Some U.S. military strategists are looking to South Korea as a model for Iraq. The idea would be to sharply reduce the numbers of American forces in Iraq, but keep them there for a long time.
White house spokesman Tony Snow said last week that President Bush looks to South Korea as a sort of model.
"You have the United States there in what has been described as an over-the-horizon support role," Snow said. "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."
The Pentagon quickly embraced the idea. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it's a worthy goal down the line. He says Korea serves as a contrast to Vietnam, "where we just left lock, stock and barrel."
"The idea is more a model of a mutually agreed arrangement, whereby we have a long and enduring presence, but one that is by consent of both parties and under certain conditions," Gates said.
Those conditions include U.S. troops training the Iraqi forces, serving as a stabilizing presence, and guarding against potentially troublesome neighbors — especially Iran.
Fred Kagan, a defense analyst and the intellectual force behind the so-called surge in American troop levels, says the South Korean model is all about a partnership.
"The Americans need to provide Iraq with a long-term security guarantee, which is going to require the deployment of American forces in Iraq to help enforce that guarantee and make it real," Kagan said.
Making that guarantee real in Iraq would mean keeping U.S. troops there for many years. American troops have been in South Korea for five decades. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wonders if that's the message the Bush administration wants to send.
"The reason being that when you say something like the South Korea model, different audiences will read different things into that," he said.
A key question is when and if the Americans can achieve that South Korea-like level of forces — 30,000-60,000 troops. Right now the security situation in Iraq remains grim, even with the present high-level of U.S. troops. And there is no political consensus among Democrats about how many troops to keep in Iraq.
O'Hanlon says that if the violence in Iraq can be reduced, then the South Korea model might make sense, in the narrow definition of a smaller number of troops. But that's a big "if," he said.
"The likelihood is, if we can find a strategy that works in Iraq — and it's not at all apparent that we have or we will — I think the Iraqis will need our help at some level for an extended period."