The Costs of Empire
Part 1 - Starting with a solid base
By David Isenberg*
Asia Times, February 13 2004
*David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American
Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control
and national security issues.
Somewhere on the Yale University campus, Paul Michael Kennedy must be
smiling. Remember Paul Kennedy? Back in 1987 the then relatively unknown
history professor published the book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,
and almost instantaneously introduced the expression "imperial overstretch"
into popular discourse. Although it did not take long for right-wing
commentators to attack him, saying that it was the Soviet, not the US empire
that had overstretched, his basic point remains the same.
As he wrote 10 years later in Atlantic Magazine: "The United States now runs
the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of Great Powers, of
what might be called 'imperial overstretch': that is to say, decision-makers
in Washington must face the awkward and enduring fact that the total of the
United States's global interests and obligations is nowadays far too large
for the country to be able to defend them all simultaneously."
Well, now talk of empire is back in vogue since the war in Iraq has focused
the attention of the American public, normally caught up in the soma of
reality television, to an unusual degree on the burdens and costs of empire.
But while empire in all its imperial, multicolored, geopolitical hues may be
an alluring sight, there is one thing to keep in mind. The process of
creating and maintaining an empire, like making sausage or passing
congressional legislation, is not a pretty process. In fact, it is costly,
very costly, in terms of lives, money and liberty. It requires a large
military establishment, which can consume a substantial, if not
disproportionate amount of the national treasury. And it requires stationing
and deploying forces around the world.
A base for every need
It is not easy being a global military power. It takes a lot of behind the
scenes work to allow the F-15s and F-16s to fly over Iraq airspace, for the
soldiers and Marines to deploy to Japan and South Korea, and to get the M-1
tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles and a myriad of other military equipment
to the far-flung corners of the empire. Despite the rush to outsource
federal programs, this is not yet a job that the Pentagon is willing to
entrust to Federal Express or DHL.
Even in the 21st century, with jet and space travel, the world is a large
place. The division of the world into military fiefdoms, or what US military
planners euphemistically call the Unified Command Plan, requires something
very old-fashioned: a network of overseas military bases.
True, the contours of the network change, waxing and waning over time. Many
overseas US military bases overseas have closed since the end of the Cold
War, and the number of US troops permanently stationed overseas has dropped
by more than 250,000 since the Berlin Wall fell. But preparations to deploy
American legions remain a primary Pentagon concern.
In fact, a number of individuals who now are part of the Bush administration
(including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld)
produced in the fall of 2000 a 90-page blueprint for transforming the US
military and the nation's global role. The report, "Rebuilding America's
Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century" released by the
Project for the New American Century, argued that the US should not only
attain and maintain military dominance, but should also project it with a
worldwide network of forward operating bases over and above the country's
already extensive overseas deployments.
That is why the Pentagon plans to dramatically change the shape of US
military basing abroad. Unlike the Cold War era with its large permanent
garrisons - like the over 200,000 troops that were kept in Germany - the
fashion nowadays is for more temporary forward deployments to Spartan bases.
While such plans were in the works before President George W Bush took
office, September 11, 2001, did much to accelerate them. The goal is to
create a web of far-flung, lean, forward-operating bases, maintained in
peacetime only by small permanent support units, with fighting forces
deployed from the US when necessary. To that end, a large reduction of the
traditional US military presence in Europe is necessary.
The Pentagon is quite open and candid about it. In a speech last December 3,
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith said: "President Bush
and Secretary Rumsfeld likewise are thinking about the relatively distant
future. In developing plans to realign our forces abroad they're not focused
on the diplomatic issues of the moment but on the strategic requirements and
opportunities of the coming decades. Let's be clear about what we are and
what we're not aiming to achieve through transforming our global defense
"We are not aiming at retrenching it, curtailing US commitments,
isolationism or unilateralism. On the contrary, our realignment plans are
motivated by appreciation of the strategic value of defense alliances and
partnerships with other states. We are aiming to increase our ability to
fulfill our international commitments more effectively. We're aiming to
ensure that our alliances are capable, affordable, sustainable and relevant
in the future. We're not focused narrowly on force levels that are
addressing force capabilities. We are not talking about fighting in place
but moving to the fight. We are not talking only about basing, we're talking
about the ability to move forces when and where needed.
"In transforming the US global defense posture we want to make our forces
more responsive, given the world's many strategic uncertainties. We want to
benefit as much as possible from the strategic pre-positioning of equipment
and support. We want to make better use of our capabilities by thinking of
our forces globally rather than as simply regional assets. We want to be
able to bring more combat capabilities to bear in less time; that is, we
to have the ability to surge our forces to crisis spots from wherever those
forces might be."
Feith reiterated the point during a speech a week later in Romania. He said:
"What we are interested in doing as we realign our global posture is taking
advantage of the opportunity, with a much lighter footprint, to have the
kinds of capabilities around the world that will allow us to react quickly
with easily deployed forces, with lighter forces, to provide security and
shore up our commitments around the world."
Last year saw the removal of some US troops from Germany and the
establishment of new bases in, as Rumsfeld phrased it, "New Europe", the new
North Atlantic Treaty Organization members Romania and Bulgaria.
Also it was reported that the 1st Armored Division, half the US Army's
Europe combat force, traditionally based in Europe, would not return to its
German bases. During the invasion of Iraq, air bases opened up for US use in
Bulgaria's Sarajevo airfield, where refueling aircraft were based; the
Bulgarian port of Burgas, the Romanian port Constanta and the Romanian
military airfield of Mihail Kogalniceanu.
US military plans also include huge ex-Warsaw Pact training ranges and other
bases in Poland and Hungary. Thousands of American and British troops have
been conducting exercises on the Drawsko Pomorskiy and Wedrzyn training
areas since 1996, taking advantage of the lack of restrictions compared to
Germany. Use of the Krzesiny airbase outside Poznan, Poland, is also
anticipated. In January Poland's Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski
announced that Poland had launched negotiations with Washington on hosting
US military bases on its territory.
The Taszar airbase in Hungary is also a possible candidate for an increased
US presence, as it has supported US operations in the region since the US
entry into Bosnia in 1995.
During his recent Asian tour, General Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, said that the US is likely to use the joint military
training facility it is seeking to establish in northern Australia to
pre-position equipment and material.
The Air Force wants to return to the Cold War-era practice of basing fighter
jets and other strike and support planes on Guam, the Pacific island that is
in ready striking distance of the Korean peninsula, according to General
William J Begert, commander of Pacific Air Forces.
An empire that spans the world
Despite this restructuring, the US military empire is still staggeringly
large. The global "footprint" as it is called, conjuring up interesting
images of just who and what the US treads on, spans the world.
Currently Pentagon officials are in the final throes of crafting an updated
National Military Strategy that is expected to acknowledge a need to
redistribute US forces and revamp their chains of command throughout the
globe. "Global sourcing", a term used to describe the distribution of US
forces across the Earth, is also an issue to be addressed in the new
national military strategy. The new posture is expected to carry with it a
new lingo for bases, including "power projection hubs", main operating bases
and more flexible and agile "forward operating sites".
Under the plan, US troops, rather than inhabiting a small number of large
garrisons, would rotate through dozens of small bases throughout the world
on exercises, staying for only a few weeks or months at a time. Those bases
could serve as launching points for military strikes to protect US interests
or quickly strike out at terrorists.
Part of this redistribution is what author Chalmers Johnson calls
"Baseworld". Johnson writes: "It's not easy to assess the size or exact
value of our empire of bases. Official records on these subjects are
misleading, although instructive. According to the Defense Department's
annual 'Base Structure Report' for fiscal year 2003, which itemizes foreign
and domestic US military real estate, the Pentagon currently owns or rents
702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and has another 6,000 bases in the
US and its territories. Pentagon bureaucrats calculate that it would require
at least [US]$113.2 billion to replace just the foreign bases - surely far
too low a figure, but still larger than the gross domestic product of most
countries - and an estimated $592 billion to replace all of them. The
military high command deploys to its overseas bases some 253,288 uniformed
personnel, plus an equal number of dependents and Department of Defense
civilian officials, and employs an additional 44,446 locally hired
foreigners. The Pentagon claims that these bases contain 44,870 barracks,
hangars, hospitals, and other buildings, which it owns, and that it leases
"These numbers, although staggeringly large, do not begin to cover all the
actual bases that we occupy globally. The 2003 Base Status Report fails to
mention, for instance, any garrisons in Kosovo - even though it is the site
of the huge Camp Bondsteel, built in 1999 and maintained ever since by
Kellogg, Brown & Root. The report similarly omits bases in Afghanistan,
Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar and Uzbekistan, although the US
military has established colossal base structures throughout the so-called
arc of instability in the two-and-a-half years since September 11."
Nor does it include new facilities being built. In Iraq engineers from the
1st Armored Division are midway through a $800 million project to build half
a dozen camps for the incoming 1st Cavalry Division. The new outposts,
dubbed enduring camps, will improve living quarters for soldiers and allow
the military to return key infrastructure sites within the Iraqi capital to
the emerging government. According to GlobalSecurity.org these include such
places as Camps Anaconda, Dogwood and Falcon, just to name a few.
The largest of the new camps, Camp Victory North, will be twice the size of
Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo - currently one of the largest overseas posts built
since the Vietnam War.
Also bear in mind that the deployment of military forces abroad means
negotiating complicated legal arrangements, euphemistically called Status of
Forces agreements, so that US forces remain largely immune from host country
laws. The United States has yet to begin serious negotiations with Iraqis on
an agreement to guarantee that American troops in Iraq will remain immune
from arrest and prosecution by local authorities once a new Baghdad
government takes over in June.
This was a way of life for 19th century imperialists, who, for example,
carved out little extraterritorial enclaves all along the coast of China.
This was certainly the case of the collapsed empire of the Soviet Union,
whose military men led privileged lives elsewhere in the communist bloc.
This is the peacetime way of life of the US military, whose forces abroad
are largely shielded from local judgments. Increasingly, if the Bush
administration has its way (thanks to bilateral agreements forced on other
nations), American soldiers in wartime will be responsible to no other body,
certainly not to the new International Criminal Court, for crimes of war or
crimes against humanity.
David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American
Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control
and national security issues.