Have Overseas Bases Been a Mistake?

PARIS — It is time to ask a question that virtually no one in an official or political position in the United States is willing to contemplate asking. For a person in a responsible public position to pose this question would be to risk exclusion from the realm of "serious" policy discussion. It could be, as they say in the bureaucracies, "a career destroyer."

It would be like declaring that after long analysis you had come to the conclusion that the world is indeed flat, and not round. A round earth is merely an illusion, which everyone has accepted, and adapted to — and fears challenging.

My question is the following. Has it been a terrible, and by now all but irreversible, error for the United States to have built a system of more than 700 military bases and stations girdling the world? Does it provoke war rather than provide security?

Each of six world regions now has a separate U.S. commander with his staff and intelligence, planning and potential operational capabilities. Central Command, based in Florida, currently is responsible for America’s Middle Eastern and Central Asian wars.

The other five commands — Atlantic, Pacific, Southern (for Latin America), Africa and Europe — oversee in detail what goes on in their assigned portions of the world, generating analyses, appreciations, and scenarios of possible reactions to a myriad of perceived or possible threats to the United States.

Each commander also makes contact with regional government military forces, so far as possible, cultivating good relations, professional exchanges and training. Each promotes training missions to the U.S. and military aid, and supports equipment purchases.

Each regional commander controls "main operating bases" abroad, which in turn support fully manned "forward operating sites," usually including permanently stationed American forces and an air base.

Beyond them, "cooperative security locations" are established, shared with the forces of allies or clients.

The hegemonic implications and intention of all this, which provides the military structure from which to conduct global interventions (or indeed a third world war), are readily acknowledged in Washington, and motivated by what Washington considers internationally valid and constructive reasons.

The unthinkable question with which I began this article was whether all of this has been a ghastly mistake. Many Americans question or oppose this system, but ordinarily with anti-militarist motives, or because they see it as imperialist, or part of an interventionist or aggressive foreign-policy outlook that they oppose.

My reason for questioning it is that it generates apprehension, hostility, and fear of the United States; frequently promotes insecurity; and has already provoked wars — unnecessary wars.

It is an obstacle to peaceful long-term relations between the United States and other countries, and with the international community as a whole.

Today the United States is involved in two and a half — or even more — wars provoked by this system of global American military engagement. I say "more" than two wars because in addition to the Afghanistan war there still are more than 100,000 American troops in Iraq, in circumstances in which an outbreak of further fighting involving them is perfectly possible. The United States is also taking part in the fight against the Taliban inside Pakistan, and at the same time experiences serious tensions with the Pakistan government and public. Then there is Yemen.

The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, according to Osama bin Laden himself, were provoked by the presence of U.S. military bases in what Muslims consider the sacred territories of Saudi Arabia. U.S. forces went there at the time of the Gulf War and were kept in place afterward by the U.S. against the objections of the Saudi Arabian government. (It is noteworthy that immediately following the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. announced closure of the Saudi bases.)

In the current discussion of a negotiated U.S. disengagement from the war in Afghanistan, one of America’s best experts on the region, Selig S. Harrison, writes that this would only be possible on a regional basis supported by Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan and certain other states.

He writes: "All these neighboring countries are disturbed in varying degree by the expansion of U.S bases near their borders; they recognize that no Taliban faction is likely to negotiate peace until the United States and NATO set a timetable that covers both withdrawal of their forces and closure of U.S. bases.

"Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s March 2009 proposal for a regional conference, revived recently by Henry Kissinger, has been ignored by potential participants because it assumes the indefinite continuance of a U.S. military presence."

American bases in Japan, an ally for a half-century, are today the subject of tension between Washington and the new Japanese government. What set the scene for Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia and Russian troops in August 2008 was U.S. pressure to bring Georgia into NATO. In Yemen there already are protests at the possibility of U.S. operations there.

This evidence is that the U.S. global base system is a system of insecurity for the U.S., and for others as well. But what president would dare dismantle it?

(c) 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Author: William Pfaff

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