A reader writes:

Oh Andrew, come on. Can we have a reasoned debate about the long-term military presence in Iraq without having to wade into Chomsky-level rhetoric about the "expansion of American empire." The U.S. is a democracy negotiating with the elected leaders of a country over a military alliance between two nations. This is not the British in Malaysia. And we have already ceded to Iraqi demands regarding immunity for private contractors, authorization by Iraqi leaders in regards to military operations, and not using Iraq as a base of operations against other countries.

McCain's point is correct. Americans, by and large, do not care about U.S. service members being stationed overseas. Your primary objection to a U.S. military presence in Iraq, as far as I can tell, is so called blowback--the idea that a U.S. presence in Iraq will incite Islamic extremist to terrorist activity. The debate, therefore, is whether or not the strategic benefits to a military presence outweigh the costs of inciting Islamic extremists. If, however, that is the primary calculus, then certainly the question over our strategic alliance with Israel would be as important a question as our presence in Iraq. But as far as I can tell, the difference on that question between the two candidates is practically nil. Oddly enough, the American public does not seem too vexed about the "expansion of American empire" into Afghanistan.

I'm struggling with this word "empire", because it is indeed excessive in the respects my reader points out and yet all the euphemisms seem to miss the point as well. Here's why: the US, without a second UN resolution, invaded a country, destroyed its regime, enabled chaos and near civil-war, and then helped establish a divided, but elected, government and wants to retain 50 bases in defense of that government. 50 bases. And yet the government itself seems deeply ambivalent and divided about this, the opposition strongly opposed, and Iraqis leery. Muslims everywhere would regard such a large US presence as an affront. The issue could even prompt serious weakening of a newly confident Maliki government. Yet we keep pressing for such a presence and the Republican nominee seems not to bat an eyelid at the decades of troop presence this could entail.

What do we call this? It's a good question. The troops in Germany, Japan and South Korea were established there to contain and deter the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has passed away and yet still the troops remain. The troops were sent to Iraq to remove what we were told was a serious threat to the security of the US in Saddam's regime. Saddam's regime has passed away, the WMDs have been revealed as paper tigers, and yet still the troops remain. We were told this was to avoid chaos; but now we are told that even if chaos is averted and some stability restored, the troops must stay. The stated reason? Anti-terrorism. And what if the Iraqi government says it can control internal terrorism? Why would we need 50 bases then?

What I'm getting at is the constant drift in which what was unimaginable yesterday is now the baseline for today. Can we at least take a step back and think through what this means for the long term?

I should add that I'm a little surprised by my own resistance to this idea - and see it as in part a response to being burned so badly by the neocons these last few years. A stable democratic Iraq is obviously a great thing - for Iraq, the region and our security. But my own view is that if this wonderful scenario were to eventually transpire (and that remains a huge if), the point is Iraqi independence and freedom - not military dependence on and political cooptation by  the US. We invaded to liberate, not to control.

What I fear is that the Bush administration and many neo-conservatives are claiming one thing, while planning for another; and after the last eight years, the trust level is low. I fear they want a permanent presence in Iraq to reassure Israel; and to pursue the option of war with Iran. I fear the bases are there to detain, contain or attack the regional Shiite power, Iran, and to reassure the regional Sunni powers that the US military will protect them. If this is the agenda, please let us know. Let the American people examine and debate it. Have McCain own this position rather than refer to it as a premise as if we already know what it is.

Here's what it is, it seems to me: an irrevocable new step in American enmeshment in the Middle East, with unknowable consequences. It could well be seen by Shiites as a de facto alliance with Sunni Arab powers to contain a resurgent Shiite renaissance in Iran and Iraq. Or it could be viewed, if the US is seen as synonymous with a Shiite government, as a lingering source of suspicion and grievance by Sunnis. Or both, depending on the moment. In a lull in an immensely complex and shifting conflict, we risk deciding by default on getting even more deeply involved in an ancient religious war in a combustible Middle East. And the purported enemy at the root of all this - terrorism, Sunni or Shia, depending on the need of the time - is so amorphous it can be used to justify invasion and occupation almost anywhere.

If it isn't empire, it is something perilously close. And we need to discuss it as a major issue in this campaign.

(Photo of an Iraqi soldier by Chris Hondros/Getty.)

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