It's Time for a Trillion-Dollar
Tag Sale at the Pentagon
by Nick Turse, Tomdispatch.com
www.alternet.org, October 29,
Wars, bases, and money. The three are
inextricably tied together.
In the 1980s, for example, American support
for jihadis like Osama bin Laden waging war on (Soviet) infidels
who invaded and constructed bases in Afghanistan, a Muslim land,
led to rage by many of the same jihadis at the bases (U.S.) infidels
built in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. That,
in turn, led to jihadis like bin Laden declaring war on those
infidels, which, after September 11, 2001, led the Bush administration
to launch, and then prosecute, a Global War on Terror, often from
newly built bases in Muslim lands. Over the last seven years,
the results of that war have been particularly disastrous for
Iraqis and Afghans. Sizable numbers of Americans, however, are
now beginning to suffer as well. After all, their hard-earned
taxpayer dollars have been poured into wars without end, leaving
the country deeply in debt and in a state of economic turmoil.
In his 1988 State of the Union message,
President Ronald Reagan called the jihadis in Afghanistan "freedom
fighters." They were, of course, fighting the Soviet Union
then. He, too, pledged eternal enmity against the Soviet Union,
which he termed an "evil empire." For years, conservatives
have claimed that Reagan not only won his Afghan War, but by launching
an all-out arms race, which the economically weaker Soviet Union
couldn't match, bankrupted the Soviets and so brought their empire
While that version of history may be disputed,
today, it is entirely possible that one of Reagan's freedom fighters,
Osama bin Laden, actually returned the favor by perfecting the
art of financially felling a superpower. While Reagan ran up a
superpower-sized tab to outspend the Soviets, bin Laden has done
it on the cheap. Essentially for the cost of box cutters and flight
training, he got the Bush administration to spend itself into
penury, without a superpower in sight.
Since bin Laden's supreme act of economic
judo in 2001, the U.S. military has spent multi-billions of tax
dollars on a string of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, failed wars
in both countries, and a failed effort to make good on George
W. Bush's promise to bring in bin Laden "dead or alive."
Despite this record, the Pentagon still has a success option in
its back pocket that might help bail out the American people in
this perilous economic moment. It could immediately begin to auction
off its overseas empire posthaste. To head down this road, however,
U.S. military leaders would first have to take a brutally honest
look at the real costs, and the real utility, of their massively
expensive weapons systems and, above all, those bases.
Today, the Pentagon acknowledges 761 active
military "sites" in foreign countries -- and that's
without bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and certain other countries
even being counted. This "empire of bases," as Chalmers
Johnson has noted, "began as the leftover residue of World
War II," later evolving into a Cold War and post-Cold War
garrisoning of the planet.
With those bases came a series of costly
wars in Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and
the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s. An extremely conservative
estimate of their cost by the Congressional Research Service --
$1 trillion (in 2008 dollars) -- tops the present economic bailout.
Add in brief cut-and-run flops like Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia,
from 1992-1995, as well as now-forgotten hollow victories in places
like the island of Grenada and Panama, and you tack on billions
more with little to show for it.
Since 2001, the Bush administration's
Global War on Terror (including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq)
has cost taxpayers more than the recent bailout -- more than $800
billion and still climbing by at least $3.5 billion each week.
And the full bill has yet to come due. According to Noble Prize-winning
economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University professor Linda
Bilmes, the total costs of those two wars could top out between
$3 trillion and $7 trillion.
While squandering money, the Global War
on Terror has also acted as a production line for the creation
of yet more military bases in the oil heartlands of the planet.
Just how many is unknown -- the Pentagon keeps exact figures under
wraps -- but, in 2005, according to the Washington Post, there
were 106 American bases, from macro to micro, in Iraq alone.
If you were to begin the process of disentangling
Americans from this world of war and the war economy that goes
with it, those bases would be a good place to start. There is
no way to estimate the true costs of our empire of bases, but
it's worth considering what an imperial tag sale could mean for
America's financial well-being. One thing is clear: in getting
rid of those bases, the United States would be able to recoup,
or save, hundreds of billions of dollars, despite the costs associated
with shutting them down.
Tag Sales and Savings
If the Pentagon sold off just the buildings
and structures on its officially acknowledged overseas bases at
their current estimated replacement value, the country would stand
to gain more than $119 billion. Think of this as but a down payment
on a full-scale Pentagon bailout package.
In addition, while it leases the property
on which most of its bases abroad are built, the Pentagon does
own some lucrative lands that could be sold off. For instance,
it is the proud owner of more than 11,000 acres in Abu Dhabi,
"the richest and most powerful of the seven kingdoms of the
United Arab Emirates." With land values there averaging $1,100
per square meter last year, this property alone is worth an estimated
$48.9 billion. The Pentagon also owns several thousand acres spread
across Oman, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Belgium. Selling
off these lands as well would net a sizeable sum.
Without those bases, billions of dollars
in other Pentagon expenses would immediately disappear. For instance,
during the years of the Global War on Terror, the Overseas Cost
of Living Allowance, which equalizes the "purchasing power
between members [of the military] overseas and their U.S.-based
counterparts," has reached about $12 billion. Over the same
period, the price tag for educating the children of U.S. military
personnel abroad has clocked in at around $3.5 billion. By shutting
down the 127 Department of Defense schools in Europe and the Pacific
(as well as the 65 scattered across the U.S. mainland, Puerto
Rico, and Cuba) and sending the children to public schools, the
U.S. would realize modest long-term savings. Once no longer garrisoning
the globe, the Pentagon would also be able to cease paying out
the $1 billion or so that goes into the routine construction of
housing and other base facilities each year, not to mention the
multi-billions that have gone into the construction, and continual
upgrading, of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And that's not the end of it either. Back
in the 1990s, the Pentagon estimated that it was spending $30
billion each year on "base support activities" -- though
the exact meaning of this phrase remains vague. Just take, for
example, five bases being handed back to Germany: Buedingen, Gelnhausen,
Darmstadt, Hanau and Turley Barracks in Mannheim. The annual cost
of "operating" them is approximately $176 million. Imagine,
then, what it has cost to run those 750+ bases during the Global
War on Terror years.
Some recent Pentagon contracts for general
operations and support functions overseas are instructive. In
March, for instance, Bahrain Maritime and Mercantile International
was awarded a one-year contract worth $2.8 billion to supply and
distribute "food and non-food products" to "Army,
Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and other approved customers located
in the Middle East countries of Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia."
In July, the French foodservices giant
Sodexo received a one-year contract worth $180 million for "maintenance,
repair and operations for the Korea Zone of the Pacific Region."
These and other pricey support contracts for food, fuel, maintenance,
transport, and other non-military expenses, paid to foreign firms,
would disappear along with those U.S. garrisons, as would enormous
sums spent on all sorts of military projects overseas. In 2007,
for instance, the Army, Navy, and Air Force spent $2.5 billion
in Germany, $1 billion in Japan, and $164 million in Qatar. And
this year, the Pentagon paid a jaw-dropping $1 billion-plus for
contracts carried out in South Korea alone.
Men and Materiel
With most or all of those 761 foreign
bases off the books, and a much reduced global military "footprint,"
the U.S. could downsize its armed forces. As Andrew Bacevich notes
in his book The Limits of Power, it already costs the Pentagon
a bailout-sized $700 billion a year to "train, equip, and
sustain the current active-duty force and to defray the costs
of on-going operations." Even if current U.S. forces were
simply brought home, there would still be significant savings
(including, of course, the $10 billion a month going into the
Iraq and Afghan wars).
The very opposite, however, is happening.
Facing manpower demands on an overstretched military, the Pentagon
is planning to ramp up the size of the armed forces by 92,000
over the next several years. That expansion comes with a sure-to-rise
price tag of $108 billion. This step has the support of large
majorities in Congress and both presidential candidates. John
McCain has denounced the notion of "roll[ing] back our overseas
commitments" and instead proposes "to increase the size
of the Army and Marine Corps." Barack Obama agrees, but has
been more specific. He has long touted plans, echoing the Pentagon's
desires, to "increase the size of the Army by 65,000 troops
and the Marines by 27,000 troops."
Just attracting this many recruits would
cost a small fortune. This year, the Army had to spend $240 million
on advertising alone to help meet its recruiting goals. On top
of that, it paid out $547 million in bonuses to recruits -- a
164% increase since 2005. And this is to say nothing of how much
it costs to train, equip, feed, and pay these future troops.
Capping, if not decreasing, the size of
the military and bringing troops home would be the foundation
for a new foreign policy based on non-aggression and fiscal responsibility.
This would, of course, be a major departure for the military.
In the 120 years between 1888 and 2008, according to a study by
the Congressional Research Service, only seven -- using generous
criteria -- were without "notable deployments of U.S. military
forces overseas." Beginning in 2009, U.S. forces could aim
for a complete reversal of this trend for the next 120 years,
enabling the slashing of budgets for force-projection weapons
Take the F-22A Raptor, a fighter plane
designed to counter advanced Soviet aircraft that were never built.
Pentagon budget documents released earlier this year put the estimated
cost of the program, 2007 to 2013, at almost $3.7 billion. With
no advanced Soviet fighters around to dogfight -- Russian aircraft
had trouble enough in their recent Georgian encounters -- and
no need for its "global strike" capabilities, the program
could be scrapped. Such a step is not without precedent. As Wired
magazine's Danger Room blog reported last month, Congress "all-but-eliminated
funding for the so-called 'Blackswift' program," a prototype
hypersonic aircraft for which the Pentagon had requested almost
$800 million in 2009 start-up funding. If the project remains
stillborn, that alone will mean billions in future savings.
This year, for example, the Air Force
is spending nearly $65 billion on new weapons systems. By shutting
current and future weapons programs not meant for actual defense
of the United States, Americans would be looking at hundreds of
billions of dollars in savings in the near term. If the Pentagon
demilitarized and sold off existing equipment as well, including,
for instance, some of its 120,000 Humvees, at least 280 ships,
and 14,000 aircraft, you're talking about another significant
infusion of cash.
Bases Gone Bust
If history suggests anything, it's that
one way or another, on a long enough timeline, all imperial garrisons
fall. Some, of course, go bust sooner than others. As one Army
publication noted in the 1970s, "[t]he ravages of rot, jungle,
and weather have left only memories of the once-mighty World War
II bases of the South Pacific." The fate of many bases built
since has been no less inglorious.
While it would be difficult to total up
just how many firebases, camps, airbases, port facilities, and
base camps the U.S. had in Indochina during the Vietnam War, or
what it cost to build and upgrade them, the numbers would surely
be staggering. What we do know is instructive. For instance, the
U.S. Army-Vietnam headquarters complex at Long Binh, about 16
miles from Saigon, had a value of more than $100 million in 1972
-- the year the U.S. gave it away to its South Vietnamese allies.
They, in turn, lost it when the Saigon regime collapsed in 1975.
Today, it's an industrial park. Similarly, the U.S. poured huge
sums into its naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. By 1979, the Soviet
Navy was using it and, after abandoning it earlier this decade,
may do so again.
Similarly, in the 1990s, the U.S. got
kicked out of its massive bases in the Philippines. A volcano
laid waste to Clark Air Base and the Philippine Senate rejected
U.S. efforts to extend the lease on its massive installation at
Subic Bay. Just moving out personnel and equipment afterwards
cost billions. More recently, the same process played out on fast
forward in Central Asia. As adjunct professor at the Air Force's
Air Command and Staff College Stephen Schwalbe pointed out in
an article in Air & Space Power Journal, after the U.S. negotiated
the right to use Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in 2001,
as part of its Afghan War plans, it pumped millions of dollars
into the base to improve infrastructure and facilities -- from
increased aircraft parking space to a movie theater. It also ponied
up a $15 million fee for its use.
In 2005, however, Uzbek security forces
perpetrated a massacre of domestic protesters, leading to a Bush
administration demand for an investigation. In the end, all the
money spent on the base was wasted. Not long after the American
request, Uzbekistan gave the U.S. military 180 days to leave the
base and the country -- and promptly signed friendship pacts with
Russia and China.
The buildings and structures at the U.S.
base at Ecuador's Manta Air Field are valued at over $176 million
and are also soon to move into the Pentagon's loss column. Last
year, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa offered the following
terms for continued use of Manta after 2009: "We'll renew
the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami
-- an Ecuadorian base." The U.S. did not take him up on the
proposal. Correa has since offered to lease the base to China
for commercial use.
The Pentagon stands to lose billions more
when it finally withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost
of manning, maintaining, and regularly upgrading the mega-bases
in Iraq, in particular, is already a significant financial burden
on American taxpayers, but it would be dwarfed by the losses incurred
if they had to be abandoned. As such, getting out, even in today's
depressed real-estate market, would be the financially prudent
thing to do.
Similarly, closing down the Bush administration's
notorious torture bases might yield significant financial savings
(while enhancing global opinion of the U.S.). Selling off the
Pentagon's facilities on the British-owned island of Diego Garcia
in the Indian Ocean, for instance, where Global War on Terror
"ghost prisoners" have been held (and U.S. air raids
on Iraq and Afghanistan have been regularly launched), could yield
$2.6 billion. Saying goodbye to the facilities at Guantanamo Bay
in Cuba could net another $2.2 billion -- and some global cheers.
The Pentagon Comes Home
While we may never know if it was bin
Laden's knowledge of America's "expeditionary" history
that drove him to plan out the 9/11 attacks, he certainly goaded
the Bush administration into a Soviet-style military spending
spree, complete with a Soviet-style ruinous war in Afghanistan.
With some caves for bases, he managed to sink Americans into a
multi-trillion dollar financial quagmire.
If the United States had never wasted
the better part of a trillion dollars fighting a war in Vietnam
and, following defeat there, embarked on a scheme to saddle the
Soviets with a similarly ignominious loss -- which has now led
to wars with a multi-trillion dollar price tag -- the United States
might not be in such dire financial straits today. And yet, despite
the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the U.S.
continues to sink money into costly wars fought from expensive
bases overseas with no end in sight. The result is sheer waste
in every sense of the word.
When Americans want to get serious about
a long-term bailout strategy that brings genuine financial and
national security, they'll look to real cost-cutting options like
stopping America's string of costly wars and getting rid of the
Pentagon's vast network of overseas bases. Until then, they are
simply helping Ronald Reagan's freedom fighter, Osama bin Laden,
be a better Reagan than Reagan ever was.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and
research director of Tomdispatch.com. His first book, The Complex:
How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration of
the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published
by Metropolitan Books. His website is Nick Turse.com.