Empire of bases

By Hugh Gusterson | March 10, 2009

Before reading this article, try to answer this question: How many military bases does the United States have in other countries: a) 100; b) 300; c) 700; or d) 1,000.

According to the Pentagon’s own list, the answer is around 865, but if you include the new bases in Iraq and Afghanistan it is over a thousand. These thousand bases constitute 95 percent of all the military bases any country in the world maintains on any other country’s territory. In other words, the United States is to military bases as Heinz is to ketchup.

The old way of doing colonialism, practiced by the Europeans, was to take over entire countries and administer them. But this was clumsy. The United States has pioneered a leaner approach to global empire. As historian Chalmers Johnson says, “America’s version of the colony is the military base.” The United States, says Johnson, has an “empire of bases.”

Its ’empire of bases’ gives the United States global reach, but the shape of this empire, insofar as it tilts toward Europe, is a bloated and anachronistic holdover from the Cold War.”

These bases do not come cheap. Excluding U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States spends about $102 billion a year to run its overseas bases, according to Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies. And in many cases you have to ask what purpose they serve. For example, the United States has 227 bases in Germany. Maybe this made sense during the Cold War, when Germany was split in two by the iron curtain and U.S. policy makers sought to persuade the Soviets that the American people would see an attack on Europe as an attack on itself. But in a new era when Germany is reunited and the United States is concerned about flashpoints of conflict in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, it makes as much sense for the Pentagon to hold onto 227 military bases in Germany as it would for the post office to maintain a fleet of horses and buggies.

Drowning in red ink, the White House is desperate to cut unnecessary costs in the federal budget, and Massachusetts Cong. Barney Frank, a Democrat, has suggested that the Pentagon budget could be cut by 25 percent. Whether or not one thinks Frank’s number is politically realistic, foreign bases are surely a lucrative target for the budget cutter’s axe. In 2004 Donald Rumsfeld estimated that the United States could save $12 billion by closing 200 or so foreign bases. This would also be relatively cost-free politically since the locals who may have become economically dependent upon the bases are foreigners and cannot vote retribution in U.S. elections.

Yet those foreign bases seem invisible as budget cutters squint at the Pentagon’s $664 billion proposed budget. Take the March 1st editorial in the New York Times, “The Pentagon Meets the Real World.” The Times‘s editorialists called for “political courage” from the White House in cutting the defense budget. Their suggestions? Cut the air force’s F-22 fighter and the navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer and scale back missile defense and the army’s Future Combat System to save $10 billion plus a year. All good suggestions, but what about those foreign bases?

Even if politicians and media pundits seem oblivious to these bases, treating the stationing of U.S. troops all over the world as a natural fact, the U.S. empire of bases is attracting increasing attention from academics and activists–as evidenced by a conference on U.S. foreign bases at American University in late February. NYU Press just published Catherine Lutz’s Bases of Empire, a book that brings together academics who study U.S. military bases and activists against the bases. Rutgers University Press has published Kate McCaffrey’s Military Power and Popular Protest, a study of the U.S. base at Vieques, Puerto Rico, which was closed in the face of massive protests from the local population. And Princeton University Press is about to publish David Vine’s Island of Shame–a book that tells the story of how the United States and Britain secretly agreed to deport the Chagossian inhabitants of Diego Garcia to Mauritius and the Seychelles so their island could be turned into a military base. The Americans were so thorough that they even gassed all the Chagossian dogs. The Chagossians have been denied their day in court in the United States but won their case against the British government in three trials, only to have the judgment overturned by the highest court in the land, the House of Lords. They are now appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.

American leaders speak of foreign bases as cementing alliances with foreign nations, largely through the trade and aid agreements that often accompany base leases. Yet, U.S. soldiers live in a sort of cocooned simulacrum of America in their bases, watching American TV, listening to American rap and heavy metal, and eating American fast food, so that the transplanted farm boys and street kids have little exposure to another way of life. Meanwhile, on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, local residents and businesses often become economically dependent on the soldiers and have a stake in their staying.

These bases can become flashpoints for conflict. Military bases invariably discharge toxic waste into local ecosystems, as in Guam where military bases have led to no fewer than 19 superfund sites. Such contamination generates resentment and sometimes, as in Vieques in the 1990s, full-blown social movements against the bases. The United States used Vieques for live-bombing practice 180 days a year, and by the time the United States withdrew in 2003, the landscape was littered with exploded and unexploded ordinance, depleted uranium rounds, heavy metals, oil, lubricants, solvents, and acids. According to local activists, the cancer rate on Vieques was 30 percent higher than on the rest of Puerto Rico.

It is also inevitable that, from time to time, U.S. soldiers–often drunk–commit crimes. The resentment these crimes cause is only exacerbated by the U.S. government’s frequent insistence that such crimes not be prosecuted in local courts. In 2002, two U.S. soldiers killed two teenage girls in Korea as they walked to a birthday party. Korean campaigners claim this was one of 52,000 crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in Korea between 1967 and 2002. The two U.S. soldiers were immediately repatriated to the United States so they could escape prosecution in Korea. In 1998, a marine pilot sliced through the cable of a ski gondola in Italy, killing 20 people, but U.S. officials slapped him on the wrist and refused to allow Italian authorities to try him. These and other similar incidents injured U.S. relations with important allies.

The 9/11 attacks are arguably the most spectacular example of the kind of blowback that can be generated from local resentment against U.S. bases. In the 1990s, the presence of U.S. military bases near the holiest sites of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia angered Osama bin Laden and provided Al Qaeda with a potent recruitment tool. The United States wisely closed its largest bases in Saudi Arabia, but it opened additional bases in Iraq and Afghanistan that are rapidly becoming new sources of friction in the relationship between the United States and the peoples of the Middle East.

Its “empire of bases” gives the United States global reach, but the shape of this empire, insofar as it tilts toward Europe, is a bloated and anachronistic holdover from the Cold War. Many of these bases are a luxury the United States can no longer afford at a time of record budget deficits. Moreover, U.S. foreign bases have a double edge: they project American power across the globe, but they also inflame U.S. foreign relations, generating resentment against the prostitution, environmental damage, petty crime, and everyday ethnocentrism that are their inevitable corollaries. Such resentments have recently forced the closure of U.S. bases in Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Kyrgyzstan, and if past is prologue, more movements against U.S. bases can be expected in the future. Over the next 50 years, I believe we will witness the emergence of a new international norm according to which foreign military bases will be as indefensible as the colonial occupation of another country has become during the last 50 years.

The Declaration of Independence criticizes the British “for quartering large bodies of armed troops among us” and “for protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these States.” Fine words! The United States should start taking them to heart.

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