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David Vine: The True Costs of Empire

By       Message Tom Engelhardt     Permalink
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Americans rarely think about these bases, let alone how much of their tax money -- and debt -- is going to build and maintain them. For Dal Molin and related construction nearby, including a brigade headquarters, two sets of barracks, a natural-gas-powered energy plant, a hospital, two schools, a fitness center, dining facilities, and a mini-mall, taxpayers are likely to shell out at least half a billion dollars. (All the while, a majority of locals passionately and vocally oppose the new base.)

How much does the United States spend each year occupying the planet with its bases and troops? How much does it spend on its global presence?  Forced by Congress to account for its spending overseas, the Pentagon has put that figure at $22.1 billion a year. It turns out that even a conservative estimate of the true costs of garrisoning the globe comes to an annual total of about $170 billion. In fact, it may be considerably higher. Since the onset of "the Global War on Terror" in 2001, the total cost for our garrisoning policies, for our presence abroad, has probably reached $1.8 trillion to $2.1 trillion.

How Much Do We Spend?

By law, the Pentagon must produce an annual "Overseas Cost Summary" (OCS) putting a price on the military's activities abroad, from bases to embassies and beyond. This means calculating all the costs of military construction, regular facility repairs, and maintenance, plus the costs of maintaining one million U.S. military and Defense Department personnel and their families abroad -- the pay checks, housing, schools, vehicles, equipment, and the transportation of personnel and materials overseas and back, and far, far more.

The latest OCS, for the 2012 fiscal year ending September 30th, documented $22.1 billion in spending, although, at Congress's direction, this doesn't include any of the more than $118 billion spent that year on the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe.

While $22.1 billion is a considerable sum, representing about as much as the budgets for the Departments of Justice and Agriculture and about half the State Department's 2012 budget, it contrasts sharply with economist Anita Dancs's estimate of $250 billion. She included war spending in her total, but even without it, her figure comes to around $140 billion -- still $120 billion more than the Pentagon suggests.

Wanting to figure out the real costs of garrisoning the planet myself, for more than three years, as part of a global investigation of bases abroad, I've talked to budget experts, current and former Pentagon officials, and base budget officers. Many politely suggested that this was a fool's errand given the number of bases involved, the complexity of distinguishing overseas from domestic spending, the secrecy of Pentagon budgets, and the "frequently fictional" nature of Pentagon figures.  (The Department of Defense remains the only federal agency unable to pass a financial audit.)

Ever the fool and armed only with the power of searchable PDFs, I nonetheless plunged into the bizarro world of Pentagon accounting, where ledgers are sometimes still handwritten and $1 billion can be a rounding error. I reviewed thousands of pages of budget documents, government and independent reports, and hundreds of line items for everything from shopping malls to military intelligence to postal subsidies.

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Wanting to err on the conservative side, I decided to follow the methodology Congress mandated for the OCS, while also looking for overseas costs the Pentagon or Congress might have ignored. It hardly made sense to exclude, for example, the health-care costs the Department of Defense pays for troops on overseas bases, spending for personnel in Kosovo, or the price tag for supporting the 550 bases we have in Afghanistan.

In the spirit of "monitoring the construction," let me lead you on an abbreviated account of my quest to come up with the real costs of occupying planet Earth.

Missing Costs

Although the Overseas Cost Summary initially might seem quite thorough, you'll soon notice that countries well known to host U.S. bases have gone missing-in-action. In fact, at least 18 countries and foreign territories on the Pentagon's own list of overseas bases go unnamed.

Particularly surprising is the absence of Kosovo and Bosnia. The military has had large bases and hundreds of troops there for more than a decade, with another Pentagon report showing 2012 costs of $313.8 million. According to that report, the OCS also understates costs for bases in Honduras and Guanta'namo Bay by about a third or $85 million.

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And then other oddities appear: in places like Australia and Qatar, the Pentagon says it has funds to pay troops but no money for "operations and maintenance" to turn the lights on, feed people, or do regular repairs. Adjusting for these costs adds an estimated $36 million. As a start, I found:

$436 million for missing countries and costs.

That's not much compared to $22 billion and chump change in the context of the whole Pentagon budget, but it's just a beginning.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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