Iraq as a Pentagon Construction
How the Bush Admnistration 'Endures'
by Tom Engelhardt
www.zmag.org, December 3, 2007
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 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
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
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
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.
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
[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,
Antiwar.com, and Paul Woodward's The War in Context.]
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's
Tomdispatch.com, where this article first appeared, 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.