Guest Writings
02/04 THE COSTS OF EMPIRE By David Isenberg

Part 1 – Starting with a solid base

Somewhere on the Yale University campus, Paul Michael Kennedy must be smiling. Remember Paul Kennedy? Back in 1987 the then relatively unknown history professor published the book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and almost instantaneously introduced the expression “imperial overstretch” into popular discourse. Although it did not take long for right-wing commentators to attack him, saying that it was the Soviet, not the US empire that had overstretched, his basic point remains the same.

As he wrote 10 years later in Atlantic Magazine: “The United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of Great Powers, of what might be called ‘imperial overstretch’: that is to say, decision-makers in Washington must face the awkward and enduring fact that the total of the United States’s global interests and obligations is nowadays far too large for the country to be able to defend them all simultaneously.”

Well, now talk of empire is back in vogue since the war in Iraq has focused the attention of the American public, normally caught up in the soma of reality television, to an unusual degree on the burdens and costs of empire. But while empire in all its imperial, multicolored, geopolitical hues may be an alluring sight, there is one thing to keep in mind. The process of creating and maintaining an empire, like making sausage or passing congressional legislation, is not a pretty process. In fact, it is costly, very costly, in terms of lives, money and liberty. It requires a large military establishment, which can consume a substantial, if not disproportionate amount of the national treasury. And it requires stationing and deploying forces around the world.

A base for every need

It is not easy being a global military power. It takes a lot of behind the scenes work to allow the F-15s and F-16s to fly over Iraq airspace, for the soldiers and Marines to deploy to Japan and South Korea, and to get the M-1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles and a myriad of other military equipment to the far-flung corners of the empire. Despite the rush to outsource federal programs, this is not yet a job that the Pentagon is willing to entrust to Federal Express or DHL.

Even in the 21st century, with jet and space travel, the world is a large place. The division of the world into military fiefdoms, or what US military planners euphemistically call the Unified Command Plan, requires something very old-fashioned: a network of overseas military bases.

True, the contours of the network change, waxing and waning over time. Many overseas US military bases overseas have closed since the end of the Cold War, and the number of US troops permanently stationed overseas has dropped by more than 250,000 since the Berlin Wall fell. But preparations to deploy American legions remain a primary Pentagon concern.

In fact, a number of individuals who now are part of the Bush administration (including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) produced in the fall of 2000 a 90-page blueprint for transforming the US military and the nation’s global role. The report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century” released by the Project for the New American Century, argued that the US should not only attain and maintain military dominance, but should also project it with a worldwide network of forward operating bases over and above the country’s already extensive overseas deployments.

That is why the Pentagon plans to dramatically change the shape of US military basing abroad. Unlike the Cold War era with its large permanent garrisons – like the over 200,000 troops that were kept in Germany – the fashion nowadays is for more temporary forward deployments to Spartan bases. While such plans were in the works before President George W Bush took office, September 11, 2001, did much to accelerate them. The goal is to create a web of far-flung, lean, forward-operating bases, maintained in peacetime only by small permanent support units, with fighting forces deployed from the US when necessary. To that end, a large reduction of the traditional US military presence in Europe is necessary.

The Pentagon is quite open and candid about it. In a speech last December 3, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith said: “President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld likewise are thinking about the relatively distant future. In developing plans to realign our forces abroad they’re not focused on the diplomatic issues of the moment but on the strategic requirements and opportunities of the coming decades. Let’s be clear about what we are and what we’re not aiming to achieve through transforming our global defense posture.

“We are not aiming at retrenching it, curtailing US commitments, isolationism or unilateralism. On the contrary, our realignment plans are motivated by appreciation of the strategic value of defense alliances and partnerships with other states. We are aiming to increase our ability to fulfill our international commitments more effectively. We’re aiming to ensure that our alliances are capable, affordable, sustainable and relevant in the future. We’re not focused narrowly on force levels that are addressing force capabilities. We are not talking about fighting in place but moving to the fight. We are not talking only about basing, we’re talking about the ability to move forces when and where needed.

“In transforming the US global defense posture we want to make our forces more responsive, given the world’s many strategic uncertainties. We want to benefit as much as possible from the strategic pre-positioning of equipment and support. We want to make better use of our capabilities by thinking of our forces globally rather than as simply regional assets. We want to be able to bring more combat capabilities to bear in less time that is, we want to have the ability to surge our forces to crisis spots from wherever those forces might be.”

Feith reiterated the point during a speech a week later in Romania. He said: “What we are interested in doing as we realign our global posture is taking advantage of the opportunity, with a much lighter footprint, to have the kinds of capabilities around the world that will allow us to react quickly with easily deployed forces, with lighter forces, to provide security and shore up our commitments around the world.”

Last year saw the removal of some US troops from Germany and the establishment of new bases in, as Rumsfeld phrased it, “New Europe”, the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization members Romania and Bulgaria.

Also it was reported that the 1st Armored Division, half the US Army’s Europe combat force, traditionally based in Europe, would not return to its German bases. During the invasion of Iraq, air bases opened up for US use in Bulgaria’s Sarajevo airfield, where refueling aircraft were based; the Bulgarian port of Burgas, the Romanian port Constanta and the Romanian military airfield of Mihail Kogalniceanu.

US military plans also include huge ex-Warsaw Pact training ranges and other bases in Poland and Hungary. Thousands of American and British troops have been conducting exercises on the Drawsko Pomorskiy and Wedrzyn training areas since 1996, taking advantage of the lack of restrictions compared to Germany. Use of the Krzesiny airbase outside Poznan, Poland, is also anticipated. In January Poland’s Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski announced that Poland had launched negotiations with Washington on hosting US military bases on its territory.

The Taszar airbase in Hungary is also a possible candidate for an increased US presence, as it has supported US operations in the region since the US entry into Bosnia in 1995.

During his recent Asian tour, General Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the US is likely to use the joint military training facility it is seeking to establish in northern Australia to pre-position equipment and material.

The Air Force wants to return to the Cold War-era practice of basing fighter jets and other strike and support planes on Guam, the Pacific island that is in ready striking distance of the Korean peninsula, according to General William J Begert, commander of Pacific Air Forces.

An empire that spans the world

Despite this restructuring, the US military empire is still staggeringly large. The global “footprint” as it is called, conjuring up interesting images of just who and what the US treads on, spans the world.

Currently Pentagon officials are in the final throes of crafting an updated National Military Strategy that is expected to acknowledge a need to redistribute US forces and revamp their chains of command throughout the globe. “Global sourcing”, a term used to describe the distribution of US forces across the Earth, is also an issue to be addressed in the new national military strategy. The new posture is expected to carry with it a new lingo for bases, including “power projection hubs”, main operating bases and more flexible and agile “forward operating sites”.

Under the plan, US troops, rather than inhabiting a small number of large garrisons, would rotate through dozens of small bases throughout the world on exercises, staying for only a few weeks or months at a time. Those bases could serve as launching points for military strikes to protect US interests or quickly strike out at terrorists.

Part of this redistribution is what author Chalmers Johnson calls “Baseworld”. Johnson writes: “It’s not easy to assess the size or exact value of our empire of bases. Official records on these subjects are misleading, although instructive. According to the Defense Department’s annual ‘Base Structure Report’ for fiscal year 2003, which itemizes foreign and domestic US military real estate, the Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and has another 6,000 bases in the US and its territories. Pentagon bureaucrats calculate that it would require at least [US]$113.2 billion to replace just the foreign bases – surely far too low a figure, but still larger than the gross domestic product of most countries – and an estimated $592 billion to replace all of them. The military high command deploys to its overseas bases some 253,288 uniformed personnel, plus an equal number of dependents and Department of Defense civilian officials, and employs an additional 44,446 locally hired foreigners. The Pentagon claims that these bases contain 44,870 barracks, hangars, hospitals, and other buildings, which it owns, and that it leases 4,844 more.

“These numbers, although staggeringly large, do not begin to cover all the actual bases that we occupy globally. The 2003 Base Status Report fails to mention, for instance, any garrisons in Kosovo – even though it is the site of the huge Camp Bondsteel, built in 1999 and maintained ever since by Kellogg, Brown & Root. The report similarly omits bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar and Uzbekistan, although the US military has established colossal base structures throughout the so-called arc of instability in the two-and-a-half years since September 11.”

Nor does it include new facilities being built. In Iraq engineers from the 1st Armored Division are midway through a $800 million project to build half a dozen camps for the incoming 1st Cavalry Division. The new outposts, dubbed enduring camps, will improve living quarters for soldiers and allow the military to return key infrastructure sites within the Iraqi capital to the emerging government. According to these include such places as Camps Anaconda, Dogwood and Falcon, just to name a few. The largest of the new camps, Camp Victory North, will be twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo – currently one of the largest overseas posts built since the Vietnam War.

Also bear in mind that the deployment of military forces abroad means negotiating complicated legal arrangements, euphemistically called Status of Forces agreements, so that US forces remain largely immune from host country laws. The United States has yet to begin serious negotiations with Iraqis on an agreement to guarantee that American troops in Iraq will remain immune from arrest and prosecution by local authorities once a new Baghdad government takes over in June.

This was a way of life for 19th century imperialists, who, for example, carved out little extraterritorial enclaves all along the coast of China. This was certainly the case of the collapsed empire of the Soviet Union, whose military men led privileged lives elsewhere in the communist bloc. This is the peacetime way of life of the US military, whose forces abroad are largely shielded from local judgments. Increasingly, if the Bush administration has its way (thanks to bilateral agreements forced on other nations), American soldiers in wartime will be responsible to no other body, certainly not to the new International Criminal Court, for crimes of war or crimes against humanity.

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues.

Counting the dollars and cents By David Isenberg

To paraphrase the well-known saying of former US Senator Everett Dirksen, a division sent here, a division over there, and pretty soon you are talking about real empire.

However, a real empire costs money, lots of money; especially when it involves stationing or deploying military forces around the world. How much money? Let’s turn to the budget. For fiscal year (FY) 2004, Congress approved about US$400 billion for “national defense”, or in plain English, military spending. But hold on to your hats because, as they say on Broadway, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

In FY 2004, military spending accounted for over half of all US federal discretionary spending. The annual military appropriations bill is expected to grow from $369 billion this year to nearly $600 billion by 2013, according to the US Congressional Budget Office.

Despite concerns about rising deficits, protracted wars and costly weapons, budget and political analysts predict that President George W Bush will ask Congress for about $470 billion in military spending for 2005. True, the request will not come all at once: The first installment was delivered to Congress February 2 in the form of a just over $420 billion budget request ($401.7 billion for the Defense Department and $19.0 billion for the nuclear weapons functions of the Department of Energy). This is an increase of 7.9 percent above current levels. The second installment, a $50 billion supplemental bill to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan war costs, won’t come until after the November 2 presidential election.

That would be the third massive supplemental spending bill sought to support the wars. Congress approved a $62.6 billion supplemental last spring and an $87 billion supplemental in November.

The financial costs of maintaining US forces in Iraq are currently running at $4 billion per month, or an annual rate of $48 billion. Last September, the White House informed congressional leaders that it was preparing a new budget request of $60-70 billion to cover mounting military and reconstruction costs in Iraq. Then Bush announced a $7 billion supplemental request to cover Iraq and Afghanistan. Less than a week later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that Iraq’s postwar reconstruction costs were likely to run another $35 billion above and beyond those contained in the $87 billion supplemental.

And an assessment in the Wall Street Journal last September predicts further spirals in future Iraq postwar costs attributable to gross overestimation of near-term Iraqi oil revenues; surprise at the decrepit state of Iraq’s basic infrastructure; extensive and continued looting; sabotage of oil pipelines, electrical power lines, and other key reconstruction costs; downstream costs of financing expanding Iraqi government and security forces; and poor prospects for significant international donor support.

But wait, there’s more. British historian Niall Ferguson noted last July: “The United States is attempting ‘nation-building’ – the fashionable euphemism for empire-building – on a shoestring.” In other words, the US is cheap. He asks:

“Is it possible to run an empire on the Wal-Mart principle of ‘always low prices’? Maybe. But that was not the way it was done in West Germany and Japan after World War II. And since those are President Bush’s favorite examples of successful nation-building, he will only have himself to blame when the hoped-for economic miracle in Iraq becomes an economic debacle.” Another cost of Iraq is its effect on military force structures. As should be apparent to all by now, fighting “major combat operations” is relatively easy. Occupations are a whole other story. As military analysts Charles Knight and Marcus Corbin wrote in January:

“Our total deployable ground forces (Army and Marines) number about 400,000 active duty men and women and another 500,000 reservists. Together these numbers are more than enough to fight America’s wars of short duration, such as the 1991 war with Iraq. But when policy choices result in long occupations, such totals quickly become insufficient – a result of the dismal math of force rotations. It takes four troop units on active duty to sustain deployment of one active unit in the field for multiple years, and it takes nine reserve units to sustain deployment of one reserve unit. A four or five year occupation of Iraq by 65,000 regular and 35,000 reserve troops – a realistic possibility – will require a rotation base of 260,000 active troops (65 percent of our deployable active ground forces) and 315,000 reserve troops (63 percent of our deployable reserve ground forces.) This illustration does not properly capture the full effect of our broader ‘war on terror’ on our reservists. Currently, more than 130,000 reserve ground troops are serving in homeland security roles, ‘back filling’ for active-duty soldiers elsewhere abroad and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. For the reservists, this level of mobilization is already more than twice the long-term sustainable rate.”

There has been much hand wringing in Congress of late over the “stretched too thin” military. Cries of not enough bodies are everywhere. While in strict terms this is not true, as you could halve the active army from 10 to five divisions and still have more than enough for defense of the country, it is true that defending an empire is different.

In a hearing last November Representative John Spratt said:

“Our forces were stretched thin before Iraq, and the engagement there has only exacerbated that trend. The administration has come forward with a plan for force rotation in Iraq that relies upon several assumptions. First, it assumes one-year deployments of more US troops – active, reserve and guard. Second, it assumes the influx of more multinational forces to relieve some of the pressure on American forces at least during 2004. And, third, it assumes the rapid training of Iraqi security forces of all kinds, and the eventual turnover of many security missions to these Iraqi forces. It’s unclear whether the last two of these three assumptions will come to pass. We continue to train Iraqi police and army forces, but it’s unclear what missions they will be able to take on and handle capably and just when. Other nations have not committed forces in substantial numbers, unfortunately, and some that have, such as Turkey, have met with difficulties that make that deployment at this point doubtful.”

Recently, Lieutenant-General John M Riggs, who runs the task force charged with fashioning the army of the future, told the Baltimore Sun in an interview that the army was too small and must be increased “substantially” by more than 10,000 soldiers.

Keep in mind that January saw the start of the US military’s biggest unit rotation since World War II. Eight of the 10 active-duty army divisions are now rotating in and out of Iraq, while one-third of the Army National Guard’s combat battalions have been called to active duty, Riggs said. There are not enough soldiers in the army to provide for a reasonable rotation schedule of fresh troops into Iraq and for other missions, such as Afghanistan.

Of course, managing the military forces to maintain empire can be complicated. Inevitably mistakes are made. On January 20, Lieutenant-General James R Helmly, the chief of the Army Reserve, said that a series of mistakes in mobilizing and managing reserves for the war in Iraq had put the army on the brink of serious problems in retaining those soldiers. About 10,000 reserves were called up for active duty on less than five days’ notice. An additional 8,000 were called up but never deployed. And of those 8,000, about half were remobilized not long after they were taken off active duty. Helmly said that serious problems are being “masked” temporarily because reservists are barred from leaving the military while their units are mobilized in Iraq. He said that the reserve force bureaucracy bungled the mobilization of soldiers for the war in Iraq, and gave them a “pipe dream” instead of honest information about how long they might have to remain there.

To rectify things, and to let reserve personnel know up front that those halcyon days of service without actually being deployed are now a historical memory, Helmly wants to change the mobilization system so members may be called to active duty for nine to 12 months every four or five years. More bodies, whether US, foreign soldiers, or mercenaries, as in private military companies, are necessary. A bill by Representative Ellen Tauscher, currently under consideration in the House of Representatives, would add 40,000 to the army, 28,700 to the air force and 15,000 to the Marines. This overall increase of 83,700 can be compared with the entire strength of the British army, namely 114,000.

Newhouse News reported that the rising cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with expensive new weapons systems and other growing commitments, is pushing military spending inexorably upward, part of a pattern of federal spending that some economists say threatens American and global economic stability. That unanticipated cost is $12 billion to $19 billion this year and each year into the future as forces rotate through the combat zones. And the Pentagon is paying billions more for the health care of troops mobilized from National Guard and reserve units, a recurring charge expected to grow in the coming years.

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues.

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