The Trillion Dollar Tag Sale

How the Pentagon Could Help Bail Out America

Wars, bases, and money. The three are inextricably tied together.

In the 1980s, for example, American support for jihadis like Osama bin Laden waging war on (Soviet) infidels who invaded and constructed bases in Afghanistan, a Muslim land, led to rage by many of the same jihadis at the bases (U.S.) infidels built in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. That, in turn, led to jihadis like bin Laden declaring war on those infidels,
which, after September 11, 2001, led the Bush administration to launch,
and then prosecute, a Global War on Terror, often from newly built
bases in Muslim lands. Over the last seven years, the results of that
war have been particularly disastrous for Iraqis and Afghans. Sizable
numbers of Americans, however, are now beginning to suffer as well.
After all, their hard-earned taxpayer dollars have been poured into
wars without end, leaving the country deeply in debt and in a state of
economic turmoil.

In his 1988 State of the Union message, President Ronald Reagan called the jihadis
in Afghanistan "freedom fighters." They were, of course, fighting the
Soviet Union then. He, too, pledged eternal enmity against the Soviet
Union, which he termed an "evil empire." For years, conservatives have
claimed that Reagan not only won his Afghan War, but by launching an
all-out arms race, which the economically weaker Soviet Union couldn't
match, bankrupted the Soviets and so brought their empire down.

While that version of history may be disputed, today, it is entirely
possible that one of Reagan's freedom fighters, Osama bin Laden,
actually returned the favor by perfecting the art of financially
felling a superpower. While Reagan ran up a superpower-sized tab to
outspend the Soviets, bin Laden has done it on the cheap. Essentially
for the cost of box cutters and flight training, he got the Bush
administration to spend itself into penury, without a superpower in

Since bin Laden's supreme act of economic judo in 2001, the U.S.
military has spent multi-billions of tax dollars on a string of bases
in Iraq and Afghanistan, failed wars in both countries, and a failed effort to make good on George W. Bush's promise to bring in bin Laden "dead or alive."
Despite this record, the Pentagon still has a success option in its
back pocket that might help bail out the American people in this
perilous economic moment. It could immediately begin to auction off its
overseas empire posthaste. To head down this road, however, U.S.
military leaders would first have to take a brutally honest look at the
real costs, and the real utility, of their massively expensive weapons
systems and, above all, those bases.

Today, the Pentagon acknowledges
761 active military "sites" in foreign countries -- and that's without
bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and certain other countries even being
counted. This "empire of bases," as Chalmers Johnson has noted, "began as the leftover residue of World War II," later evolving into a Cold War and post-Cold War garrisoning of the planet.

With those bases came a series of costly wars in Korea in the 1950s,
Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Persian Gulf in the early
1990s. An extremely conservative estimate of their cost by the
Congressional Research Service -- $1 trillion (in 2008 dollars) -- tops
the present economic bailout. Add in brief cut-and-run flops like
Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia, from 1992-1995, as well as now-forgotten
hollow victories in places like the island of Grenada and Panama, and
you tack on billions more with little to show for it.

Since 2001, the Bush administration's Global War on Terror (including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) has cost taxpayers more than the recent bailout -- more than $800 billion and still climbing by at least $3.5 billion each week. And the full bill has yet to come due. According to Noble Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz
and Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes, the total costs of those
two wars could top out between $3 trillion and $7 trillion.

While squandering money, the Global War on Terror has also acted as a
production line for the creation of yet more military bases in the oil
heartlands of the planet. Just how many is unknown -- the Pentagon
keeps exact figures under wraps -- but, in 2005, according to the Washington Post, there were 106 American bases, from macro to micro, in Iraq alone.

If you were to begin the process of disentangling Americans from this
world of war and the war economy that goes with it, those bases would
be a good place to start. There is no way to estimate the true costs of
our empire of bases, but it's worth considering what an imperial tag
sale could mean for America's financial well-being. One thing is clear:
in getting rid of those bases, the United States would be able to
recoup, or save, hundreds of billions of dollars, despite the costs
associated with shutting them down.

Tag Sales and Savings

If the Pentagon sold off just the buildings and structures on its
officially acknowledged overseas bases at their current estimated
replacement value, the country would stand to gain more than $119
billion. Think of this as but a down payment on a full-scale Pentagon
bailout package.

In addition, while it leases the property on which most of its bases
abroad are built, the Pentagon does own some lucrative lands that could
be sold off. For instance, it is the proud owner of more than 11,000
acres in Abu Dhabi, "the richest and most powerful of the seven kingdoms of the United Arab Emirates." With land values there averaging
$1,100 per square meter last year, this property alone is worth an
estimated $48.9 million. Add in the structures there and you're talking
almost $80 million. The Pentagon also owns several thousand acres
spread across Oman, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Belgium. Selling
off these lands as well would net a sizeable sum.

those bases, billions of dollars in other Pentagon expenses would
immediately disappear. For instance, during the years of the Global War
on Terror, the Overseas Cost of Living Allowance, which equalizes the
"purchasing power between members [of the military] overseas and their
U.S.-based counterparts," has reached about $12 billion. Over the same period, the price tag for educating the children of U.S. military personnel abroad has clocked in
at around $3.5 billion. By shutting down the 127 Department of Defense
schools in Europe and the Pacific (as well as the 65 scattered across
the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, and Cuba) and sending the children to
public schools, the U.S. would realize modest long-term savings. Once
no longer garrisoning the globe, the Pentagon would also be able to
cease paying out the $1 billion or so that goes into the routine
construction of housing and other base facilities each year, not to
mention the multi-billions that have gone into the construction, and
continual upgrading, of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And that's not the end of it either. Back in the 1990s, the Pentagon
estimated that it was spending $30 billion each year on "base support
activities" -- though the exact meaning of this phrase remains vague.
Just take, for example, five bases being handed back to Germany:
Buedingen, Gelnhausen, Darmstadt, Hanau and Turley Barracks in
Mannheim. The annual cost of "operating" them is approximately $176
million. Imagine, then, what it has cost to run those 750+ bases during
the Global War on Terror years.

Some recent Pentagon contracts for general operations and support
functions overseas are instructive. In March, for instance, Bahrain
Maritime and Mercantile International was awarded a one-year contract
worth $2.8 billion to supply and distribute "food and non-food
products" to "Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and other approved
customers located in the Middle East countries of Bahrain, Qatar and
Saudi Arabia."

In July, the French foodservices giant Sodexo received a one-year
contract worth $180 million for "maintenance, repair and operations for
the Korea Zone of the Pacific Region." These and other pricey support
contracts for food, fuel, maintenance, transport, and other non-military
expenses, paid to foreign firms, would disappear along with those U.S.
garrisons, as would enormous sums spent on all sorts of military
projects overseas. In 2007, for instance, the Army, Navy, and Air Force
spent $2.5 billion in Germany, $1 billion in Japan, and $164 million in
Qatar. And this year, the Pentagon paid a jaw-dropping $1 billion-plus
for contracts carried out in South Korea alone.

Men and Materiel

With most or all of those 761 foreign bases off the books, and a
much reduced global military "footprint," the U.S. could downsize its
armed forces. As Andrew Bacevich notes in his book The Limits of Power,
it already costs the Pentagon a bailout-sized $700 billion a year to
"train, equip, and sustain the current active-duty force and to defray
the costs of on-going operations." Even if current U.S. forces were
simply brought home, there would still be significant savings
(including, of course, the $10 billion a month going into the Iraq and
Afghan wars).

The very opposite, however, is happening. Facing manpower demands on an
overstretched military, the Pentagon is planning to ramp up the size of
the armed forces by 92,000 over the next several years. That expansion
comes with a sure-to-rise price tag of $108 billion. This step has the
support of large majorities in Congress and both presidential
candidates. John McCain has denounced the notion of "roll[ing] back our
overseas commitments" and instead proposes "to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps." Barack Obama agrees,
but has been more specific. He has long touted plans, echoing the
Pentagon's desires, to "increase the size of the Army by 65,000 troops
and the Marines by 27,000 troops."

Just attracting this many recruits would cost a small fortune. This year, the Army had to spend $240 million on advertising alone to help meet its recruiting goals. On top of that, it paid out $547 million in bonuses to recruits -- a 164% increase since 2005. And this is to say nothing of how much it costs to train, equip, feed, and pay these future troops.

Capping, if not decreasing, the size of the military and bringing
troops home would be the foundation for a new foreign policy based on
non-aggression and fiscal responsibility. This would, of course, be a
major departure for the military. In the 120 years between 1888 and
2008, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service, only
seven -- using generous criteria -- were without "notable deployments
of U.S. military forces overseas." Beginning in 2009, U.S. forces could
aim for a complete reversal of this trend for the next 120 years,
enabling the slashing of budgets for force-projection weapons systems.

Take the F-22A Raptor, a fighter plane designed to counter advanced
Soviet aircraft that were never built. Pentagon budget documents
released earlier this year put the estimated cost of the program, 2007
to 2013, at almost $3.7 billion. With no advanced Soviet fighters
around to dogfight -- Russian aircraft had trouble enough
in their recent Georgian encounters -- and no need for its "global
strike" capabilities, the program could be scrapped. Such a step is not
without precedent. As Wired magazine's Danger Room blog reported
last month, Congress "all-but-eliminated funding for the so-called
'Blackswift' program," a prototype hypersonic aircraft for which the
Pentagon had requested almost $800 million in 2009 start-up funding. If
the project remains stillborn, that alone will mean billions in future

This year, for example, the Air Force is spending
nearly $65 billion on new weapons systems. By shutting current and
future weapons programs not meant for actual defense of the United
States, Americans would be looking at hundreds of billions of dollars
in savings in the near term. If the Pentagon demilitarized and sold off
existing equipment as well, including, for instance, some of its
120,000 Humvees, at least 280 ships, and 14,000 aircraft, you're
talking about another significant infusion of cash.

Bases Gone Bust

If history suggests anything, it's that one way or another, on a
long enough timeline, all imperial garrisons fall. Some, of course, go
bust sooner than others. As one Army publication noted
in the 1970s, "[t]he ravages of rot, jungle, and weather have left only
memories of the once-mighty World War II bases of the South Pacific."
The fate of many bases built since has been no less inglorious.

While it would be difficult to total up just how many firebases, camps,
airbases, port facilities, and base camps the U.S. had in Indochina
during the Vietnam War, or what it cost to build and upgrade them, the
numbers would surely be staggering. What we do know is instructive. For
instance, the U.S. Army-Vietnam headquarters complex at Long Binh,
about 16 miles from Saigon, had a value of more than $100 million in
1972 -- the year the U.S. gave it away to its South Vietnamese allies.
They, in turn, lost it when the Saigon regime collapsed in 1975. Today,
it's an industrial park. Similarly, the U.S. poured huge sums into its
naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. By 1979, the Soviet Navy was using it and, after abandoning it earlier this decade, may do so again.

Similarly, in the 1990s, the U.S. got kicked out
of its massive bases in the Philippines. A volcano laid waste to Clark
Air Base and the Philippine Senate rejected U.S. efforts to extend the
lease on its massive installation at Subic Bay. Just moving out
personnel and equipment afterwards cost billions. More recently, the
same process played out on fast forward in Central Asia. As adjunct
professor at the Air Force's Air Command and Staff College Stephen
Schwalbe pointed out in an article in Air & Space Power Journal,
after the U.S. negotiated the right to use Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad
Air Base in 2001, as part of its Afghan War plans, it pumped millions
of dollars into the base to improve infrastructure and facilities --
from increased aircraft parking space to a movie theater. It also
ponied up a $15 million fee for its use.

In 2005, however, Uzbek security forces perpetrated a massacre of
domestic protesters, leading to a Bush administration demand for an
investigation. In the end, all the money spent on the base was wasted.
Not long after the American request, Uzbekistan gave the U.S. military 180 days to leave the base and the country -- and promptly signed friendship pacts with Russia and China.

The buildings and structures at the U.S. base at Ecuador's Manta Air
Field are valued at over $176 million and are also soon to move into
the Pentagon's loss column. Last year, Ecuadorian president Rafael
Correa offered
the following terms for continued use of Manta after 2009: "We'll renew
the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami -- an
Ecuadorian base." The U.S. did not take him up on the proposal. Correa
has since offered to lease the base to China for commercial use.

The Pentagon stands to lose billions more when it finally withdraws
from Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of manning, maintaining, and
regularly upgrading the mega-bases in Iraq, in particular, is already a
significant financial burden on American taxpayers, but it would be
dwarfed by the losses incurred if they had to be abandoned. As such,
getting out, even in today's depressed real-estate market, would be the
financially prudent thing to do.

Similarly, closing down the Bush administration's notorious torture
bases might yield significant financial savings (while enhancing global
opinion of the U.S.). Selling off the Pentagon's facilities on the
British-owned island of Diego Garcia
in the Indian Ocean, for instance, where Global War on Terror "ghost
prisoners" have been held (and U.S. air raids on Iraq and Afghanistan
have been regularly launched), could yield $2.6 billion. Saying goodbye
to the facilities at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba could net another $2.2
billion -- and some global cheers.

The Pentagon Comes Home

While we may never know if it was bin Laden's knowledge of America's
"expeditionary" history that drove him to plan out the 9/11 attacks, he
certainly goaded the Bush administration into a Soviet-style military
spending spree, complete with a Soviet-style ruinous war in
Afghanistan. With some caves for bases, he managed to sink Americans
into a multi-trillion dollar financial quagmire.

If the United States had never wasted the better part of a trillion
dollars fighting a war in Vietnam and, following defeat there, embarked
on a scheme to saddle the Soviets with a similarly ignominious loss --
which has now led to wars with a multi-trillion dollar price tag -- the
United States might not be in such dire financial straits today. And
yet, despite the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression,
the U.S. continues to sink money into costly wars fought from expensive
bases overseas with no end in sight. The result is sheer waste in every
sense of the word.

When Americans want to get serious about a long-term bailout
strategy that brings genuine financial and national security, they'll
look to real cost-cutting options like stopping America's string of
costly wars and getting rid of the Pentagon's vast network of overseas
bases. Until then, they are simply helping Ronald Reagan's freedom
fighter, Osama bin Laden, be a better Reagan than Reagan ever was.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023