No Easy Way Out of Iraq

A senior Army officer says that U.S. troops will be in Iraq for three to five years — at least. Can President Bush devise a plan for Iraq that is acceptable to Iraqi leaders but sustainable at home?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's one picture of the future of U.S. troops in Iraq. In conversation with reporters this week, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the future could look like the U.S. involvement in South Korea.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): You have the United States there in what has been described as an over-the-horizon support role, so that if you need the ability to react quickly to major challenges or crises, you can be there. But the Iraqis are conducting the lion's share of the business, as we have in South Korea, where, for many years, there have been American forces stationed there.

INSKEEP: NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel has done some reporting to flesh out what this means for U.S. forces. Ted, good morning.

TED KOPPEL: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's zero in on the phrase that causes people to think about that South Korean parallel - many years. U.S. forces have been in South Korea for decades. Is that a reasonable thing to expect in Iraq?

KOPPEL: It may be more reasonable than seems logical at first glance here. I was talking to a very senior Army officer yesterday, whom I've known for some years, and was talking to him about what the long-range policy might be. And I suggested to him that I thought U.S. forces might still be in Iraq three to five years, and he said at least and then followed that up by drawing my attention to what Tony Snow had said at his briefing a couple of days ago, which, incidentally, didn't get very much attention at the time.

INSKEEP: Okay, so what would the U.S. engagement look like in Iraq?

KOPPEL: I think the point of it is to present a long-term commitment that is both credible in Iraq and sustainable here at home. And the way they're talking about doing that now is by sending some tens of thousands of U.S. troops back home again before the 2008 elections, but that would still leave well over 100,000 troops in the region. What they're going to - the phrase that was used to me yesterday was over watch. In other words, there would be some tens of thousands of U.S. troops in places like Kuwait and Qatar and on ships in the Persian Gulf. And there would still be some tens of thousands of U.S. troops left inside Iraq itself in desert bases where they would not be subject to the kind of daily attacks that are killing so many Americans now.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there are two issues here which are connected but somewhat distinct. One is the internal security problem Iraq itself, and the other is just the broader U.S. interest in the region. U.S. troops are just going to be there wherever they have to be stationed.

KOPPEL: Well, I mean, the U.S. interest, even though it's something that is not very much discussed, almost never discussed by senior members of the administration in public at least, is the fact that about 20 percent of all the oil and natural gas that is consumed in the Western world comes out of the Persian Gulf. It would be a huge hit on the Western economy, and most especially on the U.S. economy, if, for any reason, what is now happening inside Iraq would spread into countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other parts of the Persian Gulf. So there is a long-term U.S. interest in maintaining stability in the Persian Gulf, and three letters come shining through: O-I-L. It's oil.

INSKEEP: And just very briefly, is there political support for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for years and years?

KOPPEL: Well, I'm not sure if there is political support, but I think the theory here is that if they can keep the level of casualties down inside Iraq, then it will be far more sustainable, and that there is no alternative to keeping those troops there.

INSKEEP: Ted, good talking with you.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel this morning.

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Seeking Perspective on the U.S. Death Toll in Iraq

It's been a brutal month for American soldiers in Iraq; but it would be a mistake to think that it's the number of deaths alone that is creating the sense of national urgency to get out. Given the right circumstances, Americans are quite prepared to tolerate far higher casualties. Roughly 43,000 people die on our roads and highways every year.

Considerable effort is expended to bring that number down: Our vehicles are increasingly built to withstand crashes. We seem to have made real progress in persuading drivers to wear seatbelts and not to consume alcoholic beverages when they're about to get behind the wheel. Law enforcement does what it can to reduce speeding. Having said that, the number of driving fatalities every year remains stubbornly constant.

Apparently, 43,000 deaths a year is a price we are prepared to pay for the benefits that motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses provide. Those benefits are such, that no politician in recent memory has seriously suggested getting rid of all motor vehicles. It simply wouldn't happen. Our economy would come to a grinding halt. The impact on the national interest would be devastating.

In another week or so, we will have lost 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. That, of course, is over a four-year period.

So, the level of outrage and the growing opposition to the Iraq war has to be connected to something other than simply the number of those killed. After all, we lose that many people in traffic accidents every month, with barely a murmur of protest.

Where the Bush administration has failed, tragically and repeatedly, is in explaining to the American public why U.S. forces were sent into Iraq in the first place, and why they must remain there now.

Certainly, the United States has a moral obligation to deal with the chaos and anarchy that were, at least partially, unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But that falls into the category of something we're doing for them. The president cannot and should not expect Americans to give their open-ended support to a nation that seems overwhelmingly to regard our troops as "invaders and occupiers."

What, then? There is a reason for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq that has more to do with American interests: stability in the Persian Gulf, the world's single largest producer and exporter of oil and natural gas.

Do we know for a fact that, without U.S. troops in Iraq, that country's chaos would bleed into Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; Egypt, Syria and Jordan? No. But chances are better than even that it would — and you can throw Iran into the mix.

That is not an easy political argument to make: Blood for oil has never been a popular slogan in America. But try to separate us from our motor vehicles and you'll get a sense of where our national interests lie. And if you try to keep those vehicles running without Persian Gulf oil, you'll know that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is nowhere in our immediate future.

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