Most of the US military buildup since 2001 has been related to fighting terrorism only loosely, at best. Some observers are beginning to look at the new network of military bases, which raises an obvious question: why exactly do we need all this?
The following two articles examine this issue.
Imperial Reach by Michael Klare The Nation 04/07/05 (04/25/05 issue)
Normally, Pentagon officials are reluctant to ascribe US strategic moves to concern over the safe delivery of energy supplies. Nevertheless, in their explanations of the need for new facilities, the oil factor has begun to crop up. "In the Caspian Sea you have large mineral [i.e., petroleum] reserves," observed General Charles Wald, deputy commander of the US European Command (Eucom), in June 2003. "We want to be able to assure the long-term viability of those resources." Wald has also spoken of the need for bases to help protect oil reserves in Africa (which falls under the purview of the EUCOM). "The estimate is [that] in the next ten years, we will get 25 percent of our oil from there," he declared in Air Force magazine. "I can see the United States potentially having a forward operating location in São Tomé," or other sites in Africa.
Of the dozen or so locations mentioned in Pentagon or media accounts of new basing locations, a majority--including Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Gabon, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Romania, São Tomé and Príncipe, Tunisia--either possess oil themselves or abut major pipelines and supply routes. At the same time, many of these countries house terrorist groups or have been used by them as staging areas. And, from the Pentagon's perspective, the protection of oil and the war against terrorism often amount to one and the same thing. Thus, when asked whether the United States was prepared to help defend Nigeria's oilfields against ethnic violence, General Wald replied, "Wherever there's evil, we want to go there and fight it."
Equally strong geopolitical considerations link the pursuit of foreign oil to American concern over the rise of China. Like the United States, China needs to import vast amounts of petroleum in order to satisfy skyrocketing demand at home. In 2010, the Energy Department predicts, Chinawill have to import 4 million barrels of oil per day; by 2025 it will be importing 9.4 million barrels. China will also be dependent on major producers in the Middle East and Africa, and so it has sought to curry favor with these countries using the same methods long employed by the United States: by forging military ties with friendly regimes, supplying them with weapons and stationing military advisers in them. A conspicuous Chinese presence has been established, for example, in Iran, Sudan and the Central Asian republics. To counter these incursions, the United States has expanded its own military ties with local powers--and this in turn has helped spark the drive for new basing facilities in the Gulf and Caspian regions.
I'm leery of the kind of analysis or assertion that says the Iraq War or the larger strategy described here is "all about oil." Because, on the one hand, the US is dependent on imported oil and our foreign policy has to take account of protecting those oil supplies. Secondly, even in the Middle East, the Bush administration's policies from even a cynical point of view have to do with larger strategic goals - however misconceived those may be - as well as access to oil supplies. And there are also substantial side benefits, like huge taxpayer contracts to Halliburton.
Klare argues that current basing policies are being driven by three factors: terrorism, oil and China. So we can't say that the basing strategy is totally unrelated to concens about fighting terrorism. As he puts it:
There is a remarkable degree of convergence among these concerns, both in practical and geographic terms. Oil and terrorism are linked because many of the most potent terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, arose in part as a reaction to the West's oil-inspired embrace of entrenched Arab governments, and because the terrorists often attack oil facilities in order to weaken the regimes they abhor. Similarly, oil and China are linked because both Washington and Beijing seek influence in the major oil-producing regions. And the major terrorist groups, the most promising sites of new oil and the focal points of Sino-American energy competition are all located in the same general neighborhoods: Central Asia and the Caspian region, the greater Gulf area and the far reaches of the Sahara. And the United States is establishing new basing facilities precisely in these areas.
The Bush administration's Afghan Spring by Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch.com 04/04/05. He uses Afghanistan as a particular example. (The article is also good in explaining why the hype about now having successful democracy in Afghanistan is borderline delusional.)
It may be the case that Afghanistan will prove the perfect Bush "democracy." It had an election and sooner or later will undoubtedly have more of them. Its resulting government remains weak, malleable, and completely dependent on American forces. The U.S. military and our intelligence services have had a free hand in setting up various detention centers, prisons, and holding camps (where anything goes and no law rules) that add up to a foreign mini-gulag stuffed with prisoners, many not Afghan, beyond the reach of any court. Our fourteen airfields and growing network of bases and outposts are now to be "upgraded" as part of a 'strategic partnership" with an Afghan government that we put into power and largely control. These bases, in turn, should serve as a launching pad for controlling the larger region, and the detention and torture centers as suitable places for the unruly of the area. Afghanistan, in short, is in the process of becoming an electoral-narco-gulag-permanent-base dependency, and so qualifies as a model democracy, suitable to be spread far and wide.
He notes that the bases being built in Afghanistan on the face of it seem to contradict administration claims about how well the counterinsurgency effort there is going:
But here's the curious thing: We're ramping up our air bases in Afghanistan at the very moment when our generals are also claiming that the left-over guerrilla war being carried out by Taliban remnants is on the wane. After another of those American drop-ins on Hamid Karzai and his country, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs recently announced from the realative safety of Kabul airport that Afghanistan was "secure" ("Security is very good throughout the country, exceptionally good"), even as he suggested that "the United States is considering keeping long-term bases here as it repositions its military forces around the world." In the process, he also discussed what he and others politely call a future "strategic partnership" between the Pentagon and Karzai's Afghanistan (which is a little like saying that a lion and a mouse are considering forming an alliance). ...
But, of course, our strategists in Washington ... from the beginning, [have] been thinking in the most global of terms as they plan various ways to garrison the parts of the world -- essentially, its energy heartlands -- that matter most to them. And if you turn, for instance, to a striking piece in the Asia Times by Ramtanu Maitra, US scatters bases to control Eurasia, you can get a sense of what all this Pentagon basing activity really adds up to. Maitra reports that a decision to set up new U.S. military bases in Afghanistan -- up to 9 scattered across in six different provinces -- was taken during Donald Rumsfeld's drop-in on Kabul Airport in December. These small bases, expected to be small and "flexible," are to be part of a new American global-basing policy that "can be used in due time as a springboard to assert a presence far beyond Afghanistan."
Just what is the Pentagon getting us into here? Because it's not just that threats produce the need for military preparedness. Particular kinds of military preparedness create a need to find appropriate threats to justify them:
To quote John Kenneth Galbraith on the subject once again, this time from The Anatomy of Power (1983):
An essential, indeed vital, need for the conditioned power of the military is a specific enemy. If the military power is to be more than traditional, ceremonial, or precautionary in character, a hostile threat is indispensable. Such a threat wins the appropriations ... from which compensatory power derives. It also leads to consolidation of belief within the military establishment and similar belief outside. Internal discipline must be kept tight; external dissent or opposition must be subject to the suspicion or assertion that those involved are aiding, abetting, or motivated by the enemy. At a minimum they are unpatriotic; at most their dissidence verges on treason, invoking the traditional threat of condign punishment. Deeply conditioned attitudes affirm the value of patriotism, and these become of absolute importance when there is external danger.
And, as Engelhardt noted in the quotation above with reference to Afghanistan, establishment of US bases in a country produces a certain amount of political investmentin the survival of that particular regime. It would be much better if we were making all these decisions in the context of a much more vocal and public Congressional debate over what we're trying to do. Because even though these things are always justified as increasing security, we're also taking on a substantial amount of risk with this new series of permanent military bases.
This is also something that is ignored surprisingly often in discussions of the Iraq War. People talk about how the American troops could be phased out in two years, five years, whatever. And people are still encouraging the Bush administration to reassure the Iraqis that we have no intention of having a permanent presence there. But the Pentagon is building permanent bases there. This administration has never intended to fully withdraw from Iraq.
A final thought on this for now. There could be some collateral benefits for Africa in this. If we're starting to compete with China for military favors in Africa, the US and China may also start to compete in escalating economic aid to Africa as well. Since a similar competition between the US and the Soviet Union disappeared with the end of the Cold War, African development and humantarian needs have been neglected by the wealthy countries of the "global north."