The "attacks" of 9/11 defused any arguments that the United States should reconsider the scope and magnitude of its network of foreign bases around the world. One of convenient rationales presented in government explanations for the "attacks" on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was that a simmering resentment of people opposed to U.S. foreign military bases existed and this resulted in violent "blowback." However, the events of 9/11 were not blowback prompted by the vast network of foreign American military bases -- as the pressure to open-up even more foreign military bases began ramping up. Within hours of the September 11 “terror attacks” on New York and Washington D.C., American commentators were already comparing the event to a “new Pearl Harbor” in part because of the upcoming 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in December which had been featured in a Hollywood film over the summer. The comparison of 9/11 with Pearl Harbor was natural because both were surprise attacks “that came out of the blue” and killed many Americans. The prevailing interpretation promoted by the media and government to both attacks – 60 years apart – was that an age of innocence and isolation had passed. It was argued that American was shown to be vulnerable and had to fight back against an aggressor. Just as World War II spurred the vast network of bases, so would the Global War on Terror launch a new round of base expansions.
Shortly after the attacks, George Bush Sr. proclaimed:
“Just as Pearl Harbor awakened this country from the notion that we could somehow avoid the call to duty and defend freedom in Europe and Asia in World War II, so, too, should this most recent surprise attack erase the concept in some quarters that America can somehow go it alone in the fight against terrorism or in anything else for that matter.”
Ultimately the US military response to 9/11 led to the expansion of foreign American Military bases around the world including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Africa, Ukraine, South Korea, Israel and other countries. Ostensibly, the reason attributed to attacking the United States by the alleged (but never charged by the US Government for 9/11) 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden was the anathema of U.S. bases on Saudi Arabian soil. These bases were quickly moved to a friendlier and less problematic base in Qatar.
Peter Bergen, author of Bin Laden, Holy War, Inc., claimed that
“Bin Laden was most enraged by the American military presence in Saudi Arabia saying he was incensed when the Saudis invited U.S. troops to their defense after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and —like many Muslims—considered the continued presence of these armed infidels in Saudi Arabia the greatest possible desecration of the holy land.”
January Conference on U.S. Foreign Military Bases
As part of a continuing effort to educate the American People about the dangers of foreign military base to our security, a number of prominent peace and justice organizations in the United States are collectively organizing a 3-day national conference on U.S. Foreign Military Bases on January 12-14, 2018 at the University of Baltimore, Maryland. More than twenty-five scholars and activists have been invited to speak at the Conference. The three keynote speakers are:
- Ajamu Baraka, 2016 Green Party candidate for vice president of the United States; President of Black Alliance for Peace
- Ann Wright, Retired US Army Colonel, and former US diplomat; Leading member of Veterans For Peace and CODEPINK
- David Vine, Associate Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington, DC, and author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Overseas Harm America and the World.
Foreign Military Bases and U.S. Foreign Policy
For decades, the need for overseas bases has been an unquestionable centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. Recently, a movement to question this conventional wisdom has strengthened. With U.S. forces still in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa and beyond, activists are explaining to government officials and citizens why we must:
- reexamine the effectiveness of our military strategy,
- rethink the way we engage with the world,
- understand how the addiction to foreign bases has smacked-down America’s democratic ideals.
Chalmers Johnson (1931 – 2010), an American author and professor emeritus of the University of California, San Diego wrote numerous books including: Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, and Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope. As a former cold warrior, he feared the United States changed for the worse:
"A nation can be one or the other, a democracy or an imperialist, but it can’t be both. If it sticks to imperialism, it will, like the old Roman Republic, on which so much of our system was modeled, lose its democracy to a domestic dictatorship."
Even though in recent years the US military has drawn down many of its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans are not informed about the many hundreds of US bases and hundreds of thousands of US troops that still are encamped around the globe. According to David Vine:
“The United States garrisons the planet unlike any country in history, and the evidence is on view from Honduras to Oman, Japan to Germany, Singapore to Djibouti. Like most Americans, for most of my life, I rarely thought about military bases. Scholar and former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson described me well when he wrote in 2004, ‘As distinct from other peoples, most Americans do not recognize—or do not want to recognize—that the United States dominates the world through its military power. Due to government secrecy, our citizens are often ignorant of the fact that our garrisons encircle the planet.’
To the extent that Americans think about these bases at all, we generally assume they’re essential to national security and global peace. Our leaders have claimed as much since most of them were established during World War II and the early days of the Cold War. As a result, we consider the situation normal and accept that US military installations exist in staggering numbers in other countries, on other peoples’ land as our way of lending a hand to those other countries or as “symbols of... U.S. commitments to allies and friends.” On the other hand, the idea that there would be foreign bases on US soil is unthinkable.
While there are no freestanding foreign bases permanently located in the United States, there are now around 800 US bases in foreign countries. Seventy years after World War II and 62 years after the Korean War, there are still 174 US “base sites” in Germany, 113 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea, according to the Pentagon. Hundreds more dot the planet in around 80 countries, including Aruba and Australia, Bahrain and Bulgaria, Colombia, Kenya, Qatar and Cuba, among many other places. Although few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation, or empire in history.”
Chalmers Johnson insisted:
“Without grasping the dimensions of this globe-girdling Baseworld, one can’t begin to understand the size and nature of our imperial aspirations or the degree to which a new kind of militarism is undermining our constitutional order.”
David Vine was alarmed and inspired by Chalmers' work and he became aware that relatively few have heeded Chalmers' warnings. Vine said that he has spent years trying to track and understand what he called our “empire of bases.” He observed that these bases do not make us safer. He concluded that in a range of ways, the foreign bases have made us all less secure — harming everyone from US military personnel and their families, to locals living near the bases, and to those of us whose pay taxes to support all of these garrisons.
Types of Bases
Our 800 bases outside the 50 states and Washington, D.C., come in all sizes and shapes. Some are city-sized “Little Americas”—places like Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and the little known Navy and Air Force base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. These large bases support a remarkable infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, power plants, housing complexes, and an array of amenities often referred to as “Burger Kings and bowling alleys.” Among the smallest US installations globally are “lily pad” bases (also known as “cooperative security locations”), which tend to house drones, surveillance aircraft, or pre-positioned weaponry and supplies. These are increasingly found in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe that previously had little US military presence before 9/11.
Other facilities scattered across the planet include ports and airfields, repair complexes, training areas, nuclear weapons installations, missile testing sites, arsenals, warehouses, barracks, military schools, listening and communications posts, and a growing array of drone bases. Military hospitals and prisons, rehab facilities, CIA paramilitary bases, and intelligence facilities (including former CIA “black site” prisons, such as Camp Bondsteel and Camp Monteith in Kosovo) must also be considered part of our Base Nation because of their military functions. Even US military resorts and recreation areas in places like the Bavarian Alps and Seoul, South Korea, are bases of a kind. Worldwide, the military runs more than 170 golf courses.
United States and the History of its Foreign Bases
Although the United States has had bases in foreign lands since shortly after it gained its independence, nothing like today’s massive global deployment of military force was imaginable until World War II. In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a “destroyers-for-bases” deal with Great Britain that gave the United States 99-year leases to installations in British colonies worldwide. Base acquisition and construction accelerated rapidly once the United States entered World War II.
In only five years, the United States had developed history’s first truly global network of bases, vastly overshadowing that of the British Empire — upon which “the sun never set.”
According to Vine, since the start of the Cold War, the idea that our country should have a large collection of bases and hundreds of thousands of troops permanently stationed overseas has remained a quasi-religious dictum of foreign and national security policy. The nearly 70-year-old idea underlying this deeply held belief is known as the “forward strategy.” Originally, the strategy stated that the United States should maintain large concentrations of military forces and bases as close as possible to the Soviet Union to constrain their ability to expand.
However, the disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991made remarkably little difference to the forward strategy. Chalmers Johnson first grew concerned about our empire of bases when he recognized that the structure of the “American Raj” remained largely unchanged despite the collapse of the supposed enemy.
Now, two decades after the Soviet Union’s demise, the shaped consensus across the political spectrum still unquestioningly assumes that overseas bases and forward-deployed forces are essential to protect the country. George W. Bush’s administration was typical in insisting that bases abroad “maintained the peace” and were “symbols of… US commitments to allies and friends.” The Obama administration has similarly declared that protecting the American people and international security “requires a global security posture.” Likewise, the Trump Administration is embarking upon significant base expansions.
Support for the forward strategy has remained the consensus among politicians of both parties, national security experts, military officials, journalists, and almost everyone else in Washington’s power structure. Opposition to maintaining large numbers of overseas bases and troop garrisons has long been ridiculed as "peacenik idealism" — similar to the isolationism, as we are told by the power structure, that allowed Hitler to rise and conquer Europe.
John Glaser, Associate Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, has called for rethinking the forward-deployed military posture because it incurs substantial costs and disadvantages while exposing the U.S. to vulnerabilities and unintended consequences.
The Costs of Foreign Bases Around the World
David Vine calculated of the costs of maintaining installations and troops overseas to be at least $85 billion in 2014 — more than the discretionary budget of every government agency except the Defense Department itself. If the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq were included, the annual cost of foreign bases would be at least $156 billion.
While bases may be costly for taxpayers, they are extremely profitable for the country’s privateers of twenty-first-century war like DynCorp International and former Halliburton subsidiary KBR. As Chalmers Johnson noted, “Our installations abroad bring profits to civilian industries,” which win billions in contracts annually to “build and maintain our far-flung outposts.”
In contrast to frequently invoked rhetoric about spreading democracy, the military has shown a preference for establishing bases in undemocratic and often despotic states like Qatar and Bahrain. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, U.S. bases have created fertile breeding grounds for radicalism and anti-Americanism. Although this kind of perpetual turmoil is little noticed at home, bases abroad have all too often generate grievances, protest, and antagonistic relationships. Although few here recognize it, our bases are a major part of the image the United States projects to the world—and they often present the United States in an extremely unflattering light.
Creating a New Cold War, Base by Base
It is also not at all clear that bases enhance national security and global peace in any way. In the absence of a superpower enemy, the argument that bases which are many thousands of miles from US shores are necessary to defend the United States — or even its allies — is a hard argument to make. On the contrary, the global collection of bases has generally enabled the launching of military interventions, drone strikes, and wars of choice that have resulted in repeated disasters, costing millions of lives and untold destruction from Vietnam to Iraq.
Proponents of the long-outdated forward strategy will reply that overseas bases “deter” enemies and help keep the global peace. As supporters of the status quo, they have been proclaiming such security benefits as self-evident truths for decades. Few have provided anything of substance to support their claims. While there is some evidence that military forces can indeed deter imminent threats, little if any research suggests that overseas bases are an effective form of long-term deterrence.
Studies by both the Bush administration and the RAND Corporation indicated that advances in transportation technology have largely erased the advantage of stationing troops abroad. In the case of a legitimate defensive war or peacekeeping operation, the military could generally deploy troops just as quickly from domestic bases as from most bases abroad. Rapid sealift and airlift capabilities coupled with agreements allowing the use of bases in allied nations and, potentially, pre-positioned supplies are a dramatically less expensive and less inflammatory alternative to maintaining permanent bases overseas.
Similarly, rather than stabilizing dangerous regions, foreign bases frequently heighten military tensions and discourage diplomatic solutions to conflicts. Placing US bases near the borders of countries like China, Russia, and Iran, for example, increases threats to their security and encourages them to respond by boosting their own military spending and activity. Imagine how US leaders would respond if China were to build even a single small base in Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean. Notably, the most dangerous moment during the Cold War — the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — revolved around the construction of Soviet nuclear missile facilities in Cuba, roughly 90 miles from the U.S. border.
In this way, just as the war on terror has become a global conflict that only seems to spread terror, the creation of new U.S. bases to protect against imagined future Chinese or Russian threats runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. These bases may ultimately help create the very threat they are supposedly designed to protect against. In other words, far from making the world a safer place, U.S. bases can actually make war more likely and the country less secure.
The Military Industrial Complex
In his farewell address to the nation upon leaving the White House in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned the nation about the insidious economic, political, and even spiritual effects of what he dubbed “the military-industrial-congressional complex,” the vast interlocking national security state born out of World War II. As Chalmers Johnson’s work reminded us in this new century, our 70-year-old collection of bases is evidence of how, despite Ike’s warning, the United States has entered a permanent state of war with an economy, a government, and a global system of power enmeshed in preparations for future conflicts.
America’s overseas bases offer a window onto our military’s impact in the world and in our own daily lives. The history of these hulking “Little Americas” of concrete, fast food, and weaponry provides a living chronicle of the United States in the post-World War II era. In a certain sense, in these last seven decades, whether we realize it or not, we’ve all come to live “behind the wire,” as military personnel like to say.
We may think such bases have made us safer. In reality, they’ve helped lock us inside a permanently militarized society that has made all of us — everyone on this planet — less secure, damaging lives at home and abroad.
How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World
David Vine’s book, How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World provides a wealth of current information on this subject. A description provided by the book’s publicist states:
American military bases encircle the globe. More than two decades after the end of the Cold War and nearly three-quarters of a century after the last battles of World War II, the United States still stations troops at some eight hundred locations in foreign lands. These bases are usually taken for granted or overlooked entirely, a little-noticed part of the Pentagon’s vast operations. But, in an eye-opening exposé, Base Nation shows how this global base network causes an array of ills — and undermines national security in the process.
As David Vine demonstrates, the overseas bases raise geopolitical tensions and provoke widespread antipathy toward the United States. They undermine American democratic ideals, pushing the United States into partnerships with dictators and perpetuating a system of second-class citizenship in territories such as Guam. The far-flung bases strain the lives of military families, breed sexual violence, displace indigenous peoples, and destroy the environment. Their financial cost is staggering: though the Pentagon tries to underplay the numbers, Vine’s accounting proves that the true bill approaches $100 billion or more per year. And by making it easier to wage interventionist wars far from home, overseas bases have paved the way for disastrous conflicts that have cost countless lives.”