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America's Unwelcome Advances

The Pentagon's foreign overtures are running into a world of public opposition.

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

Imperialism, meaning militarily stronger nations dominating and exploiting weaker ones, has been a prominent feature of the international system for several centuries, but it may be coming to an end. Overwhelming majorities in numerous countries now condemn it—with the possible exception of some observers who believe it promotes "stability" and some United States politicians who still vigorously debate the pros and cons of America's continuing military hegemony over much of the globe.

Imperialism's current decline began in 1991 with the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and the collapse of its empire. The United States now seems to be the last of a dying species—the sole remaining multinational empire. (There are only a few vestiges of the old Dutch, English, and French empires, mostly in the form of island colonies and other enclaves in and around the Caribbean.) As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made clear, the United States is increasingly stressed by the demands of maintaining its empire through its own military resources. Change is in the air.

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According to the Pentagon's 2008 "Base Structure Report," its annual unclassified inventory of the real estate it owns or leases around the world, the United States maintains 761 active military "sites" in foreign countries. (That's the Defense Department's preferred term, rather than "bases," although bases are what they are.) Counting domestic military bases and those on US territories, the total is 5,429.

The overseas figure fluctuates year to year. The 2008 total is down from 823 in the Pentagon's 2007 report, but the 2007 number was up from 766 in 2006. The current total is, however, substantially less than the Cold War peak of 1,014 in 1967. Still, given that there are only 192 countries in the United Nations, 761 foreign bases is a remarkable example of imperial overstretch—even more so considering that official military reports understate the actual size of the US footprint. (The official figures omit espionage bases, those located in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and miscellaneous facilities in places considered too sensitive to discuss or which the Pentagon for its own reasons chooses to exclude—e.g. in Israel, Kosovo, or Jordan.)

"The characteristic form of US power outside its territory is not colonial, or indirect rule within a colonial framework of direct control, but a system of satellite or compliant states," observes Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian of modern empires. In this sense America behaves more like the Soviet empire in Europe after World War II than the British or French empires of the 19th century.

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To garrison its empire, as of last December, the United States had 510,927 service personnel (including sailors afloat) deployed in 151 foreign countries. This includes some 196,600 fighting in Iraq and 25,700 in Afghanistan.

The reach of the US military expanded rapidly after World War II and the Korean truce, when we acquired our largest overseas enclaves in the defeated countries of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and on Allied turf in Great Britain and South Korea. But despite the wartime origins of many overseas bases, they have little to do with our national security. America does not necessarily need forward-deployed military forces to engage in either offensive or defensive operations, because domestic bases are more than sufficient for those purposes. The Air Force can shuttle troops and equipment or launch bombers from continental American bases using aerial refueling, which has been standard Strategic Air Command doctrine and practice since 1951. Only after the Cold War was well under way did the Strategic Air Command expand into several overseas bases in Canada, England, Greenland, Japan, Oman, Spain, and Thailand in an effort to complicate Soviet retaliatory strategy.

We also project power through our fleet of strategic submarines, armed with either nuclear-tipped or conventional high-explosive ballistic missiles, and some 10 naval task forces built around nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. With these floating bases dominating the seas, we need not interfere with other nations' sovereignty by forcing land bases upon them.

In fact, the purpose of our overseas bases is to maintain US dominance in the world, and to reinforce what military analyst Charles Maier calls our "empire of consumption." The United States possesses less than 5 percent of global population but consumes about one-quarter of all global resources, including petroleum. Our empire exists so we can exploit a much greater share of the world's wealth than we are entitled to, and to prevent other nations from combining against us to take their rightful share.

Some nations have, however, started to balk at America's military presence. Thanks to the policies of the Bush administration these past eight years, large majorities in numerous countries are now strongly anti-American. In June 2008, a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee issued a report titled The Decline in America's Reputation: Why? It blames falling approval ratings abroad on the Iraq War, our support for repressive governments, a perception of US bias in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the "torture and abuse of prisoners." The result: a growing number of foreign protest movements objecting to the presence of American troops and their families, mercenaries, and spies.

The most serious erosion of American power appears to be occurring in Latin America, where a majority of countries either actively detest us—particularly Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba—or are hostile to our economic policies. Most have been distrustful ever since it was revealed that the US stood behind the late 20th-century tortures, disappearances, death squads, military coups, and right-wing pogroms against workers, peasants, and the educated in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, and Uruguay. The citizens of Paraguay appear to be recent converts to anti-Americanism thanks to speculation that the US is trying to establish a US military presence there. The only places where American troops are still more or less welcome in Latin America are Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, and, tentatively, Peru, plus a few European colonial outposts in the Caribbean.

In Ecuador, the primary battleground has been Eloy Alfaro Air Base, located next door to Manta, Ecuador's most important Pacific seaport. In 1999, claiming to be interested only in interrupting the narcotics traffic and assisting the local population, the US military obtained a 10-year deal to use the airfield and then, after 9/11, turned it into a major hub for counterinsurgency, anti-immigrant activities, and espionage. Ecuadorians are convinced that the Americans based at Manta provided the intelligence that enabled Colombian forces to launch a March 2008 cross-border attack, killing 21 Colombian insurgents on Ecuador's turf.

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