New US Military Bases:
Side Effects or Causes of War?
by Zoltan Grossman
Since the end of the Cold War a decade
ago, the U.S. has gone to war in Iraq, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and
Afghanistan. The interventions have been promoted as "humanitarian"
deployments to stop aggression, to topple dictatorships, or to
halt terrorism. After each U.S. intervention, the attention of
supporters and critics alike has turned to speculate on which
countries would be next. But largely ignored has been what the
U.S. interventions left behind.
As the Cold War ended, the U.S. was confronted
with competition from two emerging economic blocs in Europe and
East Asia. Though it was considered the world's last military
superpower, the United States was facing a decline of its economic
strength relative to the European Union, and the East Asian economic
bloc of Japan, China and the Asian "Four Tigers." The
U.S. faced the prospect of being economically left out in much
of the Eurasian land mass. The major U.S. interventions since
1990 should be viewed not only reactions to "ethnic cleansing"
or Islamist militancy, but to this new geopolitical picture.
Since 1990, each large-scale U.S. intervention
has left behind a string of new U.S. military bases in a region
where the U.S. had never before had a foothold. The U.S. military
is inserting itself into strategic areas of the world, and anchoring
U.S. geopolitical influence in these areas, at a very critical
time in history. With the rise of the "euro bloc" and
"yen bloc," U.S. economic power is perhaps on the wane.
But in military affairs, the U.S. is still the unquestioned superpower.
It has been projecting that military dominance into new strategic
regions as a future counterweight to its economic competitors,
to create a military-backed "dollar bloc" as a wedge
geographically situated between its major competitors.
Wars for Bases.
As each intervention was being planned,
planners focused on building new U.S. military installations,
or securing basing rights at foreign facilities, in order to support
the coming war. But after the war ended, the U.S. forces did not
withdraw, but stayed behind, often creating suspicion and resentment
among local populations, much as the Soviet forces faced after
liberating Eastern Europe in World War II. The new U.S. military
bases were not merely built to aid the interventions, but the
interventions also conveniently afforded an opportunity to station
Indeed, the establishment of new bases
may in the long run be more critical to U.S. war planners than
the wars themselves, as well as to enemies of the U.S. The massacre
of September 11 were not directly tied to the Gulf War; Osama
bin Laden had backed the Saudi fundamentalist dictatorship against
the Iraqi secular dictatorship in the war. The attacks mainly
had their roots in the U.S. decision to leave behind bases in
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The permanent stationing of
new U.S. forces in and around the Balkans and Afghanistan could
easily generate a similar terrorist "blowback" years
This is not to say that all U.S. wars
of the past decade have been the result of some coordinated conspiracy
to make Americans the overlords of the belt between Bosnia and
Pakistan. But it is to recast the interventions as opportunistic
responses to events, which have enabled Washington to gain a foothold
in the "middle ground" between Europe to the west, Russia
to the north, and China to the east, and turn this region increasingly
into an American "sphere of influence." The series of
interventions have also virtually secured U.S. corporate control
over the oil supplies for both Europe and East Asia. It's not
a conspiracy; it's just business as usual.
Contrary to original U.S. promises to
its Arab allies, the 1991 Gulf War left behind large military
bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and basing rights in the other
Gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
The war also heightened the profile of existing U.S. air bases
in Turkey. The war completed the American inheritance of the oil
region from which the British had withdrawn in the early 1970s.
Yet the U.S. itself only imports about 5 percent of its oil from
the Gulf; the rest is exported mainly to Europe and Japan. French
President Jacques Chirac correctly viewed the U.S. role in the
Persian Gulf as securing control over oil sources for the European
and East Asian economic powers. The U.S. decided to permanently
station bases around the Gulf after 1991 not only to counter Saddam
Hussein, and to support the continued bombing against Iraq, but
to quell potential internal dissent in the oil-rich monarchies.
The intervention in Somalia in 1992-93
ended in defeat for the U.S., but it is important to understand
why the so-called "humanitarian" intervention took place.
In the 1970s-80s, the U.S. had backed Somali dictator Siad Barre
in his wars against Soviet-backed Ethiopia. In return, Barre had
granted the U.S. Navy the rights to use Somali naval ports, which
were strategically situated at the southern end of the Red Sea,
linking the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean. After Barre was overthrown,
the U.S. used the ensuing chaos and famine as its excuse to move
back in, but made the mistake of siding with one group of warlords
against the Mogadishu warlord Mohamed Aidid. In the battle of
Mogadishu, romanticized in the movie "Black Hawk Down,"
18 U.S. troops and many hundreds of Somalis were killed. The U.S.
withdrew, and eventually gained naval basing rights in the port
of Aden, just across the Red Sea in Yemen, where Bin Laden launched
his attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
The U.S. interventions in Bosnia in 1995,
and Kosovo in 1999, were ostensibly reactions to Serbian "ethnic
cleansing," yet the U.S. had not intervened to prevent similar
"ethnic cleansing" by its Croatian or Albanian allies
in the Balkans. The U.S. military interventions in former Yugoslavia
resulted in new U.S. military bases in five countries: Hungary,
Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and the sprawling Camp Bondsteel complex
in southeastern Kosovo. NATO allies have also participated in
the interventions, though not always with the same political priorities.
As in the Gulf and Afghan conflicts, European Union allies may
be joining the U.S. wars not simply out of solidarity, but out
of fear of being completely excluded from carving out the postwar
order in the region. The Kosovo intervention, in particular, was
followed by stepped-up European efforts to form an independent
military force outside of the U.S.-commanded NATO. The U.S. stationing
of huge bases along the eastern edge of the E.U., which can be
used to project forces into the Middle East, was carried out partly
in anticipation of European militaries one day going their own
The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was
ostensibly a reaction to the September 11 attacks, and to some
extent was aimed at toppling the Taliban. But Afghanistan has
historically been in an extremely strategic location straddling
South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The country also
conveniently lies along a proposed Unocal oil pipeline route from
the Caspian Sea oil fields to the Indian Ocean. The U.S. had already
been situating forces in the neighboring ex-Soviet republic of
Uzbekistan before September 11. During the war, it has used its
new bases and basing rights in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan,
Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser extent Tajikistan. It is using the
continued instability in Afghanistan (like in Somalia, largely
a result of setting warlords against warlords) as an excuse to
station a permanent military presence throughout the region, and
it even plans to institute the dollar as the new Afghan currency.
The new string of U.S. military bases are becoming permanent outposts
guarding a new Caspian Sea oil infrastructure.
Geopolitical priorities may help explain
why Washington went to war in all these countries, even as paths
to peace remained open. President George Bush launched the February
1991 ground war against Iraq, even though Saddam was already withdrawing
from Kuwait under Soviet disengagement plan. He also sent forces
into Somalia in 1992, even though the famine he used as a justification
had already lessened. President Clinton launched a war on Serbia
in 1999 to force a withdraw from Kosovo, even though Yugoslavia
had already met many of his withdrawal terms at the Rambouillet
conference. President George W. Bush attacked Afghanistan in 2001
without having put much diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to
surrender Bin Laden, or letting anti-Taliban forces (such as Pashtun
commander Abdul Haq) win over Taliban forces on their own. Washington
went to war not as a last resort, but because it saw war as a
convenient opportunity to further larger goals.
Geopolitical priorities may also help
explain the reluctance of the U.S. to declare victory in these
wars. If the U.S. had ousted Saddam from power in 1991, his Gulf
allies would have demanded the withdrawal of U.S. bases, but his
continued hold onto power justifies intensive U.S. bombing of
Iraq and a continued hold over the Gulf oil region. The fact that
Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have not been captured in four
months of war also provides convenient justification for the permanent
stationing of U.S. bases in Central and South Asia. All three
men are more useful to U.S. plans if they are alive and free,
at least for the time being.
Wars in the Making.
Iraq is certainly the primary target for
a new U.S. war, for President Bush to "finish the job"
that his daddy left unfinished. Now that the American sphere of
influence is taking hold in the "middle ground" between
Europe and East Asia, the attention may be turned on both Iraq
and its former enemy Iran as the only remaining regional powers
to stand in the way. Bush may be under the illusion that Iraqi
opposition forces can be refashioned into a pro-U.S. force like
the Northern Alliance or Kosovo Liberation Army. He may also be
under the illusion that his threats against Iran will help Iranian
"moderate" reformers, even though it is already dangerously
strengthening the hand of Islamist hard-liners. A U.S. war against
either Iraq or Iran will destroy any bridges recently built to
Islamic states, especially as Bush also abandons even the pretense
of even-handedness between Israelis and Palestinians.
U.S. war planners are also openly targeting
Somalia and Yemen, and are patrolling their shores with Navy ships,
though they may decide to intervene indirectly to avoid the disasters
of Mogadishu in 1993 and Aden in 2000. Bin Laden had backed Aidid
to prevent new U.S. bases in Somalia, and his father is from the
historically rebellious Hadhramaut region of southeastern Yemen.
Yet Washington's priority would not be to eliminate Bin Laden's
influence, leaving that role mainly to local forces. Rather the
priority would be to regain naval access to strategic Somali and
The most direct U.S. intervention since
the Afghan invasion has been in the southern Philippines, against
the Moro (Muslim) guerrilla militia Abu Sayyaf. The U.S. sees
the tiny Abu Sayyaf group as inspired by Bin Laden, rather than
a thuggish outgrowth of decades of Moro insurgency in Mindanao
and the Sulu Archipelago. U.S. special forces "trainers"
are carrying out joint "exercises" with Philippine troops
in the active combat zone. Their goal may be to achieve an easy
Grenada-style victory over the 200 rebels, for the global propaganda
effect against Bin Laden. But once in place, the counterinsurgency
campaign could easily be redirected against other Moro or even
Communist rebel groups in Mindanao. It could also help achieve
the other major U.S. goal in the Philippines: to fully reestablish
U.S. military basing rights, which ended when the Philippine Senate
terminated U.S. control of Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base,
after the Cold War ended and a volcanic eruption damaged both
bases. Such a move back into the country would be strongly resisted,
however, by both leftist and rightist Filipino nationalists.
The U.S. return to the Philippines, like
Bush's newest threats against North Korea, may also be an effort
to assert U.S. influence in East Asia, as China rises as a global
power and other Asian economies recover from financial crises.
A growing U.S. military role throughout Asia could counteract
increasing criticism of U.S. bases in Japan. The moves could also
raise fears in China of a U.S. sphere of influence intruding on
its borders. The new U.S. air base in the ex-Soviet republic of
Kyrgyzstan is too close to China for comfort. (Russian fears of
U.S. encirclement may also be rekindled, though Russia may instead
join the U.S. in using its oil to lessen the power of OPEC. )
Meanwhile, other regions of the world
are also being targeted in the U.S. "war on terror,"
notably South America. Just as Cold War propaganda recast leftist
rebels in South Vietnam and El Salvador as puppets of North Vietnam
or Cuba, U.S. "war on terror" propaganda is casting
Colombian rebels as the allies of neighboring oil-rich Venezuela.
The beret-clad Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, is described
loosely as sympathetic to Bin Laden and Fidel Castro, and as possibly
turning OPEC against the U.S. Chavez could serve as an ideal new
enemy if Bin Laden is eliminated. The crisis in South America,
though it cannot be tied to Islamic militancy, may be the most
dangerous new war in the making.
Whether we look at the U.S. wars of the
past decade in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, the Balkans, or Afghanistan,
or at the possible new wars in Yemen, the Philippines, or Colombia/Venezuela,
or even at Bush's new "axis of evil" of Iraq, Iran,
and North Korea, the same common themes arise. The U.S. military
interventions cannot all be tied to the insatiable U.S. thirst
for oil (or rather for oil profits), even though many of the recent
wars do have their roots in oil politics. They can nearly all
be tied to the U.S. desire to build or rebuild military bases.
The new U.S. military bases, and increasing control over oil supplies,
can in turn be tied to the historical shift taking place since
the 1980s: the rise of European and East Asian blocs that have
the potential to replace the United States and Soviet Union as
the world's economic superpowers.
Much as the Roman Empire tried to use
its military power to buttress its weakening economic and political
hold over its colonies, the United States is aggressively inserting
itself into new regions of the world to prevent its competitors
from doing the same. The goal is not to end "terror"
or encourage "democracy," and Bush will not accomplish
either of these claimed goals. The short-term goal is to station
U.S. military forces in regions where local nationalists had evicted
them. The long-term goal is to increase U.S. corporate control
over the oil needed by Europe and East Asia, whether the oil is
in around the Caspian or the Caribbean seas. The ultimate goal
is to establish new American spheres of influence, and eliminate
any obstacles-- religious militants, secular nationalists, enemy
governments, or even allies--who stand in the way.
U.S. citizens may welcome the interventions
to defend the "homeland" from attack, or even to build
new bases or oil pipelines to preserve U.S. economic power. But
as the dangers of this strategy become more apparent, Americans
may begin to realize that they are being led down a risky path
that will turn even more of the world against them, and lead inevitably
to future September 11s.
Zoltan Grossman is a doctoral candidate
in geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a member
of the South-West Asia Information Group. He can be reached at: