Jul 1 2008

Catherine Lutz on Iraq Military Bases

‘The images don’t show up on TV news’

Catherine Lutz--Photo Credit: Brown University

Catherine Lutz–Photo Credit: Brown University

On June 5, the Independent newspaper in London reported on secret negotiations between the U.S. and Iraqi governments over a plan that would grant legal immunity to U.S. soldiers and private contractors, give the U.S. control over Iraqi airspace and allow for 50 military bases to be built in the country. Lawmakers in Iraq expressed outrage at the details of the report. Here in the United States, the story got only cursory attention from the press.

CounterSpin talked to Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown University and the Watson Institute for International Studies, author of the book Home Front and editor of the forthcoming book The Bases of Empire: The Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts, about one aspect of this that’s been a source of controversy for years.

CounterSpin: Let’s start with one of the problems with the way we talk about this story. The Independent report sparked a short follow-up in the New York Times (6/6/08). It was headlined, “Report on Iraq Bases Dismissed.” The U.S. denial amounted to saying, “No, we don’t have plans for permanent bases in Iraq.” Is that word just a dodge?

Catherine Lutz: It sure is. We don’t have “permanent” bases then in Korea or Germany or Italy, where the bases were first established in 1945 and the early 1950s. So they have avoided that term “permanent” in order to deal with the sensitivities about this issue, especially on the part of Iraqis concerned about their sovereignty, and substituted terms like “enduring bases” or “cooperative security locations,” or other things that avoid both the notion of the military base or the notion that these are in there for the very long term.

CS: You’ve done a lot of research on the impact of bases, even in countries where there isn’t an insurgency campaign going on, like we see in Iraq. Explain what we see in other places where the U.S. has military bases. What broad effect does it have on the population there?

CL: The bases exist in a large number of places. We have 900 facilities in 46 countries and territories, and the people in those places have kept track of and have objected to a lot of the impacts of those bases. They include environmental impacts, like toxins that seep into the water supply and the ground. It includes sexual assaults against local women, which are at much higher rates around those bases, higher rates of prostitution. So there are some people who profit from the bases’ presence, but the negative impacts are the ones that are at the center of the demands of a lot of social movements that are trying to get those bases either out of the country altogether or controlled in some way.

CS: There was kind of this campaign trail dust-up over something John McCain said about staying in Iraq for 100 years, and his explanation of his comment was, well, I don’t mean we’ll be in a war for 100 years, I mean we’ll have troops there and the Iraqis won’t be shooting at us. It sounds like what you’re saying is the populations in those countries never really warm to the idea of bases on their land.

CL: Again, it depends on who you’re talking to. The people who profit, the business owners, for example, local politicians who have been in part kept in power through the kinds of deals the U.S. strikes with local politicians in order to keep those bases there, they’re happy. But others are not.

CS: Do you think there’s anything that accounts for this issue getting such little attention in the media here? Are we sort of conditioned to seeing these military bases or installations as just no big deal in other countries?

CL: Yeah, absolutely. I think when people learn about the scale of the U.S. military presence overseas, they’re often surprised that it’s that large, but they accept it, often with the notion that this is a security service that we’re providing to those countries. The military bases are advertised by the Pentagon as gifts that are given to the countries in which they’re located, helping to protect them from outside aggression, for example. But, in fact, Pentagon documents indicate that these are in fact seen as military assets for power projection in the region in which they’re located. So that Iraq bases, for example, are seen as resources for potential future attacks elsewhere in the Middle East.

CS: How much do we know about the Iraq bases right now? They seem like they’re talked about almost as if they’re a theoretical possibility in the future, but are there such installations already?

CL: Oh, absolutely. Tom Engelhardt [TomDispatch, 6/15/08] has been one of the people putting out this information. These are huge facilities that have been under construction from the very beginning of April 2003. Millions and millions of dollars have gone into these facilities that are small slices of America, with fast food restaurants, internal transit systems and so on in them. They are massive and these are what the Pentagon hopes to be able to hold onto and keep there. And they’re in the dozens. By one count, approximately 55 significant facilities already exist.

CS: So it’s not as if you were a reporter going to Iraq, you’d miss this part of the story, then.

CL: No, and that’s what’s of course interesting. They become kind of a normalized background and the images don’t show up on TV news. You might find a reporter standing in front of one, but you don’t get a sense from that image of how huge these things are.

CS: When reports like the one from the Independent are discussed, one line of argument or discussion is that these deals are effectively going to tie the hands of the next president of the United States. Do you think that’s the best way of looking at this?

CL: No, I think this is an example of how the question that the media poses is so crucial for what kind of discussion can be had after the question is posed. I don’t think the real question should be which of the U.S. presidents should decide how many bases are kept in Iraq and under what conditions. It’s a question for the Iraqi people of when the U.S. leaves, and the majority do want the U.S. to leave. So I think that should be the more appropriate question: Why is the United States insisting against the will of the Iraqi people on having these bases? In addition, the security arrangement that they are talking about is absolutely rising to the level of a treaty, which would require approval of both the Iraqi parliament and the U.S. congress.

CS: Some of the recent coverage has discussed Iraqi reactions to this, but I suspect Iraqis have been reacting to the idea of military bases for some time now.

CL: Absolutely, from later in 2003, when it became clear that the United States was not going to simply topple Saddam Hussein and leave. There was a New York Times story very early on (4/20/03) that indicated that the U.S. was planning to build quite extensive and permanent looking bases. And so that story has been out there, but this just didn’t get uptake, didn’t get follow-up. So it could have been clear to anyone reading the signs here that this was the long-term plan.

Catherine Lutz was interviewed for the June 16, 2008 CounterSpin by Peter Hart and Janine Jackson.