The costs of maintaining our bases overseas
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.
BASE NATION How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World