Checkpoint Chalabi

For several weeks, one emerging aspect of the situation in Iraq has puzzled me: Why does the Pentagon -- longtime disparager of post-conflict nation building -- seem to want so desperately to control postwar Iraq?

Unlike in Kosovo or Afghanistan, where the Pentagon's tough guys resisted playing occupier, the U.S. military in Iraq seems to be embracing a central role in the reconstruction. In the last two weeks, American forces have airlifted the neoconservatives' favorite Iraqi opposition leader, Ahmed Chalabi, and a few hundred of his "Free Iraqi Forces" into Nasariya; meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has wrestled with the Department of State over control of $2.5 billion to pay for reconstruction. (Congress finally awarded it to the State Department.) Former general Jay Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) was located in Pentagon offices until being deployed to Kuwait last month; even now, Garner reports to U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks.

All of which suggests that the Pentagon is taking a striking -- and uncharacteristic -- interest in shaping the construction of a new Iraq. What happened to, "We break things and kill people," the refrain U.S. military officials have used repeatedly over the years to explain their discomfort with American troops being assigned to protracted peacekeeping posts?

As a journalistic veteran of NATO-led peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, I witnessed how -- with only a few exceptions, notably retired Gen. Wesley Clark -- American military officials had to be dragged kicking and screaming into such postwar endeavors. Later in Afghanistan, once the Taliban was toppled, the Pentagon moved as quickly as possible to turn over constabulary duties to other nations and to whittle international peacekeeping responsibilities down to Kabul only. Distaste for nation building was one of the few foreign-policy positions George W. Bush expressed during the 2000 presidential campaign. So what explains the Pentagon's recent change of heart?

In my quest for an answer to this question, I interviewed about a dozen former military officials, diplomats, and humanitarian and military experts, attended a series of briefings by neoconservatives Richard Perle and James Woolsey at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), interviewed hawkish Iraq expert Laurie Mylroie, went to see Kanan Makiya and other Iraqi dissidents speak on Capitol Hill, and traded e-mails with a friend working in the ORHA mission to Iraq and a humanitarian aid worker who had worked with Garner to create a safe haven for Kurds in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War.

But in the end, it was Jeff Stein -- a former Army intelligence officer who edits CQ Homeland Security and wrote, with former Iraqi nuclear scientist Khidhir Hamza, Saddam's Bombmaker -- who had the best explanation.

"I think it helps to see Iraq as the new West Germany," Stein explains. If you think of Iraq as the new bulwark against Islamist forces in the Middle East -- much the way West Germany was our most important European bulwark against communism during the Cold War -- you can see what Bush and Rumsfeld may be envisioning: a heavy American presence in a U.S.-friendly Iraq serving as a forward-deployed deterrent against militant Islam in the Middle East and central Asia.

I tested Stein's hypothesis against what I was reading and hearing from others. It held up surprisingly well.

The Pentagon does indeed plan to base a significant percentage of the U.S. Army in Iraq for the long haul, according to Thomas Donnelly, a military expert at AEI and a former staff director at the House Armed Services Committee.

"American forces will be in the region, in Iraq, for a long, long time -- decades," Donnelly told an audience at AEI last week. "They won't be policing the streets of Baghdad all that time. But we want Iraqis' attention and efforts focused on building their own internal, domestic society. We can help them do that in a year or two."

But then came the important part. "Once that's over," Donnelly said, "there will still be the desire to protect the nascent Iraqi democracy in a nasty neighborhood. How many [U.S. soldiers] will be required? That's a technical matter. I think Gen. [Eric] Shinseki's estimate [of 300,000 soldiers] is overly pessimistic. But it will be a disproportionately high share of the U.S. Army assigned to this mission."

Then, this past Sunday, The New York Times reported that the United States "is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region."

The piece went on to explain that "American military officials spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future . . . . A military foothold in Iraq would be felt across the border in Syria, and, in combination with the continuing United States presence in Afghanistan, it would virtually surround Iran with a new web of American influence."

These developments pose a dilemma for peacekeeping advocates, who have long defended nation building as a legitimate tool of American foreign policy but who may also be skeptical of the Bush administration's motives for wanting to control Iraq. For those who truly believe in the value of nation building, the question now is: Should the Pentagon's change of heart be celebrated or derided?

"I have spent several years trying to get the Pentagon to play a stronger role in postwar civilian operations," says Daniel Serwer, director of peacekeeping at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former State Department diplomat in Italy and Bosnia. "And so, when the Pentagon chooses the people who are going to run Iraq, I think that's good. Because 100,000 to 300,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground is very powerful. They may make mistakes. But it's not really important who runs Iraq; it's important that Iraqis run Iraq. And absolutely mistakes will be made. But in two years or so there will be municipal elections, and democracy will fix the mistakes."

But not everyone agrees that a long-term American military presence in Iraq is desirable.

"The U.S. military will provide security in Iraq for some period of time," says John Fawcett, who, as a humanitarian relief official with the International Rescue Committee, worked with Garner to help get Kurds back to their homes at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. "I think Garner's being genuine when he says he doesn't want to run it for long. The sooner you can get the uniformed [U.S.] soldiers out of there, the better."

Others, however, doubt that the U.S. military brass has had a change of heart at all.

"My guess is that the Pentagon's read on this is that we will accomplish the military objective we set out to accomplish and get the hell out of there," says Ray Jennings, who helped lead postwar nation-building efforts in the Balkans and Afghanistan while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "The question has always been with postwar planning: Do we have what it takes to stay the course? That's a long-term commitment, in terms of years. And Garner's been telling his team we're going to put ourselves out of business in a matter of days."

As a result, Jennings says he doesn't think the analogy with West Germany holds up. "That's quite different than what the U.S. did in postwar Germany," he says. "They thought they would be staying in Germany for six months to a year. They ended up staying for seven years. To [America's] credit, it stayed the course, and they did it because the circumstances were right, and they had tremendous legitimacy and resources. But since that time, circumstances have changed, and the U.S. appetite [for postwar nation building] has changed."

Rumsfeld and Garner themselves added to the confusion yesterday by contradicting earlier statements about how long U.S. forces will stay in Iraq.

Garner had said earlier that he hoped his team would finish its job within 30 to 90 days. But yesterday, upon arriving in Baghdad, he told the staff at a hospital he was visiting, "What we need to do from this day forward is to give birth to a new system in Iraq. It begins with us working together, but it is hard work and it takes a long time. We will help you as long as you want us to."

But while Garner was making this pledge, Rumsfeld told reporters Monday that this past weekend's New York Times report about the United States planning to have long-term access to four Iraqi bases was not accurate.

"We've got all kinds of options and opportunities in that part of the world to locate forces," Rumsfeld said. "It's not like we need a new place."

But whether or not we need a West Germany in the Middle East, we may have already gotten one.

Laura Rozen, who reported from the Balkans from 1996 to 2000, writes on national-security issues from Washington, D.C.