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Nick Turse: The Secret Building Boom of the Obama Years

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

 

Part of a slogan from my hometown past sticks in my mind.  "Build we must," it went.  Such an American phrase, really.  Evidence of a can-do spirit from another country in another age.  Now, in can't-do America with its disintegrating infrastructure, "build we mustn't" seems more in the spirit of the times -- with one obvious exception.  As TomDispatch's Nick Turse, author of The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare, points out today, the Pentagon remains a distinctly build-we-must outfit.

Admittedly, it's experienced more than a decade of build-we-can't failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, involving a crew of warrior corporations along for the ride on Washington's dual occupations in the Greater Middle East.  These companies succeeded mainly in massively overcharging the American taxpayer for "reconstruction" projects in each of those countries, while establishing a remarkable record for underbuilding almost anything they took up, from a water purification facility to a power plant to a police academy.  It's proven to be a tale of corruption, cronyism, and malfeasance, and was undoubtedly one factor in driving "nation-building" out of favor in Washington. 

However, when it comes to the Pentagon, as Turse's fine reporting reveals, military building isn't at all out of favor.  In fact, if you happen to be a resident of the superstorm Sandy-shattered Jersey shore or parts of New York's outer boroughs, it should boggle your mind to learn that the U.S. military is still building up a storm on shorelines and in deserts throughout that distant region.  The Afghan war may be a disaster, we may have the white elephant of all embassies in Baghdad to show for our efforts in Iraq, our Benghazi consulate may be in ruins, and American policy may be unraveling in the post-Arab-Spring Middle East, but the Pentagon remains in the grips of an imperial compulsion and so is as busy in the region as the proverbial beaver.  Perhaps what we need is a new slogan to cover the strange reality of Washington's congressionally unquestioned stimulus package abroad.  (Where are the House Republicans when we really need them?) It would have to go something like: Build?  We just can't help ourselves. Tom

America Begins Nation-Building at Home
(Provided Your Home is the Middle East)
By Nick Turse

A billion dollars from the federal government: that kind of money could go a long way toward revitalizing a country's aging infrastructure.  It could provide housing or better water and sewer systems.  It could enhance a transportation network or develop an urban waterfront.  It could provide local jobs.  It could do any or all of these things.  And, in fact, it did.  It just happened to be in the Middle East, not the United States.

The Pentagon awarded $667.2 million in contracts in 2012, and more than $1 billion during Barack Obama's first term in office for construction projects in largely autocratic Middle Eastern nations, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District (USACE-MED).  More than $178 million in similar funding is already anticipated for 2013.  These contracts represent a mix of projects, including expanding and upgrading military bases used by U.S. troops in the region, building facilities for indigenous security forces, and launching infrastructure projects meant to improve the lives of local populations.

The figures are telling, but far from complete.  They do not, for example, cover any of the billions spent on work at the more than 1,000 U.S. and coalition bases, outposts, and other facilities in Afghanistan or the thousands more manned by local forces.  They also leave out construction projects undertaken in the region by other military services like the U.S. Air Force, as well as money spent at an unspecified number of bases in the Middle East that the Corps of Engineers "has no involvement with," according to Joan Kibler, chief of the Middle East District's public affairs office. 

How many of these projects are obscured by a thick veil of secrecy is unknown, with U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) refusing to name or even offer a full count of all U.S. bases in the region.  On the record, CENTCOM will acknowledge only 10 bases as in its area of operations outside of Afghanistan, even though there are more than two dozen, according to a CENTCOM official who spoke to TomDispatch on the condition of anonymity.  Exactly how many more and just where all U.S. construction work in the region is taking place continues to be kept under tight wraps.  Still, Army Corps of Engineers data, other official documents, and publicly available contract information offer a baseline indication of the way the Pentagon is garrisoning the Greater Middle East and which countries are becoming ever more integral allies.

Nation Building: Public Talk, Secret Action

In the final days of the presidential campaign, President Obama repeatedly assured Americans that it was time to reap a peace dividend as America's wars wind down.  Nation-building here at home should, he insisted, be put on the agenda: "What we can now do is free up some resources, to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges."

Setting aside just how slipshod or even downright disastrous Washington's last decade of nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan have been, the president's proposal to rebuild roads, upgrade bridges, and retrofit the country's electrical grid sounds eminently sensible.  After all, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives America's infrastructure a grade of "D."  If, in the era of the $800 billion stimulus package, $1 billion at first sounds paltry, ask the mayors of Detroit, Belmar, New Jersey, or even New York City what that money would mean to their municipalities.  America may need $2.2 trillion in repairs and maintenance according to ASCE, but $1 billion could radically change the fortunes of many a city.

Instead, that money is flowing into the oil-rich Middle East.  Unknown to most Americans, thousands of State Department personnel, military advisors, and hired contractors remain at several large civilian bases in Iraq where nation-building projects are ongoing; hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been flowing into military construction projects in repressive Persian Gulf states like Bahrain and Qatar; and the Pentagon is expanding its construction program in Central Asia.  All of this adds up to a multifaceted project that seems at odds with the president's rhetoric.  (The White House did not respond to TomDispatch's repeated requests for comment.)

Increasing the Power of Airpower in Qatar

The tiny oil-rich emirate of Qatar has been the preeminent site of the Pentagon's Middle Eastern building boom in the Obama years.  A significant percentage of its population is made up of migrant workers who, according to Human Rights Watch, are "vulnerable to exploitation and abuse," while "forced labor and human trafficking remain serious problems." The country even received a failing grade ("not free") from the U.S. State Department-funded human rights organization Freedom House.  Still, between 2009 and 2012, the U.S. pumped nearly $400 million into Pentagon projects in the country, including troop barracks, munitions storage areas, a communications center, a training range, an aircraft operations center, an aircraft maintenance hangar, an aviation maintenance shop, a warehouse facility, and a vehicle maintenance shop, according to a list provided by the Corps of Engineers.

The Obama administration has continued a build-up in the country that accelerated after 9/11.  In September 2001, U.S. aircraft began to operate out of Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base. By 2002, the U.S. had tanks, armored vehicles, dozens of warehouses, communications and computing equipment, and thousands of troops at and around the base.  The next year, the U.S. moved its major regional combat air operations center out of Saudi Arabia and into Al Udeid.  Since then, it has served as a major command and logistics hub for U.S. regional operations, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

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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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