From the very start, the debate over Iraq has been obscured by a miasma of bogus statistics and facts: issues no one really wanted to deal publicly with--not the White House; certainly not the Republican-led Congress.
The current debate over maintaining troop levels in Iraq is no different as the administration continues to quietly add thousands more troops to the original 21,500 "surge." But that's only part of the problem.
Congress is now supposedly discussing the eventual withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq. Even the Bush administration, though it refuses to set any deadline, seems to be promising a total pullout.
But who are they kidding? First of all, even those Iraqi units s already up and running rely on the U.S. for much of their logistics and certainly almost all of their air support. Self-sufficiency is years away.
Secondly--and very much related: If U.S. troops are really to withdraw completely from Iraq what's the point of America's having built four huge "super bases" in that country--each one housing tens of thousands of US soldiers?
The most mammoth is the sprawling air base and logistics centre at Balad, north of Baghdad. As of last year, the U.S. had already poured close to a quarter of a billion dollars into that facility, and was planning tens of millions more, including a major road system and a 13-foot-high security fence that would stretch for 12.4 miles. In fact, thousands of troops stationed at Balad already spend their entire tour of duty within the base's huge confines.
Balad was billed as Americas' strategic air center for the entire region. Indeed, one original but unstated objective of the 2003 invasion was to make Iraq the U.S.'s new military platform in that part of the world. The huge U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia was becoming much too politically sensitive.
Another facility is the massive marine base of Al-Asad in Anbar province, where a visiting reporter was recently assured by U.S. soldiers that American troops would be rotating though for at least the next decade.
In other words, while American troop levels may be reduced at some point, tens of thousands American troops will almost certainly be remaining behind for years, hunkered down in their rambling new bases.
Ironically, after World War I, when the British established Iraq they also needed military bases, not just to dominate the immediate region but to help maintain their sway over Persia and India. The British were also determined to control Iraq's potentially vast petroleum resources.
Eight five years later, in 2007, Iraqis can be forgiven if they think their country has come full circle. In fact, both Sunnis and Shiites are deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions.
It will become an ever more explosive issue. There is no way that the bases and the tens of thousands of troops that man them will not be targeted by anti-American forces of all stripes.
It is an issue that will also --quite understandably--be of key concern to Iran. Americans have always had trouble viewing the world through the eyes of others, but imagine if an unfriendly foreign power established four huge super bases in Mexico or Canada-a power that also had never ruled out using such bases for eventual military action against the U.S.
Surprisingly-or perhaps not surprisingly-the question of what the U.S. is really after in Iraq has never been frankly debated by the U.S. Congress.
Though U.S. legislators voted against appropriating funds for permanent bases in Iraq, the White House and Pentagon have ignored that prohibition by portraying the huge construction projects to be for temporary facilities tied to the on-going conflict.
It's a fiction that has allowed Congress to get off the hook without really standing up to the administration. It's similar to the way congress all along has allowed the White House to have its way in Iraq.