Monday, June 13, 2011

American "Empire of Bases" Must Go

During World War II, the struggle against fascism forced us to create an immense American military capability and to establish an American military presence throughout the world. During the Cold War, our long ideological conflict with communism required that a system of alliances and military bases around the world be maintained in the event that our ideological arguments with the Soviet Union exploded into full-blown war. Both of these events were regrettable but necessary.

Fascism and communism have both been cast into the garbage bin of history, yet the United States continues to maintain a vast network of military bases throughout the world. We have an army of more than 50,000 men permanently deployed in Germany. We maintain nearly 10,000 men in Italy, another 10,000 in the United Kingdom, and yet another 10,000 scattered about the rest of Europe. We have 33,000 men in Japan and 28,000 men in South Korea. Thousands of other service personnel are based in scores of other countries, including many bases in Africa and Latin America. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Many lawmakers are calling for permanent American military bases to be constructed in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. According to the Pentagon, there are over seven hundred American military bases around the world.

What for?

To borrow a term from the late Dr. Chalmers Johnson, who wrote an outstanding series of books on the subject, we can quite properly call this military network the American "empires of bases". Dr. Johnson compared America's foreign policy with the 19th century imperialism of the British and the French, calling the military base "America's version of the colony". While we might not officially annex the territory in question, we certainly use our massive network of military bases to ensure American military dominance of it.

Maintaining the empire of bases requires a truly immense amount of money. A vast fleet of enormous transport aircraft provides the logistical blood of these bases. The cost of construction and maintaining these bases is immense, and all the more upsetting because the construction contracts usually go to politically well-connected corporations (such as the notoriously corrupt KBR). All told, the basic upkeep of these bases costs American taxpayers roughly $100 billion a year, about one-eighth of the entire military budget, and a significant chunk of the budget deficit the federal government runs every year.

Many of these overseas bases are small American worlds unto themselves, with multiple bus lines for transportation and the whole array of American fast food restaurants. Recreational facilities, including everything from movie theaters to golf courses to health spas, are part of many of these establishments. An argument can naturally be made that if we do send our sons and daughters to serve overseas, we have a moral duty to provide for their needs. But we also have a moral duty to spend the people’s money wisely and not to burden future generations with our debts. Besides, are the golf courses really necessary?

The rationale behind the existence of the empire of bases is that it somehow furthers American interests or protects American national security, but this contention is highly dubious. The very existence of these bases, in fact, contributes to the rise of anti-Americanism around the world. With so many servicemen deployed overseas, it's inevitable that some will commit crimes, which discredit the entire American military in the eyes of the locals. In the last fifteen years, for example, assaults and rapes by Americans stationed on Okinawa has generated enormous anger towards America on the part of the Japanese people. The fact that the Americans involved in such incidents are often not tried by the justice system of the host country, but by the system of American military justice, only fuels the controversies. The more America is disliked abroad, the less secure our country ultimately is.

Beyond the damage done to the good name of America by disreputable servicemen, however, is the larger question of how these bases contribute to American national security? Why, exactly, does the United States maintain more than 80,000 troops in Europe? There has been no conventional military threat to Europe since the end of the Cold War more than twenty years ago. The continued presence of an American army in Europe does little other than drain the pockets of American taxpayers. And even if there was a conventional military threat to Europe, should not the defense of Europe be the responsibility of the Europeans? Should it not be European men who defend the continent, and European taxpayers who pay for its defense?

One can just as easily question the permanent deployments of American armies in Japan and South Korea. Those two countries have powerful military forces of their own, and their populations and economies are strong enough that they could easily increase their military power even more if they so chose. While they face the clear threat of North Korea and the potential threat of China, they have sufficient resources to defend themselves without American assistance. The same question that is asked of Europe can be asked of Japan and South Korea: should not the defense of Japan and South Korea be the responsibility of the Japanese and South Koreans? Should not be Japanese and South Korean men who defend their nations, and Japanese and South Korean taxpayers who pay for their defense? Certainly, there is no reason for America to spend untold billions of dollars on unnecessary military bases in those countries.

The overseas American military presence also contributes to unnecessary tensions between our country and others. The present Chinese military buildup is spreading alarm among many armchair strategists in America, but few point out the obvious fact that it is taking place largely because of the powerful American military presence in East Asia. Russia is attempting to rebuild its former military power, but one wonders if it would be so determined to do so if the American military presence in Europe vanished.

The powers-that-be would like us to believe that the empire of bases is necessary to maintain American security, or that perhaps we are fulfilling an altruistic mission to promote global stability. In truth, by stoking tensions with other nations and contributing to anti-Americanism among foreign peoples, our overseas bases almost certainly put us at greater risk and generating instability rather than stability. Furthermore, by significantly contributing to the country's national debt, which is a far greater threat to America than any conceivable foreign enemy, this wide array of bases actually diminishes our country’s security rather than increasing it.

America is supposed to be a republic, not an empire. Our "empire of bases" not only degrades our security and contributes to our debt, but it represents a disgraceful betrayal to our ideals. We should begin an immediate reduction of our overseas military presence, with the long-term goal being its entire elimination.

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