October 12, 2007
The Korean Failure as a Model for Iraq
Amidst the smoking ruin of the Bush administration's Iraq policy comes yet another vision of the future: Iraq like Korea. A half century hence American forces will remain on patrol along the Euphrates.
It's a profoundly stupid idea, but then, no other administration vision involving Iraq has survived contact with reality. No weapons of mass destruction, no involvement in 9/11, no threat to America. Why did we go to war again?
The celebrated cakewalk was a bust. The famous "dead-enders" turned out to be constructing a highway to sectarian war. Liberated Iraq radiates instability rather than democracy throughout the Mideast.
All along the administration hoped to maintain a permanent military presence in the region. Iraq would cheerfully host American troops and bases, while being managed through the largest embassy in the world. Even more than the vision of Shi'ites, Sunnis, Christians, Turkmen, Kurds, and other Iraqi citizens circling campfires singing Kumbaya, this picture was a fantasy: the U.S. would occupy yet another Muslim land, utilizing a Shi'ite-dominated nation to impose Washington's will on Shi'ite and Sunni alike throughout the Mideast. Heckuva job, Georgie!
For a time even the administration admitted that the vision had gone aglimmering. As events in Iraq deteriorated, the administration denied that it planned a permanent occupation even as it was constructing permanent bases. Last year Zalmay Khalilzad, then U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told Congress that "We have no goal of establishing permanent bases." Popular majorities in the U.S. increasingly inclined towards a rapid withdrawal. More important, the majority of Iraqis said that they wanted American troops to go home.
Yet as President George W. Bush and the Republican congressional minority seek to face down their political opponents and the public, war supporters are recycling this idea. They are trying to make Korea a positive selling point for Iraq. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), desperate to hold together restive Republicans fearing an electoral tsunami next year, points to progress from the recent troop escalation and predicts that Iraq will eventually follow the Korean model. That, apparently, has become his definition of success.
The White House has been pushing this line for months. Last summer, Defense Secretary Robert Gates promoted "a long and enduring presence" in Iraq as in Korea, in contrast to Vietnam, "where we just left lock, stock and barrel." Then-presidential press secretary Tony Snow observed: "The Korean model is one in which the United States provides a security presence, but you've had the development of a successful democracy in South Korea over a period of years, and, therefore, the United States is there as a force of stability."
The idea would warrant a failing grade if offered in answering an exam question in an introductory college international relations class. That leading U.S. policymakers talk about turning Iraq into Korea illustrates the bankruptcy of America's bipartisan foreign policy of promiscuous intervention.
First, why would anyone want to mimic U.S. policy towards Korea? American forces spent three years fighting to a bloody stalemate on the Korean peninsula, followed by another 54 years on station ready for war. There's no end to the U.S. deployment in sight even today, with roughly 29,000 Army and Air Force personnel remaining. Yet South Korea, with the world's 12th largest economy, vastly outdistances the North in virtually every measure of national power. Today the two countries are edging towards an uneasy detente, and many younger South Koreans pronounce America to be a greater threat to peace than is North Korea.
So why is it good that American troops are still there?
Second, how can anyone who knows anything confuse the Republic of Korea and Iraq? Korea really is a nation, an ethnically homogenous people with a history running back thousands of years. The present division of the Korean peninsula is unnatural, in contrast to Iraq, where the unified state is wholly artificial. There are no ethnic or tribal divisions; the rapid rise of Christianity has occasioned some disquiet but no violence. No Koreans feel an allegiance to a neighboring state, as many Shi'ite Iraqis do to Iran; no Koreans desire to break off into a separate country, as do many Kurds.
Third, the role of the U.S. is completely different. The ROK was an allied state during the Cold War which the U.S. saved from outside invasion. Perhaps President Bush has forgotten, but Washington invaded Iraq.
By and large the South Korean people (and many North Koreans, who fled their own nation amidst the shifting battle lines) were grateful for American aid. Although the vast majority of Iraqis were pleased after Washington defenstrated Saddam Hussein, there was little support for rule by either the U.S. or U.S. appointees.
Until recently, most South Koreans wanted U.S. troops to stay; not so in Iraq, where the number who want Americans to stick around for years, decades, forever, are infinitesimal. Moreover, in the ROK those few who opposed the U.S. presence did not bury IEDs along rural roads and snipe along busy streets. No one was killing American soldiers in South Korea, while a majority of Iraqis justify attacks on American forces.
Finally, the purpose of the U.S. occupation of the ROK was, at least until the end of the Cold War, coherent. That is, Washington was protecting the South from renewed North Korean aggression, potentially aided by Maoist China and the Soviet Union. Even if the alliance once made sense, it no longer does so. The original objective belongs to a different world, and the alliance is likely to collapse as its parties pursue separate objectives. The U.S. would like to utilize the Korean peninsula as a base for containing China, a prospect that is anathema to Seoul, while the South wants America to hang out to defend the ROK from potential but highly unlikely threats, allowing Seoul to skimp on military outlays.
Worse, though, is the case of Iraq. It is impossible to concoct a logical role for an American occupation today, let alone 50 years in the future. Ironically, the U.S. made Iraq vulnerable to outside attack by wrecking its government and military. Still, outside aggression really is not an issue. Only Iran poses a potential threat, but Iran has won substantial influence without war. What the Iraqi factions all want is protection from each other. Sectarian advantage, not construction of a liberal, tolerant political order, is their primary objective.
But policing an incipient civil war is not in America's interest. Rather, the Pentagon desires a forward base from which to project force, and in that way sees Iraq as a useful successor to Saudi Arabia, within which the U.S. military presence became problematic. Sen. McConnell contends that a permanent U.S. deployment would be useful in confronting Iran and combating al-Qaeda. Mark Alexander, publisher of the Patriot Post, wants "an alliance with the Iraqi government in order to maintain a strong military presence in the region ... as long as there are Islamofascists bent on detonating a nuclear device in some U.S. urban center and sending our nation into economic ruin."
This the weirdist of fantasies. Does anyone in the permanent occupation crowd really believe that the Shi'ite government in Baghdad will voluntarily cooperate militarily with Washington against the Shi'ite government in Tehran, along with any number of other potential Islamic targets? Do they understand the concept of a cold day in hell?
As for al-Qaeda, it didn't exist in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion. Moreover, the occupation has proved to be a recruiting boon to jihadist groups around the globe. Although the outcome of a full-blown multi-sided civil war in Iraq might be difficult to predict, the certain loser would be al-Qaeda, which is hated even by Sunni Ba'athists who have been attacking American troops. In the meantime, U.S. forces in Iraq would be of no use in attempting to dismantle a loose transnational network of Islamic extremists, which draws recruits and money from around the globe.
Worse, a permanent U.S. presence would be a catalyst for continuing Islamic antagonism towards America. Terrorism has been a common tactic around the world, and it is not deployed against countries because they are perceived as being "free," as so many American policymakers seem to think. In reviewing hundreds of terrorist incidents, Robert A. Pape of the University of Chicago concluded that terrorism usually is directed against foreign occupiers.
That's what happened in Lebanon in 1983 with the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks; that's what happened in 1996 with the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. In fact, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz wanted to get U.S. forces out of the latter because that "occupation" was animating al-Qaeda. As he told Vanity Fair magazine, the troop presence has "been a huge recruiting device for al-Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina." Why replace one terrorist recruiting poster with another one?
In short, the Iraq as Korea strategy is as dumb as all of the other administration plans for Washington's newest client state. It should be evident by now that war supporters have gotten it wrong at every turn in Iraq. They were wrong about the justification for invading, wrong about how the occupation would turn out, wrong about the regional consequences of loosing the dogs of war. They are wrong to compare Iraq to Korea.
Instead of making fantastic plans to turn Iraq into a compliant satellite and permanent host of U.S. military forces, the administration should be planning an expeditious exit. The American and Iraqi people deserve no less.