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US Troops Retake the Dragon's Lair

Filipinos thought they'd sent the GIs packing, but the Pentagon found a way in through the back door.

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

It's been 17 years since the Filipino senate voted, after long and emotional debate, to shut down what some US military analysts considered the world's most important military basing complex—the American facilities at Subic and Clark, plus myriad smaller support and communications facilities. The historic vote shook relations between the Philippines and its most important ally. That a small and weak country would stand up and say no to the world's only remaining superpower reverberated across the globe.

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Since then, the Pentagon's every move here has provoked controversy, as well as speculation that America is seeking to reestablish its old base footprint—contentions both governments have denied. What has emerged, though, is a new and different kind of basing that has allowed the US to quietly reassert itself.

The radical overhaul plan unveiled by the Bush administration in 2004 (see "Mission Creep") directs the Pentagon to shed some of its large, well-equipped bases in favor of smaller, simpler ones in far-flung locations. "We are not talking only about basing," Douglas Feith, then undersecretary of defense, told the House Armed Services Committee that June. "We're talking about the ability of our forces to operate when and where they are needed."

These new sites could ratchet "from cold to warm to hot" if needed, said Marine General James Jones, the European forces commander, but without the infrastructure—family housing, malls, schools, golf courses—that typify the old facilities. This attitude adjustment was driven, in no small part, by long-brewing resentment of American heavy-handedness overseas. "We have found it increasingly difficult, and politically costly to maintain bases," a federal commission concluded as far back as 1988.

Indeed, besides the closures in the Philippines, US bases have been shuttered or terminated in recent years in Puerto Rico, Panama, and—soon—Ecuador as a result of citizen outcry. (See "Unwelcome Advances.") Recent base proposals in Poland and the Czech Republic have encountered fierce public opposition. While Turkey's Incirlik air base is now a key wartime supply hub, that nation refused to let US troops use its bases for the Iraq invasion. And public hostility toward the US military presence is long-standing in South Korea and Japan's Okinawa. (See "The Pentagon's Modest Proposals.")

The Pentagon realizes its restructuring may have the added benefit—besides putting the US in a better position to contain China's global ambitions—of undermining citizen opposition to its presence. Compared to the military's "Main Operating Bases"—those vast overseas entities that have been dubbed "little Americas"—the new Forward Operating Sites are temporary (more on that later) bare-bones camps, closer to the action and lacking family amenities. Treading lighter still are Cooperative Security Locations, or "lily pads," minimally staffed stealth bases that often contain caches of US weapons and gear and can be activated in case of nearby conflict, or for training exercises with local troops. "We could use it for six months, turn off the lights, and go to another base if we need to," General Jones noted.

It's a convenient setup in nations that covet US aid and military support but whose officials see a more visible US base as a political liability; in Algeria, for instance, one of many African nations where America keeps a lily pad, officials have stated publicly that they would never allow a US base on their soil. "We don't want to be stepping all over our host nations," US Navy Rear Admiral Richard Hunt noted in 2004. "We want to exist in a very nonintrusive way."

There's more to the equation, though. Ever since the late 1990s, when the Pentagon began to acknowledge China as a potential military rival, the brass realized US troops were concentrated in the wrong part of Asia, largely South Korea and Japan, and aimed at the former Soviet Union and North Korea.

Since then, a chorus of US defense analysts, military officials, civilian leaders, and influential commentators have pegged the Philippines as critical to America's future military plans, located in what some call the Dragon's Lair, those portions of the Western Pacific where China might seek to prevent the US from deploying.

For instance, the Project for a New American Century, a conservative think tank, proposed that the Navy consider establishing a home port in the Philippines, and that the Air Force station a wing here. A Rand study commissioned in 2002 by the Air Force suggested renting an island from the Philippines for a base.

One small obstacle: Filipinos don't want the US troops around. "The general view of Philippine security experts," noted another Air Force study, "is that for domestic political reasons it would be difficult to give the appearance that the United States is reestablishing its bases."

So the goal has been to avoid such appearances. "We are adapting our plans and cooperation of the past to the future," explained former Pacific Command chief Admiral Dennis Blair at a 2001 press conference. "Those plans do not include any request by the United States for bases in the Philippines of the kind that we have had in the past."

The US, in other words, would try something new.

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