The case for closing our overseas military bases

bases 2The most popular post, over the years, on Occasional Planet is: “Military Mystery: how many bases does the US have, anyway?”  American University anthropology professor, David Vine, spent six years trying to answer that question and to investigate the effect of U.S. military presence on foreign soil. In researching his subject, he traveled to U.S. military installations around the world, interviewing both the military and local residents. His findings are published in his new book, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. (Henry Holt, 2015).


Some of David Vine’s main points:

The military admits we have an excess base capacity worldwide. It doesn’t have a clear idea, and/or doesn’t want to confirm how many bases we have. The official count is 686 but it excludes known bases in Kosovo, Kuwait, and Qatar, “secret” bases in Israel and Saudi Arabia, and who knows how many in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vine settles on 800 as a good estimate.

The sites vary from massive bases in Germany and Japan to smaller facilities in Peru and Puerto Rico, to off-the-record “black sites” run by the CIA and military intelligence. By comparison, Russia has bases in 10 countries, mostly in former Soviet states. India and China have none.

Maintaining installations and troops overseas cost at least $85 billion in 2014. Our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq brings the total to $156 billion—money, Vine says, that could be better spent on education, infrastructure, housing and health care.

Our presence in other countries provokes hatred toward Americans. Our bases and troops in the Middle East have been major catalysts for anti-Americanism and radicalization.

Foreign bases heighten military tensions and discourage diplomatic solutions, while, at the same time, encourage excess military spending.

Imprisonment, torture, and abuse at bases from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib have generated worldwide disgust and damaged our reputation. Drone bases enable missile strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians, producing further outrage.

The official line is that these military bases are defensive and make us, and the host countries, safer. Yet they have functioned more as launching pads for interventionist wars that have resulted in repeated disasters costing trillions of dollars and millions of lives from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.

David Vine: On the presence of U.S. foreign military bases as a catalyst for war:

Placing U.S. bases near the borders of countries such as China, Russia, and Iran, for example, increases threats to their security and encourages them to respond by boosting their own military spending. Again, imagine how U.S. leaders would respond if Iran were to build even a single small base in Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean.

US military bases surrounding Iran
US military bases surrounding Iran

Notably, the most dangerous moment during the Cold War—the Cuban missile crisis—revolved around the creation of Soviet nuclear missile facilities roughly ninety miles from the U.S. border. Similarly, one of the most dangerous episodes in the post-Cold War era—Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its involvement in the war in Ukraine—has come after the United States encouraged the enlargement of NATO and built a growing number of bases closer and closer to Russian borders.

Indeed, a major motivation behind Russia’s actions has likely been its interest in maintaining perhaps the most important of its small collection of foreign bases, the naval base in the Crimean port Sevastopol. West-leaning Ukrainian leaders’ desire to join NATO posed a direct threat to the base, and thus to the power of the Russian navy.

Perhaps most troubling of all, the creation of new U.S. bases to protect against an alleged future Chinese or Russian threat runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. By provoking a Chinese and Russian military response, these bases may help create the very threat against which they are supposedly designed to protect. In other words, far from making the world a safer place, U.S. bases overseas can actually make war more likely and America less secure.

Questioning American military empire

At no time in history has a nation had such a vast international military presence as the United States does today. Our foreign bases serve US “interests” meaning the geopolitical/economic/financial interests of banks and corporations. The military and its war industries account for a large share of the budget while most Americans are experiencing declining incomes and quality of life.

The hubristic attitude, shared by Republicans, Democrats, and progressives alike, is that the United States is “exceptional,” and therefore has some sort of self-appointed moral right to militarily and economically dominate the world. We decide when a national leader “has to go” and initiate a covert or overt “regime change.” We assassinate identified “enemies” with drones along with innocent bystanders referred to not as “human beings” but as “collateral damage.” We ignore international law and the United Nations if they get in the way of our pursuing our “interests” in a country or region. We prefer destroyed, failed states that we can control to independent, functioning states that refuse to be US vassals (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, Syria). Sadly, the American people are generally comfortable with all this, or indifferent.

Absent in the media, among elected officials, or in the general public, is a debate about whether we should continue this hubristic and destructive hegemonic agenda. The only voices raised against a US-dominated, unipolar world come from the Left, and a few on the Libertarian Right. Those voices are routinely slapped down and ridiculed as being overly critical, negative, ideological, unrealistic, disloyal, utopian, hyperbolic, naïve, conspiratorial, weak, unpatriotic, and, when critical of the role of Israel in the middle east, anti-Semitic. Rarely do Americans engage with the challenging issues raised by the Left.

putin 2The US public, perhaps the most uninformed in the developed world, may never question, or worse yet, even be aware of, the vast number of US military bases and operations around the globe. Our jingoistic media supports our corporate-backed military agenda by demonizing any country that refuses to align itself with our interests. Fear-based war mongering is routinely served up as “news” on CNN, FOX, and in the pages of the New York Times. Mainstream media-driven, official narratives abound, dissenting voices occasionally, but rarely appear, while everywhere serious analysis or dialog is discouraged.

The US debt is now at 101% of GDP, much of that from unpaid for wars and an unsustainable and bloated military/intelligence budget. By comparison, China’s debt is 64.37% of GDP, and Russia’s is 11.66% of GDP. ( The powerful British Empire, once controlled 25% of the world. Eventually, it fell under the weight of its overextended global presence. Given the stagnation of our economy and the deterioration of our infrastructure, we are clearly headed down that road.

In 2004, the late Chalmers Johnson, “cold-warrior,” Korean War veteran, CIA consultant, and university professor, wrote the following prescient analysis:

Without grasping the dimensions of this globe-girdling Baseworld, one can’t begin to understand the size and nature of our imperial aspirations, or the degree to which a new kind of militarism is undermining our constitutional order. Militarism and imperialism are Siamese twins joined at the hip; each thrives off the other. Already highly advanced in our country, they are both on the verge of a quantum leap that will almost surely stretch our military beyond its capabilities, bringing about fiscal insolvency and very possibly doing mortal damage to our republican institutions.