While researching my weekend column about our grim options in Iraq on the eve of the third anniversary of war, I had a conversation with former Democratic Senator Gary Hart, who had stopped in Philadelphia to give a speech. Only a fragment of that interview made it into the story, so I've decided to post more of his comments here. On the issue of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq, he raised an important point that has gotten little public attention thus far:
"Are we or are we not building permanent military bases (in Iraq)? I keep trying to get anybody (in the press) to ask about this..I'll tell you what I mean by permanent: pouring concrete and welding steel. Yes or no? Not tents and ditch latrines. Concrete bases and structures. Yes or no? They (the Bush people) have never disavowed it...You can't say you are leaving Iraq if you're also welding the steel. Any why can't we seem to find out? I know the Republican Congress will not do its job of asking questions, even though that's the job of Congress.
"What are our plans there? The neoconservatives clearly had the idea that we'd put in an Iraqi government hospitable to us, and that we'd use Iraq as our base in the Middle East for the next 100 years. That was the plan. You can't tell me they have totally given up on it. I wouldn't be surprised to pick up the paper in the morning and it says, 'Iraqi government invites us to stay,' and Bush says, 'Gee whiz, they want us to stay there.'"
Hart was pretty passionate about the bases, and he's hardly alone on that. If we do build permanent bases and house some troops there, will it really be accurate to say that we have withdrawn from Iraq? And would permanent bases perpetually inflame the home-grown insurgency that wants the U.S. to go home? Larry Diamond, senior fellow at a conservative think tank and a former consultant to the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, has been arguing that only an unequivocal renunciation of the idea by the Bush administration will truly neutralize the insurgents' "anti-imperial passion."
There have been sporadic reports that the U.S. has been building at least four such bases; in fact, the Washington Post has already published details of a walled-off facility that features four mess halls, a hospital, a huge airstrip, a miniature golf course, a 24-hour Burger King, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye's, and a store that sells TVs and IPods. There have also been reports of a fifth base in the works, near the Baghdad airport, that, in addition to thick blast walls, would feature a gym, swimming pool, beauty shops and a food court.
When top Bush officials have been asked whether such permanent bases exist in actuality or on paper, they have never issued a blanket ironclad denial. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly said last December that "at the moment there are no plans for permanent bases," and nine months earlier he told Congress that "we have no intention at the present time to put permanent bases in Iraq."
Because they decline to engage the issue, Bush officials might be passing up the chance to state the arguably positive case for permanent bases (i.e., keeping some troops in Iraq might help shore up the Iraqi unity government - if and when it is created - and prevent the various sectarian factions from launching a full-blown civil war). But while they stay mute on the topic, the critics of permanent bases are dominating the discussion.
Here, for example, is what Democratic congresswoman and defense specialist Jane Harman said at a Brookings Institition briefing on Iraq two weeks ago: "It is critical that the administration make clear that it does not intend to keep permanent military bases there. I've made this point to every moving part of the White House, and the military side of the Pentagon, and certainly including (Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman) Peter Pace. Every time he sees me coming, he says 'I'm working on it.' But it is absolutely critical to tell the Iraqi people - most of whom don't believe this - that we are not going to be permanent occupiers."
As for Pace, he appeared yesterday on two morning shows - Fox News Sunday and Meet the Press. He wasn't asked a single question about the issue of permanent bases.