The Empire of Bases,

The Spoils of War

excerpted from the book

The Sorrows of Empire

Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic

by Chalmers Johnson

Henry Holt, 2004, paper


During the Cold War, standard military doctrine held that overseas bases had four missions. They were to project conventional military power into areas of concern to the United States; prepare, if necessary, for a nuclear war; serve as "tripwires" guaranteeing an American response to an attack (particularly in divided "hot spots" like Germany and South Korea); and function as symbols of American power.' Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been engaged in a continuous search for new justifications for its ever-expanding base structure-from "humanitarian intervention" to "disarming Iraq."

I believe that today five post-Cold War missions have replaced the four older ones: maintaining absolute military preponderance over the rest of the world, a task that includes imperial policing to ensure that no part of the empire slips the leash; eavesdropping on the communications of citizens, allies, and enemies alike, often apparently just to demonstrate that no realm of privacy is impervious to the technological capabilities of our government; attempting to control as many sources of petroleum as possible, both to service America's insatiable demand for fossil fuels and to use that control as a bargaining chip with even more oil-dependent regions; providing work and income for the military-industrial complex ... and ensuring that members of the military and their families live comfortably and are well entertained while serving abroad.

No one of these goals or even all of them together, however, can entirely explain our expanding empire of bases. There is something else at work, which I believe is the post-Cold War discovery of our immense power, rationalized by the self-glorifying conclusion that because we have it we deserve to have it. The only truly common elements in the totality of America's foreign bases are imperialism and militarism-an impulse on the part of our elites to dominate other peoples largely because we have the power to do so, followed by the strategic reasoning that, in order to defend these newly acquired outposts and control the regions they are in, we must expand the areas under our control with still more bases. To maintain its empire, the Pentagon must constantly invent new reasons for keeping in our hands as many bases as possible long after the wars and crises that led to their creation have evaporated. As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee observed as long ago as 1970, "Once an American overseas base is established it takes on a life of its own. Original missions may become outdated but new missions are developed, not only with the intention of keeping the facility going, but often to actually enlarge it. Within the government departments most directly concerned-State and Defense-we found little initiative to reduce or eliminate any of these overseas facilities. The Pentagon tries to prevent local populations from reclaiming or otherwise exerting their rights over these long-established bases (as in the cases of the Puerto Rican movement to get the navy off Vieques Island, which it used largely for target practice, and of the Oldnawan movement to get the marines and air force to go home-or at least go elsewhere). It also works hard to think of ways to reestablish the right to bases from which the United States has withdrawn or been expelled (in places like the Philippines, Taiwan, Greece, and Spain).

... Charles Glass, the chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News from 1983 to 1993 and an authority on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, writes, "Israel has provided the U.S. with sites in the Negev [desert] for military bases, now under construction, which will be far less vulnerable to Muslim fundamentalists than those in Saudi Arabia. These are officially nonexistent sites. There have been press reports of aircraft from the carrier battle group USS Eisenhower operating from Nevatim Airfield in Israel, and a specialist on the military, William M. Arkin, adds, "The United States has 'prepositioned' vehicles, military equipment, even a 500-bed hospital, for U.S. Marines, Special Forces, and Air Force fighter and bomber aircraft at at least six sites in Israel, all part of what is antiseptically described as 'U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation." These bases in Israel are known simply as Sites 51, 53, and 54. Their specific locations are classified and highly sensitive. There is no mention of American bases in Israel in any of the Department of Defense's official compilations.

The United States operates so many overseas espionage bases that Michael Moran of NBC News once suggested, "Today, one could throw dart at a map of the world and it would likely land within a few hundred miles of a quietly established U.S. intelligence-gathering operation ....



Bosnia and Herzegovina
Macedonia (formerly Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia)
Serbia (including Kosovo)
United Kingdom

FORMER SOVIET UNION (including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan)


Japan (including Okinawa)
Republic of Korea (South Korea)


Diego Garcia
Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates



Cuba (Guantánamo)

Since 1948, a highly classified agreement among the intelligence agencies of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand allows them to exchange information not just about target countries but also about one another. This arrangement permits the United States's National Security Agency, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Canada's Communications Security Establishment, Australia's Defense Signals Directorate, and New Zealand's General Communications Security Bureau to swap information with one another about their own citizens-including political leaders-without formally violating national laws against domestic spying. Even though the US. government, for example, is prohibited by law from spying on its own citizens except under a court-ordered warrant, as are all the other countries in the consortium, the NSA can, and often does, ask one of its partners to do so and pass the information its way. One former employee of the Canadian Communications Security Establishment revealed that, at the request of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, the GCHQ asked the Canadians to monitor certain British political leaders for them.

Since at least 1981, what had once been an informal covert intelligence-sharing arrangement among the English-speaking countries has been formalized under the code name "Echelon?' Up until then the consortium exchanged only "finished" intelligence reports. With the advent of Echelon, they started to share raw intercepts. Echelon is, in fact, a specific program for satellites and computers designed to intercept nonmilitary communications of governments, private organizations, businesses, and individuals on behalf of what is known as the "UKUSA signals intelligence alliance.' Each member of the alliance operates its own satellites and creates its own "dictionary" supercomputers that list key words, names, telephone numbers, and anything else that can be made machine-readable. They then search the massive downloads of information the satellites bring in every day. Each country exchanges its daily intake and its analyses with the others. One member may request the addition to another's dictionary of a word or name it wants to target. Echelon monitors or operates approximately 120 satellites worldwide.

The system, which targets international civil communications channels, is so secret that the NSA has refused even to admit it exists or to discuss it with delegations from the European Parliament who have come to Washington to protest such surveillance. France, Germany, and other European nations accuse the United States and Britain, the two nations that originally set up Echelon, with commercial espionage-what they call "state-sponsored information piracy." 17 There is some evidence that the United States has used information illegally collected from Echelon to advise its negotiators in trade talks with the Japanese and to help Boeing sell to Saudi Arabia in competition with Europe's Airbus.

The fatal flaw of Echelon is that it is operated by the intelligence and military establishments of the main English-speaking countries in total secrecy and hence beyond any kind of accountability to representatives of the people it claims to be protecting. Among the resultant travesties was the case of a woman whose name and telephone number went into the Echelon directories as those of a possible terrorist because she told a friend on the phone that her son had "bombed" in a school play. 19 According to several knowledgeable sources, the British government has included the word amnesty in all the system's dictionaries in order to collect information against the human rights organization Amnesty International. Even though the governments of the world now know about Echelon, they can do nothing about it except take defensive measures on their messaging systems, and this is but another sign of the implacable advance of militarism in countries that claim to be democracies.

Many garrisons are in foreign countries to defend oil leases from competitors or to provide police protection to oil pipelines, although they invariably claim to be doing something completely unrelated-fighting the "war on terrorism" or the "war on drugs' or training foreign soldiers, or engaging in some form of "humanitarian" intervention. The search for scarce resources is, of course, a traditional focus of foreign policy. Nonetheless, the United States has made itself particularly dependent on foreign oil because it refuses to conserve or in other ways put limits on fossil fuel consumption and because multinational petroleum companies and the politicians they support profit enormously from Americans' profligate use. A year after the 9/11 attacks, General Motors's sales of its 5,000-pound gas-guzzling Chevrolet Suburban SUY, which gets thirteen miles to the gallon, had doubled.

Starting with the CIA's 1953 covert overthrow of the government of Iran for the sake of the British Petroleum Company, American policy in the Middle East-except for its support of Israel-has been dictated by oil. It has been a constant motive behind the vast expansion of bases in the Persian Gulf... oil is the only plausible explanation for acquiring more bases. In these cases, the government has produced elaborate cover stories for what amounts to the use of public resources and the armed forces to advance private capitalist interests. The invasion of Afghanistan and the rapid expansion of bases into Central and Southwestern Asia are among the best examples, although there are several instances from Latin America as well.

... the Caspian Basin is ... the world's last large, virtually undeveloped oil and gas field that could for a time compete with the Persian Gulf in supplying petroleum to Europe, East Asia, and North America. It seems to have about 6 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and 40 percent of its gas reserves. China, which has the world's fastest-growing economy, became a net oil importer in November 1993 and continues to try to negotiate a possible pipeline from Kazakhstan to Shanghai via Xinjiang Province. China is also attempting to obtain oil from Russia via a pipeline that would stretch from Angarsk in Siberia to the Daqing oil field in Manchuria.

Imagining the five Central Asian republics that became independent when the USSR broke up in 1991 as potential suppliers of oil to the United States, however, involves numerous problems. Kazakhstan (by far the largest in terms of land area), Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all share frontiers with China. Turkmenistan borders on Iran. Uzbekistan, in the center, is the only one that abuts all the others plus Afghanistan. All except one are ruled by former Communist Party apparatchiks. Only President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan was not a former Soviet boss, and he has arranged for all fuel for the military jets flying out of the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan, the biggest American garrison in Central Asia, to be supplied by a firm owned by his son-in-law.

All the leaders of these Central Asian republics have hopeless human rights records, the two worst being the president of Uzbekistan, where the big US. air base at Khanabad is located, and the president for life in Turkmenistan, who has established a personality cult surpassing that of Stalin and who has placed all oil revenues in an offshore account that only he controls. Even Kazakhstan, which is relatively developed and sophisticated-the famous Russian Cosmodrome that launched the world's first space missions is located at Baykonur in south-central Kazakhstan and the country has a population that is 35-40 percent Russian-is hardly a model republic. Its foreign minister revealed that in 1996 President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved $1 billion in oil revenues to a secret Swiss bank account without informing his parliament.

In the weeks following 9/11, the Pentagon's formidable public relations apparatus went into top gear to describe to a public almost totally ignorant of Afghanistan and of Central Asian oil politics generally how we proposed to smash Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. The secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, became something of a stand-up comic in his daily press conferences, quipping about how the United States wanted bin Laden dead or alive and was "smoking out" al Qaeda operatives, who were said to be "on the run." The primary strategy, however, was to reopen the Afghan civil war by having the CIA spread some $70 million in cash among the Tajik and Uzbek warlords that the Taliban had defeated .41 The reemergence of the Northern Alliance, backed by massive American air power, resulted in the almost instantaneous collapse of the Taliban regime, leaving Afghanistan to revert to fighting among local satraps and the cultivation of opium poppies.

With astonishing speed and efficiency, the U.S. military managed to use the war to obtain the rights to military bases in Afghanistan and surrounding countries. For its immediate military operations, which were largely over by the beginning of 2002, it occupied three main sites within Afghanistan itself-Mazar-i-Sharif airport in the extreme north of the country, Bagram Air Base in the suburbs of Kabul, and Kandahar International Airport in the south. It also placed troops in Kabul to provide immediate security for Hamid Karzai's newly installed government, whose powers hardly extended beyond Kabul, much less the rest of the country. For the first few weeks, all of these places were occupied by Special Forces, marines, and frontline army troops, but as the Taliban collapsed and al-Qaeda dispersed into the countryside and across the Pakistan border, these combat forces were replaced with army units engaged in establishing semi-permanent garrisons. In August 2002, Central Command chief General Tommy Franks commented that U.S. soldiers would be in Afghanistan for "a long, long time" and compared the situation to South Korea, where army and air force troops had been based for more than half a century.

In addition to occupying strategic points in Afghanistan, the Bush administration entered into an agreement with General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, to take over three important bases of the Pakistan Air Force: Jacobabad, 300 miles northeast of Karachi...

The assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs ... Elizabeth Jones. In December 2001, at a press conference in Almaty, she promised, "When the Afghan conflict is over, we will not leave Central Asia. We have long-term plans and interests in this region."



From the time of the Romans and the Han dynasty Chinese to the present, all empires have had permanent military encampments, forts, or bases of some sort. These were meant to garrison conquered territory, keeping restless populations under control, and to serve as launching points for further imperial conquests. 'What is most fascinating and curious about the developing American form of empire, however, is that, in its modern phase, it is solely an empire of bases, not of territories, and these bases now encircle the earth in a way that, despite centuries-old dreams of global domination, would previously have been inconceivable.

Yet, although our own nation is filled with military installations there are 969 separate bases in the fifty states ...

As the American empire grows, we go to war significantly more frequently than we did before and during the Cold War. Wars, in turn, promote the growth of the military and are a great advertising medium for the power and effectiveness of our weapons-and the companies that make them, which can then more easily peddle them to others. According to the journalist William Greider, "The U.S. volume [of arms sales] represents 44 percent of the global market, more than double America's market share in 1990 when the Soviet Union was the leading exporter of arms." As the military-industrial complex gets ever fatter, with more overcapacity, it must be "fed" ever more often. The creation of new bases requires more new bases to protect the ones already established, producing ever-tighter cycles of militarism, wars, arms sales, and base expansions.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we began to wage at an accelerating rate wars whose publicly stated purposes were increasingly deceptive or unpersuasive. We were also ever more willing to go to war outside the framework of international law and in the face of worldwide popular opposition. These were de facto imperialist wars, defended by propaganda claims of humanitarian intervention, women's liberation, the threat posed by unconventional weapons, or whatever current buzzword happened to occur to White House and Pentagon spokespersons. In each war we acquired major new military bases that in terms of location or scale were disproportionate to the military tasks required and that we retained and consolidated after the war. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, we waged two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and acquired fourteen new bases, in Eastern Europe, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It was said that these wars were a response to the terrorist attacks and would lessen our vulnerability to terrorism in the future. But it seems more likely that the new bases and other American targets of vulnerability will be subject to continued or increased terrorist strikes.

Following our usual practice, we established our bases in weak states, most of which have undemocratic and repressive governments. Immediately after our victory in the second Iraq war, we began to scale back our deployments in Germany, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, where we had become much more unpopular as a result of the war. Instead, we shifted our forces and garrisons to thinly populated, less demanding monarchies or autocracies/dictatorships, places like Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan.

A new picture of our empire has begun to emerge. We retain our centuries-old lock on Latin America and our close collaboration with the single-party government of Japan, although we are deeply disliked in Okinawa and South Korea, where the situation is increasingly volatile. Our lack of legitimacy in the war with Iraq has undercut our position in what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld disparagingly called "the old Europe' so we are trying to compensate by finding allies and building bases in the much poorer, still struggling ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe. In the oil-rich area of southern Eurasia we are building outposts in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, in an attempt to bring the whole region under American hegemony. Iran alone, thus far, has been impervious to our efforts. We did not do any of these things to fight terrorism, liberate Iraq, trigger a domino effect for the democratization of the Middle East, or the other excuses proffered by our leaders. We did them ... because of oil, Israel, and domestic politics-and to fulfill our self-perceived destiny as a New Rome.

Sorrows of Empire

Index of Website

Home Page