not even one of those notorious "no-bid" contracts either. Ninety-eight
bids were solicited by the Army Corps of Engineers and 12 were received
before the contract was awarded this May 28th to Wintara, Inc. of Fort
Washington, Maryland, for "replacement facilities for Forward Operating
Base Speicher, Iraq." According to a Department of Defense press
release, the work on those "facilities" to be replaced at the base near
Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, is expected to be completed by
January 31, 2009, a mere 11 days after a new president enters the Oval
Office. It is but one modest reminder that, when the next administration
hits Washington, American bases in Iraq, large and small, will still be
undergoing the sort of repair and upgrading that has been ongoing for
In fact, in the last five-plus years, untold billions of taxpayer
dollars have been spent on the construction and upgrading of those
bases. When asked back in the fall of 2003, only months after Baghdad
fell to U.S. troops, Lt. Col. David Holt, the Army engineer then "tasked
with facilities development" in Iraq, proudly indicated that "several
billion dollars" had already been invested in those fast-rising bases.
Even then, he was suitably amazed, commenting that "the numbers are
staggering." Imagine what he might have said, barely two and a half
years later, when the U.S. reportedly had 106 bases, mega to micro, all
across the country.
By now, billions have evidently gone into single massive mega-bases like
the U.S. air base at Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. It's a
"16-square-mile fortress," housing perhaps 40,000 U.S. troops,
contractors, special ops types, and Defense Department employees. As the
Washington Post's Tom Ricks, who visited Balad back in 2006, pointed out
-- in a rare piece on one of our mega-bases -- it's essentially "a small
American town smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq."
Back then, air traffic at the base was already being compared to
Chicago's O'Hare International or London's Heathrow -- and keep in mind
that Balad has been steadily upgraded ever since to support an "air
surge" that, unlike the President's 2007 "surge" of 30,000 ground
troops, has yet to end.
While American reporters seldom think these bases -- the most essential
U.S. facts on the ground in Iraq -- are important to report on, the
military press regularly writes about them with pride. Such pieces offer
a tiny window into just how busily the Pentagon is working to upgrade
and improve what are already state-of-the-art garrisons. Here's just a
taste of what's been going on recently at Balad, one of the largest
bases on foreign soil on the planet, and but one of perhaps five
mega-bases in that country:
Consider, for instance, this description of an air-field upgrade from
official U.S. Air Force news coverage, headlined: "'Dirt Boyz' pave way
for aircraft, Airmen":
"In less than four months, Balad Air Base Dirt Boyz have placed and
finished more than 12,460 feet of concrete and added approximately
90,000 square feet of pavement to the airfield... Without the extra
pavement courtesy of the Dirt Boyz, fewer aircraft would be able to be
positioned and maintained at Balad AB. Having fewer aircraft at the base
would directly affect the Air Force's ability to place surveillance
assets in the air and to drop munitions on targets... The ongoing
flightline projects at Balad AB consist of concrete pad extensions that
will provide occupation surfaces for multiple aircraft of various types."
Or here's a proud description of what Detachment 6 of the 732nd
Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron did on its recent tour in Balad:
"'We constructed more than 25,000 square feet of living, dining and
operations buildings from the ground up,' said Staff Sgt. John
Wernegreen... 'This project gave the [U.S.] Army's [3rd Squadron, 2nd
Stryker Cavalry Regiment] and Iraqi army [soldiers] a place to carry out
their mission of controlling the battlespace around the Eastern Diyala
And here's a caption, accompanying an Air Force photo of work at Balad:
"Airmen of the 407th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron pavement and
equipment team repair utility cuts here June 11. The team replaced
approximately 30 cubic meters of concrete over newly installed power
line cables." And another: "Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron heavy
equipment operator, contours a new sidewalk here, June 10. Sidewalk
repair is being accomplished throughout the base housing area to
eliminate tripping hazards." (The sidewalks on such bases go with bus
routes, traffic lights, and speeding tickets -- in a country parts of
which the U.S. has helped turn into little more than a giant pothole.)
Or how about this caption for a photo of military men on upgrade duty
working on copper cable as "part of the new tents to trailers project."
It's little wonder that, in another rare piece, NPR's defense
correspondent Guy Raz reported, in October 2007, that Balad was "one
giant construction project, with new roads, sidewalks, and structures
going up... all with an eye toward the next few decades."
Think of this as the greatest American story of these years never told
-- or more accurately, since there have been a few reports on a couple
of these mega-bases -- never shown. After all, what an epic of
construction this has been, as the Pentagon built a series of fortified
American towns, each some 15 to 20 miles around, with many of the
amenities of home, including big name fast-food franchises, PXes, and
the like, in a hostile land in the midst of war and occupation. In terms
of troops, the President may only have put his "surge" strategy into
play in January 2007, but his Pentagon has been "surging" on base
construction since April 2003.
Now, imagine as well that hundreds of thousands of Americans have passed
through these mega-bases, including the enormous al-Asad Air Base
(sardonically nicknamed "Camp Cupcake" for its amenities) in the Western
desert of Iraq, and the ill-named (or never renamed) Camp Victory on the
edge of Baghdad. Troops have surged through these bases, of course.
Private contractors galore. Hired guns. Pentagon officials. Military
commanders. Top administration figures. Visiting Congressional
delegations. Presidential candidates. And, of course, the journalists.
It has been, for instance, a commonplace of these years to see a TV
correspondent reporting on the situation in Iraq, or what the American
military had to say about Iraq, from Baghdad's enormous Camp Victory.
And yet, if you think about it, that camera, photographing ABC's fine
reporter Martha Raddatz or other reporters on similar stop-overs, never
pans across the base itself. You don't even get a glimpse, unless you
have access to homemade G.I. videos or Pentagon-produced propaganda.
Similarly, last year, the President landed at Camp Cupcake for a meeting
with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with reporters in tow. You
could see shots of him getting off the plane (just as he does
everywhere), goofing around with troops, or shaking hands with the Iraqi
prime minister but, as far as I know, none of the reporters with him
stayed on to give us a view of the base itself.
Imagine if just about no one knew that the pyramids had been built.
Ditto the Great Wall of China. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The
Coliseum. The Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. Or any other
architectural wonder of the world you'd care to mention.
After all, these giant bases, rising from the smashed birthplace of
Western civilization, were not only built on (and sometimes out of bits
of) the ancient ruins of that land, but are functionally modern
ziggurats. They are the cherished monuments of the Bush administration.
Even though its spokespeople have regularly refused to use the word
"permanent" in relation to them -- in fact, in relation to any U.S. base
on the planet -- they have been built to long outlast the Bush
administration itself. They were, in fact, clearly meant to be key
garrisons of a Pax Americana in the Middle East for generations to come.
And, not surprisingly, they reek of permanency. They are the unavoidable
essence -- unless, like most Americans, you don't know they're there --
of Bush administration planning in Iraq. Without them, no discussion of
Iraq policy in this country really makes sense.
And that, of course, is what makes their missing-in-action quality on
the American landscape so striking. Yes, a couple of good American
reporters have written pieces about one or two of them, but most
Americans, as we know, get their news from television and -- though no
one can watch all the news that flows, 24/7, into American living rooms,
it's a reasonable bet that a staggering percentage of Americans have
never had the opportunity to see the remarkable structures their tax
dollars have paid for, and continue to pay for, in occupied Iraq.
This is the sort of thing you might expect of Bush-style offshore
prisons, or gulags, or concentration camps. And yet Americans have
regularly and repeatedly seen what Guantanamo looks like. They have seen
something of what Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq looks like. But not the
bases. Perhaps one explanation lies in this: On rare occasions when
Americans are asked by pollsters whether they want "permanent bases" in
Iraq, significant majorities answer in the negative. You can only assume
that, as on many other subjects, the Bush administration preferred to
fly under the radar screen on this one -- and the media generally
And let's remember one more base, though it's never called that: the
massive imperial embassy, perhaps the biggest on the planet, being
built, for nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars, on a nearly
Vatican-sized 104-acre plot of land inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. It
will be home to 1,000 "diplomats." It will cost an estimated $1.2
billion a year just to operate. With its own electricity and water
systems, its anti-missile defenses, recreation, "retail and shopping"
areas, and "blast-resistant" work spaces, it is essentially a fortified
citadel, a base inside the fortified American heart of the Iraq capital.
Like the mega-bases, it emits an aura of American, not Iraqi,
"sovereignty." It, too, is being built "for the ages."
A Land Grab, American-style
The issue of the mega-bases in Iraq first surfaced barely days after
Baghdad had fallen. It was on April 20, 2003, to be exact, and on the
front-page of the New York Times in a piece headlined, "Pentagon Expects
Long-Term Access to Key Iraq Bases." Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt
wrote: "American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke of
maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the
future," including what became Camp Victory. The story, and the very
idea of "permanent" bases, was promptly denied by Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld -- then essentially disappeared from the news for years.
(To this day, again as far as I know, the New York Times has never
written another significant front-page story on the subject.)
Now, however, the bases are, suddenly and startlingly, in the news (and,
of course, being written about and discussed on TV as if they had long
been part of everyday media analysis). This week, in fact, they hit the
front page of the Washington Post, due to protests by Iraqi leaders
close to the Bush administration. They were angered by, and leaking like
mad about, American strong-arm tactics in negotiations for a long-term
Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would officially embed
American-controlled bases in Iraq for the long-term, potentially tie the
hands of a future American president on Iraq policy, and represent a
sovereignty grab of the first order. (A typical comment from a
pro-Maliki Iraqi politician in that Post piece: "The Americans are
making demands that would lead to the colonization of Iraq...")
The growing Iraqi protests -- in the streets, in parliament, and among
the negotiators -- certainly helped spark coverage in this country. A
persistent and intrepid British reporter, Patrick Cockburn of The
Independent, helpfully broke the story of Bush administration demands
days before it became significant news here.
But most of the credit should really go to the Bush administration
itself, which, despite the long-term flow of events in Iraq, still
wanted it all. Greed, coupled with desperation, seems to have done the
trick. In all the years of the occupation, the officials of this
administration have had a tin ear for the post-colonial era they
inhabit. It's never penetrated their consciousness that the greatest
story of the twentieth century was the way previously subjected and
colonized peoples had gained (or regained) their sovereignty.
The administration indicated this, back in 2003, with its very dream of
garrisoning a major, potentially hostile, intensely nationalistic Arab
nation in the heart of the oil lands of the planet. That the building of
enormous American bases and the basing of troops in relatively peaceful
Saudi Arabia after the First Gulf War led to disaster -- think: Osama
bin Laden -- mattered not a whit to top administration officials.
It couldn't have been clearer just how little they cared for Iraqi
sovereignty or pride when L. Paul Bremer III, George W. Bush's personal
representative and viceroy in Baghdad, before officially "returning
sovereignty" to the Iraqis in June 2004, signed the infamous (though, in
this country, little noted) Order 17. As the law of the land in Iraq,
among other things, it ensured that all foreigners involved in the
occupation project would be granted "freedom of movement without delay
throughout Iraq," and neither their vessels, nor their vehicles, nor
their aircraft would be "subject to registration, licensing or
inspection by the [Iraqi] Government." Nor in traveling would foreign
diplomats, soldiers, consultants, security guards, or any of their
vehicles, vessels, or planes be subject to "dues, tolls, or charges,
including landing and parking fees," and so on.
When it came to imports, including "controlled substances," there were
to be no customs fees or inspections, taxes, or much of anything else;
nor was there to be the slightest charge for the use of Iraqi
"headquarters, camps, and other premises" occupied, nor for the use of
electricity, water, or other utilities. And all private contractors were
to have total immunity from prosecution anywhere in the country. This
was, of course, freedom as theft. Order 17 would have seemed familiar to
any nineteenth century European colonialist. It granted what used to be
termed "extraterritoriality" to Americans. Think of it as a giant
get-out-of-jail-free card for an occupying nation.
Now, imagine, that, even after years of disaster, even in a state of
discontrol, with unsecured global oil supplies surging toward $140 a
barrel, the Bush administration remained in the same Order 17 frame of
mind. They began their negotiations with the Iraqis accordingly.
Cockburn (and other journalists subsequently) would report that they
were asking for Order 17-style immunity for the U.S. military and all
private contractors in the country, as well as the use of up to 58
bases, even though they evidently "only" had 30 major ones in the
country. (A leading politician of the Badr Organization claimed that
American negotiators were actually pushing for the use of a startling
200 facilities across the country.)
They also evidently insisted on control over Iraqi air space up to
29,000 feet, the right to bring troops in and out of the country without
informing the Iraqis, and the right to "conduct military operations in
Iraq and to detain individuals when necessary for imperative reasons of
security," again without notification to the Iraqis, no less approval of
any sort. They may even have insisted on the freedom to strike other
countries from their Iraqi bases, again without consultation or
approval. In addition, reported Cockburn, they were attempting to force
their Iraqi counterparts to agree to such a deal by threatening to deny
them at least $20 billion in Iraqi oil funds on deposit in the Federal
Reserve Bank of New York.
Gulf News reported as well that, under the American version of the
agreement, "Iraqi security institutions such as Defense, Interior and
National Security ministries, as well as armament contracts, will be
under American supervision for ten years." This was partially confirmed
by the Washington Post's Walter Pincus, who reported on a multi-year
contract just awarded to a private contractor by the Pentagon to supply
"mentors to officials with Iraq's Defense and Interior ministries... [
who] would 'advise, train [and] assist... particular Iraqi officials.'"
Had the Bush administration exhibited the slightest constraint, they
might have constructed a far more cosmetic version of the permanent
garrisoning of Iraq. They might have officially turned the mega-bases
over to the Iraqis and leased them back for next to nothing. They could
have let the stunning facts they had built on the ground speak for
themselves. They could have offered "joint commands" and other
palliative remedies (as they are now evidently considering doing) that
would have made their long-term sovereignty grab look far less
significant -- without necessarily being so. But their ability to
strategize outside the (Bush) box has long been limited.
Think of them as "the me generation" on steroids, going global and
imperial. Or give them credit for consistency. They're mad dreamers who
still can't wake up, even when they find themselves in a roomful of
Instead, with their secret SOFA negotiations, they've attempted to fly
under the radar screens of both the U.S. Congress and the Iraqi people.
They wanted to embed permanent bases and a long-term policy of
occupation in Iraq in perpetuity without letting the matter rise to the
level of a treaty. (Hence, no advice and consent from the U.S. Senate.)
Not surprisingly, this episode, too, is threatening to end in debacle.
The Iraqi leadership is in virtual revolt. Across the political
spectrum, as Tony Karon of the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog has written,
the negotiations have forced upon the Iraqis "a kind of snap survey or
straw poll... on the long-term U.S. presence, and goals for Iraq" from
which the Americans are likely to emerge the losers.
The idea of timetables for American departure is again being floated in
Iraq. According to Reuters, "A majority of the Iraqi parliament has
written to Congress rejecting a long-term security deal with Washington
if it is not linked to a requirement that U.S. forces leave," and
unnamed American officials are now beginning to mutter about no SOFA
deal being achieved before the Bush administration leaves office.
The administration's man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki, has declared
the initial U.S. proposal at a "dead end" and has even begun threatening
to ask American forces to leave when their UN mandate expires at year's
end. (Though much of this may be bluff on his part, what choice does he
have? Given Iraqi attitudes toward being garrisoned forever by the U.S.
military, no Iraqi leader could remain in a position of even passing
power and agree to such terms. It would be like stamping and sealing
your own execution order.)
The Sadrists are in the streets protesting the American presence and
their leader has just called for a "new militia offensive" against U.S.
forces. The pro-Iranian, but American-backed, Badrists are outraged.
("Is there sovereignty for Iraq -- or isn't there? If it is left to [the
Bush administration], they would ask for immunity even for the American
dogs.") The Iranians are vehemently voting no. Opinion in the region,
whether Shiite or Sunni, seems to be following suit. The U.S. Congress
is up in arms, demanding more information and possibly heading for
hearings on the SOFA agreement and the bases. Presidential candidate
Barack Obama has insisted that any deal be submitted to Congress, the
very thing the Bush administration has organized for more than a year to
And miracle of all miracles, the mainstream media is finally writing
about the bases as if they mattered. Someday, before this is over, all
of us may actually see what was built in our names with our dollars.
That will be a shock, especially when you consider what the Bush
administration has proved incapable of building, or rebuilding, in New
Orleans and elsewhere in this country.