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The Lily-Pad Strategy

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Posted on Jul 17, 2012
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A U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.

By David Vine, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

Add to this unparalleled long-range air and naval power; arms sales besting any nation on Earth; humanitarian and disaster relief missions that clearly serve military intelligence, patrol, and “hearts and minds” functions; the rotational deployment of regular U.S. forces globally; port visits and an expanding array of joint military exercises and training missions that give the U.S. military de facto “presence” worldwide and help turn foreign militaries into proxy forces.

And lots and lots of lily-pad bases.

Military planners see a future of endless small-scale interventions in which a large, geographically dispersed collection of bases will always be primed for instant operational access. With bases in as many places as possible, military planners want to be able to turn to another conveniently close country if the United States is ever prevented from using a base, as it was by Turkey prior to the invasion of Iraq. In other words, Pentagon officials dream of nearly limitless flexibility, the ability to react with remarkable rapidity to developments anywhere on Earth, and thus, something approaching total military control over the planet.

Beyond their military utility, the lily pads and other forms of power projection are also political and economic tools used to build and maintain alliances and provide privileged U.S. access to overseas markets, resources, and investment opportunities. Washington is planning to use lily-pad bases and other military projects to bind countries in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America as closely as possible to the U.S. military—and so to continued U.S. political-economic hegemony. In short, American officials are hoping military might will entrench their influence and keep as many countries as possible within an American orbit at a time when some are asserting their independence ever more forcefully or gravitating toward China and other rising powers.

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Those Dangerous Lily Pads

While relying on smaller bases may sound smarter and more cost effective than maintaining huge bases that have often caused anger in places like Okinawa and South Korea, lily pads threaten U.S. and global security in several ways:

First, the “lily pad” language can be misleading, since by design or otherwise, such installations are capable of quickly growing into bloated behemoths.

Second, despite the rhetoric about spreading democracy that still lingers in Washington, building more lily pads actually guarantees collaboration with an increasing number of despotic, corrupt, and murderous regimes.

Third, there is a well-documented pattern of damage that military facilities of various sizes inflict on local communities. Although lily pads seem to promise insulation from local opposition, over time even small bases have often led to anger and protest movements.

Finally, a proliferation of lily pads means the creeping militarization of large swaths of the globe. Like real lily pads—which are actually aquatic weeds—bases have a way of growing and reproducing uncontrollably. Indeed, bases tend to beget bases, creating “base races” with other nations, heightening military tensions, and discouraging diplomatic solutions to conflicts. After all, how would the United States respond if China, Russia, or Iran were to build even a single lily-pad base of its own in Mexico or the Caribbean?

For China and Russia in particular, ever more U.S. bases near their borders threaten to set off new cold wars. Most troublingly, the creation of new bases to protect against an alleged future Chinese military threat may prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: such bases in Asia are likely to create the threat they are supposedly designed to protect against, making a catastrophic war with China more, not less, likely.

Encouragingly, however, overseas bases have recently begun to generate critical scrutiny across the political spectrum from Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul to Democratic Senator Jon Tester and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. With everyone looking for ways to trim the deficit, closing overseas bases offers easy savings. Indeed, increasingly influential types are recognizing that the country simply can’t afford more than 1,000 bases abroad.

Great Britain, like empires before it, had to close most of its remaining foreign bases in the midst of an economic crisis in the 1960s and 1970s. The United States is undoubtedly headed in that direction sooner or later. The only question is whether the country will give up its bases and downsize its global mission by choice, or if it will follow Britain’s path as a fading power forced to give up its bases from a position of weakness.

Of course, the consequences of not choosing another path extend beyond economics. If the proliferation of lily pads, special operations forces, and drone wars continues, the United States is likely to be drawn into new conflicts and new wars, generating unknown forms of blowback, and untold death and destruction. In that case, we’d better prepare for a lot more incoming flights—from the Horn of Africa to Honduras—carrying not just amputees but caskets.

David Vine is assistant professor of anthropology at American University, in Washington, DC. He is the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press, 2009). He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Mother Jones, among other places. He is currently completing a book about the more than 1,000 U.S. military bases located outside the United States. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Vine discusses his experiences with the Pentagon’s empire of bases, click here or download it to your iPod here.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Copyright 2012 David Vine


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