Baseworld: America's Military Colonialism

Those worried that America might be slinking towards imperialism miss the point: America already has an empire.

| Tue Jan. 20, 2004 3:00 AM EST
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. This vast network of American bases actually constitutes a new form of empire -- an empire with a unique geography unlikely to be taught in any high school classroom.

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. Militarism and imperialism are Siamese twins joined at the hip; each thrives off the other. Already highly advanced in our country, they are both on the verge of a quantum leap that will almost surely stretch our military beyond its capabilities, bringing about fiscal insolvency and very possibly doing mortal damage to our republican institutions. Unfortunately, the only way this is discussed in our press is via reportage on highly arcane plans for changes in basing policy and the positioning of troops abroad. And these plans, as reported in the media, cannot be taken at face value. As a result, it’s almost impossible to assess the size, real value, or proposed reach of our empire of bases.

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Official records on these subjects are misleading, although instructive. According to the Defense Department's annual "Base Structure Report" for fiscal year 2003, which itemizes foreign and domestic U.S. military real estate, the Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and HAS another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories. Pentagon bureaucrats calculate that it would require at least $113.2 billion to replace just the foreign bases -- surely far too low a figure but still larger than the gross domestic product of most countries -- and an estimated $591,519.8 million to replace all of them. The military high command deploys to our overseas bases some 253,288 uniformed personnel, plus an equal number of dependents and Department of Defense civilian officials, and employs an additional 44,446 locally hired foreigners. The Pentagon claims that these bases contain 44,870 barracks, hangars, hospitals, and other buildings, which it owns, and that it leases 4,844 more. These numbers, although staggeringly large, do not begin to cover all the actual bases we occupy globally. The 2003 Base Status Report fails to mention, for instance, any garrisons in Kosovo -- even though it is the site of the huge Camp Bondsteel, built in 1999 and maintained ever since by the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root. The Report similarly omits bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, although the U.S. military has established colossal base structures throughout the so-called arc of instability in the two-and-a-half years since 9/11.

For Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan, which has effectively been an American military colony for the past 58 years, the report deceptively lists only one Marine base, Camp Butler. In fact, Okinawa "hosts" ten Marine Corps bases, including Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which occupies 1,186 acres in the center of that modest-sized island's second-largest city. (Manhattan's Central Park, by contrast, is only 843 acres.) The Pentagon similarly fails to note all of the $5-billion-worth of military and espionage installations in Britain, which have long been conveniently passed off as Royal Air Force bases. If there were an honest count, the actual size of our military empire would probably top 1,000 different bases in other people's countries, but no one -- possibly not even the Pentagon -- knows the exact number for sure. One thing is certain, though; the number has been distinctly on the rise in recent years.

A Colonial “Footprint”

Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies. America's version of the colony is the military base, and the impact and reach of our colonial empire has become reduced to a single word: Footprint.

Of all the insensitive, if graphic, metaphors we've allowed into our vocabulary, none quite equals “footprint”. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers and senior members of the Senate's Military Construction Subcommittee such as Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are apparently incapable of completing a sentence without using it. Establishing a more impressive footprint has become central to the new justification for a dramatic enlargement of our Baseworld empire in the wake of our conquest of Iraq.

The man in charge of this project is Andy Hoehn, deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. He and his colleagues are supposed to draw up plans to implement President Bush's preventive war strategy against "rogue states," "bad guys," and "evil-doers." They have identified something they call the "arc of instability," which is said to run from the Andean region of South America (read: Colombia) through North Africa, across the Middle East to the Philippines and Indonesia. This is, of course, more or less identical with what used to be called the Third World -- and perhaps no less crucially it covers the world's key oil reserves. Hoehn contends, "When you overlay our footprint onto that, we don't look particularly well-positioned to deal with the problems we're now going to confront."

In order to put our forces close to every hot spot or danger area in this newly discovered arc of instability, the Pentagon has been proposing -- this is usually called "repositioning" -- many new bases, including at least four and perhaps as many as six permanent ones in Iraq. A number of these are already under construction -- at Baghdad International Airport, Tallil air base near Nasariyah, in the western desert near the Syrian border, and at Bashur air field in the Kurdish region of the north. In addition, we plan to keep under our control the whole northern quarter of Kuwait -- 1,600 square miles out of that nation’s 6,900 square miles..

Other countries mentioned as sites for what Colin Powell calls our new "family of bases" include the impoverished areas of the "new" Europe -- Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria; and the nuclear-armed antagonists Pakistan (where we already have four bases), and India. Farther to the east, we have set our sites on Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and even, unbelievably, Vietnam. Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria (scene of the slaughter of some 100,00 civilians since 1992, when, to quash an election, the military took over, backed by our country and France) are slated for bases in North Africa; in West Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, and Sierra Leone (even though it has been torn by civil war since 1991) are probable locations for future military ‘colonies’.

Most of these new bases will be what the military, in a switch of metaphors, calls "lily pads" to which our troops could jump like so many well-armed frogs from the homeland, our remaining NATO bases, or bases in docile satellites like Japan and Britain. To offset the expense involved in such expansion, the Pentagon seems ready to close many of our huge Cold War military reservations -- all part of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's "rationalization" of our armed forces. In the wake of the Iraq victory, the U.S. has already withdrawn virtually all of its forces from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in part to punish those nations for failing to support our war in Iraq. South Korea, perhaps the most anti-American democracy on Earth today, faces similar punishment. In Europe, these plans include giving up several bases in Germany, also in part because of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's defiance of Bush over Iraq.

Still, while there is every reason to believe that the impulse to create ever more lily pads in the Third World remains unchecked, there are several reasons to doubt that some of the more grandiose plans, for either expansion or downsizing, will ever be put into effect or.

For one thing, Russia is opposed to the expansion of U.S. military power on its borders and is already moving to checkmate American basing sorties into places like Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The first post-Soviet-era Russian airbase in Kyrgyzstan has just been completed forty miles from the U.S. base at Bishkek, and in December 2003, the dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, declared that he would not permit a permanent deployment of U.S. forces in his country even though we already have a base there. Moreover, the Pentagon's planners do not really seem to grasp just how many buildings the 71,702 soldiers and airmen in Germany alone occupy and how expensive it would be to build even slightly comparable bases, together with the necessary infrastructure, in former Communist countries like Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries. It's also clear that generals of the high command have no intention of living in backwaters like Constanta, Romania, and will keep the U.S. military headquarters in Stuttgart, while holding on to Ramstein Air Force Base, Spangdahlem Air Force Base, and the Grafenwöhr Training Area.

The “Global Cavalry”

The models for all these new ‘lily pads’, according to Pentagon sources, are the string of bases we have built around the Persian Gulf in the last two decades in such anti-democratic autocracies as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. The foreign policy sensibility behind the Baseworld expansion, meanwhile, is already plain to see. In the words of the American Enterprise Institute, home to the most hawkish of the Bush administration’s neoconservative core, the idea is to create "a global cavalry" that can ride in from "frontier stockades" and shoot up the "bad guys" as soon as we get some intelligence on them.

In fact, the "global cavalry" strategy promises to do the opposite. As the prominent British military historian, Correlli Barnett, has observed, the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq only increased the threat from al-Qaeda. From 1993 through the Sept. 11 assaults of 2001, there were five major al-Qaeda attacks worldwide; in the two years since, there have been seventeen such bombings, including the Istanbul suicide assaults on the British consulate and an HSBC Bank. Military operations against terrorists are not the solution. As Barnett puts it, "Rather than kicking down front doors and barging into ancient and complex societies with simple nostrums of 'freedom and democracy,' we need tactics of cunning and subtlety, based on a profound understanding of the people and cultures we are dealing with -- an understanding up till now entirely lacking in the top-level policy-makers in Washington, especially in the Pentagon."

In his notorious "long, hard slog" memo on Iraq of October 16, 2003, Defense secretary Rumsfeld wrote, "Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror." Correlli-Barnett's "metrics" indicate otherwise, but that’s almost beside the point. The "war on terrorism" is, at best, only a small part of the strategy behind the Pentagon’s Baseworld plans. The real reason for constructing this new ring of military installations along the equator is to expand our colonial reach by reinforcing our domination of the world.

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