Special Report

We’re Staying Put

No matter who is president, the U.S. will have to maintain a permanent military presence in the Middle East for many years to come.

By 9.21.07

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The charge was made on PBS last week by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, that the Bush Administration has decided to make no strategic decisions with respect to Iraq. Notwithstanding SecDef Robert Gates's recent statement that American troops will remain in Iraq for a "protracted period," Brzezinski believes George Bush is leaving the entire problem to the next president.

It may take a while, but eventually both the Democrat and Republican parties will come to the realization, whether they like it or not, that the strategic decision already was made by force of circumstances: The United States has to maintain permanently a sizable military presence in Iraq.

Iranian regional power ambitions must be countered, and the United States is the only country with the military strength in the region capable of accomplishing this. As distasteful as it might be, the U.S. will have to continue indefinitely to assume a protective role within Iraq.

There appears at this time little possibility of the evolution in the foreseeable future of a strong, stable, democratic central government in Iraq. There is no dynamic, responsible leadership on the horizon. Al Qaeda's Iraqi instrument has grown as an independent element in Iraq's turmoil and now constitutes an autonomously effective destructive force.

The existence of a permanent combat-ready U.S. military ground presence in the Middle East has been under consideration ever since the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage taking by the Iranians and the failed efforts to free them during the Carter presidency. Various American administrations since then have avoided assuming the daunting responsibility of projecting a major American ground force in the region permanently.

After the First Gulf War it initially was thought that the Saudis might accept a permanent U.S. Army base on their soil. That idea was quickly dropped when the fighting ended and the Saudis felt safe again. The idea of having infidel soldiers based on Saudi territory was out of the question. Limited air facilities perhaps would be acceptable, but not a true forward military base.

Operation Desert Storm had come and gone with a pat on the head by the ever prideful and manipulative al Saud. Air and naval facilities were established in Oman and Bahrain with support elements in Diego Garcia and to a limited extent in Saudi Arabia. But nowhere was there a permanent forward defense position of U.S. ground forces.

There was a time when Turkey was assumed to be a friendly enough ally to be able to be counted on if a quick build-up was necessary. The American air base at Incirlik played a vital NATO reconnaissance and re-supply role. The so-called Turkish alliance went flying out the window with Ankara's refusal to allow U.S. forces to transit Turkish territory to attack Saddam from the northwest. Fifty years of American/Turkish military cooperation dissolved in a matter of a few key weeks.

It's tempting now to shrug our national shoulders and simply to bug out -- to use an old army expression. The trouble is that we no longer have that choice. As psychologically satisfactory it might be simply to leave Iraq to the Iraqis and the Middle East to the Middle Easterners, that option does not exist -- in spite of the yearnings of most of the Democrats and even some Republicans.

To start with, al Qaeda is not merely a collection of young radical Moslems bent on destroying all things Western. Al Qaeda is a full-blown clandestine religious movement of primarily Sunni followers who believe they are in a struggle to return the empire of Islam to the ascendancy originally begun in the 7th century.

If that wasn''t enough, the Persian Empire is now reborn -- at least in ambition -- by a clerically dominated Shia Iran that sees its acquisition of nuclear weapons as the key to extending its power over the Persian Gulf and westward to Lebanon. The only thing that stands in its way is the United States and its Iraq-based major military force with air and naval resources in the Gulf and environs.

Naturally liberals and some "fortress America" conservatives believe the alternative exists for the U.S. to effectively leave Iraq either immediately or after a discreet period of time. It's not going to happen. Not under the next administration, whether Republican or Democrat, or the one after that. The die has been cast and the United States will be in Iraq and environs with a major force of ground, air and naval assets for the indefinite future.

WHAT IS NEEDED TO CHANGE that prognosis is the following:

* A new inspirational leader might rise up in Iraq -- a la Mustapha Kamel Ataturk in Turkey after World War I -- and bring together all Iraqi elements (Sunni, Shia, Kurd) with the close cooperation and support of the United States.

*Al Qaeda must fragment into an uncoordinated disputatious collection of radical Islamic malcontents primarily interested in protecting their own turf from each other.

* Absent an unlikely successful democratic uprising, the clerical leadership in Tehran must disavow the hegemonic ambitions of its power-hungry secular politicians and the Revolutionary Guards Corps. They must turn Iran toward internal economic development rather than political expansionism energized by nuclear weapon development.

* Lastly, the Saudi Royal Family's must lose its ingrained fear of overthrow that makes it vulnerable to radical religious blackmail of Wahhabi-linked groups seeking to return the world to a political period nearly 1,400 years ago.

When these things come together, and nothing new develops, the United States can begin to remove its permanent military force from Iraq and the Middle East.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.