Krista Mahr & Melissa Nix / San Francisco Chronicle – 2005-08-12 08:34:11
(August 7, 2005) — As the Pentagon prepares to close dozens of military bases in the United States, another less-noticed part of the story is taking place on foreign soil: a shakeup in the operation of some of the hundreds of US bases overseas.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has announced plans to close 33 major domestic military bases and make changes to the missions of 29 others in an effort to streamline spending and reconceptualize how the military will respond to 21st century challenges.
Such closures, in tandem with the proposed realignment of US forces overseas, could save the government $64 billion over the next 20 years. In an era when the Pentagon spends $1.3 billion daily, budget tightening makes sense. But perhaps more importantly, the larger realignment discussion foreshadows what the future global footprint of the US military may look like, for better or for worse.
More than 700 US Bases Worldwide
The United States maintains a military presence in more than 56 countries and on more than 700 bases worldwide. The plan for restructuring this global presence is still evolving, but it is part of a shift from the large, static bases of the Cold War to smaller, more agile bases designed to handle threats to national security that did not exist 50 years ago.
The Pentagon can’t always anticipate sudden eviction notices, such as the heave-ho it got from Uzbekistan on July 29, but it does have a global blueprint for change.
Seventy thousand troops, based mainly in Western Europe and Northeast Asia, will be relocated to the continental United States over the next 10 years. Officials are talking about ways to build a greater number of smaller, more flexible installations in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Southwest Asia and Africa, areas closer to new geo-strategic concerns or perceived Islamic instability.
The new plan spreads troops out “like a spider’s web around the world,” according to Sean Kay, an associate professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Although US foreign presence influences how many people around the world perceive Americans, changes overseas are not part of the national conversation. Unlike the domestic closures, Congress will not vote on which bases will remain in Europe and Asia, and which will close. The process takes place entirely within the Pentagon.
But no military base, whether in South Dakota or Tajikistan, exists in a vacuum. While the Pentagon’s plans take shape, sites of overseas bases are either bracing themselves for economic hardship once American troops leave or looking forward to the potential boom new agreements will bring.
US Troops in South Korea:
An Economy of Strip Clubs and Prostituton
In South Korea, for instance, up to 18,000 people work on nearly 100 US military facilities scattered throughout the country. Thousands more make a living by providing services to GIs off base.
Baet Bore is a run-down strip outside Camp Stanley, home to approximately 3,000 troops stationed near the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Its residents have been catering to U.S. soldiers stationed in this isolated locale since the base was established in 1955.
“Ninety percent of this town’s economy is related to prostitution,” says Yu Young Nim, director of My Sister’s Place, a nongovernmental organization that works with sex workers whose clients are GIs.
Camp Stanley is due to close in 2006. At least an additional 17 American installations in South Korea are scheduled to close by 2011, and the marginalized communities that have developed beside them will face economic hardship. Some, like those near Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul, will have an easier time bouncing back, given their proximity to the robust civilian economy of the capital city. Others won’t be as lucky.
“Some people who have been very dependent upon US forces will suffer,” said Dong Ghi-Kim, the director general for policy coordination for the Special Commission on United States Forces Korea Affairs. Kim anticipates “very serious problems” in isolated areas such as Baet Bore. Once the U.S. soldiers leave, there will be no foreigners left to patronize the area, he said.
Missile Defense in Space
Requires Radar Bases on the Ground
As Cold War hubs are dismantled, the Bush administration wants to build an alternative strategic presence: a global missile defense system. Although missile defense and rapidly deployable troops address different threats, both serve this administration’s vision of a global, highly technological approach to defense.
Revenue generated by updating a few radar stations on small, remote bases is not equal to the economic blow of moving 70,000 American troops out of Europe and Asia, but the political impact of new agreements with the United States can be powerful. Discussions involving the installation of a global system to combat enemy missiles have been held with Denmark and Greenland, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Although Greenland is close to the North American continent and roughly three times the size of Texas, Americans don’t know a lot about it, and are often surprised to find out the United States has had an air force base there for 50 years.
Thule Air Base has been strategically important to the United States because of its location between Moscow and New York. At the height of the Cold War, when the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar was built at Thule, the base was home to 10,000 military personnel. Today, there are fewer than 200.
The US military’s mission has changed, but Greenland continues to figure into its new defense strategy, in which radar will play a crucial role. In December 2002, the United States approached Greenland and Denmark with a request to update the radar for the proposed ground-based missile defense system.
The request set off a debate in Greenland. Thule has been controversial since Greenlanders were left out of the Danish-American agreement to build the base in the Danish colony in 1951.
Nevertheless, in August 2004, Greenland’s semi-autonomous government signed a new agreement permitting the radar update, as well as an accompanying agreement encouraging economic ties with the United States.
Greenland’s government sees connecting to the superpower as an important step toward gaining full autonomy from Denmark. While many Greenlanders are far from comfortable with enabling the proposed missile defense system, updating the Thule radar was an offer the government didn’t feel it could refuse.
Repositioning the military is a large and controversial undertaking at home and abroad.
The new US defense approach will produce different outcomes in South Korea, Greenland and other countries around the world, but they have something important in common. They are US allies, but each is less than an equal partner.
Whether resources are concentrated in large bases or spread web-like over the globe, the US presence has an impact on societies and reshapes them. How the United States handles that interaction will influence whether the world perceives it as a partner or interloper, as a cooperative force or an opportunistic one.
Krista Mahr and Melissa Nix are recent graduates of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Mahr is editor of Iceland Review and Atlantica magazines in ReykjavÌk, Iceland. Nix is completing a reporting internship with the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., where she has covered local military communities.
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