Disappearing Bases: History Down the Memory Hole in Iraq

In April 2003, with Baghdad occupied by American troops, the top officials of the Bush administration were already dreaming of building bases in Iraq that would be garrisoned more or less in perpetuity. Everyone was too polite to call them "permanent bases," so they were sometimes referred to by the Pentagon as "enduring camps." Still, planning for "permanent access" to at least four giant Iraqi bases was underway, as Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reported then. These were intended to anchor a Pax Americana in the Middle East.

In the months that followed President Bush's "mission accomplished" speech, the U.S. military began constructing bases in remarkable profusion. By late 2003, Lieutenant Colonel David Holt, "tasked with facilities development" in Iraq, was quoted in an engineering magazine speaking proudly of several billion dollars already having been sunk into base construction. ("The numbers," he said, "are staggering.") By 2005, as the country disintegrated into Sunni and Shiite insurgencies and chaos ensued, there were 105 U.S. bases in the country, ranging from tiny combat outposts to monster facilities like Balad Air Base with its own Pizza Hut, Subway, and Popeye's franchises, "an ersatz Starbucks," a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges, and four mess halls. By the height of the occupation, Washington had reportedly constructed a mind-boggling 505 bases without any kind of public accounting of what was being spent on them. By 2011, when the last U.S. troops slipped out of the country, every one of them (except the 506th base, the giant three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar American Embassy that the Bush administration built in Baghdad) had been abandoned to the Iraqi military, to looters, or to the ravages of time.

And that was that... or was it?

When the Obama administration launched Iraq War 3.0 last year, sending in 3,000 American advisers, trainers, and other personnel, it garrisoned some of them on familiar bases reoccupied for the occasion. Last week, as it was preparing to dispatch the next round of trainers and other personnel to Iraq, it also announced the "opening" of a brand-new "lily pad" (or bare-bones) base for them at Taqaddam in al-Anbar Province, nearer to the front lines of the conflict with the forces of the Islamic State. At the same time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey began to talk up the possibility of building additional "lily pads" -- a "network" of new bases -- for more U.S. personnel elsewhere in Iraq. (Such a lily-pad strategy was, by the way, tried in Afghanistan and essentially failed.) Soon after, the New York Times reported that President Obama was "open" to such a strategy. In other words, in Washington's Groundhog Day-style conflict in Iraq, round two of base building was now underway.

And here's one strange thing: no newspaper reporting on any of this mentioned that there had been a previous history of base building in Iraq -- not even the Times, whose reporters first covered the story back in April 2003. That crucial history has, it seems, simply vanished. In this country, it's as if it never happened. And yet the minute you consider the proposed lily-pad strategy in the context of those 505 abandoned bases, it seems risible.

Andrew Bacevich turns to this very combination of collective amnesia and repetitive madness today in "Washington in Wonderland," so feel free to follow him down the Washington rabbit hole.