As TomDispatch's Nick Turse reminds us today, the United States remains an imperial military presence unlike any other -- not just in this moment but in the history of empire. Never has a single country had so many military bases on so many parts of Planet Earth. Consider that a striking fact of 2019, as it was, say, of the 1950s or the post-Cold-War 1990s. How many such bases? As Turse makes clear, no one really knows, possibly not even the Pentagon. And more curious yet, that vast global infrastructure, that "empire of bases" (in Chalmers Johnson's eloquent phrase), is hardly noticed in what, since 9/11, has been known as "the homeland." Few here think much about those global garrisons (although hundreds of thousands of Americans have in recent years been deployed to them); the media that cover every presidential tweet as if it were a missive from the emperor almost never mention them, much less report on them; and no one -- Turse and a few scholars aside -- seems to have the slightest interest in counting them up, much less considering their cost or even the global role they've been playing all these years. In domestic terms, they are essentially missing in action, which means a vision of how the United States has positioned itself on this planet is missing in action as well.
With that in mind, let's acknowledge something else in this strange moment of ours: while that massive (and massively expensive) base structure remains firmly in place, American imperial power is increasingly another matter. It should be clear enough by now that, despite The Donald's recent dark-of-night selfie drop-in on American troops at al-Assad Air Base in Iraq -- as CNN put it, "the dicey security situation still restrict[ed] Trump to a clandestine visit more than 15 years after the American invasion" -- he seems to be almost singlehandedly launching the process by which the American imperial system, built up over the last three-quarters of a century, could be dismantled. The Syrian withdrawal and possible Afghan drawdown of troops may just be straws in the wind -- but one day, what a wind that could turn out to be!
It's obvious that the man who ran as the first declinist candidate for president, the only one willing to acknowledge in 2016 that America was no longer quite so "great," seems intent, however blindly, on beginning that dismantling process. He clearly has an urge to tear down international institutions and dismiss the network of subservient allies Washington had carefully built up for decades to bolster its global power.
Still, don't label him the dismantler-in-chief quite yet. In the end, Donald Trump may indeed prove to be the American equivalent of one of the mad emperors that helped take down the Roman empire -- a Queens-born Caligula. For the time being, however, think of him instead as an envoy for and a message from the unknown gods of the twenty-first century, a symptom of a process that has been going on just out of sight for years. After all, he bears no responsibility for the fact that the self-proclaimed greatest military power ever, in fighting post-9/11 wars without end, has found itself, despite that empire of bases, ever less able to impose its will militarily or otherwise on increasingly large parts of the planet. Tom
Bases, Bases, Everywhere...
Except in the Pentagon's Report
By Nick Turse
The U.S. military is finally withdrawing (or not) from its base at al-Tanf. You know, the place that the Syrian government long claimed was a training ground for Islamic State (ISIS) fighters; the land corridor just inside Syria, near both the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, that Russia has called a terrorist hotbed (while floating the idea of jointly administering it with the United States); the location of a camp where hundreds of U.S. Marines joined Special Operations forces last year; an outpost that U.S. officials claimed was the key not only to defeating ISIS, but also, according to General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, to countering "the malign activities that Iran and their various proxies and surrogates would like to pursue." You know, that al-Tanf.- Advertisement -
Within hours of President Trump's announcement of a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, equipment at that base was already being inventoried for removal. And just like that, arguably the most important American garrison in Syria was (maybe) being struck from the Pentagon's books -- except, as it happens, al-Tanf was never actually on the Pentagon's books. Opened in 2015 and, until recently, home to hundreds of U.S. troops, it was one of the many military bases that exist somewhere between light and shadow, an acknowledged foreign outpost that somehow never actually made it onto the Pentagon's official inventory of bases.
Officially, the Department of Defense (DoD) maintains 4,775 "sites," spread across all 50 states, eight U.S. territories, and 45 foreign countries. A total of 514 of these outposts are located overseas, according to the Pentagon's worldwide property portfolio. Just to start down a long list, these include bases on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, as well as in Peru and Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. But the most recent version of that portfolio, issued in early 2018 and known as the Base Structure Report (BSR), doesn't include any mention of al-Tanf. Or, for that matter, any other base in Syria. Or Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or Niger. Or Tunisia. Or Cameroon. Or Somalia. Or any number of locales where such military outposts are known to exist and even, unlike in Syria, to be expanding.
According to David Vine, author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, there could be hundreds of similar off-the-books bases around the world. "The missing sites are a reflection of the lack of transparency involved in the system of what I still estimate to be around 800 U.S. bases outside the 50 states and Washington, D.C., that have been encircling the globe since World War II," says Vine, who is also a founding member of the recently established Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition, a group of military analysts from across the ideological spectrum who advocate shrinking the U.S. military's global "footprint."
Such off-the-books bases are off the books for a reason. The Pentagon doesn't want to talk about them. "I spoke to the press officer who is responsible for the Base Structure Report and she has nothing to add and no one available to discuss further at this time," Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Baldanza told TomDispatch when asked about the Defense Department's many mystery bases.
"Undocumented bases are immune to oversight by the public and often even Congress," Vine explains. "Bases are a physical manifestation of U.S. foreign and military policy, so off-the-books bases mean the military and executive branch are deciding such policy without public debate, frequently spending hundreds of millions or billions of dollars and potentially getting the U.S. involved in wars and conflicts about which most of the country knows nothing."
Where Are They?- Advertisement -
The Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition notes that the United States possesses up to 95% of the world's foreign military bases, while countries like France, Russia, and the United Kingdom have perhaps 10-20 foreign outposts each. China has just one.
The Department of Defense even boasts that its "locations" include 164 countries. Put another way, it has a military presence of some sort in approximately 84% of the nations on this planet -- or at least the DoD briefly claimed this. After TomDispatch inquired about the number on a new webpage designed to tell the Pentagon's "story" to the general public, it was quickly changed. "We appreciate your diligence in getting to the bottom of this," said Lieutenant Colonel Baldanza. "Thanks to your observations, we have updated defense.gov to say 'more than 160.'"