauthammer, presuming to know the private thoughts of both McCain and George W. Bush, to return to the theme of why the U.S. needs to have a military base in Iraq in a July 25 op-ed entitled “Maliki Votes for Obama” shortly after Maliki blessed Obama’s plan.
“McCain, like George Bush, envisions the United States seizing the fruits of victory from a bloody and costly war by establishing an extensive strategic relationship that would not only make the new Iraq a strong ally in the war on terror but would also provide the U.S. with the infrastructure and freedom of action to project American power regionally, as do U.S. forces in Germany, Japan and South Korea.
“For example, we might want to retain an air base to deter Iran, protect regional allies and relieve our naval forces, which today carry much of the burden of protecting the Persian Gulf region, thus allowing redeployment elsewhere.”[Emphasis added]
Now, of all of these guys, Krauthammer is, of course, the most direct, and even he, like the others, suggests that the U.S. military presence would be for deterrence only. (The American Enterprise Institute put out a press release Friday in which it announced Fred Kagan’s assessment that “America can best avoid a conflict with Iran by maintaining a strong force in Iraq.”) But, of course, neo-cons have long distrusted deterrence as a strategic doctrine, particularly as it relates to the “mad mullahs.” (It was, after all, the Journal’s same editorial board that, among many other hysterical pieces over the last few years, published Bernard Lewis’ apocalyptic op-ed nearly two years ago that predicted a nuclear strike on Israel for August 22, 2006, because President Ahmadinejad believed that was the date of the 12th Imam’s return.) Thus, one might assume that, at least for the neo-cons, the purpose of such a long-term presence may be for more than just deterrence, despite the fact that all of the major actors inside Iraq (with the possible exception, I suppose, of the former Sunni insurgents who enlisted in the Awakenings movement) are clearly dead-set against the U.S. using Iraqi territory as a launching pad for military adventures against their neighbors, particularly Iran.
But Krauthammer’s language is particularly revealing, especially for a self-described “democratic realist”, for the contempt it shows for Iraqi public opinion. His talk of “seizing the fruits of victory” by “mak[ing] the new Iraq a strong ally in the war on terror” and his notion that the U.S. “might want to retain an air base…” suggests, let us say, a rather imperial state of mind, something that belongs more to the 19th century than the 21st. Indeed, in reading Boot, the Journal’s editorial and op-ed pages, and other neo-con writings, one can’t help but get the impression that, for them, decolonization never happened. (Boot deserves credit for conceding the U.S. would have to go if the Iraqi government tells it to do so, but remember that his book, “Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power,” was a paean to the early days of American imperialism.) Neo-con efforts to discredit Maliki by arguing that he’s only bluffing, that he doesn’t have any idea of what is best for Iraq, that he has consistently overestimated Iraqi military capabilities, and/or that he is trying to manipulate U.S. public opinion in order to ensure the election of a candidate that will be more “pliable” in future negotiations should all be seen in this light. And while they sometimes concede that Maliki could be be playing to growing nationalism and popular resentment of the U.S. occupation that may actually reflect the views of a strong majority of the Iraqi population, it really doesn’t make a great deal of difference . Hence, the patronizing language of the Journal, in particular, whose editorial board clearly believes that it knows better than the Iraqis what is good for them.
This imperial attitude — it’s worth remembering that the 92-year-old Lewis, from whom many neo-cons derive their (usually extremely limited) knowledge about the Arab world, is a product of the British Empire — was particularly in evidence last Friday in the person of Kimberly Kagan at a very interesting forum (which I also attended) at the U.S. Institute for Peace, as noted by two Middle East experts, Helena Cobban and Marc Lynch, whose blogs, www.justworldnews.org and www.abuaardvark.org, respectively, are widely read by regional specialists here in Washington. In her blog, Cobban quotes Kagan as repeatedly insisting that it’s really up to the U.S. to decide what it wants to do in Iraq. Lynch noted the same on his blog:
“Kim Kagan shocked me with a comment made forcefully, twice, once towards the end of her prepared remarks and again at the opening of her closing remarks: the future of Iraq depends primarily on American decisions, not Iraqi decisions. I found this extraordinarily revealing: for her it really is all about us. This infantalizes Iraqis – and, as [Colin] Kahl would surely note, demands nothing of them, since it is American decisions and will which matter and not theirs. Such a world-view, characteristic of so much neoconservative foreign policy thinking, explains a great deal. How could one possibly contemplate drawing down American forces, after all, if American actions are the only actions that matter, American power the only power which matters, American decisions the only decisions which matter? Why would it matter what Maliki says, or what Iraqi politicians or public opinion polls say, if what really matters is only ultimately us?”
He wrote it better than I could.