The “Korea Model” is not a new model of Kia or Hyundai. It is President Bush’s rationale for extending the U.S. occupation of Iraq from four years to four decades–or even more. As reported on CNN and the New York Times, South Korea is Bush’s stated model for a long-term occupation of Iraq. In his September 13 televised address, Bush said that Iraqi leaders “understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained in June that “the idea is more a model of a mutually agreed arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence but under the consent of both parties and under certain conditions.” Stationing Korea-style permanent military bases (or “enduring” in the Pentagon’s wordplay) has been the goal of the Iraq occupation since it began in 2003.
Since an North-South armistice halted most hostilities on the Korean Peninsula in 1953, freezing the Korean War in a stalemate, U.S. forces have been stationed in huge military bases in South Korea. Their presence in the country has become an omnipresence, particularly along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where they have skirmished a few times with North Korean troops. In recent years, South Korea has developed a relatively prosperous economy and a functioning electoral democracy, perhaps more despite the U.S. presence than because of it.
But comparing Iraq and Korea is like comparing apples and oranges–or hummus and kimchee. Unlike in Iraq, U.S. troops are not fighting against an insurgency in the streets and villages of South Korea. They are facing a standing army of North Korean troops along a clearly defined boundary, with large-scale weaponry on both sides. Armed with smaller weapons (such as IEDs) and an ability to blend into the population, Iraqi rebels could be effective for many years. Insurgencies with shifting rebel zones (and counterinsurgent death squads) can and have lasted for decades, as shown by the alternate “model” of Colombia.
Iraq has become deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines, whereas South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries on Earth. In Korea, the U.S. has not faced anything remotely like the civil war between Arab Sunnis and Shi’as, or the conflict between Arab and Kurdish regions-both driven partly by a U.S. divide-and-conquer strategy centered on their access to oil. If anything, the U.S. is following a “Bosnia Model”-rubberstamping the de facto partition of the country through ethnic cleansing, in order to create smaller and easily controlled political enclaves.
Washington claims to promote “democracy” in Iraq, but it backed a string of military dictatorships to secure control over South Korea. From 1948 to 1992 (with a brief democratic period in 1960-61), the country was ruled by a series of U.S.-backed dictators and military leaders. In 1980, South Korean troops were temporarily released from U.S. command so they could massacre pro-democracy protesters in the city of Kwangju. Civilian presidents have been elected only since 1992, but they too have tended to collaborate with Washington’s military presence and neoliberal free-trade economic policies, just as recent Iraqi leaders have.
Since civilian rule emerged in South Korea, the Korean public has increasingly questioned the presence of 37,000 U.S. troops as prolonging the North-South divide, and are opposing the expansion of the military bases that disrespect women and rural people. Prostitution is rampant around the Korean bases, with the U.S. military enabling the exploitation of Korean women in the “camptowns.” Farmers have fought the expansion of Pyongtaek and other bases, and police have forcibly evicted them from their ancestral lands. This base expansion is part of refashioning the installations as not only “defending” South Korea, but as capable to project force into other Asian countries.
Most Iraqis have wanted U.S. troops to leave (and do not view neighboring countries as a threat), whereas many South Koreans at least initially backed a U.S. military presence as “protection” from North Korean attack. If South Korea is Bush’s model for Iraq, then North Korea is clearly his model for Iran. Yet the Iraqi leaders he claims want “enduring” U.S. bases are predominantly Shi’as who actually want good relations with Iran. Bush intends to oust-constitutionally or otherwise–the elected Shi’a government that he once called a miracle of democracy, and now sees as too close to Iran. As the only remaining large countries in the region that do not yet host U.S. military bases, Iran and Syria are the last obstacles to a contiguous American sphere of influence (stretching from Poland to Pakistan) situated between the emerging economic competitors of the EU and China. The “Korea Model” would make it easier to target Iran as a perpetual enemy state.
But rather than following a “Korea Model” in Iraq, the U.S. actually appears to be following a “Palestine Model.” Just as the Israeli state uses multiple military posts, checkpoints, and imprisonment to intimidate and control an independence-minded population, U.S. forces are carrying out the same tactics in Iraq–with an identical rationale of fighting Islamic “terrorists.” In the name of separating hostile populations, the U.S. occupiers have gone to the point of constructing an Israeli-style separation wall between Sunni and Shi’a neighborhoods in Baghdad. Much as armed settler militias carry out the Israeli military’s dirty work on the West Bank, the American forces in Iraq hire private security contractors such as Blackwater, which are now being exposed as mercenary goons who endanger democracy in Iraq and at home.
Because Bush cannot admit to either Arab states or the American public that the decades-long Israeli occupation is the closest parallel with his long-term plans for Iraq, he has to tout the ridiculous “Korea Model.” His calculation is that Congress will accept the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraqi cities, not through a withdrawal out of country, but through a “redeployment” into the heavily fortified imperial garrisons. These bases include Green Zone, Baghdad Airport, Balad (central), Al Asad (west), Tallil (south), Bashur (north), and about ten other major installations covering the Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish regions. In fact, an “enduring” occupation run from these large bases has been the central plan since Day One of the Iraq War.
Congressional Democrats have marshalled a tepid response, recently passing House Resolution 2929, which bans funding for new permanent bases in Iraq, but does nothing about the bases already constructed. On Google Earth, the Balad air base (north of Baghdad and just west of the Tigris River) is visible as a dot when all of Iraq fills the screen, and the base fills the screen when you zoom into the sprawling KBR-run complex. In the decades ahead, future Republican and Democratic presidents would use the inevitable rebel attacks on these huge targets as a “tripwire” for counterattacks, in order to prevent a genuine democracy that would call for Iraqi control over Iraqi oil and bases. These bases would also be used as “lilypads” from which to threaten other peoples in the region from taking control of their own destinies.
Permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq will merely intensify Iraqi and regional resentment over the years, draw more U.S. troops into continuing internal conflicts, and ensure more instability and a harsher “blowback” in the decades ahead. The question of the bases is the key to the future of Iraq. They are a test of the future not only of Iraq, but of the United States. This is one of the historic moments when Americans have to decide whether our country will be a republic, or continue to function as an empire. Our failure to make that fundamental decision today will ensure future imperial wars and occupations.
Dr. ZOLTAN GROSSMAN is a geographer and member of the faculty at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, who researches and teaches on the relationship between ethnic nationhood, natural resources, and military interventions and bases. His website is at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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