Global Policy Forum

Resisting the Empire


By Joseph Gerson*

Foreign Policy in Focus
March 20, 2008

Victories are within sight for people in a growing number of nations where communities that host U.S. foreign military bases have long fought to get rid of them.

Ecuador's decision not to renew the U.S. lease for the forward operating base at Manta (see Yankees Head Home) is the culmination of just one of many long-term and recently initiated community-based and national struggles to remove these military installations that are often sources of crime and demeaning human rights violations. A growing alliance among anti-bases movements in countries around the world, including the United States, is preventing the creation of new foreign military bases, restricting the expansion of others, and in some cases may win the withdrawal of the military bases, installations and troops that are essential to U.S. wars of intervention and its preparations for first-strike nuclear attacks.

The Challenge

Of course, there is still plenty of bad news. The Bush Administration is currently negotiating what is, in essence, a security treaty with the Maliki puppet government in Baghdad to secure one of the principle Bush-Cheney war aims: permanent military bases for tens of thousands of U.S. troops. The goal is to transform Iraq into an U.S. unsinkable aircraft carrier in the heart of the oil-rich Middle East. Unfortunately, the plan for Iraq is only one part of the vast and expanding U.S. infrastructure of nearly 1,000 military bases and installations strategically scattered around the world.

Across Asia, in Japan, another Marine has raped an Okinawan school girl, traumatizing yet another life and temporarily shaking the foundations of the U.S.-Japan military alliance. Under the guise of a "Visiting Force Agreement," U.S. troops have returned to the Philippines where they are deployed from "temporary" and unconstitutional military bases. In the Indian Ocean, Chagossian people were removed from Diego Garcia to make way for massive U.S. military bases; they have won all of their legal appeals but still can't return home. In Central Europe, the Bush Administration is pressing deployment of first strike-related "missile defense" bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. Russia has countered by threatening to target the bases with nuclear weapons, and opposition to "missile defense." In response to this renewed Cold War, opposition to "missile defense" weaponry is building in public squares and in parliaments throughout the region. And, as he recently traveled across Africa, President George W. Bush was met with near universal opposition to his plans for further military colonization of the continent in the form of moving the Pentagon's Africa Command headquarters from Europe to the oil and resource-rich continent.

The Bush Administration and Pentagon are "reconfiguring" the U.S. global network of more than 750 foreign military bases to impose what Vice President Dick Cheney termed in a New Yorker interview as "the arrangement for the 21st century." This imperial "arrangement" is increasingly being met with opposition in "host" nations and the United States alike, and victories by allied movements are within reach.

How We Got Here

For more than a century, the United States has been building an unrivaled global structure of nearly foreign fortresses. Located on every continent and at sea, these military bases and installations provide an infrastructure from which invasions and nuclear wars can be launched. They enforce an unjust and often violent status quo, influence the politics and diplomacy of "host" nations, secure privileged access to oil and other natural resources, encircle enemies, "show the flag," and more recently have served as prisons operating outside the restrictions of U.S. and international law.

These bases violate democratic values in other ways. When the United States was founded, the Declaration of Independence decried the "abuses and usurpations" caused by King George having "kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies." Since then, "abuses and usurpations" inherent in the presence of foreign "Standing Armies" have become far more dangerous. Their demeaning and disruptive impacts include:

* Undermining the sovereignty of "host" nations
* Militarizing and colonizing the "host" nation's culture
* Assaulting democracy and human rights
* Seizing people's private property and damaging their homes
* Violently abusing and dehumanizing women and girls
* Causing life-endangering military accidents and crimes that are rarely punished
* Terrorizing low-altitude training flights and night-landing exercises
* Polluting with military toxics

Since the Cold War ended, U.S. presidents and the Pentagon have worked to "reconfigure" the architecture of this military infrastructure to address changing geopolitical realities, technological "advances," and growing resistance to the presence of foreign bases. With agility, flexibility and speed being given priority in U.S. military operations, bases are being transformed into hubs, forward operating bases, and "lily pads" for invasions and foreign military interventions.

The other axis of reconfiguration is geographic. As U.S. forces have been forced out of Saudi Arabia, and with U.S. geostrategic priorities turning away from Europe and toward China, Washington has concentrated its military build up elsewhere in the Persian Gulf nations, Asia and the Pacific.

Tipping Points

In a number of countries, the reconfiguration has not proceeded as smoothly as anticipated:


As Major General Robert Pollman explained in 2004, "It ma[de] a lot of sense" to "swap" U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia for new ones in Iraq. U.S. command and air bases located near the holy cities of Mecca and Medina incensed many Muslims and were among Osama Bin Laden's professed reasons for the 9-11 attacks. In the lead up to the 2003 invasion, many of the functions of these bases were moved to Qatar and Kuwait, and after the conquest, 110 bases were established across Iraq. To limit their political and military vulnerability, the Pentagon has been spending more than a $1 billion a year to consolidate them into 14 "enduring" and massive Air Force, Army and Marine bases in Baghdad and other strategic locations, In addition to helping secure U.S. control over Iraq, these bases contribute to encircling Iran, and they can be used for attacks across the Persian Gulf region and into oil-rich Central Asia.

The Bush administration's plans to saddle its successor with these bases and the continuing occupation by negotiating an agreement with the Maliki government hit unexpected road block. In addition to popular Iraqi opposition, U.S. peace movement organizations joined Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) to prevent the unconstitutional imposition of what is essentially a treaty. The Delahunt hearings about the proposed commitment to defend the Baghdad government from internal and external enemies, the bases which are permanent in all but name, and privileged access to investment opportunities (read oil) for U.S. corporations forced Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to rhetorically back away from the open-ended security commitment to Baghdad. But his promises that the bases are "not permanent" are less credible. Nothing is officially "permanent," of course. Not even the bases in Japan and Korea, which have been there for more than six decades, and not the Great Wall of China, or the pyramids of Egypt, which are slowly decaying.

With opposition to the treaty and the permanent military bases now a defining issue between Democrats and Republicans, the U.S. peace movement has an important opening to press its demands for the immediate and total withdrawal from Iraq.


U.S. planners anticipate that by 2015 Africa will provide the U.S. with 25% of its imported oil. With Islamist political forces operating across northern Africa, the continent is also seen as an important front in the misconceived "war on terrorism." So, to "promote peace and stability on the continent" the Bush Administration and the Pentagon want to augment the U.S. military presence in Africa, beginning with the transfer of the Africa Command, AFRICOM, from remote Germany to an accommodating African nation. As President Bush learned during his recent ill-fated African tour, the continent's leaders are understandably reluctant to accept renewed military colonization. Ghana's President John Kufuour put it bluntly when he met with Bush, saying, "You're not going to build any bases in Ghana."

Africa is not free of bases. France and Britain still have bases scattered there. The U.S. has bases in Djibouti and Algeria, access agreements with Morocco and Egypt, and is in the process of creating a "family" of military bases in sub-Saharan Africa (Cameroon, Guinea, Mali, Sao Tome, Senegal and Uganda.) And, although Bush responded to African fears about AFRICOM's possible relocation by saying that such rumors were "baloney" and "bull," he also conceded that: "We haven't made our minds up."

With a growing No AFRICOM movement in the United States that's that is allied with anti-colonialist forces in Africa, this is one U.S. threat that can be contained.

Diego Garcia

In the mid-1960s, in a quintessential act of European colonialism, all of Diego Garcia's 2,000 inhabitants were forcefully removed from their homeland by British authorities to make way for massive U.S. air and naval bases. In an act of legal fiction, the island was separated from Mauritius on the eve of that island nation's independence.

Located in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia's two-mile long runways have since been used to launch B-1 and B-52 attacks against Iraq and Afghanistan. Its stealth bomber hangars have recently been upgraded for possible strikes against Iran, and its submarine base is being refitted to serve Ohio-class submarines that can be used for both missile attacks and to secretly deploy Navy SEALS in Iran and other Persian Gulf nations.

The Chagos people of Diego Garcia want to return home, ending their exile in Mauritius' slums, where up to 90% are unemployed and live desperate lives. The base rests on colonial constructions. With the help of allies in London and around the world they attempted to return, but have been halted on the high seas. But their plight and struggle has wide and sympathetic media attention, especially as they have won one challenge after another in the British courts. The British House of Lords is to make a "final ruling," but an end run in which Diego Garcia would be returned to Mauritius' authority and the "rented" to Washington remains possible. Education about the plight and struggle of the people of Diego Garcia, beginning with the spring speaking tour of Chagos leader Olivier Bancoult, is the best way to prepare for the next round of this compelling struggle.


Since its 1945 bloody conquest in 1945, Okinawa has served as the principle bastion of U.S. military power in East Asia - even after its 1972 reversion to Japan. Sixty years after the end of World War II, nearly 45,000 U.S. troops, civilian staff, and their families are based on Air Force, Navy, Marine and Army bases that occupy 27% of the island prefecture. Okinawans have suffered nearly every imaginable military abuse: One quarter of its people were killed during the 1945 battle, many by Japanese soldiers. U.S. nuclear weapons have fallen off ships and into coastal fishing grounds. Shells and bullets from live fire exercises have slammed into people's homes. Children, their grandmothers, base and service workers have suffered rapes that are too numerous to count. Land has been seized, and military accidents - including helicopters and their parts falling into students' schools - are not uncommon.

To pacify the nationwide outrage that followed the 1995 kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan school girl in 1995, Washington and Tokyo agreed to reduce, not remove, the size of the U.S. footprint on Okinawa. With the U.S.-Japan alliance hanging in the balance, the Status of Forces Agreement was revised to accord the Japanese courts greater authority over crimes by G.I.s, and a plan was developed to move half of the 16,000 Marines - the greatest source of G.I. crime - to Guam largely at Japan's expense. Several bases were consolidated and Washington agreed to move the Futemna Air Base, in Ginowan's city center, to a more remote part of the island. This leaves the massive Air Force, Naval and Marine bases still occupying a quarter of the prefecture.

Inspired by respected elders, the people of Henoko, the coastal site to which Futnema's functions were to be transferred, have put up a stiff resistance. To prevent the militarization of their community and the destruction of the reef on which the new air base is to be built, they have built alliances with peace activists and environmentalists around the world. Their focus has been to prevent destruction feeding grounds for dugongs (large, gentle sea mammals similar to manatees) that became the symbol of their movement. They have also conducted months-long sit-ins and taken their case to court. A California appeal court recently confirmed their environmental claims, and the relocation process stalled.

Within weeks of this court victory, Marines raped a 14-year-old Okinawan school girl and a Filipina woman sparking renewed outrage across Okinawa and Japan. In the "Message from the Women of Okinawa" that followed, the U.S. military and the world were notified that the days when "so many rape victims.told no one and wept silently in their beds.are now over." Their message is clear, "Go back to America. Now."

With Washington and Tokyo focused on "containing" China, it will be years before the last G.I. returns from Okinawa. In the meantime, we can provide critical support to women and men who are courageously and nonviolently campaigning to defend their lives, their families, their communities, and nature itself. The base at Henoko must not be built. The base in Futenma must be closed. It is past time to bring all the Marines home.


Guam is not home. Located in the North Pacific and conquered by the United States from Spain in 1898, it has long served as a U.S. stepping stone to Asia. Nominally it is not a U.S. colony, but an "unincorporated territory" with a nonvoting delegate in Congress. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. air and naval bases occupied the island's best agricultural lands, water sources and fishing grounds. Now the abuses and usurpations are becoming much worse.

Since the nonviolent 1995 Okinawan uprising, the Pentagon has been preparing for the day when it is finally forced to withdraw from Okinawa and Japan. Thus Guam is being transformed in to a military "hub." Already large enough to accommodate B-52 and stealth bombers, Andersen Air Force Base is being expanded to serve as "the most significant U.S. Air Force base in the Pacific region for this century." More submarines are being homeported in its harbor, and the Navy is considering homeporting an aircraft carrier strike force there is well. Then, there are those Marines from Okinawa. Understandably, Guam's tiny Chamorro population feels besieged. In the traditions of U.S., Israeli and South African settler colonialism, it is "cowboys and Indians all over again." We have a responsibility to prevent this cultural genocide.


The Cold War never really ended in Europe. An estimated 380 U.S. nuclear weapons are still based in seven European nations, and most of the 100,000 troops deployed across Western Europe remain there. But Pentagon campaigns to deploy misnamed "missile defenses" in the Czech Republic and Poland and to expand the Aviano Air Base in Italy are leading hundreds of thousands of Europeans into the streets.

The missile defense system is ostensibly modest. A missile tracking radar is to be installed in the Czech Republic, and ten interceptor missiles are to be sited in Poland, reportedly to defend Europe from Iranian missiles that have not been deployed. In fact, this is the tip of the iceberg. Russia properly fears that, once deployed, the missile defense system will be greatly expanded with the goal of neutralizing Moscow's missile forces, leaving Russia vulnerable to U.S. first strike attacks. In response, President Vladimir Putin has menacingly threatened to target nuclear weapons against the Czechs and Poles.

Opinion polls indicate that most Czechs oppose the missile defense deployments and want to hold a referendum to block them. Many NATO leaders are angry that the U.S. circumvented the European Union's decision-making process, and protests spearheaded by the U.S. Campaign for Peace and Democracy greeted Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek when he recently visited the United States. With many leading congressional Democrats also opposed to these dangerous deployments, missile defenses can be stopped.

Finally, there is Italy where, unexpectedly, hundreds of thousands of citizens turned out to protest the expansion of the U.S. Air Base at Aviano (which also hosts U.S. nuclear weapons.) Dissent over the base expansion nearly toppled the Prodi government in 2007, and it will remain the focus of European and U.S. anti-bases campaigns. Resistance

In response to popularly based movements to win the withdrawal of unwanted U.S. foreign military bases, an incipient U.S. anti-bases movement is emerging. It includes organizations as diverse as the American Friends Service Committee, and the Southwest Workers Union, the United for Peace and Justice coalition, and scholars who are moving from studying military bases to working for their withdrawal.

Four increasingly integrated U.S. anti-bases networks have developed in recent years, spurred in part by the development of the global "No Military Bases Network" in World Social Forums and the global Network's formal inauguration in Quito, Ecuador at a conference last year that brought together four hundred activists from forty nations. The U.S. networks are currently organizing April speaking tours featuring Olivier Bancoult from Diego Garcia, Terri Keko'olani from Hawaii, Jan Tamas and the Czech Republic, and Andreas Licata from Italy. And a national U.S. "No Foreign Military Bases" conference is in its early planning stages.

About the Author: Joseph Gerson, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, is director of programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England. His books include The Sun Never Sets.Confronting the Network of U.S. Foreign Military Bases, (South End Press, 1991) and Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Pluto Press, 2007).

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