UNITED STATES: What's behind Washington's new 'global military posture'

Issue 

Rohan Pearce

They call it the "war on terror", but under the guise of fighting terrorism Washington's warmongers are strengthening the US empire. Part of this has been carrying out a worldwide realignment of US military forces — the better to conquer and fend off challenges to the empire's global dominance.

This process, while having accelerated after 9/11, is part of a longer-term shift in Washington's "global military posture" to reflect that fact that, since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the US is no longer restrained by another superpower.

US President George Bush's "global posture review" of US military forces stationed around the world is a program not aimed at better "defending America" but realising a more aggressive strategy for carrying out "regime change" in countries that thwart the empire's ambitions. In Pentagon-speak, it's enhancing the military's "forward deterrent posture".

The review had its origins in the Pentagon's 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review. The proposals cover a range of reforms for the world's pre-eminent killing machine, including re-organisation and privatisation of the provision of some services to the military. But a centrepiece of the "posture review" trumpeted by the White House is the reorganisation of overseas US military bases, a number of which — primarily those in Western Europe — will be closed.

A study released by the US Congressional Budget Office in May examined options for "alternative overseas basing schemes" for the US military. One of the four criteria the CBO considered was the "time needed to deploy Army forces to overseas locations that administration officials have cited as close to where conflicts could occur in the future — specifically, Nigeria and Azerbaijan (potentially important future sources of oil) and Uganda and Djibouti (potential staging bases for conducting operations in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to counter instability and terrorism)".

On August 16, Bush told the Cincinnati convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars: "Over the coming decade, we'll deploy a more agile and more flexible force, which means that more of our troops will be stationed and deployed from here at home. Although we'll still have a significant presence overseas, under the plan I'm announcing today, over the next 10 years, we will bring home about 60,000 to 70,000 uniformed personnel, and about 100,000 family members and civilian employees."

Given the unease of the US public at the continuing bloodshed in Iraq, it's no surprise that Bush wants to take credit for "bringing the troops home". However, the process is not a Bush brainwave but part of a longer-term plan to reposition US forces that has been taking place since the end of the Cold War. In 1989, there were some 320,000 members of the US armed forces stationed overseas. Since then, the number has dropped to 197,000. (That figure, however, excludes the 150,000 military personnel engaged in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

As the bloody imperialist interventions by the US since the collapse of the Soviet Union testify, this process hasn't been accompanied by some fundamental shift in US foreign policy away from the aggressive militarism of the Cold War. Just a fortnight after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US carried out "regime change" in Panama, leaving hundreds of civilians dead and thousands more wounded and homeless.

Currently, the Pentagon owns or rents more than 700 military bases in foreign countries — a military network intended to shore up "friendly" regimes and threaten "rogue states". As a January 15 article for the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com noted, it's an "empire of bases with its own geography not likely to be taught in any high-school geography class".

The majority of overseas US military personnel (aside from those currently in Iraq and Afghanistan) are based in Germany (71,000), South Korea (38,000) and Japan (40,000). The US has a total of 105,000 troops stationed in Europe, and another 79,000 in the Asia-Pacific region.

US war secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained to the US Senate armed services committee on September 23 that the proposed base closures reflected a recognition that US forces overseas "are still situated in large part as if little has changed for the last 50 years, as if, for example, Germany is still bracing for a Soviet tank invasion across its northern plain. In South Korea, our troops were virtually frozen in place from where they were when the Korean War ended in 1953."

Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry's campaign team was quick to criticise the planned base closures as sending "the wrong message". However, the realignment continues a process that was initiated under Bill Clinton, Bush's Democratic presidential predecessor, and is likely to continue regardless of which warmonger occupies the Oval Office after the November 2 election.

In Europe, some of the "little Americas", large military bases that are almost self-contained towns, will be closed and replaced with bases in former Soviet bloc countries — notably Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. The US bases in these countries won't be replicas of the mammoth US bases in Germany. Instead, they will likely be "Forward Operating Bases", or "lily pads".

The April 3 Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon's newspaper for US soldiers and their families, explained that these new bases would be "new spartan sites designed to maximize training opportunities while getting closer to potential hot spots".

"We need to get out of the Cold War-defence-of-Europe mentality", Marine General James Jones, head of US European Command, commented in an April 3 interview with Stars and Stripes. "Specifically, Jones wants to consolidate old bases in Europe to cut down on maintenance costs while opening forward outposts designed to tap into better training opportunities and to get closer to potential threats", reported the paper.

The idea of "lily pad" bases is that they allow the rapid deployment of military forces from the US, without the drawbacks that come from the permanent stationing of large numbers of US troops overseas — the difficulties of troop retention because of the strain on families being stationed overseas and the resentment of local populations and the subsequent threat to the stability of pro-US regimes.

The "lily pad" bases, some of which already exist in places like Manas Air Field in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, will be minimally staffed until combat troops are needed. In the case of conflict, combat troops will be quickly deployed to prop up pro-US regimes without the difficulty of having to start from scratch constructing basic military infrastructure or securing political agreement for the use of foreign territory or facilities.

Along with the shift of US forces in Europe eastwards, the Pentagon has established a string of bases and defence pacts in Central Asia. In a January 6, 2002, article, William Arkin, the Los Angeles Times' commentator on military matters, reported: "Behind a veil of secret agreements, the United States is creating a ring of new and expanded military bases that encircle Afghanistan and enhance the armed forces' ability to strike targets throughout much of the Muslim world."

During and after the late 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the US signed defence pacts with the repressive rulers of the former Soviet Central Asia republics. On October 13, 2001, a joint US-Uzbekistan statement announced "a qualitatively new relationship based on a long-term commitment to advance security and regional stability".

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, Arkin reported, US military "tent cities" have been erected "at 13 locations in nine countries neighboring Afghanistan, substantially extending the network of bases in the region. All together, from Bulgaria and Uzbekistan to Turkey, Kuwait and beyond, more than 60,000 US military personnel now live and work at these forward bases."

Arkin added that "hundreds of aircraft fly in and out of so-called expeditionary airfields".

Washington's post-Soviet allies in the region, dominated for the most part by former "communists" who have now embraced the "free market", are notorious for their records of torture and repression. For example, after last October's elections in Azerbaijan members of the opposition were arrested and forced to confess to being responsible for post-election unrest. According to Amnesty International, Rauf Arifoglu, one of those detained, "told members of the international press freedom organisation Reporters without Borders, who visited him in pre-trial detention in Bailov prison in Baku, that he had been held in solitary confinement for 32 days and forced to sleep on the floor of an unheated cell for 18 days".

In Uzbekistan, according to the US State Department's 2003 report on human rights abuses: "Although the law prohibits such practices, both police and the NSS [National Security Service] routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions or incriminating information. Police and the NSS allegedly used suffocation, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse; however, beating was the most commonly reported method of torture. Torture was common in prisons, pretrial facilities, and local police and security service precincts, and the severity of torture did not decrease during the year."

As a reward for the Tajikistan regime's support for Washington's "war on terror", on January 9, 2002, the US lifted its eight-year ban on the sale of arms to the former Soviet republic. "Tajikistan has a history of torture, suppression of political opposition and the media, and arrests based on religion", noted a February 2002 press release by the US-based Human Rights Watch. The State Department considers Tajikistan to be ruled "by an authoritarian regime that has established some nominally democratic institutions" and its human rights report on the country notes that "there were reports that security officials, particularly those in the Ministry of Interior, used systematic beatings to extort confessions and used sexual abuse and electric shock during interrogations".

Because the regimes in the Central Asian republics are thugs siding with the "good guys" in the "war on terror" however, their regular use of torture is swept under the carpet; at most it's cause for mild embarrassment and platitudes about their gradual "progress" towards democracy. In the post-9/11 world "good" regimes are those that cooperate with the "war on terror", but those that challenge Washington's diktats are deemed to "support terrorism" and must suffer "regime change"..

Although the White House has concentrated on the minimalist, "lily pad" bases and the stationing of a larger number of US troops on home soil, there will be tens of thousands of US troops stationed overseas for years (perhaps even decades) to come — carrying out Washington's "pre-emptive" wars in the Middle East.

Iraq has a central role to play in the Pentagon's global ring of steel. "US engineers are focusing on constructing 14 'enduring bases', long-term encampments for the thousands of American troops expected to serve in Iraq for at least two years", reported the March 23 Chicago Tribune.

Because of political sensitivities in both Iraq and the US, there is little public acknowledgement from the White House or the Pentagon that the intention has always been for US troops to stay in Iraq for longer than just the completion of "regime change" there, itself hardly likely to be over in the near future unless Iraqis' resistance to the occupation is completely crushed. (The defence minister of the US-installed puppet Interim Government of Iraq said that he wanted US troops to occupy Iraq "for 15 years", according to an October 8 report by the Knight Ridder newspaper chain.)

One goal in the invasion of Iraq was to relieve pressure on Washington's Middle Eastern client regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, where there has been rising resentment at the presence of US troops since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

The Chicago Tribune quoted US Army Brigadier General Robert Pollman, the chief engineer for US base construction in Iraq as saying: "Is this a swap for the Saudi bases? I don't know. When we talk about enduring bases here, we're talking about the present operation, not in terms of America's global strategic base. But this makes sense. It makes a lot of logical sense."

The Iraq invasion itself was intended as a stepping stone to a broader "reorganisation" of the Middle East — eliminating any resistance to US political and corporate domination of the oil-rich region and shoring up shaky US client regimes.

Even now that the occupation of Iraq has been challenged by a growing guerrilla war and the image of the US military's invincibility has been dealt its most serious blow since the Vietnam War, US war planners are still exploring their next target in the "war on terror". For example, the September 27 Newsweek reported that the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency had war-gamed a "pre-emptive" attack on Iran's nuclear power and research facilities. The magazine reported, however, that "No-one liked the outcome".

Instead, "administration hawks are pinning their hopes on regime change in Tehran — by covert means, preferably, but by force of arms if necessary. Papers on the idea have circulated inside the administration, mostly labeled 'draft' or 'working draft' to evade congressional subpoena powers and the Freedom of Information Act."

Of course, like all of Washington's plans for the post-Soviet world seemingly bereft of a counterbalance to US military might, the US neoconservatives' blueprints for creating a "new American century" are predicated on the idea that the technological superiority of US armed forces and US economic might are enough to overcome any opposition. Yet the armed resistance in Iraq — a country brutalised beyond belief by two imperialist assaults, 13 years of crippling economic sanctions and the savagery of the US-British-Australian military occupation — has proved that Washington's empire isn't invulnerable.

From Green Left Weekly, October 27, 2004.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.