Bush's "Korean Model" as Dominance Syndrome

06/06/2007 10:38 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Bush administration chose last week to eliminate whatever uncertainty may have remained about its intention to hold on to military bases in Iraq for the indefinite future. On May 30, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush believed U.S. troops would have to remain in Iraq long after their major combat role had ended, citing the "Korean model" fore a situation in which the United States "provides a security presence" and "is there as a force for stability".

Asked if U.S. forces would be stationed permanently in the country, Snow's answer was "No, not necessarily". What about the permanence of U.S. bases in Iraq? Snow said it was "not necessarily the case, either." But the reason they would not "necessarily" be permanent, as Snow explained it, is that they would be occupied at the invitation of the Iraqi government, which could "withdraw the invitation".

Snow told reporters it is impossible to say whether U.S. troops would remain in Iraq for some 50 years as they have in South Korea, but he added, "The war on terror is a long war."

Then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates confirmed the following day that the United States wanted a "long and enduring presence but under the consent of both parties and under certain conditions". Gates mentioned U.S. arrangements with both South Korea and Japan as examples.

The suggestion that the situations in Iraq and South Korea as locations for a long-term U.S. presence are in any way similar has been rightly criticized by Slate's Fred Kaplan and liberal blogger Josh Marshall, among others. But there is another another angle on the administration's Korean model that has been ignored -- the role of military bases in a policy aimed at dominating an entire region.

In the 1950s and 1960s when the United States was engaged in a Cold War against China, U.S. military bases in South Korea and Japan were an integral part of the U.S. strategy of surrounding China with military allies and U.S. forces and putting pressure on the Communist regime. The strategy, articulated both internally and publicly, was based on maintaining a constant threat of military action against China.

The Bush administration came into power with a desire to dominate the Middle East by taking down Saddam and establishing permanent military bases in the region. The September 2000 paper of the Project for the New American Century, "Rebuilding America's Defenses", which provided the blueprint for the administration's military policy, was quite explicit about the latter ambition. It made it clear that such bases would be needed even after Saddam had been taken down and even if relations between Iran and the United States improved.

So the real issue surrounding the reference to the "Korean model" is the administration's desire for permanent bases as part of a broader ambition to dominate the Middle East. Given the fate of U.S. Cold War policy toward China as well as nature of politics in the Middle East, that ambition can only be regarded as a delusion.

The whole notion that dominant military power in a region translates into political domination over the region should have been discredited decades ago when overwhelming U.S. superiority in military force failed to force North Vietnam to back off from its support for its compatriots in the South and the Nixon administration was forced to give up its ambitions to force China to come to heal and instead make peace with Mao Zedong. And it should have been discredited again after Iran failed to buckle on the issue of enriching uranium despite the threatening presence of U.S. two U.S. carrier strike forces in the Gulf.
What is even more delusional, however, is to talk about permanent bases in Iraq despite the well known fact that the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people have so clearly rejected any further U.S. military presence on their soil. Last month a majority of the elected members of the Iraqi parliament even signed a petition calling for legislation to demand that the United States agree to a timetable for withdrawal.

And as I reported late last month, there is now a realistic prospect of a Sunni-Shite political-military alliance against the occupation is now real, because the most powerful Shiite political figure by far -- the nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has the second largest military force in the country after the American army -- has offered the Sunni armed resistance a united front based on their common demand for complete U.S. withdrawal. And the Sunnis appear to be quite receptive. By any realistic reckoning, the chances of the United States having any military presence in Iraq just a few years from now are virtually nil.

So how can the Bush administration be talking about permanent bases when its surge strategy is falling apart? The mere fact that Bush and Karl Rove were not afraid of being laughed off the stage when the intention of demanding permanent bases in a country so manifestly unwilling to allow it provides a clue. It shows how deeply American political life suffers from what I call the "dominance syndrome". By that I mean a tendency to assume that U.S. military dominance gives it the ability to have its way with weaker states, despite all the objective evidence to the contrary. That assumption has made successive U.S. administrations pursue aggressive policies and shun diplomacy toward countries they designate as their enemies.

Dominance syndrome reflects the systematic distortion of the thinking of the U.S. political and national elite way by the fact that the United States is by far the most strongest military power on earth. U.S. military dominance over the Communist world caused U.S. policymakers in the early 1960s to assume that North Vietnam would be intimidated by U.S. threats, and that sooner or later China would succumb to U.S. power. It led the neoconservatives to assume that there was nothing to stop them from changing the face of the Middle East through American force of arms and its shadow across the region.

Dominance syndrome causes an entire class of national security experts to believe that the United States need not make diplomatic compromises with a relatively weak state like Iran. And it even causes politicians and pundits to ignore the very high likelihood that the United States will be forced out of Iraq if it does not plan to leave of its own accord.

What the Korean Model episode reveals is that a large part of the U.S. political and national security elite still nurtures dangerous illusions that have developed because of U.S. military dominance. Those illusions continue to allow the Bush administration to do things that threaten all of us.