Last week, even as it was becoming pretty obvious that the "surge" was not working as well as hoped, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who oversees daily military operations in Iraq, echoed comments from White House press secretary Tony Snow to the effect that they expect a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq, something on the order of the U.S. military commitment in South Korea.
It's hard to imagine a less encouraging prospect. You can make a case that U.S. military forces helped provide stability for perhaps a decade after the end of the Korean war, but for the longest time they have been not a stabilizing force but a destabilizing one. They have been there longer than 50 years. Is that a model we want to emulate in Iraq?
The present South Korean government, which presides over an incredibly prosperous country (which made its greatest strides toward prosperity after U.S. economic aid ended, not because of it) and has generally been pro-U.S., is past impatient with the continued U.S. military presence. South Korea has for decades had a more prosperous economy and a better-equipped military than North Korea. They have been able to handle themselves vis-a-vis the North for decades now, and have in fact been providing economic aid and encouraging families to reunite. The U.S. forces there served mainly as a "tripwire," guaranteeing that if the North were foolish enough to attack there would be U.S. casualties and a strong psychological impetus to send more U.S. troops over there. But inertia and a sense that withdrawing no-longer-useful (for a long, long time) U.S.troops could be seen as weakness.
I hope people besides Democratic Sen. Harry Reid will let the administration know that talking about Iraq as being like South Korea does not inspire confidence that they have a workable plan.