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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 3:00 AM EDT

In 2006, newly elected Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa declared that he wouldn't renew the American lease when it expires in November 2009—unless, he tauntingly proposed the following year, the United States would let Ecuador have a base in Miami. Correa has since offered to lease the air base to the Chinese for commercial use. Ecuador also rejected a US bid to set up a base on the island of Baltra in the Galápagos, a protected wildlife refuge. The 180 US soldiers and several hundred contractors (according to the New York Times) at Manta are said to be seeking a new home in either Colombia or Peru.

Peru has proved problematic for the Pentagon. In July 2008, the US sent close to 1,000 soldiers to "dig wells and do public health work" in the southern Ayacucho region, an area once controlled by the Shining Path guerrillas. The US deployment, while seemingly harmless, has provoked demonstrations in many Peruvian cities, where such "friendship" missions are viewed as a pretext for an expanded US military presence. There is an airfield in Ayacucho—Los Cabitos—that the Americans would like to occupy, as it might provide easy access to Bolivia and Colombia. At the end of July, Colombia's defense minister chimed in, declaring that the country will not welcome a US base, although it will continue to cooperate with US military efforts in the region.

The US faces popular protests against its bases in numerous other countries. Disputes over military pollution and the handling of soldiers suspected of crimes have led to widespread resentment of US troop presence in South Korea and the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. Meanwhile, in Italy, where the United States still has at least 83 military installations, demonstrations erupted in 2006 when it was revealed that the government would let the US Army greatly enlarge its base in the northern city of Vicenza.

A town of about 120,000 nestled midway between Venice and Verona, Vicenza was home and showplace of the renowned Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose work so impressed Thomas Jefferson that he incorporated Palladian themes into his plantation at Monticello and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Vicenza already housed 6,000 US troops when, in late 2003, US officials began secretly negotiating to bring in four more Army battalions from Germany. The Americans proposed closing Vicenza's small municipal airport at Dal Molin, across town from the existing base, so they could build barracks and other facilities at the airport for 1,750 additional troops.

But locals still haven't forgotten the 1998 incident in which a US Marine pilot from nearby Aviano Air Base severed an Italian gondola cable with his jet, killing 20 skiers. The pilot, who'd been flying his Prowler faster and lower than Pentagon regulations permit, was later acquitted by a US military court, although he did serve five months in prison for destroying evidence in the form of a cockpit video. Local opposition to the Vicenza proposal led local judges to suspend work at Dal Molin in June, leading to a standoff with the Berlusconi government, which supports the base expansion. A month later, the Council of State, Italy's highest court, overturned the local decision, declaring that "the authorization of a military base is the exclusive competency of the state."

Similar disputes are unfolding in Poland, the Czech Republic, South Korea, and Japan. For several years the Pentagon has been negotiating with the Polish and Czech governments to build bases in their countries for radar-tracking and missile-launching sites as part of its proposed anti-ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) network against an alleged threat from Iran. Russia, however, does not accept the US explanation, and believes these bases are aimed at it. In July, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice successfully concluded a missile defense deal with the Czech government, but it still requires ratification by the Parliament, with two-thirds of the population said to be opposed. While the Polish government had been slow to sign on, Russia's recent attack on Georgia appears to have changed its attitude. In light of Russian assertiveness, the Poles quickly accepted the American proposal to base anti-missile missiles on their soil. It remains to be seen whether this will solidify American defensive commitments to Poland or further inflame Russia's relations with NATO.

In South Korea, America faces massive protests over its attempt to construct new headquarters at Pyeongtaek, some 40 miles south of Seoul, where it hopes to locate 17,000 troops and associated civilians, for a total of 43,000 people. Pyeongtaek would replace the Yongsan Garrison, the old Japanese headquarters in central Seoul that US troops have occupied since 1945.

Meanwhile, the United States and Japan are locked in a perennial dispute over the $1.86 billion Japan pays annually to support US troops and their families on the main islands of Japan and Okinawa. The Japanese call this the "sympathy budget" in an expression of cynicism over the fact that the US cannot seem to afford its own foreign policy. The Americans want Japan to pay more, but the Japanese have balked.

All overseas US bases create tensions with the people forced to live in their shadow, but one of the most shameful examples involves the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. During the 1960s, the US leased the island from Great Britain, which, on behalf of its new tenant, forcibly expelled the entire indigenous population, relocating the islanders some 1,200 miles away in Mauritius and the Seychelles. (See "Homesick for Camp Justice.")

Today Diego Garcia is a US naval and bomber base, espionage center, secret CIA prison, and transit point for prisoners en route to harsh interrogation at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. It has an anchorage for some 20 ships, a nuclear-weapons storage facility, a 12,000-foot runway, and accommodations and amenities for 5,200 Americans and 50 British police. According to many sources, including retired General Barry McCaffrey, the base was used after 9/11 as a prison for high-value detainees from the Afghan and Iraq wars. It is called Camp Justice.

Perhaps the most recent sign of trouble brewing for America's overseas enclaves is the world's condemnation of its long-term ambitions in Iraq. In June, it was revealed that the US was secretly pressing Iraq to let it retain some 58 bases on Iraqi soil indefinitely, plus other concessions that would make Iraq a long-term dependency of the United States. (See "Our Way or the Highway.") The negotiations over a long-term American presence have been a debacle for the rule of law and what's left of America's reputation, even if the lame-duck Bush administration backs down in the end.

Like all empires of the past, the American version is destined to come to an end, either voluntarily or of necessity. When that will occur is impossible to foretell, but the pressures of America's massive indebtedness, the growing contradiction between the needs of its civilian economy and its military-industrial complex, and its dependence on a volunteer army and innumerable private contractors strongly indicate an empire built on fragile foundations. Over the next few years, resistance to America's military overtures is likely to grow, meaning the agenda of national politics will be increasingly dominated by issues of empire liquidation—peacefully or otherwise.

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