Few developments in Iraq have been less reported on than the United States’ plans for permanent military bases. Most of the powers that be in the Republican and Democratic parties do not seem to see these bases as a problem. Quite the contrary, the bases, coupled with an extended military presence, are seen as vital in reinforcing American power in the Middle East. Military planners were implementing plans for the construction and completion of over a dozen "enduring bases" in Iraq by 2004, much to the chagrin of the majority of Iraqis, who view the U.S. as intent on maintaining a permanent occupation. These fears proved justified by 2007, when U.S. military officials announced their vision for a long-term "post-occupation" force of some level of troop presence (likely in the thousands) to be extended indefinitely. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, while claiming that "We have no interest in permanent bases [in Iraq]," admits he looks favorably on plans for a "protracted" military occupation, as opposed to a total withdrawal or even a timetable for the reduction of troops. Former White House Spokesman Tony Snow described the administration’s long term plan for Iraq along the lines of the South Korea model, whereby the U.S. military has retained a permanent military presence for more than five decades. If Republicans have their way, troops will likely be in Iraq permanently.
As recently as last month, the Bush administration pushed the Iraqi government to extend its support for the occupation indefinitely, despite the Iraqi Parliament’s support for a withdrawal timetable. President Bush displayed utter contempt for Iraqi public and political opposition to the war in a recent Executive interpretative signing statement that rejected Congressional opposition to permanent bases. The administration’s insistence on permanent occupation has provoked a conflict with more progressive Democrats in Congress. Forty six Democrats (including Barbara Lee, Henry Waxman, Bob Filner, and others) have sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey "demanding transparency on the issue of permanent military bases" (Maya Schenwar, "Congress Ramps Up Fight Against Permanent Iraq Bases, Truthout, 22 February 2008).
Sadly, Democratic Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not co-sponsored a new bill, introduced by Representative Barbara Lee, preventing construction or maintenance of permanent military bases in Iraq. Obama and Clinton have been rather vague in terms of their plans for Iraq. Congress’s 2008 Iraq spending bill included a requirement prohibiting any plans for permanent bases without Congressional approval; however, neither Clinton nor Obama even bothered to vote on this important bill, as they appeared more interested in campaigning than actively opposing the war.
Either candidate could have voted against the bill and expressed their commitment to cutting off funding for the war, or they could have voted in favor of funding for 2008, while at the very least supporting the bill’s prohibition on permanent bases. Their refusal to support a funding cut off or a prohibition on bases raises serious questions their "anti-war" status. While both candidates rhetorically support some sort of short-term reduction in troops, they have been suspiciously opposed to plans for complete withdrawal. They claim to support a withdrawal of combat forces, yet support keeping thousands in Iraq for "counter-terror" operations, perhaps as late as 2012 (or later). How such troops will not constitute a sizable "combat force" in Iraq remains unclear.
Media reporting, or the lack thereof, on plans for permanent occupation has not added any transparency to the public debate over Iraq. This should not be surprising, seeing as reporters and editors are merely following in the footprints of Democratic and Republican political leaders who consistently misrepresent or obscure their views on Iraq. A search of the Lexis Nexis electronic database for all available ABC News stories mentioning "Iraq" and "Military Bases" turns up rather sparse results. Only a single story on military bases appears in 2008, with only 4 stories for all of 2007, 8 for 2006, and 4 for 2005. Importantly, only one of these 17 stories features the issue of military bases (as opposed to the other pieces which simply mention bases somewhere in the piece), and even this single feature does not focus on the controversial nature of the bases, but rather on "insurgent" attacks against American forces ("War in Iraq; Explosion in the U.S. Military Base," October 10, 2006). Of these 17 stories, only one mentions the question of permanent military bases ("24 Hours to Go; Candidates Must Win Strategies," 2 January 2008), in the context of former Presidential Candidate John Edward’s opposition to the occupation.
The Washington Post’s reporting on military bases is slightly less abhorrent, although not much improved. Although the paper has filed hundreds of stories and editorials over the last three years that mention U.S. military bases in Iraq in some way, the question of permanent bases is, again, nearly invisible as a policy issue. A search of the Lexis Nexis database shows that from 2005 through 2008, the paper ran just 6 Op-Eds, Editorials, or news stories mentioning the words "Iraq" and "Permanent Military Bases," an average of just 2 stories per year. Furthermore, two of the six stories were printed in the paper’s metro section, rather than in the major international/national news section, and one of the pieces, an editorial by Republican Senator Richard Lugar, actively supported permanent military bases.
As two of the most prominent news outlets in the country, the reporting of ABC News and the Washington Post is incredibly important in influencing the quality of the American political debate on Iraq. It is sad, then, that the organizations so systematically delete the subject of permanent military bases from public discussion. Media censorship by omission only hurts democratic deliberation. Only the most careful readers and viewers of the Post and ABC, failing to miss a single issue or news report from the outlets, would likely have seen these few stories devoted to the topic of permanent military bases. Then again, the erasure of the military bases question from reporting is precisely what one would expect in a media system dedicated to official misinformation, spin, and propaganda.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. His book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding the News in the "War on Terror," is due out in April. He can be reached at: email@example.com