America's Invisible Empire of Bases

You can watch our TV news for months and not have the slightest clue that we are the most militarized of global landlords and that this is the face we present to much of the world.
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Every now and then, news about U.S. military bases abroad actually gets a little attention. The most recent example: Afghan President Hamid Karzai's announcement that the U.S. will be able to keep nine bases after the 2014 withdrawal of its combat troops. ("'They want nine bases... across the country, in Kabul, Bagram, Mazar, Jalalabad, Gardez, Kandahar, Helmand, Shindand and Herat,' he told faculty members and students [at Kabul University]. 'We agree to give the bases. We see their presence after 2014 in Afghanistan as a positive.'") These aren't, of course, small bases. Two of them, Bagram and Kandahar, are veritable monsters, and so offer some indication of Washington's possible plans -- evidently still in flux -- for keeping U.S. troops, trainers, advisors, special operations forces, CIA types, private security contractors, assorted allied Afghan militias, and whatnot in place once the war is officially "over" and "withdrawal" complete.

Most of the time, though, you have to be a fanatic news jockey to notice pieces about what could be considered the most singular aspect of the American overseas persona: our "empire of bases" (as Chalmers Johnson used to call it). Though base numbers remain staggering and historically unprecedented, most Americans are hardly aware of their existence. So, picking and choosing from the last month of overlooked base news, how many of you noticed that a U.S. KC-135 refueling plane, based at an American "military installation" connected to Manas International Airport near Bishtek, went down over northern Kyrgyzstan? How many of you knew that the U.S. had a military installation in Kyrgyzstan, just a hop, skip, and a jump across Tajikistan from Afghanistan? How many of you can even locate Kyrgyzstan? (I just checked my own atlas to be sure!)

How many of you heard that a U.S. military helicopter, evidently from a U.S. base -- one of a number -- in South Korea, crashed recently near the North Korean border? Or that the Chinese press is now plugging for the "return" of the Japanese island of Okinawa, with its huge U.S. military complex? How many of you realized that 68 years after the end of World War II, the U.S. still has dozens of bases there and that Okinawans continue to protest the construction of a new base amid the staggering concentration of foreign military installations on their soil?

How many of you noticed that Spain, going through tough economic times and significant defense cutbacks, has upped its basing relationship with the U.S.? According to the Christian Science Monitor, "500 U.S. Marines are in the process of deploying to Morón Air Base in southern Spain as part of a rapid reaction force that will act as the vanguard to protect American interests in the increasingly volatile North African region." And speaking of Northern Africa, did you notice the report by John Reed at Foreign Policy mapping U.S. installations, especially drone bases, there and elsewhere in Africa, including satellite shots of installations you've probably never heard of in places like Arba Minch in Ethiopia, Niamey in Niger, the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, and Lamu on the Kenyan coast? (Hey, don't beat up on yourself. We Americans have next to no idea what's being done in our name globally!)

You get the gist, right? Set foot just about anywhere on this planet other than China, Russia, and Iran, and you're likely to find some kind of U.S. base, installation, or shared facility, and some news that goes with it, though you could pay endless attention to the U.S. media and never know that. You can watch our TV news for months and not have the slightest clue that we are the most militarized of global landlords and that this is the face we present to much of the world. Nor would you know that -- as David Vine reports in "Where Has All the Money Gone?" -- in tough economic times your tax dollars are still flowing bounteously to a small group of private contractors, making money hand over fist supporting that empire of bases. As he indicates, they are working hard to ensure that crony capitalism, like garrisoning the planet, remains as American as superheroes and cheeseburgers.

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