WASHINGTON - Two key pledges made by the George W. Bush administration on military bases in its negotiations with the government of Iraq have now been revealed as carefully-worded ruses aimed at concealing U.S. negotiating aims from both U.S. citizens and Iraqis who would object to them if they were made clear.
Recent statements by Iraqis familiar with U.S. demands in negotiations on the U.S.-Iraq "strategic framework" agreement have highlighted the fact that administration promises that it would not seek "permanent bases" or the use of bases to attack Iran or any other neighbouring countries were deliberately misleading. The wording used by the Bush administration appears to have been chosen to obscure its intention to have both long-term access to Iraqi bases and complete freedom to use them to launch operations against Iran and Syria.
When Defence Secretary Robert Gates first informed the public about U.S. aims in negotiating Jan. 24, he renounced the aim of "permanent bases" in Iraq. Gates said the U.S.-Iraq agreement "would not involve -- we have no interest in permanent bases". The same day, State Department spokesman Tom Casey, asked if the agreement would include any reference to "permanent bases", replied, "We're not seeking permanent bases in Iraq. That's been a clear matter of policy for some time."
Casey went on to say, "No, the agreement is not a basing agreement."
In Congressional testimony Apr. 8, Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the agreements "will not establish permanent bases in Iraq and we anticipate that it will expressly foreswear them."
These public reassurances, moreover, mirrored the actual language used in the U.S. draft of the agreement given to the Iraqi negotiators. A draft dated Mar. 8, which was leaked to The Guardian's Seumas Milne and reported Apr. 8, includes the statement that the United States "does not desire permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq".
That commitment, which seems definitive at first glance, actually incorporates deliberate ambiguity on at least two different levels. The term "permanent military base" appears to represent a substantive legal term, but in fact is a completely misleading term.
When Democratic Sen. James Webb asked the State Department's David Satterfield, "What is a permanent base?" Satterfield tried to avoid answering the question. But Assistant Defence Secretary Mary Beth Long was more responsive. She said, "I have looked into this. As far as the department is concerned, we don't have a worldwide or even a department-wide definition of permanent bases."
Webb then observed, "It doesn't really mean anything," to which Long replied, "Yes, senator, you're right. It doesn't." She added that "most lawyers... would say that the word 'permanent' probably refers more to the state of mind contemplated by the use of the term".
Iraqi officials quickly figured out that the real significance of the draft's wording on access to military bases was that it contained neither a time limit on access to Iraqi bases nor any restrictions on the U.S. to "conduct military operations in Iraq and to detain individuals when necessary for imperative reasons of security".
Authorisation for such operations was called "temporary", but the absence of any time limit makes that seemingly reassuring term meaningless as well.
The Bush administration's renunciation of "permanent bases" was a ploy to lull the key committees of the U.S. Congress on an issue which had aroused many Democratic critics of the war, who had repeatedly used that term in demanding a legal commitment on the issue.
The administration also used such ambiguous language to help the Iraqi government sell the agreement to Iraqi nationalists who object to long-term U.S. bases in their country. Thus as early as last December, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubayi declared in a television interview, "The Iraqi people reject the presence of permanent bases in Iraq" and reassured Iraqis that the government would not accept such bases "in any form whatever and will not approve, and I believe the Council of Representatives will not approve it."
As Iraqi sources have now revealed to Western reporters, however, the U.S. has proposed access to dozens of military bases without a time limit that would be technically Iraqi bases but which would actually be fully under U.S. control.
The ploy of turning over legal control of U.S. bases to a client regime is one that U.S. administrations had used on at least two previous occasions to get around legal/political problems associated with continuation of U.S. base rights.
In the 1973 Paris peace agreement that ended the Vietnam War, the U.S. pledged to dismantle all of its military bases in South Vietnam within 60 days. But it had already secretly transferred the deeds to the bases and equipment to the South Vietnamese government and then had them "loaned back" to the United States. U.S. officials then claimed that there were no U.S. bases to dismantle.
Because of nationalist opposition to U.S. military bases in the Philippines, the United States gave nominal "sovereignty" over the bases to the Philippines in 1978 and put a Philippine officer in nominal command of each base, while insisting on U.S. "effective command and control" as well as "unhampered military operations".
Another issue on which the Bush administration inserted language in its draft to suggest a major concession to Iraqi political sensitivities while keeping its own freedom of action is the U.S. use of Iraqi bases to carry out military operations against another country. That was an obvious red line for the al-Maliki regime and its ally, Iran. Prime Minister al-Maliki's spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh insisted last January that U.S. troops must "not be used against [Iraq's] neighbours," because, he said, it could put the country's security in jeopardy.
Dabbagh said this one the principles that Iraqi negotiators would seek to spell out in the agreement.
The Mar. 7 draft includes a statement that the United States "does not seek to use Iraqi territory as a platform for offensive operations against other states". That commitment leaves plenty of room for the Bush administration to argue that it is responding defensively to an Iranian threat to its troops or other interests.
Iraqi negotiators were well aware of the ambiguous nature of the U.S. language. And a U.S. demand for control over Iraqi airspace below 29,000 feet, reported by more than one Iraqi official in recent weeks, fueled intense suspicions of the administration's intentions.
"Senior Iraqi military sources" were quoted by GulfNews as saying the agreement gave the United States "the right...to strike, from within Iraqi territory, any country it considers a threat to its national security". That interpretation was based on the absence of specific language ruling out U.S. military operations without the prior consent of the Iraqi government.
It now appears that the Bush administration's ambitions to establish a legal framework to legitimise the occupation before the end of Bush's term will be frustrated by strong opposition to the pact from pro-Iranian Shiite political parties on whose support the al-Maliki regime depends. The government is under strong pressure from legislators belonging to al-Maliki's own Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to scuttle the pact, and wait for the next U.S. administration before negotiating on the status and role of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
© 2008 Inter Press Service