Time to Rethink US Bases in Asia
Image Credit: US Army

Time to Rethink US Bases in Asia


Could US bases overseas, usually thought of as ‘stabilizers’ in tough neighbourhoods, really be the primary cause of radical terrorism against the United States and its allies?  That’s what Robert Pape and James K. Feldman compellingly argue in their new book Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.

Most war planners and geo-strategists look at US military bases abroad as if they’re anchors of stability in unstable regions.  Over the past six decades, while there have been occasional protests—sometimes violent—targeting these foreign bases by rebellious students or groups affiliated with socialist or communist parties, most of the political systems in these countries have strongly supported the bases (usually as a cheap way to deter aggression from neighbours).

But what once worked in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Germany doesn't seem to be working so well in Central Asia or the Middle East these days (and frankly, may even be of diminishing value even in these traditional base-hosting countries, where jihadist terrorism hasn't been a factor).  

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When terrorist tracker and New America Foundation Counter-Terrorism Initiative Director Peter Bergen was invited to interview Osama bin Laden in 1997, bin Laden told Bergen that the United States had become arrogant in the wake of its victory in the Cold War and that the basing of US troops in Saudi Arabia—the home of the two Holy Mosques—had made the United States a target for al-Qaeda.  Of course, it’s true that the Saudi government invited in and agreed to host on a temporary basis US forces in order to help deter Saddam Hussein.  But after ten years, the phrase ‘temporary bases’ actually shifted in then Defence Secretary William Cohen's remarks to ‘semi-permanent.’

The shift was noted by the media, government officials and incensed Islamists throughout the region—though hardly noticed at all by US strategists who only saw one side of the cost-benefit ledger.

The trouble is, war planners have tended only to consider the upside opportunities in projecting force through foreign-deployed military bases rather than calculating downsides as well. During the Cold War, the seven hundred-plus US military installations abroad helped give the United States unparalleled capacity in intelligence and power projection that only the Soviet Union could match.  And with the collapse of the USSR, the United States stood unrivalled, reifying a core belief that this global network of foreign bases had in part been vital to US success and strength.

While Bergen was tracking down bin Laden and taking the pulse of an increasingly restless Middle East, I was watching growing protests and anti-American anger take hold in another part of the world where US bases had long been situated—Japan and South Korea.  

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