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Global Impact: The Rise of U.S. Military Bases Worldwide

Commentary, Franz Schurmann,

Pacific News Service, Dec 23, 2003 

Editor's Note: Thanks to the war on terror, the number of U.S. military bases will increase substantially -- with enormous political and economic implications.

While America would certainly like to win every war it fights, there are good reasons for thinking that in America's three current wars, our powers-that-be care less about winning, losing or drawing so long as we get military bases. Their rationale is that America can only keep up its global political power and assure its people's prosperous lifestyle by peppering the entire globe with American military bases. 

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld supports a policy of "places not bases," i.e., to be a strong presence in a region, shore up long-term allies instead of building military bases that might have to be closed down. But whether "places" or "bases," they both boil down to unimpeded access to domestic and foreign territory. Currently, the United States has upwards of 700 military bases at home and abroad. But chances are that the number of bases/places will exceed 1,000 by this decade's end, and most of the new ones will be established abroad. 

Of America's three wars, the first, the War on Terror, began within hours after 9/11. The second, against Afghanistan, began on Oct. 7, 2001, and, in principle, was limited to Afghanistan. The third began on March 20, 2003, in Iraq. 

The onset of the War on Terror saw a slew of U.S. bases going up worldwide, especially in Asia and Africa. The war in Afghanistan saw an American rush to set up bases in Central Asia. As to the third war, Baghdad's International Airport, where President Bush landed on his lightning Thanksgiving visit, will surely remain American property no matter what kind of government comes to power in Baghdad. 

The history of post-World War II reconstruction encourages Pentagon planners to push their bases/places-building projects, especially in ruined and impoverished countries. The two great success stories of this policy are post-war Germany and Japan. 

Though U.S. bombers flattened many cities and towns in these two countries at the end of the war, hardly had the war ended when U.S. bases went up like mushrooms after a rainstorm in American-occupied sectors of Germany. The same was true in Japan. 

U.S. dollars began circulating all over both countries at an accelerating speed. By contrast, the Russians in East Germany had little to offer, because the Soviet Union was practically as ruined as Germany and Japan. 

In both American-occupied and allied countries, millions of local people soon discovered the "Post Exchange," PX for short. The PX offered goods to American soldiers at low prices. After the war it became the first great stimulus for the economic reconstruction.

As soon as the PX's opened up, American soldiers started exchanging dollars for goods and "services" (mostly sexual). Black-marketeers used the U.S. dollars to buy American cars, radios, etc., because all of Europe had been pounded into ruination by American planes. Such was the case not only in Japan, but also much of Korea and coastal China. 

The big difference between PX's and bases was that the PX closed down when the soldiers went home. But the Pentagon decided that permanent bases were more in the American interest.

For the first quarter century after World War II, American goods poured into other countries as well. For example, soon after WW II, America granted the Philippines their independence. But it also set up huge bases there. Their PX's were conduits for funneling dollars into the Philippine economy.

From the early 1970s the economic scene changed. America's trade deficit started growing unstoppably. As American-made goods got pricey, cheap foreign products appeared in American malls. 

Many of these competitor countries were not politically stable. Having a few American bases on their territory gives their leadership a sense of security. That was why the South Koreans balked when President Carter proposed moving U.S. troops out of South Korea in the late 1970s. South Korea had just started to export more and more goods to American markets. 

Now the War on Terror has become so massive a force that even economic giant China has joined it. Chinese products dominate American malls. While China shows no desire for American bases or places, it welcomes huge aircraft carriers into Hong Kong for R&R (rest and recreation). China is also worried about Muslim fundamentalists in their far western province Xinjiang. That is why Beijing says nothing about the huge American Manas air base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. 

Of the three wars, the War on Terror will most likely outlast the previous two, and it will conceivably continue when the decade ends. Its wide reach will manifest itself in both places and bases and have economic implications all over the world. 

PNS Editor Franz Schurmann (fschurmann@pacificnews.org) is emeritus professor of sociology and history at U.C. Berkeley and the author of numerous books.

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