As part of our special investigation “Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide,” we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.)
The following dispatch comes from William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation and coeditor (with Miriam Pemberton) of the recent book Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War.
How Can We Reduce the US Military Footprint?
Mother Jones‘ map and articles on the US global military footprint are mind-boggling, but rather than be intimidated by these facts on the ground, we need to think about what can be done about them.
Chalmers Johnson suggests that the US empire may be the last of its kind, with the main political issue soon becoming “empire liquidation—peaceful or otherwise.” As he rightly notes, maintaining 761 military facilities in 192 UN member states is “a remarkable example of imperial overstretch.” The question of whether US imperial decline will be peaceful or violent hinges on two key questions, one culturally and psychologically driven, and one militarily driven.
A peaceful retreat from military globalism will require a psychological shift for many Americans who view being citizens of the greatest military power on earth as part of their birthright. If this hurdle can be overcome, the next issue will be reducing the materialist impulse that reinforces the disproportionate use of the world’s resources by the United States. The greatest contribution to this effort would be a genuine policy for reducing energy usage and implementing clean-energy solutions; a policy of this sort would diminish US dependence on corrupt tyrants while reducing the likelihood of conflict with major powers like China and Russia—not to mention helping to head off catastrophic climate change.
A second key to a graceful fall from empire is the elaboration of a more practical military policy. As Andrew Bacevich notes, we don’t need a bigger military; we need a more modest set of military objectives. Defending the US and its key allies against military attack is one sort of policy; the Bush policy of preventive war—attacking countries like Iraq that may or may not pose a threat to US interests at some time in the future—is quite another. And even the notion of a defensive posture must take into account the fact that many US allies are quite capable of defending themselves, thereby further undercutting the argument for sustaining an extensive global network of military facilities.
The issue of the US military footprint is not being discussed by the presidential contenders. That said, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s suggestion for a panel to review US global military commitments and cut back those that aren’t essential to US security offers a glimmer of hope that there could be a rational discussion of this matter in establishment circles.
While closing major bases can have many benefits, from restoring sovereignty to the people whose land these facilities occupy to eliminating sources of environmental degradation, the larger question goes beyond bases. As Herbert Docena indicates in his analysis of the evolving US presence in the Philippines, a country can serve the same functions that used to be supplied by large military bases via a more diffuse and episodic presence. Why should Washington seek to restore access to large, provocative bases like those at Clark and Subic Bay when the US military can conduct 37 exercises in the Philippines in a single year and build US-friendly military infrastructure for use as needed?
The bottom line is whether the United States should continue to pursue the capacity to intervene militarily in virtually every country on the planet—via aircraft carrier task forces, or long-range conventional weapons systems, or, eventually, even space-based armaments. This question needs to be part of any debate about US overseas bases.