Commentary

Washington’s Military Brezhnev Doctrine in Iraq — and Elsewhere

The much-touted final U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq looks more bogus by the day. For the past two months, Pentagon leaders from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on down have been sending a flotilla of trial balloons aloft about the “need” to keep U.S. troops in that country beyond the end of 2011. Even in the unlikely event that Washington does not successfully bludgeon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into approving a long-term “residual” U.S. military presence in his country, there will be a de facto U.S. colonial army there for the indefinite future.

Any notion that the United States government intends to allow Iraqis to run their own affairs is belied by the facts on the ground. The U.S. built a gargantuan palatial embassy in Baghdad — a complex that is nearly as large as Vatican City — staffed by more than 1,000 diplomats and direct support personnel. Both the facility and the personnel levels are much larger than the U.S. embassies in such major powers as China, Japan, Germany, and the UK. All that for a country of some 25 million people. Such an oversized presence suggests that the U.S. ambassador plans to play the role of imperial viceroy, not a mere diplomatic representative to a sovereign country.

And now the Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S. embassy will hire and maintain a private security detail of some 5,100 armed personnel to protect the bloated diplomatic staff and perform other duties. Lest anyone harbor the illusion that these individuals will be ordinary bodyguards, it is clear that they will be far more than that. In testimony before the Commission on Wartime Contracting, Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, conceded that in addition to guarding diplomats and embassy buildings, the security force will “operate a fleet of aircraft and armored vehicles.” The cost to American taxpayers? At least $3 billion a year.

The scenario now emerging is that the United States will keep a residual force of 5,000 to 15,000 troops in Iraq, augmented by a private mercenary army of more than 5,000 largely ex-military personnel, indefinitely.

It is an all-too-familiar pattern. When it comes to maintaining a sizable military presence in foreign countries, U.S. officials try to implement a version of the infamous Brezhnev Doctrine. That approach, epitomized by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1960s, was that once a country became a member of the communist camp, it could never leave. Once a large U.S. force takes up residence in another country, U.S. political and military leaders never want to see that situation come to an end. We still have bases and troops in South Korea nearly 60 years after the end of the Korean War and in Germany and Japan some 66 years after World War II. The only occasions when U.S. forces seem to leave is when they are driven out (as in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia) or odd factors intervene (as with the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines that combined with a vote of the Philippine Senate to terminate the U.S. bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay).

Iraq threatens to become the latest arena for the application of Washington’s military Brezhnev Doctrine. But it’s not likely to be the last. Already the usual suspects are beating the drums to maintain a large U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for years or decades to come. U.S. leaders routinely deny that the United States is an empire, but Washington’s conduct certainly creates the impression that it is an empire of bases and client states. The behavior in Iraq does nothing to dispel that image.

Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow of foreign policy studies at The Cato Institute, is the author of Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America, as well as other books on international affairs.