The costs of main­tain­ing our bases over­seas

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Ce­leste Ward Gven­ter is a former deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense who con­sults on a va­ri­ety of de­fense and se­cu­rity is­sues in Europe and the Mid­dle East. She is also a mil­i­tary spouse, sta­tioned in Vilseck, Ger­many. RE­VIEW BY CE­LESTE WARD GVEN­TER

In its July 4, 1970, is­sue, the New Yorker printed a re­mark­able 26-page ar­ti­cle by Wil­liam Whit­worth, one of the mag­a­zine’s great writ­ers and ed­i­tors. The ar­ti­cle, “Some Ques­tions About the War,” was based on a se­ries of in­ter­views with Eu­gene Ros­tow, the un­der­sec­re­tary of state for po­lit­i­cal af­fairs from 1966 to 1969. The piece was de­rived in part from a book Whit­worth pub­lished the same year, “Naive Ques­tions About War and Peace.”

Whit­worth wanted to un­der­stand the un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tions and con­cepts of the for­eign pol­icy in­tel­li­gentsia, par­tic­u­larly as they per­tained to the Viet­nam War. He ob­served that while many of the ex­perts dif­fered fiercely over Viet­nam, they seemed nonethe­less to share crit­i­cal as­sump­tions about the prin­ci­pal causal forces of global pol­i­tics and the role of the United States. His “naive” ques­tions were a re­turn to first prin­ci­ples: What did th­ese ex­perts mean by their terms, and why were they so cer­tain of the va­lid­ity of their con­cepts? “What do politi­cians and jour­nal­ists mean by ‘na­tional se­cu­rity’ or ‘the na­tional in­ter­est’? What do they mean by ‘bal­ance of power’?”

“Tor­mented,” as he put it, by such ques­tions for years, Whit­worth ob­served that the real mean­ing of for­eign pol­icy nomen­cla­ture and con­cepts was no­tably ab­sent from the pub­lic de­bate over the war. At one point in his in­ter­view with Ros­tow, he de­clared: “This is all so vague. I’m try­ing to get some­thing con­crete, to get past th­ese as­sert ions, th­ese terms .‘ Gar­ri­son state ,’‘ sur­rounded ,’‘ neu­tral­ized ,’‘ bal­ance of power.’ ” Whit­worth’s pur­suit of clar­ity and plain speech re­mains as es­sen­tial to­day as it was 45 years ago, yet even still, too lit­tle of our pub­lic de­bate on for­eign pol­icy pen­e­trates fur­ther than high-sound­ing jar­gon.

David Vine’s new book, “Base Na­tion,” il­lus­trates that this su­per­fi­cial­ity still per­tains when it comes to the largely un­stated and un­ex­am­ined as­sump­tions that sup­port the mas­sive in­fras­truc­ture of U.S. mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions around the world. As he ar­gues, “The pres­ence of our bases over­seas has long been ac­cepted un­ques­tion­ingly and treated as an ob­vi­ous good.”

As Vine ob­serves, a “for­ward strat­egy” that sta­tions large num­bers of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary per­son­nel and equip­ment over­seas “has been the over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus among politi­cians,

Camp X-Ray, now closed, was a de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity at the Guan­tanamo Bay naval base in Cuba that held al­leged mil­i­tants cap­tured af­ter 9/11.

na­tional se­cu­rity ex­perts, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, jour­nal­ists, and many oth­ers.” In fact, ac­cord­ing to him, it is not al­to­gether clear how many de­fense fa­cil­i­ties the United States ac­tu­ally main­tains abroad. (As he notes, there are many types of fa­cil­i­ties with many names, from “post” to “camp” to “sta­tion,” et al; he uses the word “base” for sim­plic­ity to mean all of the sites, a con­ven­tion I will fol­low here.) Though he found an of­fi­cial tally of 686, Vine, who teaches an­thro­pol­ogy at Amer­i­can Univer­sity, es­ti­mates that the num­ber is closer to 800. He is not sure whether any­one knows the real num­ber.

To un­der­stand the costs — to fi­nances, rep­u­ta­tion and even se­cu­rity — of Amer­ica’s bases abroad, Vine trav­eled to a dozen na­tions and ter­ri­to­ries and more than 60 fa­cil­i­ties. The book’s sub­ti­tle pulls no punches: “How U.S. Mil­i­tary Bases Abroad Harm Amer­ica and the World.” The book is a cri de coeur, a call for Amer­ica — or at least some of us — to come home.

In Vine’s view, over­seas bases cause more harm than good, both for the United States and the coun­tries that host them. Over­seas bases are ex­pen­sive, al­most al­ways cost­ing more than the same fa­cil­ity would on U.S. soil. Vine ar­gues that in some cases, such as on Diego Gar­cia, an atoll in the cen­tral In­dian Ocean, in­dige­nous peo­ple were pushed off their lands to make room for run­ways. He sug­gests that the de­sire to ob­tain bas­ing rights has caused the United States to ca­vort with dic­ta­tors, tyrants and even mob­sters. Bases have wreaked en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion in the form of spilled fu­els, oil, am­mu­ni­tion and other mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial de­tri­tus. Mean­while, the pres­ence of the Amer­i­cans dis­torts lo­cal economies, some­times pro­vid­ing a mar­ket for pros­ti­tu­tion and hu­man traf­fick­ing. Con­struc­tion and ser­vice con­tracts for over­seas bases fat­ten the bank ac­counts of mer­ce­nary busi­ness­men, while the hun­dreds of thou­sands of ser­vice mem­bers and fam­i­lies sta­tioned abroad spend their money bol­ster­ing for­eign economies, rather than those at home.

Ac­cord­ing to Vine, the few other coun­tries that have bases out­side their bor­ders, such as France, Bri­tain and Rus­sia, main­tain some­where around 30 fa­cil­i­ties com­bined. We rarely stop to imag­ine how the United States would re­act to an­other na­tion stip­pling the globe with hun­dreds of fa­cil­i­ties, as we do, and with such an ap­par­ent lack of rigor in the at­ten­dant pol­icy de­ci­sions and pub­lic dis­cus­sion. “Base Na­tion” is a use­ful call to ex­am­ine an is­sue that gets far less at­ten­tion than it mer­its.

But at times Vine turns ten­den­tious, even polem­i­cal. In parts, he seems sim­ply to throw ev­ery damn­ing com­ment, tid­bit, ru­mor or in­nu­endo into his boil­ing de­nounce­ment. Over the past 21/2 years, I have lived near and spent a great deal of time at the U.S. Navy Sup­port Site at Naples, the sub­ject of Vine’s Chap­ter 6. He re­peats here a va­ri­ety of ru­mors con­cern­ing se­cret deals be­tween the U.S. Navy and the Naples mafia, a pos­si­ble mob hit on an Amer­i­can ad­mi­ral and gen­eral iniq­uity — ru­mors that are widely known in the Amer­i­can com­mu­nity there. But in­con­tro­vert­ible ev­i­dence is in short sup­ply, and some of his sources seem less than cred­i­ble; one foot­note is from an anony­mous blog­ger whose qual­i­fi­ca­tion is that he works in Naples and (like vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one else) has in­deed heard the ru­mors. One of Vine’s other sources on the sub­ject is “Gabriella, a stylish Ital­ian woman in her twen­ties” who pro­fesses to be “ob­sessed” with dat­ing Amer­i­cans.

I have lived at sev­eral dif­fer­ent over­seas U.S. mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties — in Iraq, Italy and now Ger­many — and they dif­fer enor­mously. Not ev­ery fa­cil­ity suf­fers from ev­ery prob­lem Vine cites. Some serve a more ob­vi­ous and de­fen­si­ble pur­pose than oth­ers. Some cause se­ri­ous prob­lems for the lo­cal com­mu­nity, while at oth­ers Amer­i­cans live har­mo­niously with their hosts (in Bavaria, where I live, Amer­i­cans have been a fact of life for decades and are now a largely wel­come part of the so­cial fab­ric ). Some fa­cil­i­ties may em­bar­rass and even im­peril the United States, but cer­tainly not all.

It is not clear whether Vine thinks the United States should ul­ti­mately close all of its over­seas bases. He ad­vances some can­di­dates for im­me­di­ate shut­ter­ing — “Cold War bases in Europe” and bases in Latin Amer­ica and Ok­i­nawa, Ja­pan, for ex­am­ple — and pro­poses an an­nual re­view of over­seas bases by Congress. But he does not ex­plain what cri­te­ria such re­views should use to judge whether a given base should stay or go. In­deed, he ad­mits that “the in­tel­lec­tu­ally hon­est truth is that eval­u­at­ing the ef­fect over­seas bases have on se­cu­rity is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult.” Nor does he ad­dress how the United States could rad­i­cally change its over­seas pres­ence with­out gen­er­at­ing a cas­cade of un­in­tended con­se­quences.

The most sig­nif­i­cant dis­cus­sion miss­ing from the book con­cerns the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Amer­i­can strat­egy and the bases. Vine hints that the bases might, at times, drive strat­egy by, for ex­am­ple, “mak­ing it sim­pler” to launch ill-ad­vised mil­i­tary mis­ad­ven­tures. This sug­ges­tion, by the way, is at odds with one of his key points: that be­cause of mod­ern trans­porta­tion and communications, the bases are no longer nec­es­sary for rapid re­sponses to global crises, as some ad­vo­cates might ar­gue. But the more im­por­tant point is that the bases are merely a symp­tom of U.S. strat­egy, a vis­i­ble sign of Amer­ica’s ex­pan­sive view of its role in the world. In­deed, the bases un­der­score the rel­a­tive con­ti­nu­ity of Amer­i­can strat­egy since the end of World War II.

How do we ac­count for this con­ti­nu­ity, de­spite the end of the Cold War? One an­swer might have to do with the U.S. de­ter­mi­na­tion to stem the pro­lif­er­a­tion of nu­clear weapons, the ul­ti­mate equal­izer to its oth­er­wise un­ques­tioned dom­i­nance. As po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Fran­cis Gavin re­cently ar­gued, se­cu­rity guar­an­tees and al­liances (in­clud­ing bas­ing) have long been a com­po­nent of Amer­ica’s ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­forts to keep states — friend and foe — from go­ing nu­clear. A dis­cus­sion of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the bases and Amer­i­can strat­egy would have added much to the power of Vine’s ar­gu­ment.

Nonethe­less, he raises ques­tions that re­ceive in­suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion or are too of­ten an­swered with bro­mides and cliches. The book serves as an en­treaty for an ex­pla­na­tion, a dis­cus­sion in plain lan­guage, about what the U.S. mil­i­tary is do­ing in so many places in the world and why. In that sense, Vine is con­tin­u­ing the kind of “naive” ques­tion­ing of for­eign pol­icy elites that Whit­worth did 45 years ago and that, in a world of shrink­ing mil­i­tary bud­gets and seem­ingly un­end­ing chal­lenges around the globe, is some­thing more of us should do.


By David Vine Metropoli­tan. 418 pp. $35

BASE NA­TION How U.S. Mil­i­tary Bases Abroad Harm Amer­ica and the World

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