Assuming, then, a near year to come of withdrawal buzz, speculation, and even a media blitz of withdrawal announcements, the question is: How can anybody tell if the Bush administration is actually withdrawing from Iraq or not? Sometimes, when trying to cut through a veritable fog of misinformation and disinformation, it helps to focus on something concrete. In the case of Iraq, nothing could be more concrete -- though less generally discussed in our media -- than the set of enormous bases the Pentagon has long been building in that country. Quite literally multi-billions of dollars have gone into them. In a prestigious engineering magazine in late 2003, Lt. Col. David Holt, the Army engineer "tasked with facilities development" in Iraq, was already speaking proudly of several billion dollars being sunk into base construction ("the numbers are staggering"). Since then, the base-building has been massive and ongoing.
In a country in such startling disarray, these bases, with some of the most expensive and advanced communications systems on the planet, are like vast spaceships that have landed from another solar system. Representing a staggering investment of resources, effort, and geostrategic dreaming, they are the unlikeliest places for the Bush administration to hand over willingly to even the friendliest of Iraqi governments.
If, as just about every expert agrees, Bush-style reconstruction has failed dismally in Iraq, thanks to thievery, knavery, and sheer incompetence, and is now essentially ending, it has been a raging success in Iraq's "Little America." For the first time, we have actual descriptions of a couple of the "super-bases" built in Iraq in the last two and a half years and, despite being written by reporters under Pentagon information restrictions, they are sobering. Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post paid a visit to Balad Air Base, the largest American base in the country, 68 kilometers north of Baghdad and "smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq." In a piece entitled Biggest Base in Iraq Has Small-Town Feel, Ricks paints a striking portrait:
The base is sizeable enough to have its own "neighborhoods" including "KBR-land" (in honor of the Halliburton subsidiary that has done most of the base-construction work in Iraq); "CJSOTF" ("home to a special operations unit," the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, surrounded by "especially high walls," and so secretive that even the base Army public affairs chief has never been inside); and a junkyard for bombed out Army Humvees. There is as well a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye's, "an ersatz Starbucks," a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges where TVs, iPods, and the like can be purchased, four mess halls, a hospital, a strictly enforced on-base speed limit of 10 MPH, a huge airstrip, 250 aircraft (helicopters and predator drones included), air-traffic pile-ups of a sort you would see over Chicago's O'Hare airport, and "a miniature golf course, which mimics a battlefield with its baby sandbags, little Jersey barriers, strands of concertina wire and, down at the end of the course, what appears to be a tiny detainee cage."
Ricks reports that the 20,000 troops stationed at Balad live in "air-conditioned containers" which will, in the future -- and yes, for those building these bases, there still is a future -- be wired "to bring the troops Internet, cable television and overseas telephone access." He points out as well that, of the troops at Balad, "only several hundred have jobs that take them off base. Most Americans posted here never interact with an Iraqi."
Recently, Oliver Poole, a British reporter, visited another of the American "super-bases," the still-under-construction al-Asad Airbase (Football and pizza point to US staying for long haul). He observes, of "the biggest Marine camp in western Anbar province," that "this stretch of desert increasingly resembles a slice of US suburbia." In addition to the requisite Subway and pizza outlets, there is a football field, a Hertz rent-a-car office, a swimming pool, and a movie theater showing the latest flicks. Al-Asad is so large -- such bases may cover 15-20 square miles -- that it has two bus routes and, if not traffic lights, at least red stop signs at all intersections.
There are at least four such "super-bases" in Iraq, none of which have anything to do with "withdrawal" from that country. Quite the contrary, these bases are being constructed as little American islands of eternal order in an anarchic sea. Whatever top administration officials and military commanders say -- and they always deny that we seek "permanent" bases in Iraq - facts-on-the-ground speak with another voice entirely. These bases practically scream "permanency."
Unfortunately, there's a problem here. American reporters adhere to a simple rule: The words "permanent," "bases," and "Iraq" should never be placed in the same sentence, not even in the same paragraph; in fact, not even in the same news report. While a LexisNexis search of the last 90 days of press coverage of Iraq produced a number of examples of the use of those three words in the British press, the only U.S. examples that could be found occurred when 80% of Iraqis (obviously somewhat unhinged by their difficult lives) insisted in a poll that the United States might indeed desire to establish bases and remain permanently in their country; or when "no" or "not" was added to the mix via any American official denial. (It's strange, isn't it, that such bases, imposing as they are, generally only exist in our papers in the negative.) Three examples will do: