War, American-style, in the twenty-first century hasn't exactly been a sterling success story. (How did the Brits ever manage to run that empire of theirs for so many years with such modest numbers of troops?) Take Afghanistan, for example. We now know something of Washington's latest plans for pursuing the war in that country well into its 16th year. They are, according to media reports, just landing on President Trump's desk with the enthusiastic support of his national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, the Pentagon, the intelligence services, and General John Nicholson, the U.S. Afghan commander. Pushback seems to be coming only from the administration's Bannonite wing. Basically, those plans seem to boil down to sending in more U.S. troops and more Special Operations forces, putting them in more combat-like situations, and supporting them with more U.S. air power -- or put another way, more of exactly what there has regularly been more of for the last 15 years. Call it a mini-surge. All of this, in turn, is supposed to "break the Afghan deadlock," shift the war in the favor of the U.S.-backed government, and lead to successful peace negotiations. Oh, and it's grounded in the conviction that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is capable of weeding corrupt and ineffective commanders out of his military.
It might cross your mind that all of the above could only have been dreamt up by "strategists" who had been on another planet for the last decade and a half. However, the generals who came up with this brilliant plan (for a president who, in 2013, tweeted, "We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let's get out!") have been deeply involved in America's wars across the Greater Middle East in those years. And since it's hard to believe that they meant to create a failing strategy, the only alternative is to assume that they've been involved in this sort of war-making for so long that they are no longer capable of imagining anything else. In other words, what we're witnessing is a brain-dead version of strategizing that will leave another set of officials in Washington wondering what to do next somewhere down the line.
In the face of such "planning," woefully typical of Washington's war on terror, it's always good to look for some bright spot and there does happen to be one area where the U.S. military remains the undisputed global champ: military bases. As TomDispatch regular David Vine has shown in his essential book, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, the U.S. garrisons the globe without competitors and in a fashion previously unimaginable. That "rising power" China, for instance, is only now building its first base outside its own territory -- in the small African country of Djibouti, just miles from a large U.S. base, leaving it approximately 799 global garrisons short of Washington. Britain and France each still have some bases, generally left over from their days of imperial glory, and the Russians also have a handful, including two particularly active ones in Syria and another, just unveiled, in its own far northern territories near the Arctic Circle. That's its second base in the melting north. About such moves, Washington is already raising the alarm. (Secretary of Defense James Mattis at his confirmation hearings typically said, "The U.S. must ensure that Russia doesn't expand those efforts to dominate the region.")
Still, at the moment, the U.S. stands alone when it comes to garrisoning Planet Earth, a success story that, strangely enough, never seems to impress the mainstream media enough to consider it a subject worthy of coverage, which is why it's so useful to have David Vine on hand at moments like this. Tom
Forty-Five Blows Against Democracy
How U.S. Military Bases Back Dictators, Autocrats, and Military Regimes
By David Vine
Much outrage has been expressed in recent weeks over President Donald Trump's invitation for a White House visit to Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, whose "war on drugs" has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings. Criticism of Trump was especially intense given his similarly warm public support for other authoritarian rulers like Egypt's Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (who visited the Oval Office to much praise only weeks earlier), Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who got a congratulatory phone call from President Trump on his recent referendum victory, granting him increasingly unchecked powers), and Thailand's Prayuth Chan-ocha (who also received a White House invitation).- Advertisement -
But here's the strange thing: the critics generally ignored the far more substantial and long-standing bipartisan support U.S. presidents have offered these and dozens of other repressive regimes over the decades. After all, such autocratic countries share one striking thing in common. They are among at least 45 less-than-democratic nations and territories that today host scores of U.S. military bases, from ones the size of not-so-small American towns to tiny outposts. Together, these bases are homes to tens of thousands of U.S. troops.
To ensure basing access from Central America to Africa, Asia to the Middle East, U.S. officials have repeatedly collaborated with fiercely anti-democratic regimes and militaries implicated in torture, murder, the suppression of democratic rights, the systematic oppression of women and minorities, and numerous other human rights abuses. Forget the recent White House invitations and Trump's public compliments. For nearly three quarters of a century, the United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in maintaining bases and troops in such repressive states. From Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have, since World War II, regularly shown a preference for maintaining bases in undemocratic and often despotic states, including Spain under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, South Korea under Park Chung-hee, Bahrain under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and Djibouti under four-term President Ismail Omar Guelleh, to name just four.
Many of the 45 present-day undemocratic U.S. base hosts qualify as fully "authoritarian regimes," according to the Economist Democracy Index. In such cases, American installations and the troops stationed on them are effectively helping block the spread of democracy in countries like Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kuwait, Niger, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
This pattern of daily support for dictatorship and repression around the world should be a national scandal in a country supposedly committed to democracy. It should trouble Americans ranging from religious conservatives and libertarians to leftists -- anyone, in fact, who believes in the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. After all, one of the long-articulated justifications for maintaining military bases abroad has been that the U.S. military's presence protects and spreads democracy.
Far from bringing democracy to these lands, however, such bases tend to provide legitimacy for and prop up undemocratic regimes of all sorts, while often interfering with genuine efforts to encourage political and democratic reform. The silencing of the critics of human rights abuses in base hosts like Bahrain, which has violently cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators since 2011, has left the United States complicit in these states' crimes.
During the Cold War, bases in undemocratic countries were often justified as the unfortunate but necessary consequence of confronting the "communist menace" of the Soviet Union. But here's the curious thing: in the quarter century since the Cold War ended with that empire's implosion, few of those bases have closed. Today, while a White House visit from an autocrat may generate indignation, the presence of such installations in countries run by repressive or military rulers receives little notice at all.- Advertisement -
The 45 nations and territories with little or no democratic rule represent more than half of the roughly 80 countries now hosting U.S. bases (who often lack the power to ask their "guests" to leave). They are part of a historically unprecedented global network of military installations the United States has built or occupied since World War II.
Today, while there are no foreign bases in the United States, there are around 800 U.S. bases in foreign countries. That number was recently even higher, but it still almost certainly represents a record for any nation or empire in history. More than 70 years after World War II and 64 years after the Korean War, there are, according to the Pentagon, 181 U.S. "base sites" in Germany, 122 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea. Hundreds more dot the planet from Aruba to Australia, Belgium to Bulgaria, Colombia to Qatar. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, civilians, and family members occupy these installations. By my conservative estimate, to maintain such a level of bases and troops abroad, U.S. taxpayers spend at least $150 billion annually -- more than the budget of any government agency except the Pentagon itself.