Almost unnoticed, the war in Iraq entered a new phase last week. Laconic statements from the White House and the Pentagon confirmed what had long been suspected - the US is planning a long-term military presence in Iraq. This is a geopolitical development of the first importance. In spite of current difficulties - May was the most lethal month for American soldiers since 2004, with 119 killed - the United States firmly intends to maintain control of Iraq and its vast oil reserves. Iraq's neighbours, and energy-hungry states and oil companies, will take note. On a visit to Honolulu on May 31, Robert Gates, the defence secretary, said that the United States was looking for a "long and enduring presence", under an arrangement with the Iraq government. "The Korea model is one, the security relationship we have with Japan is another," he said. US troops have been in South Korea since the end of the Korean war and in Japan since 1945. Last week the White House spokesman Tony Snow confirmed that President Bush wanted a lengthy troop presence in Iraq. "The situation in Iraq, and indeed, the larger war on terror, are things that are going to take a long time," he said.
Such statements, and the planning that goes with them, make nonsense of the current debate - in Congress, the press and the public - about a date for withdrawal from Iraq, and whether the surge is producing results. The administration is looking way beyond that.
What are the motives driving such long-term ambitions? The wish to retain control of energy resources, bearing in mind potential rivals such as China, is clearly one. If there were no oil in Iraq, the US would not be there. Another is the ability to project US power over the whole of the oil-rich Gulf and beyond, a vast area from central Asia to east Africa. Other motives include confronting hostile Iran and Syria; making up in Iraq for the loss of bases in Saudi Arabia; and, not least, being on hand to protect Israel. Indeed, these were the main reasons for the invasion four years ago.
Seen in this light, the US enterprise - for all the talk of democracy - is an unmistakable neo-colonial or imperial project such as the region suffered at the hands of Britain and France in an earlier age. Jimmy Carter was prescient when he declared last year: "There are people in Washington ... who never intend to withdraw military forces from Iraq ... the reason that we went into Iraq was to establish a permanent military base in the Gulf region."
Are these ambitions realistic? Or will they simply pile up problems for the US's already deplorable relations with much of the Arab and Muslim world? General Anthony Zinni, formerly in charge at US central command, has described permanent bases as "a stupid idea and clearly politically unacceptable. It would damage our image in the region where people would decide that this was our original intent."
As early as 2004, Jessica Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, said permanent bases would reinforce Iraqi suspicions that the US launched the war to get a hand on Iraqi oil, with a puppet government in Baghdad.
Yet the building of US military bases in Iraq continues apace, at a cost of over $1bn a year. Shortly after the invasion, the US established 110 bases in Iraq. The present plan appears to consolidate these into 14 "enduring bases" in Iraqi Kurdistan, at Baghdad airport, in Anbar province, and in the southern approaches to Baghdad. This does not point to an early US disengagement. And nor does the construction of a US embassy able to house 1,000 staff on a 100-acre site on the banks of the Tigris - the biggest US embassy in the world.
Patrick Seale is the author of The Struggle for Syria
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