For weeks I've been saying that Bush lost Iraq, all the while thinking, in the pit of my stomach, that something deeper had happened. We also lost the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, but there's still something missing.
Don't get me wrong, losing Iraq is bad enough, but we'll get over that. But will America get over the stain of this war? If so, how do we begin?
Let's start with the assumption that much has been accomplished: Saddam is gone, elections have come and gone, with Iraqis free to choose NOT to form a government. Already, the citizenry is apathetic about moving forward. They're free, so why not fight?
We're going to begin to pull back out of the cities. But it's, let's just call it interesting, what we're busying ourselves with now.
The concrete goes on forever, vanishing into the noonday glare, 2 million cubic feet of it, a mile-long slab that's now the home of up to 120 U.S. helicopters, a "heli-park" as good as any back in the States.
At another giant base, al-Asad in Iraq's western desert, the 17,000 troops and workers come and go in a kind of bustling American town, with a Burger King, Pizza Hut and a car dealership, stop signs, traffic regulations and young bikers clogging the roads.
At a third hub down south, Tallil, they're planning a new mess hall, one that will seat 6,000 hungry airmen and soldiers for chow.
Are the Americans here to stay? Air Force mechanic Josh Remy is sure of it as he looks around Balad.
"I think we'll be here forever," the 19-year-old airman from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., told a visitor to his base.
Elaborate U.S. bases raise long-term questions
The day after the Democrats unveiled their "Real Security" plan it's good to see everyone is keeping to the script. As Peter Daou reminds us all, if no one covers the plan did it ever really happen? Remember that next time someone asks what the Democratic alternative to ad nauseam occupation is for Iraq. And since we're talking about it, just how many blogs gave it real space? If it weren't for progressives it would be nowhere.
The sad truth is, even if the plan had been covered, Bush isn't listening to anyone so why would it matter? It matters, because there is no more important issue than Iraq.
So, it seems, in the middle of the civil war muddle, it's time to split the spin yet again. Are we going to be in Iraq "permanently" or just have a "long-term" presence. It depends on your meaning of forever. Are you going to live with the Iraqis, or have a marriage of military, geopolitical and regional commitment. It depends on whether you're talking to a Democrat or a Republican (or Joe Lieberman).
Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesperson, told AP that it would be "inappropriate" to talk about the future prospects of having bases in Iraq until there is a permanent government in place.
That brings up another issue: Just when is George W. Bush going to make the Iraqis get their act together and form their permanent government? The final vote was over 3 months ago. What's the hold up?
Meanwhile, the concrete pours in the desert, regardless of the fact that Gen. Anthony Zinni, former U.S. Mideast commander and a critic of the original U.S. invasion, says permanent bases would be "stupid."
If that doesn't explain Bush's Iraqi... er, policy, nothing does. But that doesn't stop Bush from doing it.
One thing on which everyone agrees is that we need to reduce the U.S. footprint, which seems to be the plan that will at least take Americans outside of Iraqi cities. Where will they go? It's unfathomable.
Al-Asad will become even more isolated. The proposed 2006 supplemental budget for Iraq operations would provide $7.4 million to extend the no-man's-land and build new security fencing around the base, which at 19 square miles is so large that many assigned there take the Yellow or Blue bus routes to get around the base, or buy bicycles at a PX jammed with customers.
The latest budget also allots $39 million for new airfield lighting, air traffic control systems and upgrades allowing al-Asad to plug into the Iraqi electricity grid — a typical sign of a long-term base.
At Tallil, besides the new $14 million dining facility, Ali Air Base is to get, for $22 million, a double perimeter security fence with high-tech gate controls, guard towers and a moat — in military parlance, a "vehicle entrapment ditch with berm."
Here at Balad, the former Iraqi air force academy 40 miles north of Baghdad, the two 12,000-foot runways have become the logistics hub for all U.S. military operations in Iraq, and major upgrades began last year.
Army engineers say 31,000 truckloads of sand and gravel fed nine concrete-mixing plants on Balad, as contractors laid a $16 million ramp to park the Air Force's huge C-5 cargo planes; an $18 million ramp for workhorse C-130 transports; and the vast, $28 million main helicopter ramp, the length of 13 football fields, filled with attack, transport and reconnaissance helicopters.
Do the American people know about the bases?
People are just now starting to talk about President Bush's 2009 reality, which leaves Iraq to the next president.
It seems like George W. Bush is simply talking as fast as he can, while being very busy behind the scenes building monster bases for a permanent U.S. presence in Mesopotamia. After all, being in Saudi Arabia worked out so well.
Away from the flight lines, among traffic jams and freshly planted palms, life improves on 14-square-mile Balad for its estimated 25,000 personnel, including several thousand American and other civilians.
They've inherited an Olympic-sized pool and a chandeliered cinema from the Iraqis. They can order their favorite Baskin-Robbins flavor at ice cream counters in five dining halls, and cut-rate Fords, Chevys or Harley-Davidsons, for delivery at home, at a PX-run "dealership." On one recent evening, not far from a big 24-hour gym, airmen hustled up and down two full-length, lighted outdoor basketball courts as F-16 fighters thundered home overhead.
"Balad's a fantastic base," Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, the Air Force's tactical commander in Iraq, said in an interview at his headquarters here.
Could it host a long-term U.S. presence?
"Eventually it could," said Gorenc, commander of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. "But there's no commitment to any of the bases we operate, until somebody tells me that."
So, let's get serious. These bases are being put down so we have a new presence in the Middle East that makes it easier for us compared to being out in the Persian Gulf. Carriers are so yesterday, especially when you can occupy a whole Middle Eastern country. It's U.S. occupation, the sequel.
This isn't a foot print in the Middle East. The permanent bases in Iraq are a stampede presence. It's repeating mistakes of the not too distant past. If this isn't pre-9/11 thinking I don't know what is.
Permanent bases this big? Baby, it's a really bad idea. Unfortunately, that never stopped Bush before.
"It's a stupid idea and clearly politically unacceptable," Zinni, a former Central Command chief, said in a Washington interview. "It would damage our image in the region, where people would decide that this" — seizing bases — "was our original intent."