The Obama Administration Is Continuing a Failed Strategy of Building Military Bases Around the World

The United States seems intent on continuing its imperialistic policies in the Middle East (and worldwide).

David Vine

Travis Air Force Base Airmen conduct a mass launch of 22 mobility aircraft Sept. 11, 2013, practicing the combat capability of safely launching a fleet of aircraft in minutes (Robert Couse-Baker / flickr)

This post first appeared at TomDispatch.

After 36 years, the results of this vast base build-up have been, to put it mildly, counterproductive. As Saudi Arabia illustrates, U.S. bases have often helped generate the radical militancy that they are now being designed to defeat.

Amid the dis­trac­tions of the hol­i­day sea­son, the New York Times revealed that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing a Pen­ta­gon pro­pos­al to cre­ate a new” and endur­ing” sys­tem of mil­i­tary bases around the Mid­dle East. Though this is being pre­sent­ed as a response to the rise of the Islam­ic State and oth­er mil­i­tant groups, there’s remark­ably lit­tle that’s new about the Pen­ta­gon plan. For more than 36 years, the U.S. mil­i­tary has been build­ing an unprece­dent­ed con­stel­la­tion of bases that stretch­es from South­ern Europe and the Mid­dle East to Africa and South­west Asia.

The record of these bases is dis­as­trous. They have cost tens of bil­lions of dol­lars and pro­vid­ed sup­port for a long list of unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic host regimes, includ­ing Sau­di Ara­bia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Dji­bouti. They have enabled a series of U.S. wars and mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions, includ­ing the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq, which have helped make the Greater Mid­dle East a caul­dron of sec­tar­i­an-tinged pow­er strug­gles, failed states, and human­i­tar­i­an cat­a­stro­phe. And the bases have fueled rad­i­cal­ism, anti-Amer­i­can­ism, and the growth of the very ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions now tar­get­ed by the sup­pos­ed­ly new strategy.

If there is much of any­thing new about the plan, it’s the pub­lic acknowl­edge­ment of what some (includ­ing TomDis­patch) have long sus­pect­ed: despite years of denials about the exis­tence of any per­ma­nent bases” in the Greater Mid­dle East or desire for the same, the mil­i­tary intends to main­tain a col­lec­tion of bases in the region for decades, if not gen­er­a­tions, to come.

Thir­ty-Six Years of Base Building

Accord­ing to the Times, the Pen­ta­gon wants to build up a string of bases, the largest of which would per­ma­nent­ly host 500 to 5,000 U.S. per­son­nel. The sys­tem would include four hubs” — exist­ing bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Dji­bouti, and Spain — and small­er spokes” in loca­tions like Niger and Cameroon. These bases would, in turn, fea­ture Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces ready to move into action quick­ly for what Sec­re­tary of Defense Ash­ton Carter has called uni­lat­er­al cri­sis response” any­where in the Greater Mid­dle East or Africa. Accord­ing to unnamed Pen­ta­gon offi­cials quot­ed by theTimes, this pro­posed expan­sion would cost a mere pit­tance, just sev­er­al mil­lion dol­lars a year.”

Far from new, how­ev­er, this strat­e­gy pre­dates both the Islam­ic State and al-Qae­da. In fact, it goes back to 1980 and the Carter Doc­trine. That was the moment when Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter first assert­ed that the Unit­ed States would secure Mid­dle East­ern oil and nat­ur­al gas by any means nec­es­sary, includ­ing mil­i­tary force.” Designed to pre­vent Sovi­et inter­ven­tion in the Per­sian Gulf, the Pen­ta­gon build-up under Pres­i­dents Carter and Ronald Rea­gan includ­ed the cre­ation of instal­la­tions in Egypt, Oman, Sau­di Ara­bia, and on the Indi­an Ocean island of Diego Gar­cia. Dur­ing the first Gulf War of 1991, the Pen­ta­gon deployed hun­dreds of thou­sands of troops to Sau­di Ara­bia and neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. After that war, despite the dis­ap­pear­ance of the Sovi­et Union, the U.S. mil­i­tary did­n’t go home. Thou­sands of U.S. troops and a sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand­ed base infra­struc­ture remained in Sau­di Ara­bia and Kuwait. Bahrain became home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The Pen­ta­gon built large air instal­la­tions in Qatar and expand­ed oper­a­tions in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates (UAE) and Oman.

Fol­low­ing the 2001 inva­sion of Afghanistan and the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq, the Pen­ta­gon spent tens of bil­lions of dol­lars build­ing and expand­ing yet more bases. At the height of those U.S.-led wars, there were more than 1,000 instal­la­tions, large and small, in Afghanistan and Iraq alone. Despite the clos­ing of most U.S. bases in the two coun­tries, the Pen­ta­gon still has access to at least nine major bases in Afghanistan through 2024. After leav­ing Iraq in 2011, the mil­i­tary returned in 2014 to reoc­cu­py at least six instal­la­tions. Across the Per­sian Gulf today, there are still U.S. bases in every coun­try save Iran and Yemen. Even in Sau­di Ara­bia, where wide­spread anger at the U.S. pres­ence led to an offi­cial with­draw­al in 2003, there are still small U.S. mil­i­tary con­tin­gents and a secret drone base. There are secret bases in Israel, four instal­la­tions in Egypt, and at least one in Jor­dan near the Iraqi bor­der.Turkey hosts 17 bases, accord­ing to the Pen­ta­gon. In the wider region, the mil­i­tary has oper­at­ed drones from at least five bases in Pak­istan in recent years and there are nine new instal­la­tions in Bul­gar­ia and Roma­nia, along with a Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion-era base still oper­at­ing in Koso­vo.

In Africa, Djibouti’s Camp Lemon­nier, just miles across the Red Sea from the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la, has expand­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly since U.S. forces moved in after 2001. There are now upwards of 4,000 troops on the 600-acre base. Else­where, the mil­i­tary has qui­et­ly built a col­lec­tion of small bases and sites for drones, sur­veil­lance flights, and Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces from Ethiopia and Kenya to Burk­i­na Faso and Sene­gal. Large bases in Spain and Italy sup­port what are now thou­sands of U.S. troops reg­u­lar­ly deploy­ing to Africa.

A Dis­as­trous Record

After 36 years, the results of this vast base build-up have been, to put it mild­ly, coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. As Sau­di Ara­bia illus­trates, U.S. bases have often helped gen­er­ate the rad­i­cal mil­i­tan­cy that they are now being designed to defeat. The pres­ence of U.S. bases and troops in Mus­lim holy lands was, in fact, a major recruit­ing tool for al-Qae­da and part of Osama bin Laden’s pro­fessed moti­va­tion for the 911 attacks.

Across the Mid­dle East, there’s a cor­re­la­tion between a U.S. bas­ing pres­ence and al-Qaeda’s recruit­ment suc­cess. Accord­ing to for­mer West Point pro­fes­sor Bradley Bow­man, U.S. bases and troops in the Mid­dle East have been a major cat­a­lyst for anti-Amer­i­can­ism and rad­i­cal­iza­tion” since a sui­cide bomber killed 241 Marines in Lebanon in 1983. In Africa, a grow­ing U.S. base and troop pres­ence has back­fired,” serv­ing as a boon for insur­gents, accord­ing to research pub­lished by the Army’s Mil­i­tary Review and the Oxford Research Group. A recent U.N. report sug­gests that the U.S. air cam­paign against IS has led for­eign mil­i­tants to join the move­ment on an unprece­dent­ed scale.”

Part of the anti-Amer­i­can anger that such bases stoke comes from the sup­port they offer to repres­sive, unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic hosts. For exam­ple, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion offered only tepid crit­i­cism of the Bahrai­ni gov­ern­ment, cru­cial for U.S. naval bas­ing, in 2011 when its lead­ers vio­lent­ly cracked down on pro-democ­ra­cy pro­test­ers with the help of troops from Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE. Else­where, U.S. bases offer legit­i­ma­cy to hosts the Econ­o­mist Democ­ra­cy Index con­sid­ers author­i­tar­i­an regimes,” effec­tive­ly help­ing to block the spread of democ­ra­cy in coun­tries includ­ing Cameroon, Cen­tral African Repub­lic, Chad, Dji­bouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jor­dan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Sau­di Ara­bia, and the UAE.


The Pentagon’s bas­ing strat­e­gy has not only been coun­ter­pro­duc­tive in encour­ag­ing peo­ple to take up arms against the Unit­ed States and its allies, it has also been extra­or­di­nar­i­ly expen­sive. Mil­i­tary bases across the Greater Mid­dle East cost the Unit­ed States tens of bil­lions of dol­lars every year, as part of an esti­mat­ed $150 bil­lion in annu­al spend­ing to main­tain bases and troops abroad. Camp Lemon­nier in Dji­bouti alone has an annu­al rent of $70 mil­lion and at least $1.4 bil­lion in ongo­ing expan­sion costs. With the Pen­ta­gon now propos­ing an enlarged bas­ing struc­ture of hubs and spokes from Burk­i­na Faso to Afghanistan, cost esti­mates report­ed in the New York Times in the low mil­lions” are laugh­able, if not inten­tion­al­ly mis­lead­ing. (One hopes the Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Office is already inves­ti­gat­ing the true costs.)

The only plau­si­ble expla­na­tion for such low-ball fig­ures is that offi­cials are tak­ing for grant­ed — and thus exclud­ing from their esti­mates — the con­tin­u­a­tion of present wartime fund­ing lev­els for those bases. In real­i­ty, fur­ther entrench­ing the Pentagon’s base infra­struc­ture in the region will com­mit U.S. tax­pay­ers to bil­lions more in annu­al con­struc­tion, main­te­nance, and per­son­nel costs (while civil­ian infra­struc­ture in the U.S. con­tin­ues to be under­fund­ed and neglect­ed).

The idea that the mil­i­tary needs any addi­tion­al mon­ey to bring, as the Times put it, an ad hoc series of exist­ing bases into one coher­ent sys­tem” should shock Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers. After all, the Pen­ta­gon has already spent so many bil­lions on them. If mil­i­tary plan­ners haven’t linked these bases into a coher­ent sys­tem by now, what exact­ly have they been doing?

In fact, the Pen­ta­gon is undoubt­ed­ly resort­ing to an all-too-famil­iar fund­ing strat­e­gy — using low-ball cost esti­mates to secure more cash from Con­gress on a com­mit-now, pay-the-true-costs-lat­er basis. Expe­ri­ence shows that once the mil­i­tary gets such new bud­get lines, costs and bases tend to expand, often quite dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Espe­cial­ly in places like Africa that have had a rel­a­tive­ly small U.S. pres­ence until now, the Pen­ta­gon plan is a tem­plate for unchecked growth. As Nick Turse has shown at TomDis­patch, the mil­i­tary has already built up more than 60 out­posts and access points…. in at least 34 coun­tries” across the con­ti­nent while insist­ing for years that it had only one base in Africa, Camp Lemon­nier in Dji­bouti. With Con­gress final­ly pass­ing the 2016 fed­er­al bud­get, includ­ing bil­lions in increased mil­i­tary spend­ing, the Pentagon’s base plan looks like an open­ing gam­bit in a bid to get even more mon­ey in fis­cal year 2017.

Per­pet­u­at­ing Failure 

Above all, the base struc­ture the Pen­ta­gon has built since 1980 has enabled mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions and wars of choice in 13 coun­tries in the Greater Mid­dle East. In the absence of a super­pow­er com­peti­tor, these bases made each mil­i­tary action — worst of all the dis­as­trous inva­sion of Iraq — all too easy to con­tem­plate, launch, and car­ry out. Today, it seems beyond irony that the tar­get of the Pentagon’s new” base strat­e­gy is the Islam­ic State, whose very exis­tence and growth we owe to the Iraq War and the chaos it cre­at­ed. If the White House and Con­gress approve the Pentagon’s plan and the mil­i­tary suc­ceeds in fur­ther entrench­ing and expand­ing its bases in the region, we need only ask: What vio­lence will this next round of base expan­sion bring?

Thir­ty-six years into the U.S. base build-up in the Greater Mid­dle East, mil­i­tary force has failed as a strat­e­gy for con­trol­ling the region, no less defeat­ing ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions. Sad­ly, this infra­struc­ture of war has been in place for so long and is now so tak­en for grant­ed that most Amer­i­cans sel­dom think about it. Mem­bers of Con­gress rarely ques­tion the use­ful­ness of the bases or the bil­lions they have appro­pri­at­ed to build and main­tain them. Jour­nal­ists, too, almost nev­er report on the sub­ject — except when news out­lets pub­lish mate­r­i­al strate­gi­cal­ly leaked by the Pen­ta­gon, as appears to be the case with the new” base plan high­light­ed by the New York Times.

Expand­ing the base infra­struc­ture in the Greater Mid­dle East will only per­pet­u­ate a mil­i­ta­rized for­eign pol­i­cy premised on assump­tions about the effi­ca­cy of war that should have been dis­cred­it­ed long ago. Invest­ing in endur­ing” bases rather than diplo­mat­ic, polit­i­cal, and human­i­tar­i­an efforts to reduce con­flict across the region is like­ly to do lit­tle more than ensure endur­ing war.

David Vine, a TomDis­patch reg­u­lar, is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of anthro­pol­o­gy at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. His book, Base Nation: How U.S. Mil­i­tary Bases Abroad Harm Amer­i­ca and the World, was pub­lished as part of the Amer­i­can Empire Project (Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books). He has writ­ten for the New York Times, the Wash­ing­ton Post, the Guardian, and Moth­er Jones, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. For more infor­ma­tion and addi­tion­al arti­cles, vis­it www​.base​n​a​tion​.us and www​.david​vine​.net.
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