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Outpost of empire

The US has up to 1,000 bases in more than 130 countries. Wilber van der Zeijden reports on the global military network underpinning the world's only superpower.

March 1, 2007
9 min read

A few years ago, it was briefly fashionable to claim that empire had been ‘deterritorialised’, meaning that the physical outposts of imperial control had been replaced with more amorphous forms of political control. But if you map the remaining networks of foreign military bases worldwide, they tell a different story. More than 1,000 such bases and installations remain, most of which are run by the US military – which has a military presence in over 130 countries. These range from vast installations, like Guantanamo Bay, to smaller spy bases or joint training camps, stores for nuclear missiles, ‘rest and recuperation’ facilities and refuelling stations. In addition, the US and some of its Nato allies complement this vast military presence with an even more elaborate network of port-of-call rights, landing rights for military and intelligence planes, refuel rights and flyover rights.

Locating military bases outside one’s territory is as old as the concept of an organised army. But the history of the current global network of foreign military bases starts with the colonial period, during which the UK and other European powers set up competing military infrastructures to repress local discontent, ward off other powers and support all kinds of military or civilian operations in and close to colonial possessions. The UK and France still maintain foreign bases today – the remains of this colonialism.

But the bulk of today’s foreign military bases belong to the US.

Building the base

Although the US tried to maintain the aura of non-colonial foreign politics throughout the 20th century, its first overseas bases were established in 1898, after it won the last Spanish-American war and confiscated Puerto Rico, Guantanamo Bay, the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii. Hawaii was regarded as crucial at the time by the McKinley administration ‘to help us get our share of China’. After the second world war, the US expanded its empire of bases rapidly, carving out the bipolar political world map by overloading Europe and east Asia with US troops and armaments, in an attempt to ‘roll back’ the USSR’s aspirations and to be able to fight proxy wars in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

After 1989, the US started a massive ‘base restructuring’ programme. The programme intended to reduce the number of US troops based in Europe and east Asia, while at the same time expanding its global military reach by opening strategic, often small, bases in previously US-army free areas. In the past decade, this drive towards ‘full spectrum dominance’ has concentrated on establishing a global network of spy bases along similar lines to the Echelon ‘listening posts’, such as Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, ground posts necessary for the projected global missile defence project and small ‘forward located’ stations that enable the US to strike fast against anyone at any given moment.

The inability to sustain military ground invasions in Somalia in the 1990s, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, shed doubt among US military elites over the original aim to reduce the presence of its ground troops overseas. As a result, the withdrawal of troops from Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea seems to have stopped. In addition, the US seems to be planning about a dozen ‘enduring’ bases supporting thousands of its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, expanding its overseas military infrastructure as well as putting debates about US ‘withdrawal’ into perspective.

Bases are not singular isolated military strongholds.Without its vast network of military bases globally, the US would not have been able to conduct 300-plus overseas military interventions in the 20th century. It would have been a lot more difficult to overthrow Latin American democratic governments friendly to socialist change, or to be so deeply involved in south east Asian wars and campaigns. It would have made the prolonged bombing campaigns against Iraq in the 1990s, not to mention the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the US-backed invasion of Lebanon by Israel, a lot harder. And while bases in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Diego Garcia were crucial to these campaigns, the current build-up of military means in Iraq, Afghanistan, central Asia, Pakistan and the Gulf states will allow the US to suppress or even invade Iran in the future.

Foreign bases, local impacts

Foreign military bases are meant to project military power globally, but at the same time, the more visible and everyday effects are seen on a local or national level.There are numerous reasons why these bases should come with a health warning, including their devastating effects on local economies, environments and public health. In several cases, as in Diego Garcia, Thule (Greenland) and Vieques (Puerto Rico), they have also led to the loss of land, housing and even holy ancestral grounds. And while the extent to which local populations are confronted with these effects differs in each case, many similar experiences are shared around the globe.

The environmental and health impact of bases can be devastating. At the US base in Thule, Greenland, for example, the campaign group Greenpeace observed the dumping of hundreds of barrels of waste and piles of metal without protection. It also measured high levels of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and radioactive material from tests and accidents, including the crash of a nuclear bomber that released plutonium, working their way up the food chain. Such pollutants are absorbed from the environment by shellfish and are concentrated when those creatures are eaten by fish, birds and land carnivores, resulting in birth defects, cancers and other diseases in the animals of this formerly pristine environment. Similar loss of biodiversity is reported from Guam and Okinawa, due to chemical pollution and the introduction of alien species to the island by military ships and planes.

Bases also result in a loss of sovereignty for the ‘host nation’ since they evade all channels of democratic accountability, not to mention raising serious moral issues regarding the complicity of the host countries in cases where international law is violated. Most US bases are covered by ‘status of forces agreements’, negotiated between the US and host governments, which often exempt US military personnel from visa and tax requirements and from local criminal jurisdiction, as well as granting US forces wider abilities to act outside the usual laws of the country.

As Roland Simbulan, a leading peace activist and opponent of US military bases in the Philippines, explains: ‘The Philippine government granted US troops involved in joint military exercises special treatment, such as exemption from customs and immigration procedures and immunity from the regular court procedures should they commit crimes on Philippine territory. They are given special treatment not accorded to Filipino citizens.’ The bases cause other problems too for the local communities.

The opening of new bases tends to cause a spike in local crime rates, although most host countries are unable to place US servicemen on trial. More disturbingly still, these bases bring with them high rates of prostitution, as well as rape and other violence towards women. High profile examples, such as the grotesquely sexualised murder of a young woman bar worker by a US serviceman in Korea in 1992, and the rape of a 12 year old girl in Okinawa by three GIs in 1995 are just the visible end of the everyday difficulties faced by women and girls in base towns from Honduras to Guam to Labrador.

Striking back against empire

Resistance to foreign military presence is almost as widespread as the bases themselves, whether they be colonial strongholds, cold war forward located defence facilities or current ‘full spectrum dominance’ platforms.

For example, Vicenza, in Italy, is currently witnessing a powerful movement against plans to construct a new base at Dal Molin, the city’s old airport. ‘We are against that base. We defend our land and do not want to be at the forefront of the global war against terrorism,’ says Francesco Pavin from ‘No to Dal Molin’, a coalition of citizens, antiwar activists, church groups and environmentalists.

But this is more than simply a local struggle. As Toni Pigatto, of the local boy scouts’ association, told Inter Press Service, ‘We do not protest only because they will build yet another military base in Vicenza. We say not here, not anywhere else. We reject the idea that democracy can be spread with weapons.’ This same spirit underlies a global network of campaigners, activist and researchers that has emerged over the past three years with the aim of meeting the phenomenon of foreign military bases head-on. During 5-9 March, this network is convening a global conference in Quito, Ecuador, where it is calling for the abolition of foreign military bases.

Underlying this new initiative, which is embedded in the larger global movements for social justice and against war, is a recognition that, while it remains important to strengthen each individual campaign against any foreign military base, it is time to challenge the whole structure of bases globally.This means questioning the moral, economic and political justifications that underlie the idea that some countries are allowed to export their militarism on such a universal level.

For those struggling to free themselves from the yoke of US and other foreign military involvement, the US Declaration of Independence provides a good starting point. The US aimed to free itself of British rule ‘For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us’ and ‘For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.’ Communities are organising now, worldwide, to declare their own independence from the US and its bases. Additional reporting by Sarah Irving and Oscar Reyes. For more information on the International Coalition for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases, see www.abolishbases.org

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