The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world

One of the most important sites on the web for those following geopolitics is, in my opinion, Tom Engelhardt’s TomDispatch.  He covers aspects of the world that remain almost invisible to our mainstream media.  Here is another look behind the curtain, at things hidden from most Americans.  Please read the full article; the excerpt just hints at its contents.  Esp note the section at the end.

Being in Base Denial“, Tom Engelhardt, posted at TomDispatch, 4 September 2008 — “How the U.S. Garrisons the Planet and Doesn’t Even Notice” — Excerpt:

At the height of the Roman Empire, the Romans had an estimated 37 major military bases scattered around their dominions. At the height of the British Empire, the British had 36 of them planetwide. Depending on just who you listen to and how you count, we have hundreds of bases. According to Pentagon records, in fact, there are 761 active military “sites” abroad.

The fact is: We garrison the planet north to south, east to west, and even on the seven seas, thanks to our various fleets and our massive aircraft carriers which, with 5,000-6,000 personnel aboard — that is, the population of an American town — are functionally floating bases.

And here’s the other half of that simple truth: We don’t care to know about it. We, the American people, aided and abetted by our politicians, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media, are knee-deep in base denial.

Now, that’s the gist of it. If, like most Americans, that’s more than you care to know, stop here.

Where the Sun Never Sets

… Let’s start with the basics: Almost 70 years after World War II, the sun is still incapable of setting on the American “empire of bases” — in Chalmers Johnson’s phrase — which at this moment stretches from Australia to Italy, Japan to Qatar, Iraq to Colombia, Greenland to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, Rumania to Okinawa. And new bases of various kinds are going up all the time (always with rumors of more to come). For instance, an American missile system is slated to go into Poland and a radar system into Israel. That will mean Americans stationed in both countries and, undoubtedly, modest bases of one sort or another to go with them. (The Israeli one — “the first American base on Israeli territory” — reports Aluf Benn of Haaretz, will be in the Negev desert.)

There are 194 countries on the planet (more or less), and officially 39 of them have American “facilities,” large and/or small. But those are only the bases the Pentagon officially acknowledges. Others simply aren’t counted, either because, as in the case of Jordan, a country finds it politically preferable not to acknowledge such bases; because, as in the case of Pakistan, the American military shares bases that are officially Pakistani; or because bases in war zones, no matter how elaborate, somehow don’t count. In other words, that 39 figure doesn’t even include Iraq or Afghanistan. By 2005, according to the Washington Post, there were 106 American bases in Iraq, ranging from tiny outposts to mega-bases like Balad Air Base and the ill-named Camp Victory that house tens of thousands of troops, private contractors, Defense Department civilians, have bus routes, traffic lights, PXes, big name fast-food restaurants, and so on.

Some of these bases are, in effect, “American towns” on foreign soil. In Afghanistan, Bagram Air Base, previously used by the Soviets in their occupation of the country, is the largest and best known. There are, however, many more, large and small, including Kandahar Air Base, located in what was once the unofficial capital of the Taliban, which even has a full-scale hockey rink (evidently for its Canadian contingent of troops).

You would think that all of this would be genuine news, that the establishment of new bases would regularly generate significant news stories, that books by the score would pour out on America’s version of imperial control. But here’s the strange thing: We garrison the globe in ways that really are — not to put too fine a point on it — unprecedented, and yet, if you happen to live in the United States, you basically wouldn’t know it; or, thought about another way, you wouldn’t have to know it.

In Washington, our garrisoning of the world is so taken for granted that no one seems to blink when billions go into a new base in some exotic, embattled, war-torn land. There’s no discussion, no debate at all. News about bases abroad, and Pentagon basing strategy, is, at best, inside-the-fold stuff, meant for policy wonks and news jockeys. There may be no subject more taken for granted in Washington, less seriously attended to, or more deserving of coverage.

Missing Bases

… Americans have, of course, always prided themselves on exporting “democracy,” not empire. So empire-talk hasn’t generally been an American staple and, perhaps for that reason, all those bases prove an awkward subject to bring up or focus too closely on. When it came to empire-talk in general, there was a brief period after 9/11 when the neoconservatives, in full-throated triumph, began to compare us to Rome and Britain at their imperial height (though we were believed to be incomparably, uniquely more powerful). It was, in the phrase of the time, a “unipolar moment.”

… On the whole, however, those in Washington and in the media haven’t considered it germane to remind Americans of just exactly how we have attempted to “police” and control the world these last years.

.. Within two years {after invading Iraq}, according to the Washington Post (in a piece that, typically, appeared on page A27 of the paper), the U.S. had those 106 bases in Iraq at a cost that, while unknown, must have been staggering indeed. Just stop for a moment and consider that number: 106. It boggles the mind, but not, it seems, American newspaper or TV journalism. has covered this subject regularly ever since, in part because these massive “facts on the ground,” these modern Ziggurats, were clearly evidence of the Bush administration’s long-term plans and intentions in that country.

… It has always been obvious — to me, at least — that any discussion of Iraq policy in this country, of timelines or “time horizons,” drawdowns or withdrawals, made little sense if those giant facts on the ground weren’t taken into account. And yet you have to search the U.S. press carefully to find any reporting on the subject, nor have bases played any real role in debates in Washington or the nation over Iraq policy.

… I doubt that in the last five years Americans tuning in to their television news have ever been able to see a single report from Iraq that gave a view of what the bases we have built there look like or cost. Although reporters visit them often enough and, for instance, have regularly offered reports from Camp Victory in Baghdad on what’s going on in the rest of Iraq, the cameras never pan away from the reporters to show us the gigantic base itself.

More than five years after ground was broken for the first major American base in Iraq, this is, it seems to me, a remarkable record of media denial. American bases in Afghanistan have generally experienced a similar fate.

Note on Sources

It’s rare indeed that the U.S. empire of bases gets anything like the attention it deserves, so, when it does, praise is in order.

Mother Jones online has just launched a major project to map out and analyze U.S. bases worldwide.  it includes a number of other top-notch pieces, such as

Check out the package of pieces at MJ by clicking here.

Perhaps most significant, the magazine has produced an impressive online interactive map of U.S. bases worldwide. Check it out by clicking here. But when you zoom in on an individual country, do note that the first base figures you’ll see are the Pentagon’s and so possibly not complete. You need to read the MJ texts below each map to get a fuller picture. As will be obvious, if you click on the links in this post, I made good use of MJ’s efforts, for which I offer many thanks.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

9 thoughts on “The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world”

  1. Query as to what extent the mortgage crisis could serve as a template for analyzing this base building boom.

    Basically, these bases constitute real estate which the United States has borrowed money from the Chinese in order to build, much as the housing boom constitutes real estate which Americans have borrowed in order to build.

    So as credit contracts could not these bases wind up as white elephants?

  2. Johnson describes many of these large foreign military bases as luxury resorts, privileged postings, for senior military officers — with their golf courses, duty-free PX shopping, cinemas and restaurants — and as such they would be very hard to dislodge from the military budget. Undoubtedly Congressional tours of these bases are also valued perks, and Congress seems to be genetically incapable of resisting whatever the military wants.

    Many host countries get substantial economic benefits from US military bases, but they also get typical American boorishness and anti-social behavior, which creates popular opposition to them. Johnson’s first book, Blowback, was largely about the sixty year old US presence on Okinawa.

    Probably half of the 760 bases Johnson counts are only “listening posts” and radar installations, not giant cities like Bondsteel in Kosovo. The first American base in Israel? That’s like saying the first Japanese-owned Toyota dealership in the US. so?

  3. Hi
    I’m the online producer for – we’re doing citizen-coverage of the election for the Washington Post. Can I reprint some of your stuff on the economy for our site? I’ll link it back to you. Your perspective is great. let me know.
    Fabius Maximus replies: OK to do so, with the following details. Please do not change the text. Include a full citation (name, site, date), and a link to the original on this site. If you show the full text, please include the “for additional information” links at the end. Please tell me, by email or comment on the original post, when you re-post something from this site.

  4. I commented about this on Tiny Revolution — history-minded as I am, I really need to see a scource on the figure of only 36 British “major military bases” back in the Imperial day. I would have suspected at least that number (or many more) in India alone. Also, there’s imperialism and Imperialism. The Brits ruled, in every sense of the word, the whole of the Indian subcontinent as well as large parts of the rest of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and islands here and there. Sure, we rule Iraq at the moment, maybe Afghanistan in a stretch, plus Puerto Rico and Guam. As imperialists, I think we fall short of the British or Roman standard. Heck, McDonald’s or the Sony Corporation have footprints that dwarf ours.

  5. One of the easiest and quickest solutions to delaying Peak Oil impact is to dismantle all those bases ASAP! I don’t have ready figures, but their usage – especially in the Iraq theatre right now – is truly phenomenal.

  6. RH: “As imperialists, I think we fall short of the British or Roman standard.”

    I think the current opinion is that economic influence, connected with arms sales, kickbacks to the subject country’s leaders, and an occasional US “training” presence, is a simpler form of rule. There are many variations on the standard formula, most of them evident in the history of US relations with Central and Latin America.

    In the former Soviet Union, we’re not talking about Imperialism, but still a potent form of American hegemony — investment backed by military aid and the carrot of NATO membership. Unlike the Brits or Romans, we’re not selling citizenship or civil government, but membership in the what appears to be the only economic game in town.

  7. The network of bases depends on others’ good will. The real U.S. bases are only in CONUS, Caribbean and Pacific.

    The other bases are in allied or just bribed countries. Subic Bay and the recent expulsion from (iirc) Uzbekistan (or Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan? – dunno exactly) shows the fragility of such foreign soil bases.
    Turkey’s wise decision not to become staging ground for the Gulf War 2003 also shows some limits, as does the dependence on several overflight rights (Pakistan for Afghanistan war, France denying rights for Reagan to bomb Libya).

    This highlights the importance of good will of others, and therefore of U.S. reputation and foreign relations.

  8. I wonder how many of those bases would be closed if there were a national strategy and any sane cost-benefit analysis of each one. I’d vote for closing about half of them at least and splitting 10% of that with veterans and active duty personnel for benefits, medical, education etc. Much better way to spend the money, methinks. Foreign adventures only pay off when there are free resources and no, genocided, or enslaved natives.

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