In December, the Pentagon proposed a plan to restructure and strengthen the network of U.S. military bases around the world. The hope is that the plan would help combat ISIS and other terrorist organizations. But author and American University professor David Vine argues that it might have the opposite effect. He speaks with Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd.
Interview Highlights: David Vine
On the Pentagon’s plan to build more bases
“There’s actually very little that’s new about this plan. What the Pentagon has announced is a desire to create something of a hub and spoke system to integrate pre-existing bases and perhaps to build some smaller bases. Largely, this is a continuation of a policy that has been going on really since 1980, to build up bases in and around the Middle East. It’s troubling to me, and to many, that the costs to begin with are laughable. The Pentagon has estimated that this will cost just a few million dollars, very little in the U.S. military. These bases that have been built up since 1980 have cost tens of billions of dollars just in the Persian Gulf region alone.”
On the proposed ‘lily pad’ bases
“Lily pads are an increasingly popular kind of base, at least in the U.S. military. They tend to be much smaller than the city-sized bases that the United States has maintained in places like Germany, Japan, Italy and South Korea. Those have tens of thousands of troops, family members, hospitals, schools, shopping, fast food and on and on. Lily pads are the other end of the spectrum. They are small bases that have perhaps a few hundred troops, often they house drones or special operations forces and frequently they’re quite secretive bases in parts of the world where the United States has, until now, had very little military presence. Places like Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Kenya. You’ll notice that Africa has been sort of the center point of this strategy, but you also see them in Bulgaria and Romania, places like Asia and Central America as well.”
On the bases as a response to recent turmoil in African countries (Boko Haram and al-Qaida affiliates)
"...essentially the presence of U.S. bases and troops in Africa has been something of a boon to insurgents. It creates a recruiting tool."
“That is part of the strategy; that these bases can allow the United States to fly drones either for surveillance or perhaps for targeted assassination. But the track record of the U.S. Africa command, Africom, have actually been quite poor. Research that published in a military journal showed that essentially the presence of U.S. bases and troops in Africa has been something of a boon to insurgents. It creates a recruiting tool, and we’ve seen the same in the Middle East. The strategy has frequently proven counterproductive.”
On the scale of military bases the U.S. has abroad.
“Most members of the U.S. public pay little attention to this huge collection of bases around the world, and the roughly $150 billion we are spending every year maintaining troops and bases overseas. I put together that calculation as part of my book, and I think members of the U.S. public know very little about the U.S. maintaining hundreds of bases still in Germany, Japan and South Korea, long after the Cold War and World War II when most of the bases were created.”
What were some of the more obscure bases you came across when writing your book?
“There are a growing number of bases in Africa that people know very little about, most of them secretive. There are also bases in places like Honduras, a ‘temporary base’ built in the 1980s and remained in existence after the end of the blood civil wars in Central America, which was the root of the base there. The base simply remained in place and has remained in place. Other bases that are little known are the base on Diego Garcia, a very small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. To create the base in the late 1960s and early 1970s the U.S. and British governments exiled the entire indigenous people of the island. The people have been living in exile ever since. There are other little-known bases in Central and Eastern Europe and Asia, places like the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands or the Republic of the Marshal Islands as well as Guam, parts of the United States that people in the United States think about very often.”
On the belief that these bases do harm to the U.S. and the world.
“The assumption for a long time has been that more bases equals more security; that the United States needs to have as many bases as possible outside of the United States and tens of thousands of U.S. troops outside of the United States to ensure its security. Basically, it’s an unquestioned assumption of the Cold War that’s remained in place. It’s fundamentally, in my mind, and outdated strategy because there’s very little evidence to suggest that all these bases overseas prevent the attacks of other nations or deter other nations or ensure global peace and security while there is abundant evidence that these bases have harmed a range of people, beginning with the $150 billion we are spending to maintain our bases and troops overseas. Then you look at the harm these bases have afflicted on the people that live around them. Frequently, there’s environmental damage, sex industries pop up outside the bases. Crime has been a problem, unfortunately, at many bases, and the kind of displacement that we saw with the people on Diego Garcia, where an entire people was displaced to make way for a base. These are some of the very clear harms that have been inflicted. Meanwhile, as the Middle East shows, bases overseas are often directly counter-productive because they provide a recruiting tool for insurgent groups like al-Qaida. They are a way to rally people to take up arms against the United States when you have U.S. bases and troops occupying Muslim lands.”
How would you keep U.S. interests safe from threats, if not with these bases?
“It’s important to keep in mind that there are literally hundreds of these bases surrounding Russia and China. We may consider how we in the United States would feel if there was even a single foreign base anywhere near U.S. borders. There’s a real danger with these bases that they often increase military tensions: that they encourage nations like Russia, China and North Korea to build up their military forces’ defensive measures. What is important to note is that there are other ways to ensure our security, and people from across the military and the political spectrum are coming to this conclusion. For example, because of technological advances, the United States can deploy its forces, in most cases, just as quickly from bases in the continental United States or perhaps Hawaii, as from bases overseas. Simply put, bases overseas have lost much of their strategic importance because the United States is so adept at deploying its forces over large swaths of the Earth, and meanwhile the costs of these bases really don’t outweigh any benefits. They take money away from money that could be used to protect the borders of the United States and that could be used to ensure the physical security of the people of the United States; health, education, infrastructure of the United States that is so often crumbling.”
Is there a chance of closing American bases abroad?
"Those are troops and family members that could be living in their districts and states back home, where their salaries would be contributing to local economies."
“The argument of my book is not that we should close every U.S. military base overseas tomorrow, instead it’s an argument that we need to carefully examine the need for every single military base overseas. Any unnecessary base is distracting our military from protecting the United States and is taking money away from pressing needs at home and abroad. That’s one of the reason that the politics of closing bases overseas are actually much simpler than closing domestic bases. First of all, the Pentagon can close bases overseas immediately, they don’t need the permission of Congress to close overseas bases. Member of Congress are coming to the realization, in fact, that maintaining tens of thousands of troops in places like Italy, South Korea, Germany and Japan, those are troops and family members that could be living in their districts and states back home, where their salaries would be contributing to local economies. You really see people, across the spectrum, beginning to question this status quo of maintaining hundreds of bases and hundreds of thousands of troops overseas.”
- David Vine, associate professor at American University and the author of "Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World." He tweets @davidsvine.
This segment aired on January 28, 2016.