The Great American Disconnect: Iraq Has Always Been “South Korea” for the Bush Administration
By Tom Engelhardt
Finally, the great American disconnect may be ending. Only four years after the invasion of Iraq, the crucial facts-on-the-ground might finally be coming into sight in this country — not the carnage or the mayhem; not the suicide car bombs or the chlorine truck bombs; not the massive flight of middle-class professionals, the assassination campaign against academics, or the collapse of the best health-care service in the region; not the spiking American and Iraqi casualties, the lack of electricity, the growth of Shia militias, the crumbling of the “coalition of the willing,” or the uprooting of 15% or more of Iraq’s population; not even the sharp increase in fundamentalism and extremism, the rise of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the swelling of sectarian killings, or the inability of the Iraqi government to get oil out of the ground or an oil law, designed in Washington and meant to turn the clock back decades in the Middle East, passed inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone — no, none of that. What’s finally coming into view is just what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, the top officials of their administration, the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, and their neocon followers had in mind when they invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003.
But let me approach this issue another way. For the last week, news jockeys have been plunged into a debate about the “Korea model,” which, according to the New York Times and other media outlets, the President is suddenly considering as the model for Iraq. (“Mr. Bush has told recent visitors to the White House that he was seeking a model similar to the American presence in South Korea.”) You know, a limited number of major American bases tucked away out of urban areas; a limited number of American troops (say, 30,000-40,000), largely confined to those bases but ready to strike at any moment; a friendly government in Baghdad; and (as in South Korea where our troops have been for six decades) maybe another half century-plus of quiet garrisoning. In other words, this is the time equivalent of a geographic “over the horizon redeployment” of American troops. In this case, “over the horizon” would mean through 2057 and beyond.
This, we are now told, is a new stage in administration thinking. White House spokesman Tony Snow seconded the “Korea model” (“You have the United States there in what has been described as an over-the-horizon support role… — as we have in South Korea, where for many years there have been American forces stationed there as a way of maintaining stability and assurance on the part of the South Korean people against a North Korean neighbor that is a menace…”); Defense Secretary Robert Gates threw his weight behind it as a way of reassuring Iraqis that the U.S. “will not withdraw from Iraq as it did from Vietnam, ‘lock, stock and barrel,'” as did “surge plan” second-in-command in Baghdad, Lt. General Ray Odierno. (“Q Do you agree that we will likely have a South Korean-style force there for years to come? GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I think that’s a strategic decision, and I think that’s between us and — the government of the United States and the government of Iraq. I think it’s a great idea.”)
David Sanger of the New York Times recently summed up this “new” thinking in the following fashion:
“Administration officials and top military leaders declined to talk on the record about their long-term plans in Iraq. But when speaking on a not-for-attribution basis, they describe a fairly detailed concept. It calls for maintaining three or four major bases in the country, all well outside of the crowded urban areas where casualties have soared. They would include the base at Al Asad in Anbar Province, Balad Air Base about 50 miles north of Baghdad, and Tallil Air Base in the south.”
Critics — left, right, and center — promptly attacked the relevance of the South Korean analogy for all the obvious historical reasons. Time headlined its piece: “Why Iraq Isn’t Korea”; Fred Kaplan of Slate waded in this way, “In other words, in no meaningful way are these two wars, or these two countries, remotely similar. In no way does one experience, or set of lessons, shed light on the other. In Iraq, no border divides friend from foe; no clear concept defines who is friend and foe. To say that Iraq might follow ‘a Korean model’ — if the word model means anything — is absurd.” At his Informed Comment website, Juan Cole wrote, “So what confuses me is the terms of the comparison. Who is playing the role of the Communists and of North Korea?” Inter Press’s Jim Lobe quoted retired Lieutenant-General Donald Kerrick, a former US deputy national security adviser who served two tours of duty in South Korea this way: “[The analogy] is either a gross oversimplification to try to reassure people [the Bush administration] has a long-term plan, or it’s just silly.”
None of these critiques are anything but on target. Nonetheless, the “Korea model” should not be dismissed simply for gross historical inaccuracy. There’s a far more important reason to attend to it, confirmed by four years of facts-on-the-ground in Iraq — and by a little history that, it seems, no one, not even the New York Times which helped record it, remembers.
How Enduring Are Those “Enduring Camps”?
At the moment, the Korea model is being presented as breaking news, as the next step in the Bush administration’s desperately evolving thinking as its “surge plan” surges into disaster. However, the most basic fact of our present “Korea” moment is that this is the oldest news of all. As the Bush administration launched its invasion in March 2003, it imagined itself entering a “South Korean” Iraq (though that analogy was never used). While Americans, including administration officials, would argue endlessly over whether we were in Tokyo or Berlin, 1945, Algeria of the 1950s, Vietnam of the 1960s and 70s, civil-war torn Beirut of the 1980s, or numerous other historically distant places, when it came to the facts on the ground, the administration’s actual planning remained obdurately in “South Korea.”
The problem was that, thanks largely to terrible media coverage, the American people knew little or nothing about those developing facts-on-the-ground and that disconnect has made all the difference for years.
Read this complete, remarkable analysis here.