Global sprawl of military bases puts US at risk

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The situation was tense and the footage graphic: A police van in the Philippines ran down protesters taking issue with the U.S. military presence in their nation, “barreling through the scattered protesters and hurtling some to the side like bowling pins” according to an Associated Press eyewitness account from the Oct. 19 incident.

{mosads}Complicating matters is the fact that the activists’ cause is shared by their controversial president, Rodrigo Duterte. In addition to encouraging vigilante killings of alleged drug dealers and comparing himself to Hitler, Duterte has said he would like to see American forces out of his country, ending a longstanding alliance to woo Chinese friendship instead.

Whether Duterte’s efforts succeed remains to be scene, but his hostility — and his country’s chafing at U.S. presence more broadly — raises an overdue question of the wisdom and necessity of American maintenance of a vast, expensive and strategically cumbersome network of military bases sprawled across the globe.

As it stands, the Pentagon maintains some 150,000 U.S. troops in 800 bases in 70 countries worldwide. The facilities vary widely in size, cost, and utility, but all told they together cost American taxpayers as much as $300 billion annually, per calculations from Dave Vine, who has written a book on the base network.

As Vine points out, this overseas presence is utterly unique: Britain, France and Russia — three of our four fellow members of the United Nations Security Council — have just 30 bases outside their own border … combined.

(Indeed, Russian maintaining access to its base in Syria, one of the country’s few extraterritorial bases, is one reason the Kremlin is so set on keeping the Bashar Assad regime in power.)

What makes the foreign base count even more striking than comparison to other nations’ arrangements is that the 800 bases figure doesn’t include unknown numbers of U.S. forces and facilities in the seven countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen) where Washington is actively at war.

Of course, it would be irresponsible to begin shutting down bases willy-nilly, but it would equally be irresponsible to unthinkingly maintain expensive, outdated facilities that add nothing to our security and encourage anti-American sentiment in hostile countries — and that latter risk is the more likely danger of the two.

We know that because the Pentagon has been asking Congress for permission to close unneeded bases for years in a process called Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).

Congress isn’t having it, even going so far as to ban the Department of Defense from spending any money to study and analyze the costs and benefits necessary to figure out which bases are vital and which are unnecessary to our national security.

That behavior may help reelection prospects, but it does not help U.S. defense. “We’re avoiding $2.9 billion in expenses every year from the BRAC rounds we’ve already done,” remarks Lt. Gen. John Cooper, deputy chief of staff for logistics, engineering and force protection for the Air Force.

“We have too much [property], it’s too old and it’s too expensive.” The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has labeled the military’s property situation a “high risk” program that is highly vulnerable to “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” since 1997.

Like the Pentagon, the GAO recommends BRAC.

Recent years of technological advancements only make a thorough reassessment of U.S. military’s global presence more needful. Where once a foreign base, like our presence in the Philippines, might have been required to achieve a goal of quick mobilization in the region, today new research from the RAND Corporation reveals this forward-deployed posture is more hindrance than help, exposing U.S. troops to unnecessary risk and encouraging reckless intervention in situations that don’t merit U.S. involvement while offering shrinking practical advantages.

For “any contingency that truly warrants U.S. intervention,” summarizes The American Conservative’s John Glaser, “we should be able to handle both minor and major deployments by relying on bases at home.”

Washington should use the headlines from the Philippines as an impetus to begin moving in that more secure, prudent and fiscally responsible direction.

Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared in TIME magazine, Politico, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece has been corrected to note the actual date of the police van incident in the Philippines.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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