In Foreign Affairs this month, Alexander Cooley has a good piece on the politics of American basing agreements that’s worth a read. He does make the good point that the U.S. often seeks out basing agreements with authoritarian regimes, apparently on the theory that these countries will be more reliable allies from a military standpoint. But in fact, dictatorships can be unreliable, as Uzbekistan showed a few months ago, and Cooley argues that the U.S. is less likely to criticize a non-democratic regime for bad behavior if it has bases there, making reform less likely. (On the other hand, one might argue that, unless the United States has some sort of working relationship with an authoritarian country, whether it be military or economic ties, there’s no hope of encouraging any sort of reform in those countries.)
Cooley then argues that democracies are in fact much more reliable footholds for our vast basing empire, and since agreements are negotiated openly, those bases are less likely to aggravate extremists or provoke a backlash. And they’re actually more stable, since opposition leaders are less likely to campaign against an American presence negotiated by an authoritarian regime, as is now happening in South Korea. From a strategic standpoint, that’s valuable. It’s true, bases in democracies get a bad name because Turkey wouldn’t let itself be used as an invasion platform in 2003, but that was something of an exception.
So it’s an interesting piece, but it’s not clear how much this advice applies to the current American basing empire. The Pentagon controls at least 725 military bases in about 130 countries around the world, valued at some $118 billion and employing half a million people. From a foreign policy standpoint, some of the bases seem to serve good purposes, some of them serve dark purposes—the ring of bases in Central Asia certainly have an “it’s all about oil (and gas)” feel to them—but most of them seem to exist just to exist, and grow, and expand, as all bureaucracies tend to do. In time they create their own rationale for being there.
And few people have really taken the time to figure out whether this basing madness is all necessary for foreign policy—whether we actually need listening stations and covert operations in every corner of the earth, or whether they just exist for their own sake, because the military and its intelligence agencies are, for lack of a better phrase, addicted to control, addicted to seeking military and intelligence solutions to every problem, addicted to expanding their budgets every year. I certainly don’t know. (Donald Rumsfeld seems to believe that the footprint of the empire needs to be reduced, but not its omnipotence.) If that’s the case, then democracy, non-democracy, whatever; policymakers won’t much care where the bases go, just so long as they’re pervasive. Indeed, Cooley’s piece seems to be searching for the right basing arrangement to carry out a preferred foreign policy, but it seems just as plausible that the reverse is how things tend to work, and the bases end up driving foreign policy.