But while politicians screamed locally, Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon never thinks less than globally; and, if you throw in the militarization of space, sometimes even the global has proven too small a framework for its presiding officials. For them, the BRAC plans are just one piece of a larger puzzle that involves the projection of American power into the distant lands that most concern us. After all, as Chalmers Johnson has calculated in his book, The Sorrows of Empire, our global Baseworld already consists of at least 700 military and intelligence bases; possibly -- depending on how you count them up -- many more. Under Rumsfeld's organizational eye, such bases have been pushed ever further into the previously off-limits "near abroad" of the former Soviet Union (where we now probably have more bases than the Russians do) and ever deeper into the Middle Eastern and Caspian oil heartlands of the planet.
The Bush administration's fierce focus on and interest in reconfigured, stripped down, ever more forward systems of bases and an ever more powerfully poised military "footprint" stands in inverse proportion to press coverage of it. To the present occupants of the Pentagon, bases are the equivalent of imperial America's lifeblood and yet basing policy abroad has, in recent years, been of next to no interest to the mainstream media.
Just in recent weeks, however, starting with the uproar over the economic pain BRAC will impose (along with the economic gain for those "hubs"), bases have returned to public consciousness in at least a modest way. This month, for instance, the Overseas Basing Commission released a report to the President and Congress on the "reconfiguration of the American military overseas basing structure in the post-Cold War and post-September 11 era." The report created a minor flap by criticizing the Pentagon for its overly ambitious global redeployment plans at a time when "[s]ervice budgets are not robust enough to execute the repositioning of forces, build the facilities necessary to accommodate the forces, [and] build the expanding facilities at new locations?"
In other words, the global ambitions of the Pentagon -- and the soaring budgets that go with those ambitions -- are beyond our means (not that that means much to the Bush administration). The report's criticism evidently irritated Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and so the report, already posted at a government website, was promptly taken down after the Defense Department claimed it contained classified information, especially "a reference to ongoing negotiations over U.S. bases in Bulgaria and Romania." (As it happened, the Federation of American Scientists had posted the report at its own site, where it remains available to all, according to Secrecy News.)
Perhaps in part because of BRAC and the Commission report, numerous bits and pieces of Pentagon basing plans -- even for normally invisible Romania and Bulgaria -- could be spied in (or at the edge of) the news. For instance, last week our man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, came calling on Washington, amid some grim disputes between "friends." On the eve of his departure, reacting to a New York Times' article about a U.S. Army report on the torture, abuse and murder of Afghan prisoners in American hands, he essentially demanded that the Bush administration turn over Afghan prisoners, both in-country and in Guantánamo, to his government, and give it greater say in U.S. military operations in his country. For anyone who has followed the Bush administration, these are not just policy no-no's but matters verging on faith-based obsession. Having with dogged determination bucked the International Criminal Court, an institution backed by powerful allies, Bush officials were not about to stand for such demands from a near non-nation we had "liberated" and then stocked with military bases, holding areas, detention camps, and prisons of every sort.
Not long after Karzai made this demand, "an American official alarmed at the slow pace of poppy eradication" leaked to the New York Times a cable written from our Kabul embassy to Secretary of State Rice on May 13 indicating that his weak leadership -- previously he had only been lauded by administration officials -- was responsible for Afghanistan's rise to preeminence as the model drug-lord-state of the planet. ("Although President Karzai has been well aware of the difficulty in trying to implement an effective ground [poppy] eradication program, he has been unwilling to assert strong leadership, even in his own province of Kandahar.") And then, of course, State Department officials publicly came to his defense. On arrival in the U.S., he found himself refuting this charge rather than on the offensive demanding the rectification of American wrongs in his country.
At a White House welcoming ceremony, our President promptly publicly denied Karzai the Afghan prisoners and any further control over American military actions in his country. As in Iraq, the Bush administration's working definition of "sovereignty" for others is: Stay out of our way. ("As I explained to [President Karzai], that our policy is one where we want the people to be sent home [from Guantánamo], but, two, we've got to make sure the facilities are there -- facilities where these people can be housed and fed and guarded.") But the Afghan president was granted something so much more valuable -- this was, after all, the essence of his trek to the U.S. -- a "strategic partnership" with the United States which he "requested." (The actual language: "Afghanistan proposed that the United States join in a strategic partnership and establish close cooperation.") Great idea, Hamid! And quite an original one.
Of course, the term is ours, not Karzai's, and we already have such "partnerships" with numerous nations including Japan, Germany, and Greece. But Afghanistan is none of the above. The "partners" in this relationship are the country that likes to think of itself as the planet's "sole superpower" -- its global "sheriff," the "new Rome," the new imperial "Britain" (Britain itself now being a distinctly junior partner providing a few of the "native" troops so necessary for our Iraqi adventure) -- and the country that, in the UN's Human Development Report 2004, was ranked the sixth worst off on Earth, perched just above five absolute basket-case nations in sub-Saharan Africa. This is the equivalent of declaring a business partnership between a Rockefeller and the local beggar.
In the somewhat vague, four-page Joint Declaration of the United States-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership issued by the two partners while Karzai was in Washington, along with the usual verbiage about spreading democracy and promoting human -- perhaps a typo for "inhuman" -- rights in Afghanistan and throughout the Central Asian region, there were these brief lines:
"It is understood that in order to achieve the objectives contained herein, U.S. military forces operating in Afghanistan will continue to have access to Bagram Air Base and its facilities, and facilities at other locations as may be mutually determined and that the U.S. and Coalition forces are to continue to have the freedom of action required to conduct appropriate military operations based on consultations and pre-agreed procedures."
The Afghans may get no prisoners and not an extra inch of control over U.S. military movements -- note that "continue to have the freedom of action required? based on? pre-agreed procedures" -- but they do get to give, which is such an ennobling feeling. What they are offering up is that "access" to Bagram Air Base "and facilities at other locations." (The language is charming. You would think that the Americans were at the gates of the old Soviet air base waiting to be let in, not that it was already fully occupied and a major American military facility.) Nothing "permanent," of course, especially since Afghan students in recent protests over mistreated Korans at Guantánamo were also complaining about American bases in their country; and no future treaties, since Karzai might have a tough time with parliament over that one. Afghans tend to be irrationally touchy, not to say mean-spirited, on national sovereignty issues. (Think of the Soviet occupation.) Just a simple, honestly offered "request" and a "joint declaration" -- somebody must have been smoking one -- that quietly extends our rights to base troops in Afghanistan until some undefined moment beyond the end of time.
Spanning the World
Base news has been trickling in from the ?stans of Central Asia -- formerly SSRs of the old Soviet Union -- as well. After the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, for instance, we rushed an official into the country -- no, not the Secretary of State to celebrate the spread of democracy, but our globe-trotting Secretary of Defense, who hustled into that otherwise obscure land just to make sure that Ganci Air Base (named not for some Kyrgyzstani hero, but for Peter Ganci, the New York City fire chief killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks) in the capital of Bishkek was still ours to use (as it is).
In the Uzbekistan of grim, authoritarian Islam Karimov, our ally in the war on terror (who received his third visit from Rumsfeld in 2004), the Bush administration, we're told, is wrestling with a most difficult problem in the wake of a government massacre of demonstrators: bases versus values (John Hall, "U.S. wrestles with bases vs. values in Uzbekistan," Richmond Times-dispatch, May 29). After all, while the White House values the spread of democracy, the Pentagon considers Camp Stronghold Freedom, the former Soviet base we now occupy there -- "The air-conditioned tents at the base? are laid out on a grid, along streets named for the thoroughfares of New York: Fifth Avenue, Long Island Expressway, Wall Street." -- to be valuable indeed. And then there's that handy matter of stowing away prisoners. Uzbekistan is one of the places where the U.S. has reportedly been practicing "extraordinary rendition" -- the kidnapping of terrorist subjects and the dispatching of them to countries happy to torture them for us. Here's a guess: whether Karimov (to whom the Chinese leadership gave a giant smooch last week) remains in office or not, in the modern "Great Game" in Central Asia expect us to remain in the aptly named Camp Stronghold Freedom. (I'd like to see someone try to pry us out.)
In Africa this last week, there was news too. The Bush administration was promising to pour ever more "soldiers and money into its anti-terrorism campaign [there], including in Algeria and chaotic Nigeria, both oil-rich nations where radical Islam has a following." ("Oil-rich" is the key phrase in that sentence, in case you missed it.) "The new campaign," writes Edward Harris of AP, "will target nine north and west African nations and seek to bolster regional cooperation." American officials, calling for a "budgetary increase" for anti-terror military aid to the area, are now evidently comparing the vast "ungoverned" desert expanses of the Sahara "to Afghanistan during Taliban rule, when Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror group thrived." Talk about ambition. Quick, someone report them to the Overseas Basing Commission before anything else happens!
While the Pentagon is planning to shut-down bases all over the U.S., it's like a shopaholic. It just can't help itself abroad. Rumors of future base openings are multiplying fast -- base workers from Connecticut, New Jersey, and South Dakota take note for future travel planning -- in the impoverished former Warsaw Pact lands of Southeastern Europe, which are also conveniently nearer to the oil heartlands of the planet than our old Cold War bases in places like Germany. UPI, for instance, reported last week that the Pentagon was eyeing bases on Romania's scenic Black Sea coast and that the Romanians (whose plans for a world class, Disney-style Dracula theme park seem to have fallen through) were eager to be of well-paid service in the war on terror. Then a Romanian general confirmed that base negotiations were indeed well along: "General Valeriu Nicut, head of the strategic planning division for the Romanian general staff, said on Wednesday after an international military conference on security issues that the U.S. would set up two military bases in Romania within one year." He was promptly demoted for his efforts. (Perhaps it was as a result of Rumsfeld's pique.) No one on either side is denying, however, that base negotiations are underway.
Meanwhile in neighboring Bulgaria, the Defense minister was claiming that the U.S. would soon occupy three bases in that land and the Deputy Defense Minister, chairing the talks none of us knew were going on between the two countries, "told journalists that Washington is also interested in placing storehouses," assumedly to be filled with pre-positioned military supplies, there too. Earlier in the year, the U.S. head of NATO forces had spoken of the possibility of our occupying five bases in Bulgaria -- and all of them (so far) are hanging onto their jobs.
To the Southeast, there were yet more basing rumors in a volatile area where, last week, a massive 1,700 kilometer-long pipeline bringing Caspian oil from Baku in the former SSR of Azerbaijan to Ceyhan in Turkey via the former SSR of Georgia, was officially opened for business. The pipeline, as Pepe Escobar of Asia Times pointed out, is little short of a "sovereign state"; its route, carefully constructed to cut both Russia and Iran out of the Caspian oil loop, ends "right next door to the massive American airbase at Incirlik" in Turkey. The presidents of all three countries attended the opening ceremonies in Baku, while an Azerbaijan newspaper reported that the "U.S. and Azerbaijani governments on April 12 agreed on the deployment of U.S. military bases? Under the agreement, the U.S. forces will be deployed in Kurdamir, Nasosnaya and Guyullah. Various types of aircraft will be deployed at all the three bases, which have runways modernized for U.S. military needs." The report was promptly denied by the Azerbaijani defense ministry, which under the circumstances probably means little.
In neighboring Georgia, our goals have been somewhat more modest. With U.S. military trainers already in and out of the country to help bring Georgian forces up to speed in the war in terror, and -- thanks to the Rose Revolution -- a friendly government in place (the salaries of whose top officials are now "supplemented" by a fund set up by George Soros), a push had been on to rid the country of its last two Russian military bases. This week an agreement to vacate them by 2008 was announced.
Bases in Iraq: 2003-2005
And mind you, all of the above was just the minor basing news of the week. The biggest news had to do with Iraq. Bradley Graham of the Washington Post published a rare piece in our press on American bases in that country (Commanders Plan Eventual Consolidation of U.S. Bases in Iraq). As a start, he revealed that, at the moment, the "coalition" has a staggering 106 bases in the country, none with less than 500 troops on hand, and that figure doesn't even include "four detention facilities and several convoy support centers for servicing the long daily truck runs from Kuwait into Iraq."
With just over 160,000 coalition troops on hand in Iraq that would mean an average of about 1,600 to a base. Of course, some of these bases also house Iraqi troops, various Iraqis needed by U.S. forces -- translators, for instance, who, when living outside such bases, are being killed off by insurgents at what seems to be a ferocious rate -- and some of the hordes of contractors "reconstructing" the country, including the thousands and thousands of hired guns who have flooded in and are constantly at risk. Some American bases like Camp Anaconda, spread over 15 square miles near Balad (with two swimming pools, a first-run movie theater, and a fitness gym) or Camp Victory at the Baghdad International Airport, are vast Vietnam-style encampments, elaborate enough to be "permanent" indeed.
It is, by the way, a mystery of compelling proportions that American journalists, more or less trapped in their hotels when it comes to reporting on Iraqi Iraq (given the dangers of the situation), have seemed no less trapped when it comes to reporting on important aspects of American Iraq. We know, for instance, that even a year and a half ago the American base construction program was already in "the several billion dollar range," and such bases had long been at the heart of Bush administration dreams for the region; yet since April 2003 there have been only a few very partial descriptions of American bases in Iraq in the press -- and those are largely to be found in non-mainstream places or on-line.
Given what's generally available to be read (or seen on the TV news), there is simply no way most Americans could grasp just how deeply we have been digging into Iraq. Take, for instance, this description of Camp Victory offered by Joshua Hammer in a Mother Jones magazine piece:
"Over the past year, KBR contractors have built a small American city where about 14,000 troops are living, many hunkered down inside sturdy, wooden, air-conditioned bungalows called SEA (for Southeast Asia) huts, replicas of those used by troops in Vietnam. There's a Burger King, a gym, the country's biggest PX -- and, of course, a separate compound for KBR workers, who handle both construction and logistical support. Although Camp Victory North remains a work in progress today, when complete, the complex will be twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo -- currently one of the largest overseas posts built since the Vietnam War."
There has not, to my knowledge, been a single descriptive article in a major American paper during our two-year occupation of Iraq that has focused on any one of the American bases in that country and I don't believe that the American public has any idea -- I certainly didn't -- that there were at least 106 of them; or, for that matter, that some of them already have such a permanent feel to them; that they are, in essence, facts-on-the-ground long before any negotiations about them might begin with a "sovereign" Iraqi government.
In any case, Graham reports that, according to the latest Pentagon plans, we would focus our Iraqi bases -- once called "enduring camps," now referred to as "contingency operating bases" (but never, never use the word "permanent") -- into four "hubs" ("BRAC for Iraq"), none too close to major population centers -- "the four are Tallil in the south, Al Asad in the west, Balad in the center and either Irbil or Qayyarah in the north."
"Several officers involved in drafting the consolidation plan said it entailed the construction of longer-lasting facilities at the sites, including barracks and office structures made of concrete block instead of the metal trailers and tin-sheathed buildings that have become the norm at bigger U.S. bases in Iraq.
"The new, sturdier buildings will give the bases a more permanent character, the officers acknowledged. But they said the consolidation plan was not meant to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq? The new buildings are being designed to withstand direct mortar strikes, according to a senior military engineer."
This plan is being presented -- hilariously enough -- as part of a "withdrawal" strategy. It seems we are (over what will have to be interminable years) planning to turn the other 100 or so bases over to the Iraqi military (itself a bit of a problematic concept). For this, of course, "no timetable exists." Once the massive bulk of bases are let go, only those 4 (or -- see below -- possibly 5) bases will remain to be dealt with; and, in that distant future, while maintaining "access" to our former Iraqi strongholds, we will withdraw to our bases in Kuwait from which we will practice what one colonel interviewed by Graham termed "strategic overwatch." (Given the intensifying insurgency in Iraq, this seems like nothing short of a Pentagon pipe dream.)
The future of a fifth base, the Camp Victory complex, headquarters of the U.S. military in Iraq, remains "unresolved." After all, who wouldn't want to keep a massive complex on the edge of the Iraqi capital, though the military has proven incapable thus far of securing even the road that runs from Camp Victory (and Baghdad International Airport) into downtown Baghdad and the Green Zone. Today, it is the "deadliest road in Iraq," perhaps the most dangerous stretch of highway on the planet, which of course says something symbolic about the limits of the Pentagon's plans to garrison the globe.
Naturally, these four (or five) bases aren't "permanent," even if they are about to be built up to withstand anything short of an atomic blast and have the distinct look of permanency. The problem is, as Maj. Noelle Briand, who heads a basing working group on the U.S. command staff, commented to Graham, "Four is as far as we've gone down in our planning."
The word "permanent" cannot be spoken in part because all of the above decisions have undoubtedly been taken without significant consultation with the supposedly sovereign government of Iraq with whom the Pentagon is undoubtedly just dying to have one of those strategic partnerships as well as a "status of forces agreement" or SOFA. The SOFA is considered a future necessity since it would essentially give American troops extraterritoriality in Iraq, protecting them from prosecution for crimes committed and offering them impunity in terms of actions taken. No Iraqi government, however, could at present negotiate such an agreement without losing its last shred of popularity.
Still, congratulations to Graham for giving us an important, if somewhat encoded, version of the Bush administration's latest basing plans for Iraq. But here's the catch, these "latest" Pentagon plans look suspiciously like some rather well-worn plans, now over two years old. Unfortunately, our media has just about no institutional memory. As it happens, though, I remember -- and what I remember specifically is a New York Times front-page piece, Pentagon Expects Long-Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq, by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt that was published on April 19, 2003, just as the Bush administration's Iraq War seemed to be successfully winding down. Since next to nothing else of significance on the subject was written until Graham's piece came out last week, it remains a remarkable document as well as a fine piece of reporting. It began:
"The United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration officials say.
"American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future: one at the international airport just outside Baghdad; another at Tallil, near Nasiriya in the south; the third at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert, along the old oil pipeline that runs to Jordan; and the last at the Bashur air field in the Kurdish north."
Let's just stop there and consider for a moment. In April 2003, the Pentagon was looking for long-term "access" to four bases; at the end of May 2005, it's revealed that the Pentagon is looking for long-term "access" to? four bases. After two years and billions of dollars worth of base construction, the general distribution of these bases remains relatively unchanged. In fact, the base chosen for the Shiite South at Tallil remains the same. One of the four bases mentioned in the Times' account of 2003, at Baghdad International Airport, now Camp Victory, is the "unresolved" fifth base in the Post's 2005 account; in the West, H-1 has been replaced by Al Asad in the same general area; in the Kurdish North, Bashur (2003) has been replaced by either Qayyarah or Irbil, approximately 50 kilometers to the south; and Balad, north of Baghdad, is assumedly the non-urban version of the 2003 Airport choice. In other words, between 2003 and 2005, the numbers and the general placement of these planned bases seems to have remained more or less the same.
"In Afghanistan, and in Iraq," Shanker and Schmitt wrote, "the American military will do all it can to minimize the size of its deployed forces, and there will probably never be an announcement of permanent stationing of troops. Not permanent basing, but permanent access is all that is required, officials say." This was, of course, at a moment when Bush administration neocons expected to draw down American forces rapidly in a grateful, liberated land.
Shanker and Schmitt then put the prospective Iraqi bases into a larger global context, mentioning in particular access to bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, and Bulgaria, and adding:
"[T]here has been a concerted diplomatic and military effort to win permission for United States forces to operate from the formerly Communist nations of Eastern Europe, across the Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and across Central Asia, from the periphery of Russia to Pakistan's ports on the Indian Ocean. It is a swath of Western influence not seen for generations."
Three days after the Shanker/Schmitt report was front-paged, Donald Rumsfeld strongly denied it was so at a Pentagon news conference reported in the Washington Post (U.S. Won't Seek Bases in Iraq, Rumsfeld Says) by Bradley Graham. His piece began:
"Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday the United States is unlikely to seek any permanent or 'long-term' bases in Iraq because U.S. basing arrangements with other countries in the region are sufficient? ?I have never, that I can recall, heard the subject of a permanent base in Iraq discussed in any meeting,' Rumsfeld said? ?The likelihood of it seems to me to be so low that it does not surprise me that it's never been discussed in my presence -- to my knowledge.'"
And, for the next two years, that was largely that. The Times hasn't seriously revisited the story since, despite the fact that their original front-page piece was groundbreaking. You would think it a subject worth returning to. After all, despite everything that's happened between May 2003 ("Mission Accomplished!") and the present disastrous moment in Iraq, the Pentagon is still planning on those four bases. Coincidence? Who knows, but might it not be worth at least a blip on the inside pages somewhere?
An Empire of Bases
As the Overseas Basing Commission indicated in their recent report, such global basing plans are nothing if not wildly ambitious and sure to be wildly expensive (especially for a military bogged down in fighting a fierce but not exactly superpower-sized enemy in one part of a single Middle Eastern country). When we take the bits and pieces of the global-base puzzle that have sprung up like weeds between the cracks in recent weeks and try to put them together into a map of the Pentagon's globe, it looks rather like the one described by Shanker and Schmitt in 2003.
Begin with those prospective bases in Romania and Bulgaria (and while you're at it, toss in the ones already in existence in the former Yugoslavia); make your way southeastwards past "Pipelineistan," keeping your eye out for our Turkish bases and those possible future ones in Azerbaijan; take in the 4 or 5 bases we'd like to hang onto in the embattled Iraqi heartland of the Middle East (not to speak of the ones we already control in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region); take a quick glance at "oil-rich" North Africa for a second, imagining what might someday be nailed down there; then hop over base-less Axis of Evil power Iran and land at Bagram Air Base (don't worry, you have "access") or any of the other unnamed ones in Afghanistan where we now have a long-term foothold; don't forget the nearby Pakistani air bases that Gen. Pervez Musharraf has given us access to (or Diego Garcia, that British "aircraft carrier" island in the Indian Ocean that's all ours); add in our new Central Asian facilities; plot it all out on a map and what you have is a great infertile crescent of American military garrisons extending from the old Soviet-controlled lands of Eastern Europe to the old Soviet SSRs of Central Asia, reaching from Russia's eastern border right up to the border of China. This is, of course, a map that more or less coincides with the Middle Eastern and Caspian oil heartlands of the planet.
Put in historical terms, in the last decade-plus, as the pace of our foreign wars has picked up, we've left behind, after each of them, a new set of bases like the droppings of some giant beast marking the scene with its scent. Bases were dropped into Saudi Arabia and the small Gulf emirates after our first Gulf War in 1991; into the former Yugoslavia after the Kosovo air war of 1999; into Pakistan, Afghanistan, and those former Central Asian SSRs after the Afghan war of 2001; and into Iraq after the invasion of 2003. War in Iraq, in turn, has spawned at least 106 bases of various sizes and shapes; while a low-level but ongoing guerilla conflict in Afghanistan has produced a plethora of fire bases, outposts, air bases, and detention centers of every sort. It's a matter of bases and prisons where there is opposition. Just bases where there isn't. This, it seems, is now the American way in the world.
Most Americans, knowing next to nothing about our global bases or the Pentagon's basing policies, would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that ours is an empire of bases. In fact, our particular version of military empire is perhaps unique: all "gunboats," no colonies. Nothing has been of more concern to the Pentagon-centered Bush administration abroad than bases, or of less concern to our media at home. Despite two years of catastrophic setbacks, the ambitions of the Bush White House and the Pentagon evidently remain remarkably unchanged and wildly ambitious -- and, I suspect, the rule of inverse media interest still holds.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.
Special research thanks go to Nick Turse.
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt
This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com