One tangible effect of all of our recent wars has been a marked proliferation of U.S. military bases around the world.  Since the end of the Cold War, the number of countries that host American bases has increased by almost one third, to over 60.  Whether this proliferation has been a serendipitous result of unavoidable armed conflict or is an integral part of our foreign policy is a question that must be addressed.

Soon after Bill Clinton took office, former secretary of defense Dick Cheney and one of his undersecretaries, Paul Wolfowitz, issued a report that warned against letting the U.S. military decline in the wake of the Cold War.  One of the essential elements in their defense strategy was the notion of projecting a “forward presence” that required establishing a network of  “forward bases” inside “host nations” around the world.

After receiving a lukewarm reception from the Clinton administration, their ideas were put on hold until George W. Bush took office, at which point a very similar report was issued by a fledgling think tank known as the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).  Their now infamous report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” by Paul Wolfowitz, among other neoconservatives, stated that “US forces are poorly positioned to respond to today’s crises” and that we must “reposition US forces to respond to 21st century strategic realities by shifting permanently-based forces.”

They recommended that “the United States should seek to establish a network of ‘deployment bases’ or ‘forward operating bases’ to increase the reach of current and future forces.”  These bases would supplement other bases and provide prepositioned materiel in times of crisis.  They could expand and contract as needed, while any required resources could be siphoned from established bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

Knowing that the Clinton administration was not fully committed to the recently established bases in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf, the PNAC report specifically recommended that these bases be garrisoned permanently by U.S. forces.  It called for more bases in East Asia, and even India, in order to keep China in check.  And it recommended more bases in South America to make up for the loss of Panama.

Although this report initially received a more positive reception than Cheney’s earlier work, it was not until September 11 that a strong enough threat to the United States existed to justify its aggressive strategies.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld affirmed his support for this approach last year when he unveiled his Six-Step Strategy for transforming the military, in which the second step was “to project and sustain power in distant theatres.”

In a 2003 study coauthored by Kurt Campbell, the senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the idea of establishing forward bases, now termed “lily pads,” was further delineated.  It echoed the idea that “American defense planners want to create a global network of bare-boned facilities that could be expanded to meet crises as they arise.”  The authors anticipated crisis points existing in


regions where there is a high risk of failed states, Islamic radicalism, drug trafficking, and other forms of volatility.  Together, these regions form an arc of instability that bends from the triborder region of South America through most of Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Central and Southeast Asia.


Although this policy of expanding forward bases around the world has received very little critical analysis in the American press, it is by no means an international secret.  Last May, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz addressed a Pacific security conference in Singapore, where he announced that “[W]e are in the process of taking a fundamental look at our military posture worldwide.”  In December, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith explained to members of CSIS that any new military configurations will require absolute compliance from other countries because, “for this deployability concept to work, forces must be able to move smoothly into, through, and out of host nations.”

Some might say that the whole international “War on Terror” is just a vehicle, spawned by the neocons, justified by September 11, and used to establish a foothold within a perceived “arc of instability” made up of weak, unstable, and mineral-rich nations.  This might seem farfetched, but, when we look at recent wars strictly through a “military bases” lens, events do appear to be proceeding roughly as Cheney and Wolfowitz originally outlined over a decade ago.  Indeed, almost all of the recent base proliferation has occurred in regions of military conflict, such as Southeastern Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia.

After the first Gulf War, large military bases were left behind in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and basing rights were established in the Gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates.  One prize from the otherwise humiliating Somalian adventure was the acquisition of basing rights across the Red Sea in Yemen’s Port of Aden, where the U.S.S. Cole made its home port.  Operations in Yugoslavia resulted in even more bases in Hungary, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo.  In order to conduct the war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration required new bases in Afghanistan herself, as well as various basing rights in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.  According to Campbell’s CSIS study, these “new US bases in Central Asia, established to assist the Afghan campaign, may end up serving longer term aims, such as prosecuting the war on terrorism or, perhaps, checking a rising China.”

Which brings us to the ongoing conflict in Iraq.  Even before September 11, the authors of the PNAC report claimed that “the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”  Although there may never have been a plan to establish permanent military bases in Iraq herself, the neocons have known all along that until Iraq is stabilized—which may still take a long time—all the lily pads in the Persian Gulf region are in danger.



here need not be a major conflict for new bases to be established.  As part of the War on Drugs’ Plan Colombia, a number of bases were established within and around Colombia in the 1990’s.  This included forward bases in Honduras, Ecuador, Curacao, Peru, and Brazil.  During Operation Enduring Freedom, the Philippines were reoccupied only a few years after U.S. withdrawal.  Even Poland and some Black Sea ports saw the establishment of new bases last year to help with the most recent Iraq conflict.

Apart from a pretty wide gap in Africa and another across mainland East Asia, the U.S. military now has forces deployed throughout the arc of instability.  China will likely remain a problem for years to come, but, as far as Africa is concerned, the Wall Street Journal reported in June that the United States plans to create bases from Djibouti, on the Red Sea, across North Africa to Morocco, on the Atlantic.

All this focus on the redeployment of troops begs the question, Is it important for the United States to expand her international footprint in the first place?  Cheney’s 1993 document argued that implementing his plan was necessary in order to “secure and extend the democratic ‘zone of peace’ that we and our allies now enjoy, preclude threats, and guard our national interests.”  The PNAC report said that America must remain the world’s “guarantor of liberty, peace and stability,” and, to do so, the United States must “extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the preeminence of US military forces.”

If we take the neocons at their word, they have tasked themselves with protecting the world from evil in what may seem like an act of pure noblesse oblige.  They may have ulterior motives, however.

When the United States first started getting involved in the Persian Gulf over a decade ago, many critics pointed to oil as the primary motivating interest.  Most supporters of Gulf War I and II and the mainstream media have slid right past the oil question, and it has never received the thorough critical analysis that it deserves.  The entire “arc of instability,” save for a gap in Central Asia, is also an arc of mineral wealth.  And Central Asia, of course, is the latest hot spot for pipelines leading from the Caspian Sea oilfields down to the friendly Indian Ocean.

Some Pentagon officials, such as Thomas Barnett of the Naval War College, argue that an expanded U.S. force is necessary to make the world safe for economic globalization.  In his view, the war in Iraq “will mark a historic tipping point, the moment when Washington takes real ownership of strategic security in the age of globalization.”

A number of critics, mostly from the left, say the reason why the United States is establishing so many new military bases is to secure regional legitimacy and influence for the burgeoning American Empire.  Of course, President Bush has already assured us that “America has never been an empire,” and, similarly, Donald Rumsfeld defends neocon policies, saying, “we’re not imperialistic.  We never have been.”  It is difficult to take a solid position in such an argument, however, since empire is a vague term heavily laden with connotation.  Labeling someone an imperialist is about as meaningful as calling him a terrorist or a communist.  It can always be denied.

Future historians may conclude that an aggressive military posture is simply inevitable when the Pentagon is allowed to drive foreign policy.  Right now, however, this remains speculation and distracts us from the critical facts.  In the end, what is most important for Americans to understand, whether they agree with the policies or not, is that, behind all the sophistry and images that we are being fed by neocon politicians and pundits, there lies a very aggressive, very real, and largely unchallenged proliferation of military bases around the world.                     €