Given the secretive nature of basing agreements and the complex economic and political trade-offs involved in base negotiations, precise figures are impossible to find. However, Pentagon-funded research indicates that 18% of total foreign military and economic aid goes toward buying base access. That swells our invoice by around $6.3 billion. Payments to NATO of $1.7 billion "for the acquisition and construction of military facilities and installations" and other purposes, brings us to:
$6.9 billion in net "rent" payments and NATO contributions.
Although the OCS must report the costs of all military operations abroad, the Pentagon omits $550 million for counternarcotics operations and $108 million for humanitarian and civic aid. Both have, as a budget document explains about humanitarian aid, helped "maintain a robust overseas presence," while the military "obtains access to regions important to US interests." The Pentagon also spent $24 million on environmental projects abroad to monitor and reduce on-base pollution, dispose of hazardous and other waste, and for "initiatives…in support of global basing/operations." So the bill now grows by:
$682 million for counternarcotics, humanitarian, and environmental programs.
The Pentagon tally of the price of occupying the planet also ignores the costs of secret bases and classified programs overseas. Out of a total Pentagon classified budget of $51 billion for 2012, I conservatively use only the estimated overseas portion of operations and maintenance spending, which adds $2.4 billion. Then there's the $15.7 billion Military Intelligence Program. Given that US law generally bars the military from engaging in domestic spying, I estimate that half this spending, $7.9 billion, took place overseas.
Next, we have to add in the CIA's paramilitary budget, funding activities including secret bases in places like Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and its drone assassination program, which has grown precipitously since the onset of the war on terror. With thousands dead (including hundreds of civilians), how can we not consider these military costs? In an email, John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, told me that "possibly a third" of the CIA's estimated budget of $10 billion may now go to paramilitary costs, yielding:
$13.6 billion for classified programs, military intelligence, and CIA paramilitary activities.
Last but certainly not least comes the real biggie: the costs of the 550 bases the US built in Afghanistan, as well as the last three months of life for our bases in Iraq, which once numbered 505 before the US pullout from that country (that is, the first three months of fiscal year 2012). While the Pentagon and Congress exclude these costs, that's like calculating the New York Yankees' payroll while excluding salaries for each year's huge free agent signings.
Conservatively following the OCS methodology used for other countries, but including costs for health care, military pay in the base budget, rent, and "other programs," we add an estimated:
$104.9 billion for bases and military presence in Afghanistan and other war zones.
Having started with the OCS figure of $22.1 billion, the grand total now has reached:
$168 billion ($169,963,153,283 to be exact).
That's nearly an extra $150 billion. Even if you exclude war costs—and I think the Yankees show why that's a bad idea—the total still reaches $65.1 billion, or nearly three times the Pentagon's calculation.
But don't for a second think that that's the end of our garrisoning costs. In addition to spending likely hidden in the nooks and crannies of its budget, there are other irregularities in the Pentagon's accounting. Costs for 16 countries hosting US bases but left out of the OCS entirely, including Colombia, El Salvador, and Norway, may total more than $350 million. The costs of the military presence in Colombia alone could reach into the tens of millions in the context of more than $8.5 billion in Plan Colombia funding since 2000. The Pentagon also reports costs of less than $5 million each for Yemen, Israel, Uganda, and the Seychelles Islands, which seems unlikely and could add millions more.
When it comes to the general US presence abroad, other costs are too difficult to estimate reliably, including the price of Pentagon offices in the United States, embassies, and other government agencies that support bases and troops overseas. So, too, US training facilities, depots, hospitals, and even cemeteries allow overseas bases to function. Other spending includes currency-exchange costs, attorneys' fees and damages won in lawsuits against military personnel abroad, short-term "temporary duty assignments," US-based troops participating in exercises overseas, and perhaps even some of NASA's military functions, space-based weapons, a percentage of recruiting costs required to staff bases abroad, interest paid on the debt attributable to the past costs of overseas bases, and Veterans Administration costs and other retirement spending for military personnel who served abroad.
Beyond my conservative estimate, the true bill for garrisoning the planet might be closer to $200 billion a year.
Those, by the way, are just the costs in the US government's budget. The total economic costs to the US economy are higher still. Consider where the taxpayer-funded salaries of the troops at those bases go when they eat or drink at a local restaurant or bar, shop for clothing, rent a local home, or pay local sales taxes in Germany, Italy, or Japan. These are what economists call "spillover" or "multiplier effects." When I visited Okinawa in 2010, for example, Marine Corps representatives bragged about how their presence contributes $1.9 billion annually to the local economy through base contracts, jobs, local purchases, and other spending. Although the figures may be overstated, it's no wonder members of Congress like Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison have called for a new "Build in America" policy to protect "the fiscal health of our nation."
And the costs are still broader when one considers the trade-offs, or opportunity costs, involved. Military spending creates fewer jobs per million dollars expended than the same million invested in education, health care, or energy efficiency—barely half as many as investing in schools. Even worse, while military spending clearly provides direct benefits to the Lockheed Martins and KBRs of the military-industrial complex, these investments don't, as economist James Heintz says, boost the "long-run productivity of the rest of the private sector" the way infrastructure investments do.
To adapt a famous line from President Dwight Eisenhower: every base that is built signifies in the final sense a theft. Indeed, think about what Dal Molin's half a billion dollars in infrastructure could have done if put to civilian uses. Again echoing Ike, the cost of one modern base is this: 260,000 low-income children getting health care for one year or 65,000 going to a year of Head Start or 65,000 veterans receiving VA care for a year.
A Different Kind of "Spillover"
Bases also create a different "spillover" in the financial and non-financial costs host countries bear. In 2004, for example, on top of direct "burden sharing" payments, host countries made in-kind contributions of $4.3 billion to support US bases. In addition to agreeing to spend billions of dollars to move thousands of US Marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam, the Japanese government has paid nearly $1 billion to soundproof civilian homes near US air bases on Okinawa and millions in damages for successful noise pollution lawsuits. Similarly, as base expert Mark Gillem reports, between 1992 and 2003, the Korean and US governments paid $27.3 million in damages because of crimes committed by US troops stationed in Korea. In a single three-year period, US personnel "committed 1,246 criminal acts, from misdemeanors to felonies."
As these crimes indicate, costs for local communities extend far beyond the economic. Okinawans have recently been outraged by what appears to be another in a long series of rapes committed by US troops. Which is just one example of how, from Japan to Italy, there are what Anita Dancs calls the "costs of rising hostility" over bases. Environmental damage pushes the financial and non-financial toll even higher. The creation of a base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean sent all of the local Chagossian people into exile.
So, too, US troops and their families bear some of those nonfinancial costs due to frequent moves and separation during unaccompanied tours abroad, along with attendant high rates of divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual assault, and suicide.
"No one, no one likes it," a stubbly-faced old man told me as I was leaving the construction site. He remembered the Americans arriving in 1955 and now lives within sight of the Dal Molin base. "If it were for the good of the people, okay, but it's not for the good of the people."
"Who pays? Who pays?" he asked. "Noi," he said. We do.
Indeed, from that $170 billion to the costs we can't quantify, we all do.
David Vine, a Tom Dispatch regular, is assistant professor of anthropology at American University, in Washington, DC. He is the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press, 2009). He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Mother Jones, among other places. He is currently completing a book about the more than 1,000 US military bases located outside the United States. To read a detailed description of the calculations described in this article and view a chart of the costs of the US military presence abroad, visit www.davidvine.net.
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