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Battle over Bases

In 2003 and 2004, President George W. Bush announced his intention to initiate a major realignment and shrinkage of what his administration described as an economically wasteful and outdated U.S. overseas basing structure. The plan was to close more than a third of the nation's Cold War-era bases in Europe, South Korea, and Japan. Troops were to be shifted east and south, to be closer to current and predicted conflict zones from the Andes to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Over a planned six to eight years, as many as 70,000 U.S. troops and 100,000 family members and civilians would return to bases in the United States.

In place of big Cold War bases, the Pentagon would focus on creating smaller and more flexible "forward operating bases" and even more austere "lily pad" bases across the so-called "arc of instability." Guam and Diego Garcia were readied for major expansions, building on pre-9/11 plans.

The plan quickly faced resistance and criticism, most prominently from the Congressional Budget Office and a congressional commission on overseas bases, both of which questioned the costs associated with closing bases and moving troops. Since that time little of the original plan has been implemented. In Germany, the military still maintains 268 installations, including massive bases at Ramstein and Spangdahlem; the planned removal of two army brigades is now in doubt after the commander of the army's forces in Europe recently called for them to stay in Germany. In Japan, the planned move of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam may be delayed beyond a 2014 target date. The only notable shift has been in South Korea, where U.S. troops left the demilitarized zone and moved from Seoul to expanded bases south of the capital, aided by the South Korean government's violent seizure of land from villagers in Daechuri.

Rather than shrinking since the announced reorganization, the overseas base network has for the most part expanded in scope and size, as a result of the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its broader efforts to assert U.S. geopolitical dominance in the Middle East, Central Asia, and globally. Since the invasions of 2001 and 2003, the United States has created or expanded bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there may be upwards of 100 and 80 installations, respectively, with plans to expand the basing infrastructure in Afghanistan as part of a troop surge.

In Eastern and Central Europe, installations have been created or are in development in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, and are contributing to rising tensions with Russia. In Africa, as part of the development of the new African Command, the Pentagon has created or investigated the creation of installations in Algeria, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, S­ão Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, and Uganda. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States maintains a sizable collection of bases throughout South America and the Caribbean, with the Pentagon exploring the creation of new bases in Colombia and Peru in response to its pending eviction from Manta, Ecuador.

In total, the Pentagon claims it has 865 base sites outside the 50 states and Washington, DC. Notoriously unreliable, this tally omits bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other well-known and secret bases. A better estimate is 1,000. While ultimately the motivation behind the Bush reorganization plan was the neoconservative dream of endless U.S. global domination, the previous administration was right to criticize the basing network as outdated, bloated, and profligate. In the midst of an economic crisis, there has never been a more critical time to dramatically shrink the U.S. web of overseas bases. 

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