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Tomgram: David Vine, The Pentagon's Italian Spending Spree

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Headlined to None 10/3/13

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

This may be a propitious moment to offer an up-to-date version of a classic riddle: Which came first, the chicken or the terrorist?  For many in this country, the Kenyan mall horror arrived out of the blue, out of nowhere, out of a place and a time without context. Next thing you know, it's all 24/7-ing on your TV set. You can't avoid it. The grim news, the slaughter, the four-day stand-off, the "exclusive" video of destruction and death, the teary faces, the dramatic tales, the cruelty and the killing, the collapse of part of the building and scenes of utter desolation, the shifting casualty counts, and suddenly, scores of FBI agents -- from what once upon a time was a U.S. domestic law enforcement agency -- on the ground in distant Nairobi checking out biometric data in the rubble, and you're being told about a "direct threat" to "the homeland" from a scary Somali terror group called al-Shabab whose killers in Kenya may (or may not) have included recruited Somali-Americans and even a British woman known as "the white widow."

The idea that there was some history to all of this, that it involved Washington and the U.S. military, secret CIA prisons and covert drone strikes, the funding, supplying, and organizing of proxy African troops, and the thorough destabilizing of Somalia because Washington feared an Islamic group that was actually unifying the country -- out of which al-Shabab ("the youth") emerged -- seems unbelievable, though it is simple fact.  And here's a reality that you won't see on your TV screen 24/7: if al-Shabab is a nightmare, history has joined it to Washington at the hip.  The particular kind of destabilization that gripped Somalia in the post-9/11 years, including a U.S.-inspired Ethiopian invasion and years later a Kenyan version of the same, has now spread to Kenya itself.  As Nick Turse has argued at this site, this sort of destabilization is now happening across the African continent.  The U.S. military, along with the CIA and U.S. intelligence, is moving more deeply into Africa, and in the process, from Libya to the Central African Republic, it is helping to turn the continent into Terror Central. 

Those scores of FBI agents combing the ruins in Nairobi (as well as the beefed up CIA contingent now dealing with the situation) aren't the answer to a sudden crisis.  They are signs of a long-term problem; they are the chicken to the terrorist egg -- and which came first almost doesn't matter anymore.  If you decide that anyone, anywhere, on Earth can be an imminent "danger" to the homeland and you've already transformed the very idea of "national" defense into international defense, and nowhere is too far to go to "defend" yourself, then you are always going to be stirring things up in distant places in ways you don't understand and with a hatful of unintended consequences.

And don't think that all of this is just so much seat-of-the-pants happenstance either.  The planning for America's militarized African presence has been going on for years, even if beyond the sight of most Americans, as this site has repeatedly reported.  Today, TomDispatch regular David Vine explores another previously unnoted aspect of Washington's preparations for future wars in a destabilizing Africa: a startling traffic jam of U.S. military bases in Italy.  Someday, in some unexpected way, the Italian base story will suddenly break big-time in the mainstream and, once again, it will seem to arrive out of the blue, out of nowhere, without any context, and everyone will be shocked, shocked (unless, of course, you read it first at TomDispatch). Tom

The Italian Job
How the Pentagon Is Using Your Tax Dollars to Turn Italy into a Launching Pad for the Wars of Today and Tomorrow
By David Vine

The Pentagon has spent the last two decades plowing hundreds of millions of tax dollars into military bases in Italy, turning the country into an increasingly important center for U.S. military power. Especially since the start of the Global War on Terror in 2001, the military has been shifting its European center of gravity south from Germany, where the overwhelming majority of U.S. forces in the region have been stationed since the end of World War II. In the process, the Pentagon has turned the Italian peninsula into a launching pad for future wars in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.

At bases in Naples, Aviano, Sicily, Pisa, and Vicenza, among others, the military has spent more than $2 billion on construction alone since the end of the Cold War -- and that figure doesn't include billions more on classified construction projects and everyday operating and personnel costs. While the number of troops in Germany has fallen from 250,000 when the Soviet Union collapsed to about 50,000 today, the roughly 13,000 U.S. troops (plus 16,000 family members) stationed in Italy match the numbers at the height of the Cold War.  That, in turn, means that the percentage of U.S. forces in Europe based in Italy has tripled since 1991 from around 5% to more than 15%.

Last month, I had a chance to visit the newest U.S. base in Italy, a three-month-old garrison in Vicenza, near Venice. Home to a rapid reaction intervention force, the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), and the Army's component of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the base extends for a mile, north to south, dwarfing everything else in the small city. In fact, at over 145 acres, the base is almost exactly the size of Washington's National Mall or the equivalent of around 110 American football fields. The price tag for the base and related construction in a city that already hosted at least six installations: upwards of $600 million since fiscal year 2007.

There are still more bases, and so more U.S. military spending, in Germany than in any other foreign country (save, until recently, Afghanistan). Nonetheless, Italy has grown increasingly important as the Pentagon works to change the make-up of its global collection of 800 or more bases abroad, generally shifting its basing focus south and east from Europe's center. Base expert Alexander Cooley explains: "U.S. defense officials acknowledge that Italy's strategic positioning on the Mediterranean and near North Africa, the Italian military's antiterrorism doctrine, as well as the country's favorable political disposition toward U.S. forces are important factors in the Pentagon's decision to retain" a large base and troop presence there. About the only people who have been paying attention to this build-up are the Italians in local opposition movements like those in Vicenza who are concerned that their city will become a platform for future U.S. wars.

Base Building

Most tourists think of Italy as the land of Renaissance art, Roman antiquities, and of course great pizza, pasta, and wine. Few think of it as a land of U.S. bases. But Italy's 59 Pentagon-identified "base sites" top that of any country except Germany (179), Japan (103), Afghanistan (100 and declining), and South Korea (89).

Publicly, U.S. officials say there are no U.S. military bases in Italy. They insist that our garrisons, with all their infrastructure, equipment, and weaponry, are simply guests on what officially remain "Italian" bases designated for NATO use. Of course, everyone knows that this is largely a legal nicety.  

No one visiting the new base in Vicenza could doubt that it's a U.S. installation all the way. The garrison occupies a former Italian air force base called Dal Molin. (In late 2011, Italian officials rebranded it "Caserma Del Din," evidently to try to shed memories of the massive opposition the base has generated.) From the outside, it might be mistaken for a giant hospital complex or a university campus. Thirty one box-like peach-and-cream-colored buildings with light red rooftops dominate the horizon with only the foothills of the Southern Alps as a backdrop. A chain link fence topped by razor wire surrounds the perimeter, with green mesh screens obscuring views into the base.

If you manage to get inside, however, you find two barracks for up to 600 soldiers each. (Off base, the Army is contracting to lease up to 240 newly built homes in surrounding communities.) Two six-floor parking garages that can hold 850 vehicles, and a series of large office complexes, some small training areas, including an indoor shooting range still under construction, as well as a gym with a heated swimming pool, a "Warrior Zone" entertainment center, a small PX, an Italian-style cafe, and a large dining facility. These amenities are actually rather modest for a large U.S. base. Most of the newly built or upgraded housing, schools, medical facilities, shopping, and other amenities for soldiers and their families are across town on Viale della Pace (Peace Boulevard) at the Caserma Ederle base and at the nearby Villaggio della Pace (Peace Village).

A Pentagon Spending Spree

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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 Interviews (more...)
 
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