Why All the Foreign Bases?

On May 14, 2005 the Associated Press reported Bulgaria’s announcement that it would provide three new military bases to the US. General James Jones, the top commander of US and NATO troops in Europe, said that he would propose to the US Congress “four or five Bulgarian military facilities for use by US forces.” More recently, the US announced plans for new bases in Romania.

Why does the US need new military bases in Bulgaria and Romania? According to Chalmers Johnson, in his book “The Sorrows of Empire,” America already possesses more than 725 overseas bases. This incredible estimate comes from two official sources: The Department of Defense’s “Base Structure Report,” and “Worldwide Manpower Distribution by Geographical Area.” Johnson claims that the figure is actually an underestimate, because many bases are “secret” or otherwise not listed on official books. As an example, Johnson quotes several sources who cite at least six US installations in Israel which are either operating or are under construction.

During the Cold War, it was argued that the US needed forward basing in strategic areas of the world to counter the Soviet position, and contain Soviet expansion. But the US continues to aggressively pursue more bases in far-flung areas of the globe, despite the fact that the Cold War has been over for more than a decade. American officials have explained that the new bases in Bulgaria and Romania are part of a broader US strategy of shifting troops based in Western Europe further east. In other words, now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, America is aggressively expanding into its former sphere of influence by recruiting former Soviet satellites into NATO, and garrisoning them with bases and troops. In fact, since 9/11 alone the US has acquired at least 14 new bases in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Persian Gulf, and Pakistan, and was evicted from a recently procured base in Uzbekistan. This figure does not include the newly-announced Bulgarian and Romanian bases. Are we to believe that the US needs more military bases worldwide – not less – now that the Cold War is over?

Apparently so. Thomas Donnelly, an archetype neoconservative militarist, recently published a pamphlet entitled “The Military We Need,” available at http://www.aei.org/books/. Among other things, he argues for the creation of “new networks of overseas bases,” and a “semipermanent ring of ‘frontier forts’ along the American security perimeter from West Africa to East Asia.” In Counterpunch, Winslow T. Wheeler quoted Donnelly at a speech before the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute as saying the US “homeland” includes the area defined in the Monroe Doctrine. In Donnelly’s mind, the US has apparently already annexed the Caribbean and Central America.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has acquired a plethora of new bases throughout the Persian Gulf. Some observers believe that these bases were obtained to “secure” a strategic commodity – oil. While oil security was certainly a main concern of the first Gulf War, US bases in the Middle East are actually generating the very insecurity – in the forms of terrorism and insurgency – that they supposedly exist to combat. Certainly, there were no terrorist or insurgent attacks on Iraqi oil facilities before that country was invaded, occupied, and garrisoned with US bases and troops. Furthermore, Bin Laden cited US military occupation of Saudi Arabia as a key reason for Al-Qaida attacks against US interests. Another problem with the “oil security” thesis is that America only had two permanent bases (both naval) operating in the entire region during the Cold War, when the Middle East faced the threat of invasion by the Soviet Union – one in Bahrain, and the other on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, 3340 miles from Baghdad.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq is, of course, another explanation offered for the buildup of US bases in the region. The question then becomes why the war was necessary in the first place. One answer is that the US seeks dominance over the few “rogue states” in the area who refuse to follow dictates from Washington. Before the second Gulf War began, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman wrote “Why does the administration seem unconcerned about an exit strategy from Iraq once Saddam is toppled? Because we won’t be leaving. Having conquered Iraq, the United States will create permanent military bases in that country from which to dominate the Middle East, including neighboring Iran.” The bases Bookman portended have already been built, and Iran now faces a likely referral to the UN Security Council.

The invasion of Iraq wasn’t the first occasion for US imperialism in the region. In 1963, the CIA backed a Ba’athist coup in Iraq which resulted in the assassination of then Prime Minister Abdel-Karim Kassem and many others on a CIA-supplied hit list. These actions paved the way for Ba’ath loyalist Saddam Hussein to assume direct dictatorship of the country by 1979. By the early 1980’s, the US had restored full diplomatic relations with Iraq, and was providing assistance to Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. This assistance included, but was not limited to, intelligence information, monetary loans, weapons and munitions grants and sales (including helicopters which were used to launch gas attacks on Kurds), and weapons-grade Anthrax bacterial cultures. Current and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad to meet with Saddam Hussein personally on at least two occasions during this period.

In 1953, the CIA under Eisenhower backed a successful coup in Iran which overthrew the constitutionally and democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq – who had nationalized British oil interests – and installed an American puppet, shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, or the “Shah of Iran.” Upon taking power, the Shah awarded American and British oil companies a 40% stake each in a new oil consortium with the rights to pump Iranian oil. To protect their puppet, and repress all dissent, the CIA assisted the shah in the creation of the brutal SAVAK – a secret police force with unlimited censorship, surveillance, arrest, and detention powers. Under the shah’s reign, SAVAK operated secret prisons, institutionalized torture, and murdered thousands of political prisoners. Iran remained a US-sponsored totalitarian terror-state ruled by an American puppet until the overthrow of the shah in 1979 and the ushering in of an Islamic fundamentalist regime under the Ayatollah Khomeini.

But US interests in the region are not limited to oil dominance or political control. It is no secret that a cabal of prominent neoconservatives operating at very high levels within the George W. Bush regime, but also within the Pentagon, various quasi-governmental boards, think tanks, special interest groups, and political magazines, long lobbied for the US to invade Iraq and remake the entire Middle East over to suit Israel. These neoconservatives share a passionate attachment to the Jewish state, and some have close connections to the Likud party and Israeli leaders such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. The neoconservative agenda for Iraq was made abundantly clear in various letters to the president and congressional leaders, as well as books, articles, position papers, reports, and other publications written years before 9/11. For instance, in July 1996, neoconservatives Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, and others wrote a position paper for Benjamin Netanyahu entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” Among other things, the paper advocated regime change in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. And in a September 2000 report entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century,” the neoconservative Project for the New American Century wrote that they were waiting for a “catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor” to provide an excuse to execute their agenda. The two disasters which afforded them their opportunity were the election of George W. Bush and the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

But the involvement of neoconservatives in the decision to invade Iraq is already well-known and well-documented, and a comprehensive analysis is far beyond the scope of this article. The point is simply to illustrate that, whatever the motives for the second Gulf War and virulent spread of US bases in the region – domination of oil, subjugation and control of “rogue states,” furthering Israeli interests, or “spreading democracy” for that matter – these are imperial motives for imperial actions.

In addition to building new bases, the US also continues to maintain old bases and security guarantees throughout the world. Bases in South Korea, half a world away, were built during the Cold War ostensibly to defend that nation against attack by North Korea. This was part of a broader effort to “contain communism” and stop the fulfillment of the “domino theory.” But the bases and troops remain despite the fact that the Cold War is over and communism is a dying ideology. In fact, the US has recently taken a more aggressive posture towards North Korea, indicting it as a member of an “axis of evil."

Interestingly, while the US is building new bases overseas, it is closing bases domestically. No overseas bases are slated for closure by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Because private defense contractors like Halliburton source foreign labor when performing overseas base support, the US is now, in effect, outsourcing defense-related jobs.

There is no great mystery regarding the US garrisoning of east and central Asia, Japan, Eastern and Western Europe, Cuba, the Persian Gulf, and many other areas of the globe with hundreds of military bases. The truth of the matter is that America, “the world’s only remaining superpower,” is actually the world’s only remaining global empire. And as all empires do, it will continue to expand until it is deterred by a rival power, or until it bankrupts the “homeland” with imperial overstretch and wars. Indeed, the very term “homeland” itself implies that there must be an associated “away land” component. This “away land” is the US empire abroad.

Is America really an empire? Empires have taken many forms throughout history. Empires based on one extreme – the Roman model for instance – built their empires through outright annexation of conquered territories. The English, French, Dutch, and Spanish based their empires upon the institution of colonization. Dr. Ivan Eland, in his book “The Empire has no Clothes: US Foreign Policy Exposed,” has concluded that, structurally, the American empire is modeled on another extreme – that of the ancient Greek city-state Sparta. Sparta did not conquer and annex other peoples, with the exception of the Helots. Rather, it used its superior military prowess to dominate allied oligarchic factions through its military alliance, the Peloponnesian League. Sparta’s de facto control over the foreign policy of the Peloponnesian League gave it effective control over the foreign policies of the city-states comprising the alliance. Sparta demanded that the city-states within its orbit maintain their oligarchic form of government, and it reserved the right to impose this restriction by force. But Sparta did not micromanage the domestic affairs of its alliance members on a day-to-day basis. In this regard, the Spartan model of empire is one of “looser control” over states comprising an empire.

Like Sparta, the US has de facto control over the foreign policy of its military alliance, NATO. And presumably, the US would not allow an objectionable form of government to take power in a key strategic ally. In fact, the US has sought to instigate or prevent regime change in many states it has wanted to control, whether strategic or non-strategic, allied or non-allied. Examples include Afghanistan, Cambodia, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Greece, Grenada, Guam, Guatemala, Haiti, Hawaii, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Korea, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Philippines, Samoa, Serbia, Spain, Taiwan, Venezuela, and Vietnam, among others.

But while the US empire resembles Sparta structurally, Eland points out that in its offensive orientation it more closely resembles Athens. Sparta was a defensive, status-quo power that did not seek to enlarge, control non-strategic non-allied states, or remake the world in its image. Athens did. Coincidentally, Athenians believed their divine calling in life was to “spread democracy.”

The US has also employed other models in building empire. After the Spanish-American war, Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, and Guam were annexed outright, and the Philippines were subjected to an American form of colonial rule not unlike that employed by European colonial powers at the time. The advent of the Cold War hailed the superpower practice of spawning satellites and client states. The American empire really represents a conglomeration of different approaches to empire building.

In a sense, the American empire is worldwide. The US dollar, as the world’s reserve currency, allows the US to tax other countries by issuing depreciating pieces of paper in exchange for real goods and services. Rome imposed a comparable form of taxation by debasing its gold and silver coinage.

There are two imperial schools of thought operating within the American empire. The old globalist, Woodrow Wilson, New World Order Establishment, consisting of both Democrats and Republicans, prefers to disguise the iron fist of empire beneath a soft velvet glove of multilateralism, alliances, the UN, and humanitarianism. The new neoconservative imperialists – comprised of Republicans – care little for disguises, subtleties, pretenses, and diplomatic niceties. While not direct descendants, they are more similar in style to the unabashed Theodore Roosevelt school of imperialism. They prefer a more unilateral approach to empire, brandishing a naked iron fist devoid of any velvet glove. Because they are unapologetic hawks – chicken hawks in fact, as they use other people to fight their wars for them while they stack up deferments – neoconservative imperialists seem to relish the thought of using imperial power with a little more glee than their Wilsonian counterparts. Within the Republican party at least, and for the time being, the neoconservatives are waxing and ascendant, and the old Wilsonian Establishment is waning. But it is important to recognize that the differences between the two factions are differences of order, rather than kind. There is no anti-imperial constituency of any remote political significance operating within the American empire.

But the mystery of American empire is a lesser conundrum to contemplate. The greater mystery is why Americans have never questioned the fact that their republic has become an empire. Americans, as a people, seem to be quite uniquely ignorant in this regard, as every other empire in the annals of recorded human history was known to be an empire by its own citizens. Thus it would seem that Americans have earned quite a historical distinction for themselves, happily munching away on fast food while watching the latest reality TV shows, completely oblivious to the world around them and to their complicity in their own destruction.

March 17, 2006