Global Policy Forum

Congress Ramps Up Fight Against Permanent Iraq Bases


By Maya Schenwar

February 22, 2008

Antiwar Democrats in Congress have failed in almost every one of their attempts to reverse the Bush administration's Iraq policy. However, they are now pursuing what many call a winnable objective: resisting the establishment of a permanent US presence in Iraq.

In late November, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a "Declaration of Principles" setting the stage for long-term, open-ended US military and economic involvement in Iraq. Later, in a January signing statement attached to a defense policy bill, Bush declared that he would disregard a ban on permanent US military bases in Iraq.

Since then, Bush and Maliki have been moving forward with negotiations on the terms of their agreement, with conversations taking place "largely in secret," according to Sameer Dossani, director of 50 Years Is Enough: US Network for Global Economic Justice. The administration says that a more definitive agreement will be reached "within six months," according to Dossani.

Yet, two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the administration would not seek permanent bases in Iraq, contradicting the sentiments of Bush's signing statement and the Declaration of Principles. The administration's denial doesn't indicate a change in strategy, according to Erik Leaver, policy outreach director for Foreign Policy in Focus, but it does indicate an avoidance of confrontation and a fear of public opinion - elements that bode well for a Congress-led change in course.

While the Bush-Maliki talks move shakily forward, progressive Democrats are taking advantage of the Declaration of Principles' tenuousness to introduce initiatives limiting executive power and curbing long-term plans for Iraq involvement. They hope that, while efforts to end the war will likely flop, Congress might succeed in preventing it from lasting forever.

Democratic Congress members are under pressure to produce some change in Iraq policies before the November elections, since public opposition to the war was a key factor in the 2006 elections' slew of Democratic victories. Forty-six members of Congress recently sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, demanding transparency on the issue of permanent bases. "We would like to learn precisely what is being done to make certain that permanent military bases are not being planned or constructed in Iraq," said the letter, penned by Rep. Barbara Lee.

Lee recently introduced a bill to prevent Bush from signing any agreement emerging from the Declaration of Principles without consulting Congress. A parallel bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Hillary Clinton, would limit the scope of an ongoing US presence in Iraq. Since November, attacks on the Bush-Maliki agreement's constitutionality have mounted. Bill Delahunt, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, has held a series of hearings on the legality of the Declaration of Principles.

During the most recent Delahunt hearing, experts almost universally concluded that the agreement violates the Constitution, since Congress was not consulted in the process of its approval. The State Department declined to testify at any of the three Delahunt hearings, though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed last week to appear at a future hearing.

The controversy over the limits of presidential power could generate a bipartisan effort to take back Congressional control, according to Leaver. "Republicans have a vested interest in this issue, too," he said. "The next president might very well be a Democrat." Leaver admits that such cooperation might be a stretch, but is not out of the question. After all, the first time a provision passed banning permanent bases in Iraq, it was under a Republican Congress.

Moreover, the project of reasserting the authority of the legislature goes beyond the US Congress, according to Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. In mid-March, Jarrar said, five Iraqi Parliament members (MPs) will speak at a House briefing, arguing that their prime minister's actions mimic Bush's: Maliki bypassed the legislative branch when he signed the Declaration of Principles, even though Iraq's Constitution specifically requires Parliamentary approval for international agreements. "We're hoping for a parallel declaration of principles between the two [Iraqi and American] legislative branches," Jarrar said. "We can't actually declare new principles, but politically it will be equivalent - the legislative branches from both countries will come together against an unconstitutional situation."

Jarrar hopes the Iraqi MPs' visit will draw attention to the split in the Iraqi government, in which the elected majority - the Parliament - favors a US withdrawal, while the unelected minority - the Maliki administration - favors a continuing occupation. "If the US is interested in democracy, how come it is ignoring the only elected body in the Iraqi government?" Jarrar said.

Perhaps other priorities - such as military strategy and market control - rank higher on Bush's list. Dossani points to permanent bases in Iraq as the administration's solution to the problem of US bases in Saudi Arabia, which al-Qaeda cited as a major motivation for the September 11 attacks. The US has already begun to pull out of Saudi Arabia. Robert Naiman, national coordinator of Just Foreign Policy, cites the possibility of confrontation with Iran as a primary motivation for establishing bases in Iraq. Further, an extended presence in Iraq would mean molding the political landscape of the country to fit US interests, according to Naiman.

US involvement has shaped and reshaped Iraq over the past 18 years, beginning with the Gulf War and continuing through the UN/US economic sanctions of the Bush and Clinton administrations. Jarrar fears that if negotiations under the Declaration of Principles continue moving forward, the "end" of the Iraq war - if it happens - will simply mean the beginning of a new chapter in the continuing story of US occupation.

In part, that chapter is already well on its way. The US embassy in Baghdad, to be completed in the fall, is the largest and most expensive in the world. Most Iraq withdrawal legislation proposed thus far calls for US troops to remain to guard the embassy; an exception that would translate into at least 5,000 troops by some estimates. While the embassy cannot be categorized as a military base per se, Jarrar notes that it serves many of a base's functions - and perpetuates the underlying current of US dominance on Iraqi soil.

"Most of the 'no permanent bases' legislation is very vague and hard to put into real terms, so the embassy is viewed as political and excluded - even though thousands of soldiers will be there protecting it," Jarrar said. "Even though the embassy will not be used 100 percent as a military base, it could still be a permanent political intervention base. The thousands of Americans at the embassy will not be there to facilitate diplomatic relations; they'll be there to run the country."

Iraqis are currently not allowed to enter the US embassy in Baghdad unless they're escorted by an American citizen, according to Jarrar. Even the five Iraqi MPs set to speak before Congress in March were recently barred from the embassy when they went to submit their visa applications, according to Dr. Nadeem Al-Jaberi, one of the MPs. "They treat us in a disgusting way," Al-Jaberi said.

Steps like the upcoming Parliamentarian briefing may provide a short-term fix, Jarrar says, giving the public a glimpse of Iraq as a sovereign, self-determining nation and averting the immediate danger of committing to a permanent US presence in Iraq. Yet, those measures still "play within the rules of the game." To avoid the inevitable recurrence of dangers like this one will require a wholesale shift in mindset for the US, according to Leaver.

That shift would encompass more than Iraq policy, says Leaver. The US has more than 700 military bases, on every continent except Antarctica. In a way, establishing permanent bases in postwar Iraq would simply follow suit.

"This is not just a question of bases inside Iraq," Leaver said. "It's larger: Is our goal to be the military policeman for everyone? Can we continue this policy of having bases all over the world? What's the return on our investment?" These questions will persist as the Delahunt hearings continue, the Lee bill goes into committee and the Bush administration's Declaration of Principles moves forward, even as the days of its hold on US foreign policy wane.

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