The Costs of Empire: Can We Really
Afford 1,000 Overseas Bases?
Our overseas military bases are
pushing the nation deeper into debt and making the United States
and the planet less secure.
by David Vine, Foreign Policy
www.alternet.org/, March 10, 2009
In the midst of an economic crisis that's
getting scarier by the day, it's time to ask whether the nation
can really afford some 1,000 military bases overseas. For those
unfamiliar with the issue, you read that number correctly. One
thousand. One thousand U.S. military bases outside the 50 states
and Washington, DC, representing the largest collection of bases
in world history.
Officially the Pentagon counts 865 base
sites, but this notoriously unreliable number omits all our bases
in Iraq (likely over 100) and Afghanistan (80 and counting), among
many other well-known and secretive bases. More than half a century
after World War II and the Korean War, we still have 268 bases
in Germany, 124 in Japan, and 87 in South Korea. Others are scattered
around the globe in places like Aruba and Australia, Bulgaria
and Bahrain, Colombia and Greece, Djibouti, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar,
Romania, Singapore, and of course, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba
-- just to name a few. Among the installations considered critical
to our national security are a ski center in the Bavarian Alps,
resorts in Seoul and Tokyo, and 234 golf courses the Pentagon
Unlike domestic bases, which set off local
alarms when threatened by closure, our collection of overseas
bases is particularly galling because almost all our taxpayer
money leaves the United States (much goes to enriching private
base contractors like corruption-plagued former Halliburton subsidiary
KBR). One part of the massive Ramstein airbase near Landstuhl,
Germany, has an estimated value of $3.3 billion. Just think how
local communities could use that kind of money to make investments
in schools, hospitals, jobs, and infrastructure.
Even the Bush administration saw the wastefulness
of our overseas basing network. In 2004, then-Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld announced plans to close more than one-third of
the nation's overseas installations, moving 70,000 troops and
100,000 family members and civilians back to the United States.
National Security Adviser Jim Jones, then commander of U.S. forces
in Europe, called for closing 20% of our bases in Europe. According
to Rumsfeld's estimates, we could save at least $12 billion by
closing 200 to 300 bases alone. While the closures were derailed
by claims that closing bases could cost us in the short term,
even if this is true, it's no reason to continue our profligate
ways in the longer term.
Costs Far Exceeding Dollars and Cents
Unfortunately, the financial costs of
our overseas bases are only part of the problem. Other costs
to people at home and abroad are just as devastating. Military
families suffer painful dislocations as troops stationed overseas
separate from loved ones or uproot their families through frequent
moves around the world. While some foreign governments like U.S.
bases for their perceived economic benefits, many locals living
near the bases suffer environmental and health damage from military
toxins and pollution, disrupted economic, social, and cultural
systems, military accidents, and increased prostitution and crime.
In undemocratic nations like Uzbekistan,
Kyrgyzstan, and Saudi Arabia, our bases support governments responsible
for repression and human rights abuses. In too many recurring
cases, soldiers have raped, assaulted, or killed locals, most
prominently of late in South Korea, Okinawa, and Italy. The forced
expulsion of the entire Chagossian people to create our secretive
base on British Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is another extreme
but not so aberrant example.
Bases abroad have become a major and unacknowledged
"face" of the United States, frequently damaging the
nation's reputation, engendering grievances and anger, and generally
creating antagonistic rather than cooperative relationships between
the United States and others. Most dangerously, as we have seen
in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and as we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan,
foreign bases create breeding grounds for radicalism, anti-Americanism,
and attacks on the United States, reducing, rather than improving,
our national security.
Proponents of maintaining the overseas
base status quo will argue, however, that our foreign bases are
critical to national and global security. A closer examination
shows that overseas bases have often heightened military tensions
and discouraged diplomatic solutions to international conflicts.
Rather than stabilizing dangerous regions, our overseas bases
have often increased global militarization, enlarging security
threats faced by other nations who respond by boosting military
spending (and in cases like China and Russia, foreign base acquisition)
in an escalating spiral. Overseas bases actually make war more
likely, not less.
The Benefits of Fewer Bases
This isn't a call for isolationism or
a protectionism that would prevent us from spending money overseas.
As the Obama administration and others have recognized, we must
recommit to cooperative forms of engagement with the rest of the
world that rely on diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties rather
than military means. In addition to freeing money to meet critical
human needs at home and abroad, fewer overseas bases would help
rebuild our military into a less overstretched, defensive force
committed to defending the nation's territory from attack.
In these difficult economic times, the
Obama administration and Congress should initiate a major reassessment
of our 1,000 overseas bases. Now is the time to ask if, as a nation
and a world, we can really afford the 1,000 bases that are pushing
the nation deeper into debt and making the United States and the
planet less secure? With so many needs facing our nation, it's
unconscionable to have 1,000 overseas bases. It's time to begin