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As the pendulum swings

Iraq | With casualties in Iraq at an eight-month low, why aren't the Democrats cheering?

Issue: "Minority report," Aug. 11, 2007

Just off Pennsylvania Avenue, small groups of workers stand in line for lunch at a 24-hour Burger King and sip triple lattes at a nearby coffee shop. After work, they might catch a movie at a local theater or check out the latest iPod accessories at a nearby electronics store.

But these aren't White House workers, and this Pennsylvania Avenue isn't in Washington, D.C. Instead, these workers are U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, and this arid road runs through the largest U.S. military base in Iraq.

Balad Air Base-also known to U.S. forces as Camp Anaconda-sits 50 miles north of Baghdad in one of the most hostile regions in Iraq. Some 20,000 U.S. troops live and work on the base, which includes a logistics center and a massive airstrip of more than 11,000 feet-or just over two miles long. Air Force officials say it's the second busiest runway in the world, trailing only Heathrow Airport in London.

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Congress has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars to construct Balad and at least three other mega-bases that serve as major air and logistics hubs in Iraq. (The United States has about 75 smaller, forward-operating bases around the country, most with conditions far more rustic than those at Balad.) This year alone, Congress approved some $1.7 billion for military construction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But late last month, the House passed another piece of base-related legislation: a bill that bars the establishment of permanent military bases in Iraq.

Even as major construction continued on U.S. bases in the region, Democrats said Iraqis need a clear sign that America doesn't plan to stay in the country long-term.

Most House Republicans went along with the bill, saying it only reiterates President Bush's stated policy: Military spending measures in 2006 and 2007 included clauses that prohibited permanent military installations in Iraq. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) voted for the recent bill but called it a political stunt by Democrats: "'No permanent bases' is already the policy of the United States."

If that is the policy of the United States, it isn't clear: Administration officials say there are no plans for permanent bases in Iraq, but also suggest that Americans may need to stay in the country long-term. (Bush has maintained the United States needs a long-term presence in the region, but he hasn't specified where.)

Meanwhile, military officials are offering a more blunt assessment: Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, Bush's nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing last month that the United States will be in Iraq for "years not months." Bush officials have not offered a timeline.

That ambiguity underscores the complexity of making long-term plans in a volatile country. But it also underscores another problem undermining the Bush administration: a lack of clarity in communicating the goals and gains of a war that appears muddled to many Americans.

In a prime-time news conference nearly a year after the war began, President Bush told Americans: "As a proud and independent people, Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation, and neither does America." Early last year, then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was more direct, telling Congress: "We have no goal of establishing permanent bases." Khalilzad repeated that assurance on Iraqi television.

But early this summer, administration officials for the first time publicly suggested the possibility of a long-term presence in Iraq. Bush spokesman Tony Snow compared the mission in Iraq to the mission in South Korea, where the United States has maintained a military base since the end of the Korean War more than 50 years ago. Snow said once U.S. troops no longer patrol the streets of Iraq, the American mission could likewise evolve into an "over-the-horizon support role."

A day later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates went further when discussing Iraq and said the United States handled Korea better than Vietnam, "where we just left lock, stock, and barrel." He added: "The idea is more of a model of a mutually agreed arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence."

War critics decry the Korea analogy, saying the conflicts are too different to compare. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) recently argued that Korea was "vital to our security interests during the Cold War." He added: "But Iraq is not Korea. It is now beyond question that our national security is being harmed-not helped-by our continuing vast footprint in Iraq."

According to Thomas Donnelly, that assertion isn't beyond question. Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told WORLD that Iraqi security is vital to American security: "We're building an ally in the longer war."

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