To date, the United States have approximately seven hundred military bases across the globe, with hundreds of American service members stationed at each location. Okinawa, Japan, consists of 39 American military facilities alone. Thousands of American soldiers remain stationed on the Saudi Peninsula for deterrence purposes. Fewer than 30,000 are currently in South Korea and an additional 60,000 call Germany home. These numbers don’t even include the bases in Afghanistan and Iraq; the covert facilities in Pakistan, nor the aircraft carriers that skim across the waters of the Persian Gulf on a daily basis.
Ask any strategic planner involved in American military deployments, and I suspect that most would argue that these bases, even the smaller ones, are extremely useful for maintaining American hegemony in crucial parts of the globe. Exerting military pressure serves American interests, they may say, and bases are a surefire way of living up to American treaty commitments.
The states which host American bases are largely happy with the arrangement as well. Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in particular view a American presence as a cheap way to deter regional rivals from engaging in any funny business. To be sure, the Iranians would think twice before launching a strike against a country defended by American soldiers who are ready to respond tenfold.
American military facilities on foreign soil seems like a win-win scenario. In exchange for protection, Washington is allowed a certain amount of discretion in pursuing objectives that boost the interests of the United States more broadly. But this arrangement, according to Robert Pape — the pioneer in the study of suicide terrorism — is slowly starting to expire. People are getting fed up by the large presence of American soldiers in their homeland. South Koreans and Okinawans are complaining about occupation. Violent protests have erupted in the Middle East and South Asia, with military bases the primary targets. And last but certainly not least, Osama bin Laden continues to cite the US “crusade” of Saudi Arabia as a cause for his operations against American civilians.
Is it time for policymakers in Washington to rethink the value of American bases, particularly in Asia where most of the world’s troubles are concentrated? Pape certainly thinks so. In fact, he believes, not without reason, that the proliferation of suicide terrorism globally is a response to a feeling of helplessness and foreign occupation by the United States. Of course, whether this rationale justifies terrorist attacks is entirely debatable. But common sense logic means little when the people perpetuating these types of attacks firmly believe in the claim.
Removing American military facilities from peaceful areas such as Europe and Japan would remove the underlying logic of suicide terrorism. Indeed, shutting down bases would save the United States an enormous amount of money, for the cost of maintenance is quite large. More American soldiers would be able to travel home and spend much needed time with their loved ones, while US support in states as Japan may increase. But at the same time, American global power — at least explicit military power — would decrease in regions deemed vital for American national security. And with the Pentagon worried about Chinese predominance in the Pacific, closing bases in Japan doesn’t appear to be a worthwhile option. It may even be counterproductive.
There are two sides to every story. One side will inevitably lose the debate. But it’s a debate that we should have, particularly when Defense Secretary Robert Gates is searching for ways to save money and cut wasteful spending.