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 John Lindsay-Poland, author of Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the US in Panama and the Latin America program director for the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Oakland, California.
Transforming Unaccountable Force
What impresses about the sprawl of US bases and its reconstitution since 2001 is the lack of accountability. The US military presence overseas serves as an implicit threat of intervention to host countries and neighbors, and so enables the United States to defy international law and other obligations to the global community. The bases are also themselves unaccountable, especially as polluters, purveyors of sexual violence, and sites for torture. For most nations, it is an exercise in frustration to use political, diplomatic, or judicial channels to address the United States’ abuses or extralegal demands, because Washington’s military stands ready for aggression.
The Pentagon uses a variety of methods to keep itself unaccountable. The arbitrary official numbers given for its military presence are one. Understanding the true extent of that presence is complicated by the increasing use of private contractors to carry out military functions—in Iraq, such contractors are estimated to be nearly as numerous as soldiers under direct military command.
The Defense Department also manipulates language to disguise or pretty up the structure of global military dominance. It has denied that the United States has a base in Ecuador, for example, instead calling the US installation in Manta a “Forward Operating Location” and implying that it is only a parking strip for aircraft, though the US commander there publicly declared the installation “important for “Plan Colombia.” When Washington attempted to negotiate continued bases in Panama in the 1990s, the bases were to be called the Multinational Counternarcotics Center. The same semantic sleight of hand is repeated today for facilities in Africa.
The deception and absence of accountability are especially alarming in light of the global-policeman role that Washington has assigned itself, since the United States is increasingly (and openly) an outlaw regime. Whether the US military is welcome in some countries is not a measure of whether military presence is coercive: the preparation for war that these facilities represent, coupled with the preemptive war doctrine, is by its nature coercive. The allocation of humanitarian assistance through the military also only makes sense as an attempt to legitimate the use of coercion that is linked to that assistance.
In this sense, bringing home the US military from its hundreds of overseas bases is linked to a greater commitment to international law and negotiation as means for managing our country’s role in the world, instead of through the threat or use of lethal and destructive force.
For readers to understand how such a transformation could occur, it’s important to know more of the movements around the world that are contesting US military projection. From Italy to Ecuador, from Puerto Rico and Hawaii to Okinawa, citizen movements have organized against the US arrogation of the “rights” to use land, contaminate the environment, make war, and define what is legitimate. In some places, such as Vieques, Puerto Rico, nonviolent civil disobedience and a mass movement with support around the world forced the Navy to close a bombing range it had called the “crown jewel” of its training facilities. In Ecuador, citizen movements elected a government that has staked its self-determination on the eviction of the US military.
A sensible foreign policy, when the next US president enters office, would neither reflexively try to maintain the same military capacity, nor to project US dominance with reduced military capacity. Instead, the mission itself should be transformed, by redirecting resources toward meeting human needs, away from controlling others’ behavior. Instead of being the “indispensable nation,” in Madeleine Albright’s memorable phrase, US leaders and citizens have an opportunity to see ourselves as part of the community of nations.