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Close All the Military Bases?

Not all U.S. garrisons harm their host nations, but some strategic withdrawal makes sense.
restraint foreign policy

Anthropologist David Vine spent several years visiting and investigating U.S military bases abroad. To put it mildly, he disapproves of what he found. In his sweeping critique, Base Nation, Vine concludes that Washington’s extensive network of foreign bases—he claims there are about 800 of them—causes friction with erstwhile American allies, costs way too much money, underwrites dictatorships, pollutes the environment, and morally compromises the country. Far from providing an important strategic deterrent, the bases actually undermine our security. To remedy this immense travesty, Vine calls for Washington to bring the troops back home.

If nothing else, Base Nation is a timely book. The issue of our expensive foreign commitments has taken center stage in this presidential election. Vine probably finds it ironic that most of the criticism is coming from Donald Trump.

Our extensive foreign-base network is probably an issue that we can’t ignore for long. Today, there seems more urgency to look at these long-term base commitments and examine what we are really getting out of them. So, for raising the issue, I say, “Thank you for your service, Mr. Vine.”

But it is a shame that Base Nation, which could have made a strong contribution to this debate, ends up making a heavy-handed and somewhat unreliable case against and the U.S. military and U.S. foreign policy in general. His sweeping indictments detract from the importance of his initial focus, our overextended base network.

There are some positives. Vine stands on firm ground when he details how inefficient the base system often is. In fact, this is an issue that the federal government has been addressing, albeit slowly and haltingly. Budget realities are solving the problem; many bases are being shuttered and their functions consolidated into others. Vine thinks that overseas bases cost us at least $71 billion a year; maybe closer to $100-200 billion. In one of the more persuasive sections of the book, he explains how he made these calculations, which follow to some extent an important 2013 study from the RAND Corporation. That it is difficult coming up with any precise figures on overseas base spending suggests that we probably need to take a harder look at how taxpayer money is being used.

Likewise, Vine raises valid criticisms about how many bases were constructed by either displacing native populations, as the British did for our benefit at the Indian Ocean atoll Diego Garcia, or by marginalizing the locals, as we allegedly have done at Okinawa in Japan. He highlights the environmental damage done by U.S. military ordnance, although I think it unfair that he ignores the more scrupulous attendance to the environment that we find in today’s armed forces. And Vine is right that having many young and bored men based far from home probably doesn’t elevate the morals of the local, host population.

But Vine simply fails to persuade in other parts of his critique. His fundamental distrust of the military leads him to accept unquestioningly every dubious charge against it. He also tends to be less than discriminating in some of his sourcing and characterization of events. These problems undermine the overall credibility of his reporting.

Part of the problem with Base Nation is definitional. Vine’s definition of a base—“any place, facility or installation used regularly for military purposes, of any kind”—is far too broad. Even temporary assignments with host governments get defined as “bases.” This leads him to estimate that there are at minimum 686 bases, with 800 being “a good estimate.” Why the need to inflate the numbers?

Vine’s foreign-base maps, though compelling to look at, appear a bit suspect in light of his expanded definition. What’s that big star in Greenland? That’s Thule Air Station, a Danish base, where we have about 100 personnel. And the other one in Ascension Island? That’s a small satellite-monitoring station, run by the British. What’s that dot in Cairo? Oh, it’s a medical-research facility. These are hardly the footprints of overweening imperialism.

Likewise, he identifies many bases in Africa. To debunk the official position that we have one permanent base there—in Djibouti, rented from the French—plus a few drone sites, Vine relies on dodgy research from Nick Turse, a noted anti-military critic who thinks that the Pentagon runs a hidden African empire.

Along similar lines, Vine believes the U.S. maintains an extensive, secret base system in Latin America. We have one permanent base in the region, Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay (GTMO). Once all the al-Qaeda prisoners are gone, GTMO’s main function will return to fleet training and disaster response for the Caribbean. In addition, we have one arrangement in Soto Cano Air Field in Honduras, which hosts a squadron of helicopters engaged in counternarcotic operations. How does this base destabilize Central America, as Vine suggests? You got me.  

Soto Cano is featured in one of the more tendentious chapters, which reveals Vine’s method. In discussing the base, he strongly suggests the U.S. military there conspired with the Honduran Army during the “coup” against President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. He quotes a local activist insisting the U.S. was behind the coup, and then leaves it at that. In fact, the U.S. government firmly opposed removing the anti-American Zelaya, slapped sanctions on Honduras, and negotiated for months to have Zelaya brought back into Honduras. Suggesting the U.S. military backed the coup is, well, baseless.

Many of Vine’s scattershot charges are of a similar nature. He accuses the U.S. Navy of being in bed with the mob in Naples because, allegedly, it rents housing from landlords who may have mob connections. He blames the military for the red-light districts around foreign bases, like in South Korea, as if it directly created them. In another context, he claims, based on one professor’s opinion, that the U.S. Naval Academy fosters a rampant rape culture, and so on.  

Toward the end of the book, Vine challenges those who believe the bases are providing valuable deterrence to “prove it.” I’m not sure I can prove it to his satisfaction, but regarding Korean-peninsula security, some experts point to our strong presence there as deterring both sides from overreacting. And regarding Iraq, it seems evident that leaving without any U.S. military presence destabilized the country. Many of our operations with foreign militaries in Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia have a strong humanitarian focus. It is disconcerting that he dedicates no space to these important, stabilizing missions that are often enabled by our forward base deployment.

But Vine never demonstrates his main point: that the bases themselves are destabilizing. The countries with our largest base presence—Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Japan—are all prosperous, peaceful democracies. As for the local protests at our foreign military bases that occasionally happen, these seem no more problematic than what occurs, certainly more often, at our many embassies abroad. Should we withdraw our diplomatic missions too?

As for bases destabilizing the developing world, Vine overplays the U.S.-imperialism angle and fails to appreciate how much control even a weaker government has over its own sovereignty. Little Honduras could kick us out of Soto Cano tomorrow; we have an agreement that could end at any time. Ecuador refused to renew our lease at Manta Air Base in 2008; we left without much fuss. The Philippines in 1992 changed its constitution to prohibit foreign bases, forcing us to leave Subic Bay. Now Manila, feeling threatened by China over the South China Sea island disputes, is inviting us back. The Filipinos mustn’t feel our presence too destabilizing.

Given Vine’s criticism of our large base footprint, you would think he’d approve of the Pentagon’s recent plans on lowering its profile with its “lily pad” strategy—bilaterally negotiated, pre-staged locations that might enable a future deployment. Surely this approach would alleviate the problems of the large, permanent bases Vine so painstakingly sights? But, somewhat illogically, he objects to this “light footprint” approach as a new sign of encroaching imperialism, not of gradual U.S. realignment and withdrawal.

Even if he doesn’t make a strong case in Base Nation, in the long run, Vine probably will get his wish. It is hard to imagine that an extensive military base network in Europe and East Asia, the outcome of our victory in World War II and justified by Cold War strategy, will still make sense a few decades down the road. Changes are already in the wind. A new strategy for U.S. foreign policy and military power projection will doubtless be shaped largely by budget exigencies and shifts in our allies’ regional security priorities.

Michael J. Ard, a former naval officer and U.S. government analyst, works in the security field and lectures on international security at Rice University.



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