|The US maintains permanent bases in South Korea, established in 1954, that house some 28,500 personnel [EPA]|
Remember the bases? As the world reeled from the sheer audacity of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, many feared the US was seeking to establish a permanent presence in that country.
The idea was plausible enough. The stability of Saudi Arabia was far from assured. Why not establish a friendly client state in another major oil producing country?
Iraq would be made into a dependent and profitable ally of the US. From bases there, US power and influence could be projected across the region.
Such a plan for empire made far more strategic sense for the US than the wild-eyed fantasies about unleashing Arab democracy from the muzzles of American cannon.
South Korea offered a model. There, after World War II, the US backed a regime based on the landlords, officials and security forces that had been the local backbone of Japanese imperialism. With US advisers, a peasant rebellion was brutally suppressed in the late 1940s.
The US stood by its client during the Korean War, at cost of 45,000 of its soldiers’ lives and the devastation of the peninsula and its people.
Whatever the politics of the regime the US backed – and they were not pleasant – the kind of presence the US established and maintained in Korea developed a momentum of its own.
US soldiers and officials cycled through Korea. Despite their often extraordinary racism, they established bonds with the place and with the Koreans they worked alongside. Koreans were allowed into the US in much greater number, and the two cultures established reciprocal if unequal presences in their respective national imaginaries.
The Korean military had a vested interest in maintaining close relations with the US, receiving training, weapons and equipment. The regime and the economy became dependent on the US.
Bonds were strong enough to survive the democratisation of South Korea from the 1970s onwards, even though the US-supported army was an instrument of repression committing many atrocities.
Ties of this kind between countries exceed mere strategic calculation. They are “special relationships” rooted in cross cutting relations of affect, habit and interest developed over many years.
But they are also strategic. South Korea has been a loyal ally of the US, supplying troops for its foreign adventures, backing it in the UN and in the region. In return, the US has supported its ally. When President Carter wanted to draw down US forces in South Korea, his generals revolted and threatened to resign. The forces remained.
Having expended so much blood, treasure and moral capital in Iraq, one would have thought that the US would seek to maintain a permanent presence there in the decades to come.
Otherwise, the entire Iraq adventure would seem to have mainly benefited Iran. The invasion destroyed Iran’s sworn enemy – Saddam Hussein – and opened up his country to Iranian influence.
Nonetheless, while the world’s attention was fixated on Gaddafi’s corpse, President Obama announced what seems to be the end of the ill-fated US project in Iraq.
The US and Iraq failed to agree on a continued substantial US troop presence. Without the troops, and in the face of budgetary pressures at home, the US has substantially scaled back its plans for diplomatic and consular representation in Iraq.
The US had planned on a 700-person consulate in Mosul, but realised that most of the staff would have to be security contractors in the absence of a nearby US garrison. Kirkuk also lost a planned consulate.
These may appear to be mundane bureaucratic decisions. In any case, US diplomatic influence is greatly hampered by security concerns, by the literal and metaphorical walls the US builds between its embassies and foreign peoples.
It is hampered also by the animosities aroused by US violence and policy, in Iraq and elsewhere.
But it is precisely through a substantial military and civilian presence that the US could still recover something from its Iraq adventure over the long term. Relationships between Iraqi and US officials and soldiers, which have developed over years of mutual struggle, now will be severed.
There will be few return tours of duty in free Iraq, and little of the dependency and grudging affection that come with them.
Iraqi institutions and political forces that had hoped for continued US support will be left to fend for themselves. Iraqis will turn to other potential allies for help and with whom to do business, from as nearby as Iran and as far away as China.
Worse may be in the offing. Prime Minister al-Maliki and the US appear to be banking on the idea that the Iraqi security forces are sufficiently robust to see off any challenges. This may be so. Iraq is weary of war and desires peace.
However, none of the basic questions that confront Iraq – and over which Iraqis may resort to arms – have been resolved. There is no final dispensation over the nature of the regime, the status of the Kurds and other minorities, or even for the distribution of oil profits.
Should significant violence breakout, President Obama or his successor will find it almost impossible to send troops or other major assistance.
There is no longer substantial domestic political support in the US for an activist world role, in Iraq or anywhere else.
The US appears unable to act with strategic foresight and consistency, even with the resources it does have to hand.
Many in the Middle East and the global South imagine the US is capable of the most elaborate conspiracies. Certainly, the US military and its intelligence agencies are superbly capable instruments.
But the US is divided and turned in on itself. Much of the government is hobbled by underinvestment, privatisation and party politics. Mainstream debate lacks little rational basis for effective foreign and strategic policy.
The presumptive Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, has recently suggested China take over from the US in providing humanitarian aid.
The world is becoming a different place. Major US interventions, welcome or not, are unlikely to be on offer. We are perhaps one financial crisis away from the moment when the idea of maintaining even established bases abroad – when the iron web of empire since 1945 will itself be called into question.
Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer in the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.