Ominous Opposition to a Long-Term U.S. Military Presence in Iraq

Ominous Opposition to a Long-Term U.S. Military Presence in Iraq
June 2, 2008
Ivan Eland

At the behest of Iraqi Shi’i leader Moktada al-Sadr, his powerful faction staged a formidable protest this week against a likely U.S.-Iraqi agreement to establish a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq, which would replace the United Nation-authorized U.S. occupation that expires at the end of 2008. This demonstration, and subsequent protests planned for the duration of the summer, should worry both governments.

Indicative of the controversy on the horizon, al-Sadr’s forces are not alone in their opposition to these secret negotiations; in fact, voices of dissent are emerging from all parts of Iraqi society. The Shi’i Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, usually a voice of moderation in a turbocharged and fractious Iraqi political system and arguably the most powerful person in Iraq, has called for a countrywide referendum on any such agreement concerning an extended U.S. military occupation. Given Sistani’s success in 2005, when he dragged a reluctant U.S. occupation authority into granting national elections by sending massive numbers of protesters into the streets, a Sistani-demanded vote on any new agreement will be hard to avoid.

In addition, the potential agreement has raised hackles outside of Iraq. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq and continued saber rattling by the Bush administration, Iran is understandably afraid. Iranians believe that any long-term U.S. military occupation of Iraq may be used as a springboard to attack Iran, and continued negotiations of this nature could motivate them to initiate large-scale efforts to destabilize Iraq and evict the U.S. presence.

Even the U.S. Congress is unhappy with the non-transparent negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq. Although the administration insists that any agreement will not bind the hands of the new president or commit the United States to maintaining a certain level of troops to prop up the rickety Iraqi government, the Congress is afraid of exactly that result. Furthermore, the administration’s claim that any agreement would not require Senate ratification has not been well received on Capitol Hill. Justifiably so. After all, Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that Congress will “make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.” Of course, the Bush administration has never been very good at operating within the bounds of the Constitution, and while Congress often grumbles, it later acquiesces to Bush’s trampling on the document. Thus, the administration may be encouraged to push the limits yet again.

So the administration’s main problem will likely be the Iraqis. Although the administration claims that any agreement will not involve permanent U.S. military bases, any long-term U.S. military presence will require U.S. facilities on Iraqi soil to house and sustain troops. Technically, for example, any 99-year lease on such facilities would not be “permanent.” Besides, the Iraqis don’t care about the bases and facilities; they worry that a long-term U.S. military occupation would erode their sovereignty. When they look at prior occupations without end in such countries as Germany, Japan, and South Korea—all of which have lasted more than a half-century—there is a legitimate cause for concern.

Although initially resisted by Sunni guerrillas, U.S. occupation began to have some fleeting usefulness after the Sunni-Shi’i sectarian violence began. The many Iraqi factions seemed to bet that the unpopularity of the war in the United States would eventually cause U.S. forces to withdraw. Astutely deciding, unlike the North Vietnamese forty years before them, to give the United States a face saving way out, many factions have begun to keep their powder dry until after the U.S. departs. However, if the U.S. presence is extended indefinitely, it will inflame them again and cause this temporary implicit social compact to unravel into further violence. If the prospect of such an agreement causes al-Sadr to abandon his cease-fire, this development could cause retaliation by now dormant Sunni fighters, as well as his Shi’i opponents in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s Badr Brigades.

On balance, an agreement codifying infinite U.S. violation of Iraqi sovereignty will be a rude awakening and could trigger a full-blown civil war. Such a long-term U.S. military presence is unneeded, unwanted, and counterproductive; the negotiations should be terminated and a complete U.S. troop withdrawal commenced.

Ivan Eland
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Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books, The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.
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