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 sight.
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.
Without 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 savings.
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.
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse