Permanently Off Base

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, November 25, 2009)


On November 9, Germany celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall. The ceremony was properly affecting, from Angela Merkel and Mikhail Gorbachev walking through a former checkpoint to the thousands cheering for former dissidents such as Lech Walesa. Officials from around the world came to commemorate the long-overdue reunification and what one scholar famously called “the end of history.”

That event’s impact is hard to overstate. A reunited Germany has continued to rank among the world’s strongest economies and become a leader in the creation of the European Union — a continental cooperative that seemed impossible just a generation ago. For those of us old enough to remember watching young Germans take sledgehammers to the manmade monolith, it’s still pretty difficult to believe two decades have passed since the day reunification moved from pipe dream to reality.

Unfortunately, what’s equally difficult to believe is that, 20 years later and without any serious threat, Germany remains under heavy military occupation.

There’s no longer any realistic chance of any superpower invading Germany. But you wouldn’t know it considering the American military still owns 235 sites in Germany — that’s not a typo — and those sites hold more than 50,000 troops. Exact troop numbers are hard to determine, given that many of those stationed in Germany were temporarily shifted to Iraq or Afghanistan, but the Department of Defense’s own records show it still owns or leases nearly 10,000 buildings encompassing more than 39 million square footage in Germany (and uses even more sites it doesn’t own). Obviously, this is only a fraction of the presence the military had there during its “Cold War” heyday. Still, polls consistently show that a clear majority of Germans want the bases gone and, more to the point, this costs Americans unnecessarily billions.

In the early post-Wall days, politicians and pundits often spoke of a “peace dividend,” which would let America close unneeded bases, cut military pork, and generally spend a lot less on setting up camp around the world. The Berlin anniversary was another vivid reminder that this didn’t happen and that we’re still paying for it. There were admittedly some efforts made during the Clinton Administration’s “Reinventing Government” initiative to cut waste and close sites, but they weren’t nearly enough, and the establishment of worldwide bases gained new life during the Bush years. These permanent bases generally function as self-perpetuating money pits. Their existence requires staff, whose presence justifies the facilities’ continued existence and maintenance each time a new appropriations bill comes before Congress. And at times when combat forces claim to be “overstretched,” paying for personnel and bases in Europe competes with paying for body armor and quality vehicles in Afghanistan.

The ridiculousness of America’s non-conflict defense budget doesn’t get nearly enough public scrutiny, mostly because it’s an ongoing problem without easy newshooks. The statistics should be familiar, but can’t be repeated enough. Roughly 58 percent of the government’s discretionary spending goes to the military. The U.S. military currently has troops in 135 of the world’s 196 countries. The country could cut more than 80 percent of its military budget and still spend more than any other nation. Polls routinely show the American public grossly underestimates how much of its tax money goes to the military. They also show that the public doesn’t realize that, while more than half of all taxes go to defense spending, the Bush Administration made sure that doesn’t count Iraq and Afghanistan, which were always funded with separate appropriations. And at a time when conservatives are up in arms about a health-care bill that might cost $1 trillion over 10 years, don’t forget the 10-year estimate for Iraq alone is upwards of $2 trillion.

Defense spending hasn’t received nearly enough blame for the country’s current economic crisis, as it costs taxpayers dearly and handcuffs the government’s ability to deal with other problems for years. Even a 10-20 percent cut would go a long way toward paying for domestic priorities or getting deficits in line, and permanent bases are one of many obvious places to cut.

And this is hardly just Germany. The day before American and other officials were celebrating in Berlin, between 20,000-25,000 people took to the streets of Okinawa to protest the DoD’s flip-flop on closing a base there. Okinawa has for years been notorious as the site of violence against local women on the part of American personnel, with the 2008 rape of a 14-year-old girl the latest high-profile example. “It has happened over and over again in the past and I take it as a grave case,” Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said at the time. Okinawa’s residents have consistently protested having to house tens of thousands of troops and even President Bush, who normally never met a military project he wouldn’t back, agreed to close a major base there and to shift some 8,000 personnel off the island. However, a few weeks ago — on a day when the public and the TV news networks were too busy obsessing over the “balloon boy” who wasn’t in a balloon to notice — the military quietly announced its refusal to comply with that decision, prompting the protests.

Situations such as this are the reason hardly anyone believed Bush’s assurances that he wasn’t planning to build permanent bases in Iraq. And why nobody was surprised when, in June 2008, leaked details of secret negotiations revealed plans for no fewer than 50 permanent bases there. It’s worth remembering that, while it in no way justified the unprovoked attacks on civilians that day, the 9/11 attacks were driven in large part by the presence of permanent bases in Saudi Arabia that the first President Bush had promised would be temporary. Obviously, the dozens of excess bases in Italy or Great Britain don’t carry the same kind of threats, but financial waste isn’t the only potential cost of the military’s unchecked growth.

Cutting this kind of waste is an issue that should unite progressives and true conservatives in an effective coalition. The former should be outraged that discretionary military spending prevents America from paying for the universal health care, universal college, job creation, unemployment insurance, and other programs the citizens of other Western democracies take for granted. The latter should be equally outraged at the waste of tax dollars on “big government” pork and the long-term deficits these kind of occupations helped create. Either of those points of view delivers more benefits to taxpayers than the status quo does.

One of the great failures of post-9/11 America is that, more than eight years later, the former site of the World Trade Center remains a giant hole in the ground. It’s become less a reminder of that day’s tragedy than a reminder that a country that put a man on the moon in less than a decade now struggles to complete anything. Occupying Germany and Japan for six decades, and Korea for five, underscores the same costly inability to close chapters.

In a few weeks, President Obama will head to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor generally seen as acknowledging his potential to improve American relations with the rest of the world. A serious effort to downsize the country’s global presence would be an invaluable aid in that task, and one that would help solve problems at home.

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