“What had until then (the departure of American military forces from Iceland) been regarded as Iceland’s ‘trump card,’ the military defence agreement, has now been rendered worthless.”
A recently published article by Valur Ingimundarson, professor of history at the University of Iceland, suggests that the imminent closure of the US naval air base in Keflavík had already been postponed for years due to the personal relationship between Iceland’s former Prime Minister, Davíð Oddsson, and US President George W. Bush, despite urgent recommendations from US military analysts that the base had long outlived its usefulness.
The Keflavík naval air station was installed as a part of a bilateral defence agreement between the nations in 1951, according to which, US military forces would take over the defence of Iceland. The base served as home to the Air Force’s 85th Group, responsible for “deterring aggression in the North Atlantic”. During the height of the Cold War, the 85th, known as the Guardians of the North, deployed up to 15 F-15 fighter jets to Keflavík. The base also occupied a squadron or so of submarine hunters and played a central role in patrolling the North Atlantic due to its location.
Since 1967, US military authorities had repeatedly requested that the level of air defence in Keflavík be reduced and the fighter jets relocated, despite forceful objections from Icelandic government officials, who claimed this would be a breach of the bilateral agreement. The location of the Keflavík naval air base proved too valuable for US strategic purposes and Icelandic officials had their way, for the time being.
The fall of the Soviet Union all but rendered the base obsolete 15 years ago. Yet, it remained as an inconveniently positioned part of the vanguard in the ‘War on Terror’. Upon the advice of strategic and defence specialists, the Bush administration decreed the base to have no strategic value in 2002 and wheels were set in motion to relocate the fighter jets and dramatically downsize US operations in Iceland. Although the subject had been brought up repeatedly in recent years, the base had until then remained due to the firm insistence of the Icelandic government.
Oddsson Steps Up
As earlier, the response from the Icelandic government, and former Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson in particular, was that such an action would be a breach of the bilateral agreement, rendering it invalid, and that Iceland would then have ‘no choice’ but to completely desert their military alliance with the US. The problem with this argument was that Iceland was, after the end of the Cold War, steadily becoming less and less strategically useful for the US military.
United States and Icelandic government officials met to discuss the matter on several occasions during this time. The US position did not change, however. That is, not until Oddsson met privately with George W. Bush and brought the matter up with him personally. Quoting several unnamed sources from various branches of the Icelandic and US governments, Ingimundarson claims that George W. Bush ordered Condoleezza Rice to ‘fix it’, and that Bush was not willing to do anything to undermine Oddsson, to whom Bush felt he owed a debt of gratitude and considered to be an important ally.
Ingimundarson doubts that Davíð Oddsson and Halldór Ásgrímsson supported the US invasion of Iraq to further their chances of keeping a US military presence in Iceland. He does however mention Oddsson’s support for Bush’s controversial missile defence system, proposed in 2001.
The article also suggests that Icelandic officials were fully aware of US plans to close the base as early as 2001 but had kept the decision under wraps past the 2002 parliamentary elections in order to avoid making it an election issue. When the Bush administration finally got its way and shut it down and reassigned all personnel to bases closer to the Middle East, Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson was not pleased, and indeed appeared rather surprised by the withdrawal, when what he should perhaps have been surprised by is that the base had remained for so long.
What is most overtly controversial about Ingimundarson’s article is how heavily he stresses Davíð Oddsson as the sole reason for the continued existence of the US military base even though its usefulness had long since expired. He goes on to state, “after [Oddsson’s] disappearance from politics in October of 2005, the United States no longer felt any obligation to Icelandic interests.”
Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson has flat-out denied Ingimundarson’s claims, saying they are simply “wrong,” and that if they were true, they would be a serious indictment on the way the US government functions. The fact remains that the withdrawal of US forces very nearly coincides with Davíð Oddsson’s withdrawal from politics.
Friends in High Places
Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, professor of political science at the University of Iceland, a well-known Independence Party policy advisor and a personal friend of former PM Oddsson told the Grapevine that although he had not yet had the opportunity to read Ingimundarson’s article, he considered his claims likely.
“I was present for a part of that meeting between Davíð Oddsson and George Bush in the Oval Office, June 6, 2004, and I could clearly sense on how friendly terms the two of them were. It was obvious that Bush held Oddsson in high regard and that Oddsson was greatly respected among US officials. Therefore I fully believe that Bush halted Department of Defence plans to withdraw US military presence in Iceland out of his friendship with Davíð Oddsson,” Gissurarson said.
Reading between the lines, it seems obvious that Ingimundarson believes that Icelandic officials were well aware of the base’s strategic downfall, and that the four F-15 fighter jets remaining in Iceland for much of the nineties and the last few years had little or no value in terms of defence for the country. Ingimundarson repeatedly hints that the ulterior motives for Iceland’s insistence on keeping the fighter jets in Keflavík were not strategic, but economic.
Gissurarson agrees this played a role. “Employment in Keflavík Airport certainly did play a role, but it did not play a leading role,” he said. “The real reason was that many responsible men do not wish to see Iceland become an experimental project for being an unarmed country. In a dangerous world, you need defence, or has mankind suddenly changed, can the lambs now suddenly play with the lions?”
Ultimately, Ingimundarson’s article raises many questions. Whatever the truth may be, the article still rings true in its portrayal of Iceland as a militarily unimportant nation, and perhaps this is an augury of a future where Iceland does not have to heap all its support upon one other nation, but participate in world affairs in a manner befitting an independent nation.