[News] Ten steps to liquidate US bases
news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 19 10:47:19 EDT 2009
Ten steps to liquidate US bases
By Chalmers Johnson
However ambitious United States President Barack Obama's domestic
plans, one unacknowledged issue has the potential to destroy any
reform efforts he might launch. Think of it as the 800-pound gorilla
in the American living room: our longstanding reliance on imperialism
and militarism in our relations with other countries and the vast,
potentially ruinous global empire of bases that goes with it. The
failure to begin to deal with our bloated military establishment and
the profligate use of it in missions for which it is hopelessly
inappropriate will, sooner rather than later, condemn the United
States to a devastating trio of consequences: imperial overstretch,
perpetual war and insolvency, leading to a likely collapse similar to
that of the former Soviet Union.
According to the 2008 official Pentagon inventory of our military
bases around the world, our empire consists of 865 facilities in more
than 40 countries and overseas US territories. We deploy over 190,000
troops in 46 countries and territories. In just one such country,
Japan, at the end of March 2008, we still had 99,295 people connected
to US military forces living and working there - 49,364 members of
our armed services, 45,753 dependent family members, and 4,178
civilian employees. Some 13,975 of these were crowded into the small
Okinawa, the largest concentration of foreign troops anywhere in Japan.
These massive concentrations of American military power outside the
United States are not needed for our defense. They are, if anything,
a prime contributor to our numerous conflicts with other countries.
They are also unimaginably expensive. According to Anita Dancs, an
analyst for the website Foreign Policy in Focus, the United States
spends approximately US$250 billion each year maintaining its global
military presence. The sole purpose of this is to give us hegemony -
that is, control or dominance over as many nations on the planet as possible.
We are like the British at the end of World War II: desperately
trying to shore up an empire that we never needed and can no longer
afford, using methods that often resemble those of failed empires of
the past - including the Axis powers of World War II and the former
Soviet Union. There is an important lesson for us in the British
decision, starting in 1945, to liquidate their empire relatively
voluntarily, rather than being forced to do so by defeat in war, as
were Japan and
by debilitating colonial conflicts, as were the French and Dutch. We
should follow the British example. (Alas, they are currently
backsliding and following our example by assisting us in the war in
Here are three basic reasons why we must liquidate our empire or else
watch it liquidate us.
1. We can no longer afford our post-war expansionism
Shortly after his election as president, Obama, in a speech
announcing several members of his new cabinet, stated as fact that
"[w]e have to maintain the strongest military on the planet". A few
weeks later, on March 12, 2009, in a speech at the National Defense
DC, the president again insisted, "Now make no mistake, this nation
will maintain our military dominance. We will have the strongest
armed forces in the history of the world." And in a commencement
address to the cadets of the US Naval Academy on May 22, Obama
stressed that "[w]e will maintain America's military dominance and
keep you the finest fighting force the world has ever seen."
What he failed to note is that the United States no longer has the
capability to remain a global hegemon, and to pretend otherwise is to
According to a growing consensus of economists and political
scientists around the world, it is impossible for the United States
to continue in that role while emerging into full view as a crippled
economic power. No such configuration has ever persisted in the
history of imperialism. The University of
Robert Pape, author of the important study Dying to Win: The
Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005), typically writes:
America is in unprecedented decline. The self-inflicted wounds of the
Iraq war, growing government debt, increasingly negative
current-account balances and other internal economic weaknesses have
cost the United States real power in today's world of rapidly
spreading knowledge and technology. If present trends continue, we
will look back on the Bush years as the death knell of American hegemony.
There is something absurd, even Kafkaesque, about our military
empire. Jay Barr, a bankruptcy attorney, makes this point using an
Whether liquidating or reorganizing, a debtor who desires bankruptcy
protection must provide a list of expenses, which, if considered
reasonable, are offset against income to show that only limited funds
are available to repay the bankrupted creditors. Now imagine a person
filing for bankruptcy claiming that he could not repay his debts
because he had the astronomical expense of maintaining at least 737
facilities overseas that provide exactly zero return on the
significant investment required to sustain them ... He could not
qualify for liquidation without turning over many of his assets for
the benefit of creditors, including the valuable foreign real estate
on which he placed his bases.
In other words, the United States is not seriously contemplating its
own bankruptcy. It is instead ignoring the meaning of its precipitate
economic decline and flirting with insolvency.
Nick Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades our
Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books, 2008), calculates that we could
clear $2.6 billion if we would sell our base assets at Diego Garcia
in the Indian Ocean and earn another $2.2 billion if we did the same
with Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. These are only two of our over 800
overblown military enclaves.
Our unwillingness to retrench, no less liquidate, represents a
striking historical failure of the imagination. In his first official
becoming Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner assured an audience of
students at Beijing University, "Chinese assets [invested in the
United States] are very safe." According to press reports, the
students responded with loud laughter. Well they might.
In May 2009, the Office of Management and Budget predicted that in
2010 the United States will be burdened with a budget deficit of at
least $1.75 trillion. This includes neither a projected $640 billion
budget for the Pentagon, nor the costs of waging two remarkably
expensive wars. The sum is so immense that it will take several
generations for American citizens to repay the costs of George W
Bush's imperial adventures - if they ever can or will. It represents
about 13% of our current gross domestic product (that is, the value
of everything we produce). It is worth noting that the target
demanded of European nations wanting to join the Euro Zone is a
deficit no greater than 3% of GDP.
Thus far, Obama has announced measly cuts of only $8.8 billion in
wasteful and worthless weapons spending, including his cancellation
of the F-22 fighter aircraft. The actual Pentagon budget for next
year will, in fact, be larger, not smaller, than the bloated final
budget of the Bush era. Far bolder cuts in our military expenditures
will obviously be required in the very near future if we intend to
maintain any semblance of fiscal integrity.
2. We are going to lose the war in Afghanistan
and it will help bankrupt us
One of our major strategic blunders in Afghanistan was not to have
recognized that both Great Britain and the Soviet Union attempted to
pacify Afghanistan using the same military methods as ours and failed
disastrously. We seem to have learned nothing from Afghanistan's
modern history to the extent that we even know what it is. Between
1849 and 1947, Britain sent almost annual expeditions against the
Pashtun tribes and sub-tribes living in what was then called the
North-West Frontier Territories - the area along either side of the
artificial border between Afghanistan and Pakistan called the Durand
Line. This frontier was created in 1893 by Britain's foreign
secretary for India, Sir Mortimer Durand.
Neither Britain nor Pakistan has ever managed to establish effective
control over the area. As the eminent historian Louis Dupree put it
in his book Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2002, pg 425):
"Pashtun tribes, almost genetically expert at guerrilla warfare after
resisting centuries of all comers and fighting among themselves when
no comers were available, plagued attempts to extend the Pax
Britannica into their mountain homeland." An estimated 41 million
Pashtuns live in an undemarcated area along the Durand Line and
profess no loyalties to the central governments of either Pakistan or
The region known today as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas
(FATA) of Pakistan is administered directly by Islamabad, which -
just as British imperial officials did - has divided the territory
into seven agencies, each with its own "political agent" who wields
much the same powers as his colonial-era predecessor. Then as now,
the part of FATA known as Waziristan and the home of Pashtun
tribesmen offered the fiercest resistance.
According to Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, experienced Afghan
hands and coauthors of Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story
(City Lights, 2009, pg 317):
bureaucrats don't remember the history of the region, the Afghans do.
The British used air power to bomb these same Pashtun villages after
World War I and were condemned for it. When the Soviets used MiGs and
the dreaded Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships to do it during the 1980s,
they were called criminals. For America to use its overwhelming
firepower in the same reckless and indiscriminate manner defies the
world's sense of justice and morality while turning the Afghan people
and the Islamic world even further against the United States.
In 1932, in a series of Guernica-like atrocities, the British used
poison gas in Waziristan. The disarmament convention of the same year
sought a ban against the aerial bombardment of civilians, but Lloyd
George, who had been British prime minister during World War I,
gloated: "We insisted on reserving the right to bomb niggers"
(Fitzgerald and Gould, pg 65). His view prevailed.
The US continues to act similarly, but with the new excuse that our
killing of non-combatants is a result of "collateral damage", or
human error. Using pilotless drones guided with only minimal accuracy
from computers at military bases in the
Nevada deserts among other places, we have killed hundreds, perhaps
thousands, of unarmed bystanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The
Pakistani and Afghan governments have repeatedly warned that we are
alienating precisely the people we claim to be saving for democracy.
When in May 2009, General Stanley McChrystal was appointed as the
commander in Afghanistan, he ordered new limits on air attacks,
including those carried out by the Central Intelligence Agecny,
except when needed to protect allied troops. Unfortunately, as if to
illustrate the incompetence of our chain of command, only two days
after this order, on June 23, 2009, the United States carried out a
drone attack against a funeral procession that killed at least 80
people, the single deadliest US attack on Pakistani soil so far.
There was virtually no reporting of these developments by the
mainstream American press or on the network television news. (At the
time, the media were almost totally preoccupied by the sexual
adventures of the governor of South Carolina and the death of pop
star Michael Jackson.)
Our military operations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have long
been plagued by inadequate and inaccurate intelligence about both
countries, ideological preconceptions about which parties we should
support and which ones we should oppose, and myopic understandings of
what we could possibly hope to achieve. Fitzgerald and Gould, for
example, charge that, contrary to our own intelligence service's
focus on Afghanistan, "Pakistan has always been the problem." They add:
<http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/KH04Ak02.html#>army and its
Inter-Services Intelligence branch ... from 1973 on, has played the
key role in funding and directing first the mujahideen [anti-Soviet
fighters during the 1980s] ... and then the Taliban. It is Pakistan's
army that controls its nuclear weapons, constrains the development of
institutions, trains Taliban fighters in suicide attacks and orders
them to fight American and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]
soldiers protecting the Afghan
The Pakistani army and its intelligence arm are staffed, in part, by
devout Muslims who fostered the Taliban in Afghanistan to meet the
needs of their own agenda, though not necessarily to advance an
Islamic jihad. Their purposes have always included: keeping
Afghanistan free of Russian or Indian influence, providing a training
and recruiting ground for mujahideen guerrillas to be used in places
like Kashmir (fought over by both Pakistan and India), containing
Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan (and so keeping it out of
Pakistan), and extorting huge amounts of money from Saudi Arabia, the
Persian Gulf emirates, and the United States to pay and train
"freedom fighters" throughout the Islamic world. Pakistan's
consistent policy has been to support the clandestine policies of the
Inter-Services Intelligence and thwart the influence of its major
enemy and competitor, India.
Colonel Douglas MacGregor, US Army (retired), an adviser to the
Center for Defense Information in Washington, summarizes our hopeless
project in South Asia this way: "Nothing we do will compel 125
million Muslims in Pakistan to make common cause with a United States
in league with the two states that are unambiguously anti-Muslim:
Israel and India."
Obama's mid-2009 "surge" of troops into southern Afghanistan and
particularly into Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, is fast
becoming darkly reminiscent of General William Westmoreland's
continuous requests in Vietnam for more troops and his promises that
if we would ratchet up the violence just a little more and tolerate a
few more casualties, we would certainly break the will of the
Vietnamese insurgents. This was a total misreading of the nature of
the conflict in Vietnam, just as it is in Afghanistan today.
Twenty years after the forces of the red army withdrew from
Afghanistan in disgrace, the last Russian general to command them,
General Boris Gromov, issued his own prediction: disaster, he
insisted, will come to the thousands of new forces Obama is sending
there, just as it did to the Soviet Union's, which lost some 15,000
soldiers in its own Afghan war. We should recognize that we are
wasting time, lives, and resources in an area where we have never
understood the political dynamics and continue to make the wrong choices.
3. We need to end the secret shame
of the empire of bases
In March, New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert noted, "Rape and
other forms of sexual assault against women is the great shame of the
US armed forces, and there is no evidence that this ghastly problem,
kept out of sight as much as possible, is diminishing." He continued:
New data released by the Pentagon showed an almost 9% increase in the
number of sexual assaults - 2,923 - and a 25 percent increase in such
assaults reported by women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan [over the
past year]. Try to imagine how bizarre it is that women in American
uniforms who are enduring all the stresses related to serving in a
combat zone have to also worry about defending themselves against
rapists wearing the same uniform and lining up in formation right beside them.
The problem is exacerbated by having our troops garrisoned in
overseas bases located cheek-by-jowl next to civilian populations and
often preying on them like foreign conquerors. For example, sexual
violence against women and girls by American GIs has been out of
control in Okinawa, Japan's poorest prefecture, ever since our
airmen permanently occupied it some 64 years ago.
That island was the scene of the largest anti-American demonstrations
since the end of World War II after the 1995 kidnapping, rape and
attempted murder of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by two marines and a
sailor. The problem of rape has been ubiquitous around all of our
bases on every continent and has probably contributed as much to our
being loathed abroad as the policies of the Bush administration or
our economic exploitation of poverty-stricken countries whose raw
materials we covet.
itself has done next to nothing to protect its own female soldiers or
to defend the rights of innocent bystanders forced to live next to
our often racially biased and predatory troops. "The military's
record of prosecuting rapists is not just lousy, it's atrocious,"
writes Herbert. In territories occupied by American military forces,
the high command and the State Department make strenuous efforts to
enact so-called Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) that will prevent
host governments from gaining jurisdiction over our troops who commit
crimes overseas. The SOFAs also make it easier for our military to
spirit culprits out of a country before they can be apprehended by
This issue was well illustrated by the case of an Australian teacher,
a long-time resident of Japan, who in April 2002 was raped by a
sailor from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, then based at the
big naval base at Yokosuka. She identified her assailant and reported
him to both Japanese and US authorities. Instead of his being
arrested and effectively prosecuted, the victim herself was harassed
and humiliated by the local Japanese police. Meanwhile, the US
discharged the suspect from the navy but allowed him to escape
Japanese law by returning him to the US, where he lives today.
In the course of trying to obtain justice, the Australian teacher
discovered that almost 50 years earlier, in October 1953, the
Japanese and American governments signed a secret "understanding" as
part of their SOFA in which Japan agreed to waive its jurisdiction if
the crime was not of "national importance to Japan". The US argued
strenuously for this codicil because it feared that otherwise it
would face the likelihood of some 350 servicemen per year being sent
to Japanese jails for sex crimes.
Since that time, the US has negotiated similar wording in SOFAs with
Canada, Ireland, Italy and Denmark. According to the Handbook of the
Law of Visiting Forces (2001), the Japanese practice has become the
norm for SOFAs throughout the world, with predictable results.
In Japan, of 3,184
personnel who committed crimes between 2001 and 2008, 83% were not
prosecuted. In Iraq, we have just signed a SOFA that bears a strong
resemblance to the first postwar one we had with Japan: namely,
military personnel and military contractors accused of off-duty
crimes will remain in US custody while Iraqis investigate. This is,
of course, a perfect opportunity to spirit the culprits out of the
country before they can be charged.
Within the military itself, the journalist Dahr Jamail, author of
Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in
Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, 2007), speaks of the "culture of
unpunished sexual assaults" and the "shockingly low numbers of courts
martial" for rapes and other forms of sexual attacks. Helen Benedict,
author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in
Iraq (Beacon Press, 2009), quotes this figure in a 2009 Pentagon
report on military sexual assaults: 90% of the rapes in the military
are never reported at all and, when they are, the consequences for
the perpetrator are negligible.
It is fair to say that the US military has created a worldwide sexual
playground for its personnel and protected them to a large extent
from the consequences of their behavior. As a result a group of
2006 created the Service Women's Action Network. Its agenda is to
spread the word that "no woman should join the military".
I believe a better solution would be to radically reduce the size of
our standing army, and bring the troops home from countries where
they do not understand their environments and have been taught to
think of the inhabitants as inferior to themselves.
Ten steps toward liquidating the empire
Dismantling the American empire would, of course, involve many steps.
Here are 10 key places to begin:
1. We need to put a halt to the serious environmental damage done by
our bases planet-wide. We also need to stop writing SOFAs that exempt
us from any responsibility for cleaning up after ourselves.
2. Liquidating the empire will end the burden of carrying our empire
of bases and so of the "opportunity costs" that go with them - the
things we might otherwise do with our talents and resources but can't
3. As we already know (but often forget), imperialism breeds the use
of torture. In the 1960s and 1970s we helped overthrow the elected
governments in Brazil and Chile and underwrote regimes of torture
that prefigured our own treatment of prisoners in Iraq and
Afghanistan. (See, for instance, A J Langguth, Hidden Terrors -
Pantheon, 1979 - on how the US spread torture methods to Brazil and
Uruguay.) Dismantling the empire would potentially mean a real end to
the modern American record of using torture abroad.
4. We need to cut the ever-lengthening train of camp followers,
dependents, civilian employees of the Department of Defense and
hucksters - along with their expensive medical facilities, housing
requirements, swimming pools, clubs, golf courses and so forth - that
follow our military enclaves around the world.
5. We need to discredit the myth promoted by the military-industrial
complex that our military establishment is valuable to us in terms of
jobs, scientific research and defense. These alleged advantages have
long been discredited by serious economic research. Ending empire
would make this happen.
6. As a self-respecting democratic nation, we need to stop being the
world's largest exporter of arms and munitions and quit educating
Third World militaries in the techniques of torture, military coups
and service as proxies for our imperialism. A prime candidate for
immediate closure is the so-called School of the Americas, the US
Army's infamous military academy at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Latin
American military officers. (See Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of
Empire, Metropolitan Books, 2004, pp 136-40.)
7. Given the growing constraints on the federal budget, we should
abolish the Reserve Officers' Training Corps and other long-standing
programs that promote militarism in our schools.
8. We need to restore discipline and accountability in our armed
forces by radically scaling back our reliance on civilian
contractors, private military companies, and agents working for the
military outside the chain of command and the Uniform Code of
Military Justice. (See Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the
World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Nation Books, 2007). Ending
empire would make this possible.
9. We need to reduce, not increase, the size of our standing army and
deal much more effectively with the wounds our soldiers receive and
combat stress they undergo.
10. To repeat the main message of this essay, we must give up our
inappropriate reliance on military force as the chief means of
attempting to achieve
Unfortunately, few empires of the past voluntarily gave up their
dominions in order to remain independent, self-governing polities.
The two most important recent examples are the British and Soviet
empires. If we do not learn from their examples, our decline and fall
Chalmers Johnson is the author of
Sorrows of Empire (2004) and
The Last Days of the American Republic (2006), and editor of Okinawa:
Cold War Island (1999).
(Copyright 2009 Chalmers Johnson.)
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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