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 9/11 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.
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 latest book, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, has recently been 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, visit www.basenation.us and www.davidvine.net.
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Copyright David Vine 2016