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Why the US Isn't Leaving Iraq Any Time Soon
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By Fu Mengzi

Four years after the initial large-scale military campaigns ceased, the war in Iraq continues. The war is much longer than expected by the United States, carries a hefty price tag, brings about complicated and serious consequences, and makes it very hard for the US to decide whether to press on or pull out.

Since the invasion of Iraq, the US has burned some US$500 billion in military spending, with more than 3,300 US soldiers killed in action. As many as 100,000 Iraqis have perished so far. Worldwide anti-war sentiment has swelled at the expense of America's international image.

Some of the countries that have sent troops to fight the war alongside the Americans or take part in peacekeeping missions are now looking for a way out.

The new Iraqi government has accomplished almost nothing in terms of public security and social stability. Ethnic conflicts and religious confrontations rage on; the economy remains in a coma; the country sees no ray of hope from underneath a mountain of debt. Iraq is now in fact a country without a central authority and totally broke.

As for the US, the war in Iraq has gobbled up domestic resources as soaring military spending and compensation for the war dead and injured threaten to top US$2 trillion. The awful truth about "two Americas" (one poor, one rich) as revealed by hurricane Katrina two years ago remains unchanged. And, according to some estimates, the federal Social Security pension fund that all Americans are concerned about could be sucked dry in the next 10 years.

To US President George W. Bush, pulling out of Iraq means conceding defeat. But it remains unclear if pushing ahead, including the "Surge" plan unveiled not long ago, will turn things around. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, the presence of foreign forces in Iraq is widely seen as the cause of the mess in Iraq today.

The war in Iraq is eroding the psychological superiority of the US as the sole superpower in the world. It is finding that military might is not a cure-all.

This has been shown to the world once again over the past four years. In the United States, amid waves of anti-war protest, the Iraq predicament has helped the Democrats to regain majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Even so, the Bush administration is hell-bent on continuing down the war path. When Democrats in Congress attached a timetable for US withdrawal to the White House bill demanding emergency war funding, Bush immediately vetoed it. To the US president, a timetable for leaving Iraq amounts to "a timetable for admitting defeat".

The US domestic political mechanism for correcting errors might put brakes on a particular administrative move, but the Iraq war shows this correctional mechanism cannot automatically reverse a particular policy.

The Bush administration was once considered blessed with the strongest diplomatic team in US history. Despite the departure of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bush has more or less matured and formed a new decision-making team with Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Few of the country's political and strategic elites have deserted the Bush camp. All 10 Republicans vying for the party's presidential candidacy have sworn allegiance to the president's Iraq policy. No wonder Bush appears determined to charge ahead no matter what. But why?

One reason is that the war in Iraq is apparently not as simple as a superpower calling it a wrap after overthrowing the barely breathing dictator of another country. The counter-attack against terrorism will be far from over even after the US has settled the score in Iraq. It will end only when the US wins what Bush has described as "an ideological confrontation".

Terrorism aside (though it has spread with the conflict), the struggle against Islamic extremism will continue to leave the US faced with serious consequences. Let's not forget that violent clashes between Islam and Christianity go back more than a thousand years.

Though democratic reform in the Middle East has suffered serious setbacks, it is simply unthinkable for the US to give up this desire. The military presence might prove indispensable for US military, political and diplomatic maneuvers in the region.

Another reason lies in the geopolitical significance of the Middle East. Its extraordinary geographical appeal motivated the British empire in the 1820s and the former Soviet Union in the 1970s to march into the geopolitical black hole that is the Middle East. Some say the Middle East is a superpowers' tomb of choice, but it may also be a path that superpowers have to tread.

For the British empire, it was unthinkable to leave the huge strategic vacuum of the Middle East intact after conquering the rest of the world. For the former Soviet Union, invading Afghanistan was aimed at breaking a strategic channel from the Black Sea to Central Asia and the Indian Ocean to gain a geographic advantage over the US.

Times have changed, but the strategic geopolitical importance of the Middle East remains irresistible. Most of the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world live in the region.

For decades there has not been a day without the sounds of guns and cannons there.

The flames of regional conflicts and sectarian and religious clashes burn on, while one regional power or another flashes its ambition to wipe out the weak every now and then.

Diplomatic efforts by the US-led Western bloc to bring peace to the region have yet to produce a success story that has stood the test of time. Still, having this region under control will not only facilitate the integration and democratization of the Middle East and Central Asia. It will also shock and awe the regional powers. In a broader sense, such an achievement can even contain potential strategic rivals.

Another reason has energy written all over it. There is no need to elaborate on the vital significance of the Middle East as the world's ultimate oil barrel for every country on the planet. Although crude oil from this region accounts for just a little over 20 percent of annual US imports, the manageability of the Middle East situation is vital to the stability of the world energy supply and healthy development of the world economy as a whole.

The strategic geopolitical significance of Middle Eastern energy resources simply cannot be overestimated. No oil-producing country can afford to overlook the fact that the US can turn its limited military presence in the Middle East into political and diplomatic resources. It is also a strategic bargaining chip no oil-importing country can afford to ignore.

Last but not the least is the need for a military posture that can be reshaped to fit the characteristics of the times. The transfer of former Chief of the Pacific Command General William J. Fallon to Chief of the Central Command means the US may have adopted a strategy of simultaneous thrusts in different directions.

Fallon has shown he firmly follows President Bush's direction. With his experience as chief of the Pacific Command, he also allows himself to be seen as one who prefers cooperation to confrontation. This offers the Bush administration some room for additional diplomatic options.

In this writer's opinion, the Central Command will probably serve the country's need for some kind of emergency response capability in the future, such as confronting the threat posed by terrorism.

At least the Mideast Antiterrorism Treaty Organization, or MATO, being discussed by academics is likely to add to the Central Command's functions. It would target the Islamic extremists and prevent them from gaining strength.

By staying in Iraq, the US could be preparing for the hatching of MATO with some kind of military insurance. In this regard, Bush not only will refuse to order a pull out from Iraq but will keep the troops there as long as necessary. At the very least it is almost certain that the US will maintain a limited military presence in Iraq out of strategic concerns.

As far as Iraq is concerned, the Bush administration seems quite certain it is stuck in a quagmire. But it seems the US doesn't think Iraq is the main problem driving the global geo-strategic deployment of US forces.

The Bush administration took the opportunity born of the war on terror to gain public support for an astronomical defense budget of nearly US$500 billion. It also upgraded the US military alliance or quasi-alliance with countries such as Japan, India and Australia. Generally speaking, the split among major Western powers caused by the US war on Iraq is largely a thing of past.

With the assumption of state leadership by rightwing politicians in Germany and France, the distinction between the so-called old and new Europe has again become blurred as the leaders of the two European nations make it a priority of their foreign policy to repair fractured ties with the US. This is conducive to unity of the US-led Western bloc.

Of course, the world has changed as have the times. The seemingly reemerging unity of the Western bloc is not necessarily aimed at non-Western countries. It possesses tremendous strategic power to possibly unite the world in fighting globally significant non-traditional security threats. These include terrorism, global warming and problems arising from new economic models in various countries as they try to develop their economies. This is a prospect worth watching closely.

The author is a researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

(China Daily May 30, 2007)

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