New US Military Bases: Side Effects Or Causes Of War?

 Since the end of the Cold War a decade ago, the U.S. has  gone to war in Iraq, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan.  The interventions have been promoted as “humanitarian”  deployments to stop aggression, to topple dictatorships,  or to halt terrorism.  After each U.S. intervention, the attention  of supporters and critics alike has turned to speculate on which  countries would be next.  But largely ignored has been what the  U.S. interventions left behind.

As the Cold War ended, the U.S. was confronted with competition  from two emerging economic blocs in Europe and East Asia.  Though it was considered the world’s last military superpower,  the United States was facing a decline of its economic strength  relative to the European Union, and the East Asian economic  bloc of Japan, China and the Asian “Four Tigers.”  The U.S.  faced the prospect of being economically left out in much of the  Eurasian land mass. The major U.S. interventions since 1990  should be viewed not only reactions to “ethnic cleansing”  or Islamist militancy, but to this new geopolitical picture.

Since 1990, each large-scale U.S. intervention has left behind a  string of new U.S. military bases in a region where the U.S.  had never before had a foothold. The U.S. military is inserting  itself into strategic areas of the world, and anchoring U.S.  geopolitical influence in these areas, at a very critical time in  history. With the rise of the “euro bloc” and “yen bloc,”  U.S. economic power is perhaps on the wane. But in military  affairs, the U.S. is still the unquestioned superpower. It has  been projecting that military dominance into new strategic  regions as a future counterweight to its economic competitors,  to create a military-backed “dollar bloc” as a wedge  geographically situated between its major competitors.

Wars for bases.
As each intervention was being planned,  planners focused on building new U.S. military installations,  or securing basing rights at foreign facilities, in order to  support the coming war.  But after the war ended, the U.S.  forces did not withdraw, but stayed behind, often creating  suspicion and resentment among local populations, much  as the Soviet forces faced after liberating Eastern Europe  in World War II.  The new U.S. military bases were not  merely built to aid the interventions, but the interventions  also conveniently afforded an opportunity to station the bases.

Indeed, the establishment of new bases may in the long run  be more critical to U.S. war planners than the wars themselves, as  well as to enemies of the U.S.  The massacre of September 11  were not directly tied to the Gulf War; Osama bin Laden had  backed the Saudi fundamentalist dictatorship against the Iraqi  secular dictatorship in the war.  The attacks mainly had their  roots in the U.S. decision to leave behind bases in Saudi  Arabia and other Gulf states. The permanent stationing of  new U.S. forces in and around the Balkans and Afghanistan  could easily generate a similar terrorist “blowback” years  from now.

This is not to say that all U.S. wars of the past decade have  been the result of some coordinated conspiracy to make Americans  the overlords of the belt between Bosnia and Pakistan.  But it  is to recast the interventions as opportunistic responses to events,  which have enabled Washington to gain a foothold in the “middle ground”  between Europe to the west, Russia to the north, and China to the  east, and turn this region increasingly into an American “sphere of  influence.”  The series of interventions have also virtually secured  U.S. corporate control over the oil supplies for both Europe and  East Asia.  It’s not a conspiracy; it’s just business as usual.

Gulf War. 
Contrary to original U.S. promises to its Arab allies,  the 1991 Gulf War left behind large military bases in Saudi Arabia  and Kuwait, and basing rights in the other Gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar,  Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. The war also heightened the  profile of existing U.S. air bases in Turkey. The war completed the  American inheritance of the oil region from which the British  had withdrawn in the early 1970s.  Yet the U.S. itself only imports  about 5 percent of its oil from the Gulf; the rest is exported mainly  to Europe and Japan. French President Jacques Chirac correctly  viewed the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf as securing control over  oil sources for the European and East Asian economic powers. The  U.S. decided to permanently station bases around the Gulf after 1991  not only to counter Saddam Hussein, and to support the continued  bombing against Iraq, but to quell potential internal dissent in the  oil-rich monarchies.

Somalia War.
The intervention in Somalia in 1992-93 ended in  defeat for the U.S., but it is important to understand why the  so-called “humanitarian” intervention took place.  In the 1970s-80s,  the U.S. had backed Somali dictator Siad Barre in his wars against  Soviet-backed Ethiopia.  In return, Barre had granted the U.S. Navy  the rights to use Somali naval ports, which were strategically situated  at the southern end of the Red Sea, linking the Suez Canal to the Indian  Ocean.  After Barre was overthrown, the U.S. used the ensuing chaos  and famine as its excuse to move back in, but made the mistake of  siding with one group of warlords against the Mogadishu warlord  Mohamed Aidid.  In the battle of Mogadishu, romanticized in the  movie “Black Hawk Down,” 18 U.S. troops and many hundreds  of Somalis were killed.  The U.S. withdrew, and eventually gained  naval basing rights in the port of Aden, just across the Red Sea in  Yemen, where Bin Laden launched his attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

Balkan Wars.
The U.S. interventions in Bosnia in 1995, and Kosovo  in 1999, were ostensibly reactions to Serbian “ethnic cleansing,”  yet the U.S. had not intervened to prevent similar “ethnic cleansing”  by its Croatian or Albanian allies in the Balkans. The U.S. military  interventions in former Yugoslavia resulted in new U.S. military bases  in five countries: Hungary, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and the  sprawling Camp Bondsteel complex in southeastern Kosovo. NATO  allies have also participated in the interventions, though not always  with the same political priorities.  As in the Gulf and Afghan conflicts,  European Union allies may be joining the U.S. wars not simply out  of solidarity, but out of fear of being completely excluded from  carving out the postwar order in the region.  The Kosovo intervention,  in particular, was followed by stepped-up European efforts to form an  independent military force outside of the U.S.-commanded NATO.  The U.S. stationing of huge bases along the eastern edge of the E.U.,  which can be used to project forces into the Middle East, was carried out  partly in anticipation of European militaries one day going their  own way.

Afghan War.
The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was  ostensibly  a reaction to the September 11 attacks, and to some extent was aimed  at toppling the Taliban. But Afghanistan has historically been in an  extremely strategic location straddling South Asia, Central Asia, and  the Middle East. The country also conveniently lies along a proposed  Unocal oil pipeline route from the Caspian Sea oil fields to the Indian  Ocean. The U.S. had already been situating forces in the neighboring  ex-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan before September 11.  During the war,  it has used its new bases and basing rights in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan,  Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser extent Tajikistan. It is using the  continued instability in Afghanistan (like in Somalia, largely a result  of setting warlords against warlords) as an excuse to station a  permanent military presence throughout the region, and it even plans to  institute the dollar as the new Afghan currency.   The new string of U.S.  military bases are becoming permanent outposts guarding a new  Caspian Sea oil infrastructure.

Why war? 
Geopolitical priorities may help explain why Washington  went to war in all these countries, even as paths to peace remained open.  President George Bush launched the February 1991 ground war against Iraq,  even though Saddam was already withdrawing from Kuwait under  Soviet disengagement plan.  He also sent forces into Somalia in 1992,  even though the famine he used as a justification had already lessened.  President Clinton launched a war on Serbia in 1999  to force a withdraw from Kosovo, even though Yugoslavia  had already met many of his withdrawal terms at the  Rambouillet conference. President George W. Bush attacked Afghanistan  in 2001 without having put much diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to  surrender Bin Laden, or letting anti-Taliban forces (such as Pashtun  commander Abdul Haq) win over Taliban forces on their own.  Washington went to war not as a last resort, but because it saw war  as a convenient  opportunity to further larger goals.

Geopolitical priorities may also help explain the reluctance of the U.S.  to declare victory in these wars.  If the U.S. had ousted Saddam from  power in 1991, his Gulf allies would have demanded the withdrawal of  U.S. bases, but his continued hold onto power justifies intensive U.S.  bombing of Iraq and a continued hold over the Gulf oil region. The  fact that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have not been captured in  four months of war also provides convenient justification for the permanent  stationing of U.S. bases in Central and South Asia.  All three men are more  useful to U.S. plans if they are alive and free, at least for the time being.

Wars in the making
Iraq is certainly the primary target for a new U.S.  war, for President Bush to “finish the job” that his daddy left unfinished.  Now that the American sphere of influence is taking hold in the “middle  ground” between Europe and East Asia, the attention may be turned on  both Iraq and its former enemy Iran as the only remaining regional powers  to stand in the way. Bush may be under the illusion that Iraqi opposition  forces can be refashioned into a pro-U.S. force like the Northern Alliance  or Kosovo Liberation Army.  He may also be under the illusion that his  threats against Iran will help Iranian “moderate” reformers, even though  it is already dangerously strengthening the hand of Islamist hard-liners.  A U.S. war against either Iraq or Iran will destroy any bridges recently  built to Islamic states, especially as Bush also abandons even the pretense of  even-handedness between Israelis and Palestinians.

U.S. war planners are also openly targeting Somalia and Yemen, and  are patrolling their shores with Navy ships, though they may decide to  intervene indirectly to avoid the disasters of Mogadishu in 1993 and Aden  in 2000.  Bin Laden had backed Aidid to prevent new U.S. bases in Somalia,  and his father is from the historically rebellious Hadhramaut region of  southeastern Yemen.  Yet Washington’s priority would not be to eliminate  Bin Laden’s influence, leaving that role mainly to local forces.  Rather the  priority would be to regain naval access to strategic Somali and Yemeni ports.

The most direct U.S. intervention since the Afghan invasion has been in  the southern Philippines, against the Moro (Muslim) guerrilla militia Abu  Sayyaf.  The U.S. sees the tiny Abu Sayyaf group as inspired by Bin Laden,  rather than a thuggish outgrowth of decades of Moro insurgency in Mindanao and  the Sulu Archipelago.  U.S. special forces “trainers” are carrying out joint  “exercises” with Philippine troops in the active combat zone.  Their goal  may be to achieve an easy Grenada-style victory over the 200 rebels, for  the global propaganda effect against Bin Laden.  But once in place, the  counterinsurgency campaign could easily be redirected against other  Moro or even Communist rebel groups in Mindanao.  It could also help achieve  the other major U.S. goal in the Philippines: to fully reestablish U.S. military  basing rights, which ended when the Philippine Senate terminated U.S.  control of Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, after the Cold War  ended and a volcanic eruption damaged both bases.  Such a move back  into the country would be strongly resisted, however, by both leftist  and rightist Filipino nationalists.

The U.S. return to the Philippines, like Bush’s newest threats against  North Korea, may also be an effort to assert U.S. influence in East Asia,  as China rises as a global power and other Asian economies recover  from financial crises.  A growing U.S. military role throughout Asia  could counteract increasing criticism of U.S. bases in Japan.  The moves  could also raise fears in China of a U.S. sphere of influence  intruding on its borders. The new U.S. air base in the ex-Soviet  republic of Kyrgyzstan is too close to China for comfort.  (Russian fears of U.S. encirclement may also be rekindled, though  Russia may instead join the U.S. in using its oil to lessen the power  of OPEC. )

Meanwhile, other regions of the world are also being targeted in the  U.S. “war on terror,” notably South America.  Just as Cold War  propaganda recast leftist rebels in South Vietnam and El Salvador  as puppets of North Vietnam or Cuba, U.S. “war on terror”  propaganda is casting Colombian rebels as the allies of neighboring  oil-rich Venezuela.  The beret-clad Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez,  is described loosely as sympathetic to Bin Laden and Fidel Castro, and  as possibly turning OPEC against the U.S. Chavez could serve as  an ideal new enemy if Bin Laden is eliminated. The crisis in South America,  though it cannot be tied to Islamic militancy, may be the most dangerous  new war in the making.

Common themes.
 Whether we look at the U.S. wars of the past decade  in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, the Balkans, or Afghanistan, or at the  possible new wars in Yemen, the Philippines, or Colombia/Venezuela,  or even at Bush’s new “axis of evil” of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea,  the same common themes arise.  The U.S. military interventions cannot  all be tied to the insatiable U.S. thirst for oil (or rather for oil profits),  even though many of the recent wars do have their roots in oil politics.  They can nearly all be tied to the U.S. desire to build or rebuild military  bases. The new U.S. military bases, and increasing control over oil supplies,  can  in turn be tied to the historical shift taking place since the 1980s: the rise of  European and East Asian blocs that have the potential to replace the  United States and Soviet Union as the world’s economic superpowers.

 Much as the Roman Empire tried to use its military power to buttress  its weakening economic and political hold over its colonies, the United  States is aggressively inserting itself into new regions of the world to  prevent its competitors from doing the same.  The goal is not to end  “terror” or encourage “democracy,” and Bush will not accomplish  either of these claimed goals. The short-term goal is to station U.S. military  forces in regions where local nationalists had evicted them.  The  long-term goal is to increase U.S. corporate control over the oil  needed by Europe and East Asia, whether the oil is in around the  Caspian or the Caribbean seas. The ultimate goal is to establish  new American spheres of influence, and eliminate any obstacles–  religious militants, secular nationalists, enemy governments, or  even allies–who stand in the way.

U.S. citizens may welcome the interventions to defend the  “homeland”  from attack, or even to build new bases or oil  pipelines to preserve U.S. economic power.  But as the dangers  of this strategy become more apparent, Americans may begin  to realize that they are being led down a risky path that will  turn even more of the world against them, and lead inevitably  to future September 11s.   

Zoltan Grossman is a doctoral candidate in geography  at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a member  of the South-West Asia Information Group.  zoltan@geography.wisc.edu

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