Obama's Empire: An Unprecedented Network of Military Bases That is Still Expanding

The 44th president of the United States was elected amid hopes that he would roll back his country’s global dominance. Today, he is commander-in-chief of an unprecedented network of military bases that is still expanding.

In December 2008, shortly before being sworn in as the 44th
president of the United States, Barack Obama pledged his belief that,
"to ensure prosperity here at home and peace abroad", it was vital to
maintain "the strongest military on the planet". Unveiling his national
security team, including George Bush's defence secretary, Robert Gates,
he said: "We also agree the strength of our military has to be combined
with the wisdom and force of diplomacy, and that we are going to be
committed to rebuilding and restrengthening alliances around the world to advance American interests and American security."

many of the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts are being
directed towards maintaining and garnering new access for the US
military across the globe. US military officials, through their Korean
proxies, have completed the eviction of resistant rice farmers from
their land around Camp Humphreys, South Korea, for its expansion
(including a new 18-hole golf course); they are busily making back-room
deals with officials in the Northern Mariana Islands to gain the use of
the Pacific islands there for bombing and training purposes; and they
are scrambling to express support for a regime in Kyrgyzstan that has
been implicated in the murder of its political opponents but whose
Manas Airbase, used to stage US military actions in Afghanistan since
2001, Obama and the Pentagon consider crucial for the expanded war

The global reach of the US military today is unprecedented
and unparalleled. Officially, more than 190,000 troops and 115,000
civilian employees are massed in approximately 900 military facilities
in 46 countries and territories (the unofficial figure is far greater).
The US military owns or rents 795,000 acres of land, with 26,000
buildings and structures, valued at $146bn (PS89bn). The bases bristle
with an inventory of weapons whose worth is measured in the trillions
and whose killing power could wipe out all life on earth several times

The official figures exclude the huge build-up of troops
and structures in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, as well as
secret or unacknowledged facilities in Israel, Kuwait, the Philippines
and many other places. In just three years of the Iraq and Afghanistan
wars, PS2bn was spent on military construction. A single facility in
Iraq, Balad Airbase, houses 30,000 troops and 10,000 contractors, and
extends across 16 square miles, with an additional 12 square mile
"security perimeter". From the battle zones of Afghanistan and Iraq to
quiet corners of Curacao, Korea and Britain, the US military domain
consists of sprawling army bases, small listening posts, missile and
artillery testing ranges and berthed aircraft carriers (moved to
"trouble spots" around the world, each carrier is considered by the US
navy as "four and a half acres of sovereign US territory"). While the
bases are, literally speaking, barracks and weapons depots, staging
areas for war-making and ship repairs, complete with golf courses and
basketball courts, they are also political claims, spoils of war, arms
sale showrooms and toxic industrial sites. In addition to the cultural
imperialism and episodes of rape, murder, looting and land seizure that
have always accompanied foreign armies, local communities are now
subjected to the ear-splitting noise of jets on exercise, to the risk
of helicopters and warplanes crashing into residential areas, and to
exposure to the toxic materials that the military uses in its daily

The global expansion of US bases - and with it the
rise of the US as a world superpower - is a legacy of the Second World
War. In 1938, the US had 14 military bases outside its continental
borders. Seven years later, it had 30,000 installations in roughly 100
countries. While this number was projected to shrink to 2,000 by 1948
(following pressure from other nations to return bases in their own
territory or colonies, and pressure at home to demobilise the 12
million-man military), the US continued to pursue access rights to land
and air space around the world. It established security alliances with
multiple states within Europe (NATO), the Middle East and south Asia
(CENTO) and south-east Asia (SEATO), as well as bilateral agreements
with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Status of
Forces Agreements (SOFAS) were crafted in each country to specify what
the military could do, and usually gave US soldiers broad immunity from
prosecution for crimes committed and environmental damage caused. These
agreements and subsequent base operations have mostly been shrouded in
secrecy, helped by the National Security Act of 1947. New US bases were
built in remarkable numbers in West Germany, Italy, Britain and Japan,
with the defeated Axis powers hosting the most significant numbers (at
one point, Japan was peppered with 3,800 US installations).

battles become bases, so bases become battles; the sites in east Asia
acquired during the Spanish-American war in 1898 and during the Second
World War - such as Guam, Thailand and the Philippines - became the
primary bases from which the US waged war on Vietnam. The number of
raids over north and south Vietnam required tons of bombs unloaded at
the naval station in Guam. The morale of ground troops based in
Vietnam, as fragile as it was to become through the latter part of the
1960s, depended on R&R (rest and recreation) at bases outside the
country, which allowed them to leave the war zone and yet be shipped
back quickly and inexpensively for further fighting. The war also
depended on the heroin the CIA was able to ship in to the troops on the
battlefield in Vietnam from its secret bases in Laos. By 1967, the
number of US bases had returned to 1947 levels.

changes in warfare have had important effects on the configuration of
US bases. Long-range missiles and the development of ships that can
make much longer runs without resupply have altered the need for a line
of bases to move forces forward into combat zones, as has the
aerial refuelling of military jets. An arms airlift from the US to the
British in the Middle East in 1941-42, for example, required a long
hopscotch of bases, from Florida to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Barbados,
Trinidad, British Guiana, north-east Brazil, Fernando de Noronha,
Takoradi (now in Ghana), Lagos, Kano (now in Nigeria) and Khartoum,
before finally making delivery in Egypt. In the early 1970s, US
aircraft could make the same delivery with one stop in the Azores, and
today can do so non-stop.

On the other hand, the pouring of money
into military R&D (the Pentagon has spent more than $85bn in 2009),
and the corporate profits to be made in the development and deployment
of the resulting technologies, have been significant factors in the
ever larger numbers of technical facilities on foreign soil. These
include such things as missile early-warning radar, signals
intelligence, satellite control and space-tracking telescopes. The will
to gain military control of space, as well as gather intelligence, has
led to the establishment of numerous new military bases in violation of
arms-control agreements such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. In
Colombia and Peru, and in secret and mobile locations elsewhere in
Latin America, radar stations are primarily used for anti-trafficking

Since 2000, with the election of George W Bush and
the ascendancy to power of a group of men who believed in a more
aggressive and unilateral use of military power (some of whom stood to
profit handsomely from the increased military budget that would
require), US imperial ambition has grown. Following the declaration of
a war on terror and of the right to pre-emptive war, the number of
countries into which the US inserted and based troops radically
expanded. The Pentagon put into action a plan for a network of
"deployment" or "forward operating" bases to increase the reach of
current and future forces. The Pentagon-aligned, neoconservative think
tank the Project for the New American Century stressed that "while the
unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the
need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends
the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein".

The new bases are
designed to operate not defensively against particular threats but as
offensive, expeditionary platforms from which military capabilities can
be projected quickly, anywhere. The Global Defence Posture Review of
2004 announced these changes, focusing not just on reorienting the
footprint of US bases away from cold war locations, but on remaking
legal arrangements that support expanded military activities with
other allied countries and prepositioning equipment in those countries.
As a recent army strategic document notes, "Military personnel can be
transported to, and fall in on, prepositioned equipment significantly
more quickly than the equivalent unit could be transported to the
theatre, and prepositioning equipment overseas is generally less
politically difficult than stationing US military personnel."

such as facility, outpost or station are used for smaller bases to
suggest a less permanent presence. The US department of defence
currently distinguishes between three types of military facility. "Main
operating bases" are those with permanent personnel, strong
infrastructure, and often family housing, such as Kadena Airbase in
Japan and Ramstein Airbase in Germany. "Forward operating sites" are
"expandable warm facilit[ies] maintained with a limited US military
support presence and possibly prepositioned equipment", such as
Incirlik Airbase in Turkey and Soto Cano Airbase in Honduras. Finally,
"co-operative security locations" are sites with few or no permanent US
personnel, maintained by contractors or the host nation for occasional
use by the US military, and often referred to as "lily pads". These are
cropping up around the world, especially throughout Africa, a recent
example being in Dakar, Senegal.

Moreover, these bases are the
anchor - and merely the most visible aspect - of the US military's
presence overseas. Every year, US forces train 100,000 soldiers in 180
countries, the presumption being that beefed-up local militaries will
help to pursue US interests in local conflicts and save the US money,
casualties and bad publicity when human rights abuses occur (the
blowback effect of such activities has been made clear by the strength
of the Taliban since 9/11). The US military presence also involves
jungle, urban, desert, maritime and polar training exercises across
wide swathes of landscape, which have become the pretext for
substantial and permanent positioning of troops. In recent years, the
US has run around 20 exercises annually on Philippine soil, which have
resulted in a near-continuous presence of US soldiers in a country
whose people ejected US bases in 1992 and whose constitution forbids
foreign troops to be based on its territory. Finally, US personnel work
every day to shape local legal codes to facilitate US access: they have
lobbied, for example, to change the Philippine and Japanese
constitutions to allow, respectively, foreign troop basing and a
more-than-defensive military.

Asked why the US has a vast network
of military bases around the world, Pentagon officials give both
utilitarian and humanitarian arguments. Utilitarian arguments include
the claim that bases provide security for the US by deterring attack
from hostile countries and preventing or remedying unrest or military
challenges; that bases serve the national economic interests of the US,
ensuring access to markets and commodities needed to maintain US
standards of living; and that bases are symbolic markers of US power
and credibility - and so the more the better. Humanitarian arguments
present bases as altruistic gifts to other nations, helping to liberate
or democratise them, or offering aid relief. None of these humanitarian
arguments deals with the problem that many of the bases were taken
during wartime and "given" to the US by another of the war's victors.

of US foreign policy have dissected and dismantled the arguments made
for maintaining a global system of military basing. They have shown
that the bases have often failed in their own terms: despite the
Pentagon's claims that they provide security to the regions they
occupy, most of the world's people feel anything but reassured by their
presence. Instead of providing more safety for the US or its allies,
they have often provoked attacks, and have made the communities around
bases key targets of other nations' missiles. On the island of Belau in
the Pacific, the site of sharp resistance to US attempts to instal a
submarine base and jungle training centre, people describe their
experience of military basing in the Second World War: "When soldiers
come, war comes." On Guam, a joke among locals is that few people
except for nuclear strategists in the Kremlin know where their island

As for the argument that bases serve the national economic
interest of the US, the weapons, personnel and fossil fuels involved
cost billions of dollars, most coming from US taxpayers. While bases
have clearly been concentrated in countries with key strategic
resources, particularly along the routes of oil and gas pipelines in
central Asia, the Middle East and, increasingly, Africa, from which
one-quarter of US oil imports are expected by 2015, the profits have
gone first of all to the corporations that build and service them, such
as Halliburton. The myth that bases are an altruistic form of "foreign
aid" for locals is exploded by the substantial costs involved for host
economies and polities. The immediate negative effects include levels
of pollution, noise, crime and lost productive land that cannot be
offset by soldiers' local spending or employment of local people. Other
putative gains tend to benefit only local elites and further militarise
the host nations: elaborate bilateral negotiations swap weapons, cash
and trade privileges for overflight and land-use rights. Less
explicitly, rice imports, immigration rights to the US or overlooking
human rights abuses have been the currency of exchange.

environmental, political, and economic impact of these bases is
enormous. The social problems that accompany bases, including soldiers'
violence against women and car crashes, have to be handled by local
communities without compensation from the US. Some communities pay the
highest price: their farmland taken for bases, their children
neurologically damaged by military jet fuel in their water supplies,
their neighbors imprisoned, tortured and disappeared by the autocratic
regimes that survive on US military and political support given as a
form of tacit rent for the bases. The US military has repeatedly
interfered in the domestic affairs of nations in which it has or
desires military access, operating to influence votes and undermine or
change local laws that stand in the way.

Social movements have
proliferated around the world in response to the empire of US bases,
ever since its inception. The attempt to take the Philippines from
Spain in 1898 led to a drawn-out guerrilla war for independence that
required 126,000 US occupation troops to stifle. Between 1947 and 1990,
the US military was asked to leave France, Yugoslavia, Iran, Ethiopia,
Libya, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Vietnam, Indonesia, Peru,
Mexico and Venezuela. Popular and political objection to the bases in
Spain, the Philippines, Greece and Turkey in the 1980s gave those
governments the grounds to negotiate significantly more compensation
from the US. Portugal threatened to evict the US from important bases
in the Azores unless it ceased its support for independence for its
African colonies.

Since 1990, the US has been sent packing, most
significantly, from the Philippines, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Vieques and
Uzbekistan. Of its own accord, for varying reasons, it decided to leave
countries from Ghana to Fiji. Persuading the US to clean up after
itself - including, in Panama, more than 100,000 rounds of unexploded
ordnance - is a further struggle. As in the case of the US navy's
removal from Vieques in 2003, arguments about the environmental and
health damage of the military's activities remain the centrepiece of
resistance to bases.

Many are also concerned by other countries'
overseas bases - primarily European, Russian and Chinese - and by the
activities of their own militaries, but the far greater number of US
bases and their weaponry has understandably been the focus. The sense
that US bases represent a major injustice to the host community and
nation is very strong in countries where US bases have the longest
standing and are most ubiquitous. In Okinawa, polls show that 70 to 80
per cent of the island's people want the bases, or at least the
marines, to leave. In 1995, the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old
Okinawan girl by two US marines and one US sailor led to demands for
the removal of all US bases in Japan. One family in Okinawa has built a
large peace museum right up against the edge of the Futenma Airbase,
with a stairway to the roof that allows busloads of schoolchildren and
other visitors to view the sprawling base after looking at art
depicting the horrors of war.

In Korea, the great majority of the
population feels that a reduction in US presence would increase
national security; in recent years, several violent deaths at the hands
of US soldiers triggered vast candlelight vigils and protests across
the country. And the original inhabitants of Diego Garcia, evicted from
their homes between 1967 and 1973 by the British on behalf of the US
for a naval base, have organised a concerted campaign for the right to
return, bringing legal suit against the British government, a story
told in David Vine's recent book Island of Shame. There is also
resistance to the US expansion plans into new areas. In 2007, a number
of African nations baulked at US attempts to secure access to sites for
military bases. In eastern Europe, despite well-funded campaigns to
convince Poles and Czechs of the value of US bases and much sentiment
in favour of accepting them in pursuit of closer ties with Nato and the
EU, and promised economic benefits, vigorous protests have included
hunger strikes and led the Czech government, in March, to reverse its
plan to allow a US military radar base to be built in the country.

US has responded to action against bases with a renewed emphasis on
"force protection", in some cases enforcing curfews on soldiers, and
cutting back on events that bring local people on to base property. The
department of defence has also engaged in the time-honoured practice of
renaming: clusters of soldiers, buildings and equipment have become
"defence staging posts" or "forward operating locations" rather than
military bases. Regulating documents become "visiting forces
agreements", not "status of forces agreements", or remain entirely
secret. While major reorganisation of bases is under way for a host of
reasons, including a desire to create a more mobile force with greater
access to the Middle East, eastern Europe and central Asia, the motives
also include an attempt to prevent political momentum of the sort that
ended US use of the Vieques and Philippine bases.

The attempt to
gain permanent basing in Iraq foundered in 2008 on the objections of
forces in both Iraq and the US. Obama, in his Cairo speech in June, may
have insisted that "we pursue no bases" in either Iraq or Afghanistan,
but there has been no sign of any significant dismantling of bases
there, or of scaling back the US military presence in the rest of the
world. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, recently visited
Japan to ensure that it follows through on promises to provide the US
with a new airfield on Okinawa and billions of dollars to build new
housing and other facilities for 8,000 marines relocating to Guam. She
ignored the invitation of island activists to come and see the damage
left by previous decades of US base activities. The myriad land-grabs
and hundreds of billions of dollars spent to quarter troops around the
world persist far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, and too far from the

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