As we debate an exit from Afghanistan, it’s critical that we focus not only on the costs of deploying the current force of more than 100,000 troops, but also on the costs of maintaining permanent bases long after those troops leave.
This is an issue that demands a hard look not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but around the globe—where the United States has a veritable empire of bases.
According to the Pentagon, there are approximately 865 US military bases abroad—over 1,000 if new bases in Iraq and Afghanistan are included. The cost? $102 billion annually—and that doesn’t include the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan bases.
In a must-read article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson points out that these bases “constitute 95 percent of all the military bases any country in the world maintains on any other country’s territory.” He notes a “bloated and anachronistic” Cold War-tilt toward Europe, including 227 bases in Germany.
“It makes as much sense for the Pentagon to hold onto 227 military bases in Germany as it would for the post office to maintain a fleet of horses and buggies,” writes Gusterson.
In a recent Italian documentary Standing Army, the late author and Nation contributor Chalmers Johnson says, “The unit of empire in the classic European empires was the colony. The unit for the American empire is not the colony, it’s the military base.… Things that can’t go on forever, don’t. That’s where we are today.”
The bases—isolated from the host communities and, as Gusterson writes, “generating resentment against [their] prostitution, environmental damage, petty crime, and everyday ethnocentrism”—face growing opposition from local citizens.
Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) fellow Phyllis Bennis says that the Pentagon and military have been brilliant at spreading military production across virtually every Congressional district so that even the most antiwar members of Congress are reluctant to challenge big Defense projects.
“But there’s really no significant constituency for overseas bases because they don’t bring much money in a concentrated way,” says Bennis. “So in theory it should be easier to mobilize to close them.” What is new and heartening, according to Bennis, is that “there are now people in countries everywhere that are challenging the US bases and that’s a huge development.”
For example, in the wealthy, conservative town of Vicenza, Italy, environmental and progressive activists have been joined by the right-wing government, city council, and local businesspeople in the “Stop Dal Molin” base expansion campaign. A NATO base is already located there, but the United States is trying to expand to a new base and build a new landing strip less than 500 meters from some of the original Palladio mansions of the Renaissance, according to Bennis.