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Imperial Reach | The Nation

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Imperial Reach

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The decommissioning of older bases in Germany, Japan and South Korea and the acquisition of new facilities in other areas has been described by the White House as "the most comprehensive restructuring of US military forces overseas since the end of the Korean War." In explaining these moves, the Bush Administration emphasizes the issue of utility: Many older installations eat up vast resources but contribute little to overall combat effectiveness, and so should be closed; at the same time, new facilities are needed in areas where few American bases currently exist. But while it is certainly arguable that the closing of obsolete bases in Europe and East Asia will free resources that might be better employed somewhere else, it is also clear that a lot more is going on than mere military utility. Indeed, a close look at Pentagon statements and policy reports suggests that three other factors are at work: a new calculus of America's geopolitical interests; a shift in US strategic orientation from defensive to offensive operations; and concerns about the future reliability of long-term allies, especially those in "Old Europe."

Correction: Grafenwöhr training area is not in the former East Germany. It's in western Germany, about forty miles from the old border.

About the Author

Michael T. Klare
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the defense correspondent...

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Most significant, overall, is the revised calculation of America's geopolitical interests. During the cold war, when "containment" was the overarching strategic principle, the United States surrounded the Soviet bloc with major bases. With the end of the cold war, however, this template no longer made sense, and many of these bases lost their strategic rationale. Meanwhile, other concerns--terrorism, the pursuit of foreign oil and the rise of China--have come to preoccupy American strategists. It is these concerns that are largely driving the realignment of US bases and forces.

There is a remarkable degree of convergence among these concerns, both in practical and geographic terms. Oil and terrorism are linked because many of the most potent terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, arose in part as a reaction to the West's oil-inspired embrace of entrenched Arab governments, and because the terrorists often attack oil facilities in order to weaken the regimes they abhor. Similarly, oil and China are linked because both Washington and Beijing seek influence in the major oil-producing regions. And the major terrorist groups, the most promising sites of new oil and the focal points of Sino-American energy competition are all located in the same general neighborhoods: Central Asia and the Caspian region, the greater Gulf area and the far reaches of the Sahara. And the United States is establishing new basing facilities precisely in these areas.

In combating the threat posed by terrorist forces, the United States naturally seeks an enhanced military presence where these groups first arose. Moreover, as the older oilfields of the North are gradually exhausted, more and more of the world's oil will have to come from producers in the Global South--especially the Persian Gulf countries plus Africa and Latin America. In 1990, according to the Energy Department, these countries produced 32 million barrels of oil per day, or 46 percent of total world output. By 2025, however, they are expected to deliver 77 million barrels, or 61 percent of global output. Over this same thirty-five-year period, the combined production of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia and Europe will drop from 29 percent to 19 percent of total world output. With America's domestic production in decline, an ever-increasing share of its oil requirements will have to be satisfied by imports, meaning greater US dependence on oil supplied by countries in the Middle East, Africa and other non-Western areas.

These countries show a high degree of instability, much of it induced by the legacies of colonialism and a preponderance of unrepresentative political institutions. Nigeria, for example, has experienced periodic outbreaks of ethnic disorder in the Niger Delta region, the source of most of its petroleum; both Angola and Azerbaijan harbor ethnic separatist movements; and Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been the repeated targets of attacks on oil facilities and related infrastructure. In none of these countries can the uninterrupted extraction and export of oil be taken for granted, and so the American economy is becoming increasingly exposed to supply disruptions in overseas producing areas.

In the face of this peril, American leaders have placed ever-increasing reliance on the use of military force to protect the global production and transport of oil. This trend began in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter vowed that the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf would be assured "by any means necessary, including military force." The same basic premise was subsequently applied to the Caspian Sea basin by President Clinton, and is now being extended by President Bush to other producing areas, including Africa. All of this entails the increased involvement of US military forces in these areas--and it is to facilitate such involvement that the Defense Department seeks new bases and "operating locations."

Normally, Pentagon officials are reluctant to ascribe US strategic moves to concern over the safe delivery of energy supplies. Nevertheless, in their explanations of the need for new facilities, the oil factor has begun to crop up. "In the Caspian Sea you have large mineral [i.e., petroleum] reserves," observed General Charles Wald, deputy commander of the US European Command (Eucom), in June 2003. "We want to be able to assure the long-term viability of those resources." Wald has also spoken of the need for bases to help protect oil reserves in Africa (which falls under the purview of the EUCOM). "The estimate is [that] in the next ten years, we will get 25 percent of our oil from there," he declared in Air Force magazine. "I can see the United States potentially having a forward operating location in São Tomé," or other sites in Africa.

Of the dozen or so locations mentioned in Pentagon or media accounts of new basing locations, a majority--including Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Gabon, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Romania, São Tomé and Príncipe, Tunisia--either possess oil themselves or abut major pipelines and supply routes. At the same time, many of these countries house terrorist groups or have been used by them as staging areas. And, from the Pentagon's perspective, the protection of oil and the war against terrorism often amount to one and the same thing. Thus, when asked whether the United States was prepared to help defend Nigeria's oilfields against ethnic violence, General Wald replied, "Wherever there's evil, we want to go there and fight it."

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