Iraq’s debate over whether U.S. troops should stay is rising to the level of farce. Of course we’re going to stay. We almost always do.
President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have authorized the government, meaning themselves, to negotiate the terms of keeping U.S. troops there past the year-end deadline for their departure. The Iraqis seem to think we find their politics as fascinating as they do — endless palaver, endless cups of tea, endless inability to come to a conclusion.
But Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, made it as clear as possible, at least in English. He said: “You get to a point in time where you just can’t turn back and all the troops must leave. That’s why it’s so important to make the decision absolutely as soon as possible.”
That phrase “as soon as possible” seems to have a certain elasticity in the Mideast, which raises the spectacle of Talabani and Maliki on Dec. 31 sprinting down Iraq’s Highway 8 and yelling, “Wait! Wait! Don’t go. We really want you to stay. We need you to stay.”
The convoy will laboriously turn around and head back to the outskirts of Baghdad, where the U.S. troops will be kept discreetly out of sight, as best that can be done with 10,000 soldiers and their full complement of weaponry.
The troops will mostly be trainers for the Iraqi forces, but also on hand if Iran gets too meddlesome or if the venomously anti-American Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr begins taking himself too seriously. He messed with U.S. troops once before and quickly decided that several years in religious seclusion in Iran was a better option.
How long will we stay? We’ve been in Japan and Germany for 66 years.
Japan’s biggest objection is that the Marines in Okinawa make too much noise; the Japanese and U.S. governments have worked hard to find another base, but it’s a small and crowded island. However, at least we’re trying.
In 2003, when President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were considering bringing some U.S. troops home from Germany and deploying others farther east to Poland and Ukraine, a delegation of mayors from German cities with U.S. troops came to Washington to ask the Pentagon to please, please let them stay.
There were, of course, economic reasons for the mayors wanting the troops to stay.
The Korean War went into pause mode in 1953, and we’re still there. It’s not so much the attraction of Korean cuisine and culture as the 1 million heavily armed North Korean troops, poised on the border and led by a madman, who simmer with envy at the well-fed South Koreans, with their cars, flat-screen TVs and foreign travel, while the Northerners eat grass and wear unbelievably dowdy boiler suits.
We have troops in more than 140 foreign countries. It’s just something we do. We might even still be in the Philippines after more than 100 years if a giant volcano eruption hadn’t hurried our departure. After the Mexican-American War, we discovered that we liked northern Mexico so much that we stayed and are still there — although we now call the area Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona.
There’s just something about the U.S. and its wars that when we find a place we like we tend to stay. Just ask the American Indians.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.