Bases for an Empire

Chalmers Johnson's latest book is "The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic." A longer version of this essay appears on

Many Americans do not recognize -- or do not want to recognize -- that the United States dominates the world through its military power. Our garrisons encircle the planet, and this vast network of U.S. bases, on every continent except Antarctica, constitutes its own form of empire. The Pentagon has remade the map of U.S. territory in a way unlikely to be taught in any high school geography class. But to understand the size and nature of our imperial aspirations -- and the degree to which a new kind of militarism is undermining our constitutional order -- it’s crucial to have a sense of the dimensions of this globe-girdling “Baseworld.”

Our military deploys more than half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, teachers, dependents and civilian contractors in other nations. It dominates the oceans and seas with a fleet of aircraft carriers. It operates numerous secret bases outside the U.S. to monitor what the people of the world, including our citizens, are saying, faxing or e-mailing to one another.

Our government installations abroad support an even larger web of civilian industries, which design and manufacture weapons or provide services to build and maintain our far-flung outposts. These contractors are charged with, among other things, keeping uniformed members of the imperium comfortably housed, well-fed, amused and supplied with enjoyable, affordable leisure and vacation facilities. Whole sectors of the U.S. economy have come to rely on the military for their profits.

It’s not easy to assess the size or exact value of our empire of bases. According to the Defense Department’s annual “Base Structure Report” for fiscal year 2003, which itemizes foreign and domestic U.S. military real estate, the Pentagon occupies 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and another 6,000 bases in the U.S. and its territories. Pentagon bureaucrats calculate that it would require at least $113.2 billion to replace just the foreign bases -- surely far too low a figure but still larger than the gross domestic products of most countries. The military high command deploys to our 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.


These numbers, although staggeringly large, do not begin to cover all the actual bases we occupy globally. The 2003 “Base Structure 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 since by Halliburton subsidiary KBR, formerly known as Kellogg, Brown & Root. The report similarly omits bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar and Uzbekistan, although the U.S. military has established colossal base structures in these places since Sept. 11, 2001. The Defense Department, which recognizes only 60 overseas sites as full-fledged bases, regards these massive redoubts as temporary installations.

For their occupants, these foreign bases are not necessarily unpleasant. Military service today, which is voluntary, bears almost no relation to that experienced by soldiers during World War II or the Korean and Vietnam wars. Most chores like laundry, KP (“kitchen police”), mail call and latrine cleaning have been subcontracted to private companies. About one-third of the funds recently appropriated for the war in Iraq -- roughly $30 billion -- are going into private American hands. Where possible, everything is done to make daily existence seem like life at home. The first Burger King has already gone up inside the enormous military base we’ve established at Baghdad’s international airport.

Our armed missionaries live in a self-contained world serviced by its own airline, the Air Mobility Command, whose fleet of long-range aircraft links our outposts from Greenland to Australia. For generals and admirals, the military provides 71 Learjets and other luxury planes to fly them to such spots as the armed forces’ ski and vacation center at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps or to any of the 234 military golf courses the Pentagon operates worldwide.

Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up a country’s colonies. America’s version of the colony is the military base. If you examine our “footprint,” the remarkably insensitive metaphor used by defense officials to describe our empire of bases, you can see that it does a good job of covering what those officials call the “arc of instability.” This wide swath of the world, which extends from the Andean region of South America (read: Colombia) through North Africa and then sweeps across the Middle East to the Philippines and Indonesia, takes in most of what used to be called the Third World -- and, perhaps no less crucially, it covers the world’s key oil reserves.

Marine Brig. Gen. Mastin Robeson, commanding our 1,800 troops occupying the old French Foreign Legion base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti at the entrance to the Red Sea, claims that to put preventive war into action, we require a “global presence,” by which he means gaining hegemony over any place that is not already under our thumb. According to the American Enterprise Institute, the idea is to create “a global cavalry” that can ride in from “frontier stockades” and shoot up the “bad guys” as soon as we get some intelligence on them.

To put our forces close to every hot spot or danger area in this newly discovered arc of instability, the Pentagon has proposed many new bases, including at least four and perhaps as many as six in Iraq. In addition, we plan to keep under control the whole northern quarter of Kuwait -- 1,600 square miles of that country’s 6,900 square miles -- that we use to resupply our Iraq legions and as a place for bureaucrats based in central Baghdad to relax.

Other countries mentioned as potential sites for what the U.S. military’s top European commander calls our new “family of bases” include: in the impoverished areas of the “new” Europe, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria; in Asia, Pakistan (where we already have four bases), India, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and even, unbelievably, Vietnam; in North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; and in West Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Mali and Sierra Leone (even though it has been torn by civil war since 1991). The models for all these new installations, according to Pentagon sources, are the string of bases we have built around the Persian Gulf in the last two decades in such anti-democratic autocracies as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

Most of these new bases will be what the military, in a switch of metaphors, calls “lily pads,” to and from which our troops could jump, like well-armed frogs, depending on where they were needed. The Pentagon justifies this expansion by leaking plans to close many of the huge Cold War military reservations in Europe, South Korea and perhaps Okinawa, Japan. In Europe, plans for giving up our bases include several in Germany, perhaps in part because of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s defiance of President Bush over Iraq.


But such plans are unlikely to amount to much. The Pentagon’s planners do not really seem to grasp just how many buildings the 71,702 soldiers and airmen in Germany occupy and how expensive it would be to build bases to house them elsewhere. Lt. Col. Amy Ehmann in Hanau, Germany, has said, “There’s no place to put these people” in Romania, Bulgaria or Djibouti, and she predicts 80% will end up staying in Germany.

While there is every reason to believe that the impulse to create ever more lily pads in the Third World remains unchecked, there are several additional reasons to doubt that some of the more grandiose plans, for either expansion or downsizing, will ever be put into effect. For one thing, Russia is opposed to the expansion of U.S. military power on its borders and is already moving to preclude additional U.S. bases in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

When it comes to downsizing, on the other hand, domestic politics may come into play. By law, the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission must submit to the White House by Sept. 8, 2005, its fifth and final list of domestic bases to be shut down. As an efficiency measure, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has said he’d like to be rid of at least one-third of domestic Army bases and one-quarter of domestic Air Force bases, which is sure to produce a political firestorm on Capitol Hill. To protect their respective states’ bases, the two mother hens of the Senate’s military construction appropriations subcommittee, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), are demanding that the Pentagon close overseas bases first and bring the troops now stationed there home to domestic bases, which would then remain open. Hutchison and Feinstein got included in the Military Appropriations Act of 2004 money for an independent commission to investigate and report on overseas bases that are no longer needed. But in light of the administration’s fervor to expand the U.S. “footprint,” the commission is unlikely to have much of an effect.

There is plenty of evidence that our growing military presence abroad incites rather than lessens terrorism. By far the greatest defect in the “global cavalry” strategy is that it accentuates Washington’s impulse to apply irrelevant military remedies to terrorism. As the prominent British military historian Correlli Barnett has observed, the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq only increased the threat from Al Qaeda. From 1993 through the Sept. 11 assaults of 2001, there were five major Al Qaeda attacks worldwide; in the two years since then, there have been 17 such bombings tied to the terrorist organization. As Barnett puts it, “Rather than kicking down front doors and barging into ancient and complex societies with simple nostrums of ‘freedom and democracy,’ we need tactics of cunning and subtlety, based on a profound understanding of the people and cultures we are dealing with -- an understanding up till now entirely lacking in the top-level policymakers in Washington, especially in the Pentagon.”


But perhaps they understand all too well. The “war on terrorism” is, at best, only a small part of the reason for all this military strategizing. The real reason for constructing this new ring of U.S. bases along the equator is to expand our empire and reinforce our military domination of the world. And in that, the administration seems to be succeeding.