“We don’t need to pay all this money to keep troops all over the country, 130 countries, 900 bases. But also, just think, bringing all the troops home rather rapidly, they would be spending their money here at home and not in Germany and Japan and South Korea, tremendous boost to the economy.” ~ Ron Paul, February 7, 2012
In a post on February 9th at the Washington Post’s The Fact Checker blog, which claims to give “the truth behind the rhetoric,” Glenn Kessler writes about “Ron Paul’s Strange Claim about Bases and Troops Overseas“:
This comment by GOP presidential aspirant Ron Paul after Tuesday night’s caucuses caught the ear of our editor. Paul’s phrasing could have left the impression that he thinks there are 900 bases in 130 countries, but normally he makes it clear he is talking about two different things.
For instance, in the GOP debate Sept. 12, Paul said: “We’re under great threat, because we occupy so many countries. We’re in 130 countries. We have 900 bases around the world.”
We will lay aside Paul’s loose definition of “occupy” – which denotes taking away a country’s sovereignty. You could also quibble with the concept of a “base,” but we’ll accept that he’s talking about any military facility.
Are there any facts to back up these eye-popping figures?
I never read anything by Kessler until this piece on Ron Paul. The Fact Checker blog says that he “has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.”
In giving us the facts to evaluate the truth of Dr. Paul’s assertions, Kessler refers, but not by name, to two Department of Defense documents: the annual “Base Structure Report” dated September 30, 2011, and the quarterly “Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and by Country,” most recently issued on September 30, 2011.
Regarding the number of foreign bases, Kessler correctly notes that “the DOD list shows a list of 611 military facilities around the world (not counting war zones).” However, he discounts that figure because “only 20 are listed as u2018large sites,’ which means a replacement value of more than $1.74 billion.” He also notes that most (549) of the DOD foreign sites are listed as being small sites.
Regarding the numbers and locations of U.S. troops in foreign countries, Kessler correctly notes that the “Personal Strengths” document lists “53,766 military personnel in Germany, 39,222 in Japan, 10,801 in Italy and 9,382 in the United Kingdom. That makes sense.” “But wait,” he says, “most of the countries on the list, in fact, have puny military representation.” He points out that the U.S. has only nine troops in Mali, eight in Barbados, seven in Laos, six in Lithuania, five in Lebanon, four in Moldova, three in Mongolia, two in Suriname and one in Gabon.” Then he says that he counts “153 countries with U.S. military personnel, actually higher than the 130 cited by Paul.” But he dismisses both numbers by saying that “the list essentially tracks with places where the United States has a substantial diplomatic presence. (The United States has diplomatic relations with about 190 countries.).” He charges Paul with “counting Marine guards and military attaches as part of a vast expanse of U.S. military power around the globe.” And after all, “this document indicates that only 11 countries actually house more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel.”
Kessler concludes that “Paul’s statistics barely pass the laugh test. He has managed to turn small contingents of Marine guards into occupying armies and waste dumps into military bases. A more accurate way to treat this data would be to say that the United States has 20 major bases around the world, not counting the war in Afghanistan, with major concentrations of troops in 11 countries.”
As one who is very familiar with both of the aforementioned DOD documents and has written about these things long before Ron Paul even ran for the Republican presidential nomination the first time, I can say with confidence that it is Glenn Kessler and the Washington Post that need some fact checking.
First of all, according to the Base Structure Report, the Defense Department “manages a global real property portfolio consisting of more than 542,000 facilities (buildings, structures, and linear structures) located on nearly 5,000 sites worldwide covering more than 28 million acres.” Officially, as Kessler reports, there are 611 of these facilities in 39 foreign countries (excluding war zones). But why dismiss sites that are not “large sites”? Even small sites can have a replacement value of up to $929 million. True, some of the sites are not technically bases, but what about all the foreign bases that are not on the official list?
I recently wrote in “The Real Reason Guantánamo Should Be Closed“:
The late Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis, and one of the foremost authorities on the subject, always maintained that the official Defense Department figures regarding overseas military bases were too low because they “omit espionage bases, those located in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and miscellaneous facilities in places considered too sensitive to discuss or which the Pentagon for its own reasons chooses to exclude – e.g., Israel, Kosovo, or Jordan.” Johnson estimated the number to be closer to 1,000. We know now that he was right about the Defense Department’s figures, for Nick Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, has recently confirmed that Johnson’s figure of 1,000 foreign bases is actually too low. The number is really closer to 1,100.
Nick Turse’s work painstaking work on the number of foreign U.S. military bases can be seen here, here, and here. Although Kessler acknowledges the existence of “106 U.S. military facilities in Afghanistan,” Turse has reason to believe that the number is much greater and concludes that the military doesn’t even know the true number:
Last January, Colonel Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told me that there were nearly 400 U.S. and coalition bases in Afghanistan, including camps, forward operating bases, and combat outposts. He expected that number to increase by 12 or more, he added, over the course of 2010.
In September, I contacted ISAF’s Joint Command Public Affairs Office to follow up. To my surprise, I was told that “there are approximately 350 forward operating bases with two major military installations, Bagram and Kandahar airfields.” Perplexed by the loss of 50 bases instead of a gain of 12, I contacted Gary Younger, a Public Affairs Officer with the International Security Assistance Force. “There are less than 10 NATO bases in Afghanistan,” he wrote in an October 2010 email. “There are over 250 U.S. bases in Afghanistan.”
By then, it seemed, the U.S. had lost up to 150 bases and I was thoroughly confused. When I contacted the military to sort out the discrepancies and listed the numbers I had been given – from Shanks’ 400 base tally to the count of around 250 by Younger – I was handed off again and again until I landed with Sergeant First Class Eric Brown at ISAF Joint Command’s Public Affairs. “The number of bases in Afghanistan is roughly 411,” Brown wrote in a November email, “which is a figure comprised of large base[s], all the way down to the Combat Out Post-level.” Even this, he cautioned, wasn’t actually a full list, because “temporary positions occupied by platoon-sized elements or less” were not counted.
Along the way to this “final” tally, I was offered a number of explanations – from different methods of accounting to the failure of units in the field to provide accurate information – for the conflicting numbers I had been given. After months of exchanging emails and seeing the numbers swing wildly, ending up with roughly the same count in November as I began with in January suggests that the U.S. command isn’t keeping careful track of the number of bases in Afghanistan. Apparently, the military simply does not know how many bases it has in its primary theater of operations.
Turse specifically mentions the countries of Qatar, Pakistan, and Kuwait. Qatar is not listed on the Base Structure Report, but contains Al-Udeid Air Base, a billion-dollar facility where the U.S. Air Force secretly oversees its on-going unmanned drone wars. Pakistan is also not listed on the Base Structure Report, but U.S. drone aircraft, operating under the auspices of both the CIA and the Air Force take off from one or more bases in that country. And then there are the other sites like the “covert forward operating base run by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani port city of Karachi,” and “one or more airfields run by employees of the private security contractor Blackwater (now renamed Xe Services).” And Kuwait, which has one nameless site on the Base Structure Report, has a number of U.S. military facilities.
Suppose that each of the 39 “official” countries with U.S. military bases decided to build the same number of military bases in the United States that the United States maintained in its country? The DOD claims 194 “sites” in Germany. Would the United States government object if Germany insisted on occupying 194 “sites” in the United States? How about just 94? Would the U.S. military not object because they were just “sites” and not technically bases?
Secondly, Kessler is wrong about U.S. troops being in 153 countries. The United States actually has troops in 148 countries and 11 territories. The last time I gave a complete list of all the countries and territories where the United States had troops was in my article of February 11, 2010, titled “Same Empire, Different Emperor.” If you add to the list there the countries of Antigua, Congo (Brazzaville), and Suriname, and subtract from the list the countries of Eritrea, Iran, and Somalia, you will have an updated list. The current eleven territories where U.S. are stationed are: American Samoa, Diego Garcia, Gibralter, Greenland, Guam, Hong Kong, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, St. Helena, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Wake Island.
But why does Kessler use the arbitrary number of 1,000 in saying: “This document indicates that only 11 countries actually house more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel.” Does this mean that it is okay if the United States has military personnel in a country that number 1,000 or less? And why, after giving the figures of “53,766 military personnel in Germany, 39,222 in Japan, 10,801 in Italy and 9,382 in the United Kingdom,” does Kessler remark: “That makes sense”? What makes any sense about the United States stationing all of these troops in Germany, Japan, Italy, and the UK when World War II ended in 1945? What makes any sense about the United States stationing 723 troops in Portugal, 1,205 in Belgium, 163 in Singapore, and 335 in Djibouti? How many Americans have ever even heard of Djibouti? What makes any sense about the United States stationing troops in 75 percent of the world’s countries? Kessler makes much of the low figures of “nine troops in Mali, eight in Barbados, seven in Laos, six in Lithuania, five in Lebanon, four in Moldova, three in Mongolia, two in Suriname and one in Gabon.” But what makes any sense about any U.S. troops being in those countries? And what makes any sense about the United States sending twenty-two of its military personnel to Ecuador, fourteen to Guatemala, seven to Mozambique, and six to Togo? What makes any sense about U.S. troops being stationed anywhere overseas?
Suppose that each of the 148 countries with a contingent of U.S. military personnel decided to send an equal number of their troops to the United States? Would the United States government and its military tolerate 1,491 troops from Turkey, 2,142 from Bahrain, and 354 from Honduras since those are the numbers of troops the United States has in those countries?
And third, Kessler is just plain wrong in dismissing the U.S. troop presence in foreign countries as “places where the United States has a substantial diplomatic presence” or “Marine guards and military attaches.” I did a major study of this back in October 2004 called “Guarding the Empire.” It has been online ever since, but rather than doing a little research, Kessler was content to just accuse Dr. Paul of turning “small contingents of Marine guards into occupying armies.”
In my article I showed beyond any doubt that the U.S. troop presence in foreign countries cannot be blamed on Marines guarding embassies. Read the article. I can’t tell you how many people have written me after I wrote something negative about the U.S. empire of troops and bases that encircles the globe and dismissed my research as a waste of time since, so they said, most of the U.S. troops stationed abroad were just Marine embassy guards. That is simply not true. I did the research and provided a link to the research, but they were just too lazy to click on the link. Don’t be lazy; read “Guarding the Empire.” Yes, I know it was written in 2004. Yes, I know that some of the figures have now changed. Yes, I know that some of the links no longer work. But my conclusions still stand:
- The United States has an embassy in some countries, but does not have any troops.
- The United States has an embassy in some countries along with Army, Navy, and/or Air Force troops, but there are no Marines listed as being in the country.
- The United States has an embassy in some countries with troops including Marines, but not the minimum number of six Marines necessary for embassy security guard duty.
- The United States has Marines in some countries, but no embassy to guard.
And if the United States has “diplomatic relations with about 190 countries,” then how can Kessler say that the list of 148 countries with U.S. troops “essentially tracks with places where the United States has a substantial diplomatic presence”? That is a difference of 42 countries.
Kessler never gets to the real issue. The real issue has nothing to do with the exact number of foreign bases the United States has or the exact number of countries the United States has troops in or the exact number of troops the United States has stationed abroad or the exact number of foreign sites that are really bases.
The real issue is why the United States has troops and military bases in foreign countries in the first place. Especially since the United States doesn’t afford other countries the same privilege.
When I first wrote about U.S. troop presence around the globe in March 2004 in “The U.S. Global Empire,” I documented that the U.S. had troops in 135 countries and 14 territories. Both numbers have only changed slightly since then. There was no change in U.S. foreign policy from Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama. Just like there would have been no change in U.S. foreign policy if John Kerry or John McCain had been elected. Both parties are committed to a foreign policy of aggression, intervention, and meddling. Both parties are committed to a foreign policy of policing the world. Both parties are committed to a foreign policy of bombing and war. Both parties are committed to a foreign policy of empire.
The Washington Post ought to be writing about Ron Paul’s sane claim about bases and troops overseas.