America's Empire of Bases (Updated Edition)

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Am I the only person who still remembers how Pentagon officials spoke of the major military bases already on the drawing boards as the invasion of Iraq ended in April 2003? It was taboo back then to refer to those future installations as "permanent bases." No one wanted to mouth anything that had such an ugly (yet truthful) ring to it when it came to the desires of the Bush administration to occupy and dominate the Greater Middle East for generations to come. Charmingly enough, however, those Pentagon types sometimes spoke instead of "enduring camps," as if a summer frolic in the countryside was at hand. Later, those enormous installations -- Balad Air Base, the size of a small American town, had its own Pizza Hut, Subway, and Popeye's franchises, "an ersatz Starbucks," a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges, and four mess halls -- would be relabeled "contingency operating bases." They were meant to be Washington's ziggurats, its permanent memorials to its own power in the region. With rare exceptions, American reporters would nonetheless pay almost no attention to them or to the obvious desire embedded in their very construction to control Iraq and the rest of the Greater Middle East.

In all, from the massive Camp Victory outside Baghdad to tiny outposts in the hinterlands, not to speak of the three-quarters-of-a-billion dollar citadel Washington built in Baghdad's green zone to house an embassy meant to be the central command post for a future Pax Americana in the region, the Pentagon built 505 bases in Iraq. In other words, Washington went on a base-building bender there. And lest you imagine this as some kind of anomaly, consider the 800 or more bases and outposts (depending on how you counted them) that the U.S. built in Afghanistan. Eight years later, all 505 of the Iraqi bases had been abandoned, as most of the Afghan ones would be. (A few of the Iraqi bases have since been reoccupied by American advisers sent in to fight the Islamic State.)

Nonetheless, as Chalmers Johnson pointed out long ago (and TomDispatch regular David Vine has made so clear recently), this was the U.S. version of empire building. And in this century, despite the loss of those Iraqi bases and most of the Afghan ones, Washington has continued its global base-building extravaganza in a big way. It has constructed, expanded, or reconfigured a staggering set of bases in the Greater Middle East and on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and has been building drone bases around the world. Then there's the remaining European bases that came out of World War II, were expanded in the Cold War years, and have, in this century, been driven deep into the former Eastern European imperial possessions of the old Soviet Union. Add in another structure of bases in Asia that also came out of World War II and that are once again added to, reconfigured, and pivoted toward. Toss in as well the 60 or so small bases, baselets, sites, storage areas, and the like that, in recent years, the U.S. military has been constructing across Africa. Throw in some bases still in Latin America and the Caribbean, including most infamously Guantánamo in Cuba, and you have a structure for the imperial ages.

But like some madcap Dr. Seuss character, the Pentagon can't seem to stop and so, the New York Times recently reported, it has now presented the White House with a plan for a new (or refurbished) "network" of bases in the most "volatile" regions of the planet. These shadowy "hubs" are meant mainly for America's secret warriors -- "Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives who would conduct counterterrorism missions for the foreseeable future" against the Islamic State and its various franchisees. This will undoubtedly be news for Times readers, but not for TomDispatch ones. For several years, Nick Turse has been reporting at this site on the building, or building up of, both the "hubs" and "spokes" of this system in southern Europe and across Africa (as well as on the way the U.S. military's pivot to Africa has acted as a kind of blowback machine for terror outfits). Today, he's at it again in "America's Secret African Drone War Against the Islamic State," revealing wars being fought in the shadows in our name from this country's ever-changing, ever-evolving empire of bases.