Contextual Content

The cost of empire

Last week President Obama unveiled his record-spending 2010 budget proposal, which included a slight increase in funding for the Pentagon when compared with George Bush’s budget of 2009. Though the specific details of the budget won’t be released until April, the president has promised to increase troop recruitment while cutting "cold-war" weapons programs that have yet to be identified. But as the White House undergoes a reassessment of military priorities, there is little discussion about the future of the country’s vast network of foreign military bases, a network that military expert Miriam Pemberton says includes roughly 1000 bases at a cost of $100 billion per year.

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Story Transcript

JESSE FREESTON, TRNN: Six hundred and sixty-three billion dollars—that is how much President Obama has set aside for the Department of Defense and the continuation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in his 2010 budget. Adjusting for inflation, this is a slight increase from 2009. While the details of how the White House plans to distribute that money won’t be known until April, there is a lot of talk about changes in priorities. So which priorities are being discussed, and which are not?

MIRIAM PEMBERTON, MILITARY ANALYST, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: The Obama administration has talked about their intent to expand the size of the force, the Army and the Marines, the Army to about 540,000 troops and the Marines to 202,000 troops. And so a large part of the increase is going to go for expanding the size of the force and increasing military pay. So I expect they’ll do, you know, some modest cuts to a few weapons systems to pay for that increase, but then they’re going to be increasing the size of the budget as a whole also.

FREESTON: A hint as to which weapons systems might be cut came in an Obama speech to Congress last week.

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Courtesy: C-SPAN

BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: We’ll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq and reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for cold warrior weapons systems we don’t use.

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PEMBERTON: The biggest issue at the moment is the F-22, this enormously expensive fighter, about $350 million a copy. It hasn’t even been used in Iraq because it’s just irrelevant to the Iraq War. So they keep adding on new electronics to try to make it more usable, and meanwhile the costs just escalate. But now there’s an enormous campaign going on on the part of the manufacturer, the principal one being Lockheed Martin, the largest in the world, which has strategically placed pieces of this program in 44 of the 50 states to create a political constituency for the plane. And that’s probably the reason that about 200 members of Congress have signed this letter to the president saying, "We really need the F-22." They don’t really say why, except in the most vague terms. But occasionally, you know, they mention, you know, some inflated, I believe, job estimates for how many jobs are dependent on this plane.

FREESTON: Amidst a limited discussion of military spending, the expense that few are addressing is the US’ vast network of foreign military bases. In fact, only one member of Congress, Republican Ron Paul, has consistently spoken on the topic.

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Courtesy: C-SPAN

March 13, 2008

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX): Reject the notion that we need to run an empire. We can’t afford it. It’s going to come down. It always comes down. It has come down all throughout history, because eventually the currency is destroyed. We’re in 130 countries; we have 700 bases. Our military now is in worse shape than it was five years ago, according to our military. So it’s time we look at the strategic, the philosophical problems. And I say, unless we do this, this will be—this will end badly.

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PEMBERTON: It’s clear that the Defense Department is not being open about all of the bases. And so when they put out a number like we have about 750 bases, but then there are some important ones, as, for example, in Saudi Arabia, that they don’t count. So I think a better estimate is around 1,000 bases. Now, it’s important to know these are mostly very small facilities with a communications tower; they’re not, you know, these giant bases such as, for example, the Green Zone in Iraq. And when you ask, "How much does it cost us to have this empire?" it’s not as easy to answer as it should be, because the Defense Department doesn’t have a number that it assigns to the costs of overseas bases versus domestic bases. But you can get a rough idea from the fact that about 20 percent of our forces, excluding the ones that are in Iraq and Afghanistan, are based overseas, as opposed to the 80 percent that are based in the United States. If you account for what those forces cost and the equipment and the construction of the bases and the operations of the bases and the weapons that are there, you come to a figure of about $100 billion.

FREESTON: While this $100 billion network receives very little exposure inside the US, it is a contentious issue in many of the countries that play host to US bases. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa made headlines in 2007 when he announced his intention to close Ecuador’s airbase once the lease expired in 2009, an intention his government has since solidified by including a prohibition on foreign military bases in the recently improved Constitution.

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Courtesy: Telesur

RAFAEL CORREA, ECUADORIAN PRESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We have clearly stated that in 2009 the lease won’t be renewed because sovereign countries don’t have foreign troops on their land. There is nothing left to say about this. There is only one way we will extend the lease: when the US lets us put an Ecuadorian base in Miami.

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PEMBERTON: Most recently in the news is Kyrgyzstan. So we’ve had this base there that we’ve been using for staging for Afghanistan, and the Kyrgyzstan government just said, "We’re going to get rid of the US because the Russians will pay us more to be there." So they were paying them $2 million a year between 2001, when this base was established, and 2006. 2006, the fee went up to $20 million, which we paid, in addition to $100 million in additional economic funds for Kyrgyzstan. So it’s kind of a bidding war at this stage. So I think there is a growing movement around the world. Countries, you know, people don’t like to be occupied. As more and more of these examples occur, they’re going to embolden and encourage other countries to do likewise. There was a conference just this past weekend at American University bringing together folks from 11 different countries around the world, all of whom have anti-bases movements. Sometimes it seems as if these movements aren’t having an effect, that the Pentagon is really ignoring them, but they’re really not ignoring them. The Pentagon did a review back in 2003 and did some—had a plan, at least, to pull back on, you know, quite a number bases, particularly in Germany and Japan, and they haven’t, you know, implemented those plans very far to date. But the document that talked about this plan explicitly said, "We’re doing this in part to address the threat of anti-access movements in these countries."

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