No Easy Way Out of Iraq
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.