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Are U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harming the United States?

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Asia Defense

Are U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harming the United States?

A new book argues that U.S. military installations abroad are undermining America’s soft power worldwide.

Are U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harming the United States?

Naval Air Facility Atsugi is the largest United States Navy air base in the Pacific Ocean.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Steven Khor

The United States maintains approximately 800 military installations around the world manned by over 230,000 military personnel. Around 80,000 troops are currently stationed in East Asia and the Pacific region including 50,000 troops in 109 bases in Japan and 28,000 in 85 bases in South Korea. Europe still hosts 65,000 American G.I.’s with 58 U.S. bases in Italy and 179 U.S. bases in Germany alone.

All major U.S. military outposts outside the United States can be traced back to the immediate post-World War II period and the beginning of the Cold War. The word “base” itself is an umbrella term and can mean anything from a large Forward Operation Base (FOB) in Afghanistan to a radar station in Peru, or a small recreational facility in Tuscany, Italy (the U.S. military runs more than 170 golf courses worldwide).

After conducting a six-year study, David Vine, professor of anthropology at American University, has published a new book titled Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World in which he argues that military bases abroad are undermining U.S. national security and American soft power abroad.

In a July 2015 OP-ED in the New York Times summarizing his books conclusions, Vine cites Bradley L. Bowman, a former professor at the U.S. Military Academy, who once emphasized that military bases in the Middle-East are “major catalysts for anti-Americanism and radicalization” and additionally points out studies showing a clear correlation between United States bases and troops in the region and Al Qaeda recruitment. (This is somewhat similar to David Kilcullen’s argument in The Accidental Guerilla).

He further states:

Foreign bases also tend to heighten military tensions and discourage diplomatic solutions to conflicts. From the perspective of China, Russia and Iran, United States bases near their borders are a threat that encourages increased military spending. United States bases overseas can actually make war more likely and America less secure.

Vine also deals with the argument that giving up military bases abroad could signal to U.S. allies that the United States will once more embrace isolationism, which particularly in Asia and Europe – given Russia’s revisionist foreign policy and the growing military power of China – could undermine peace and stability since bases serve as a deterrent to aggression in these regions.

He outlines that military studies indicates that “advances in moving forces by air and sea have largely erased the advantage of forward stationing of troops; the military can generally deploy troops just as quickly from domestic bases as it can from bases abroad. And little if any empirical research proves the effectiveness of overseas bases as a form of long-term deterrence.”

As John W. Dower points out in an essay on Japan’s post-war history titled “Peace and Democracy in two Systems: External Policy and Internal Conflict” about American bases in Japan during the Cold War:

The primary mission of U.S. forces and bases in Japan including Okinawa was never to defend Japan directly but rather to project U.S. power in Asia and to “support out commitments elsewhere,” as one high U.S. official later testified. To many observers the argument that this U.S. presence also acted as a deterrent to external threats to Japan was less persuasive than its counterargument: that the external threat was negligible without the bases, but considerable with them.

Furthermore, Vine notes that keeping bases in undemocratic countries such as Bahrain and Qatar, makes “a mockery of rhetoric that says bases spread democracy” and in fact undermine American soft power abroad. “Worldwide, bases have resulted in environmental damage, forced displacement, prostitution, accidents and crime,” he adds.

Vine estimates that a single service member stationed abroad costs around $10,000 to $40,000 more in comparison to stationing her or him within the United States. The total bill for military installations and military personnel–excluding Afghanistan and Iraq—amounted to approximately $85 in 2014. “President Obama’s ‘Pacific pivot’ has meant billions more in spending in a region where the military already has hundreds of bases and tens of thousands of troops,” Vine points out.