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America's Empire of Bases on the Sly

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 17/11/2015 Tom Engelhardt
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As I've written elsewhere, what Chalmers Johnson called America's "empire of bases" was "not so much our little secret as a secret we kept even from ourselves" -- at least until Johnson broke the silence and his book Blowback became a bestseller in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In those years, however, if (like Johnson) you actually wanted to know about the way the U.S. garrisoned the world, you could profitably start simply by reading the Pentagon's tabulations of its global garrisons, ranging from military bases the size of small American towns to what were then starting to be called "lily pads," which were small sites in potential global hot spots stocked with pre-positioned materiel and ready for instant occupation. It was all there on the record for those who cared to know. Well, perhaps not quite all there, but enough of it certainly to get a sense of what the "American Raj" (as Johnson called it) looked like from Europe to Asia, Latin America to the Persian Gulf.

And it was impressive, that empire of bases, once you took it in. It represented a garrisoning of the globe unprecedented in the history of empires. That we Americans didn't generally know much about it was, in a sense, a matter of choice, a matter, you might say, of self-blinding behavior. To hazard a guess: as a people, we were uncomfortable enough with the idea of ourselves as a global imperial power that we preferred not to know what "we" were doing, or at least not to acknowledge what we had become, even though every year hundreds of thousands of Americans, military personnel and civilians alike, lived on, worked on, or cycled through those bases. In this context, it was startling how seldom they were part of our everyday news cycle. For those in other countries, they often loomed large indeed as the local face of the United States, but you'd never know that if your source of news was the mainstream media here.

That, of course, hasn't changed. What has changed is Washington's attitude toward the public record. Its latest basing moves are taking place enveloped in a blanket of secrecy, which means that even if you want to know, it's increasingly tough to find out. Washington's latest garrisoning strategy is based on a new premise: a "small footprint," meaning a tiny-bases, rapid-deployment, special-ops and drone-heavy way of war that's being put into place across Africa in the twenty-first century, as TomDispatch's Nick Turse lays out today. While the U.S. has always pursued parts of its imperial strategy in "the shadows," to use a phrase from my Cold War childhood, in this new strategy everyday basing, too, is disappearing into those shadows, which is why Turse's latest piece on the subject is a small reportorial triumph of time and effort.

For TomDispatch in these last years, Turse has regularly revealed much that has been out of sight when it comes to Washington's expanding military focus on Africa, including the cascading number of U.S. military missions across that continent, a similar spike in missions to train proxy forces there, and soaring deployments of U.S. Special Operations forces -- that secret military-within-the-military of 70,000 that now thrives solely in a world of shadows. It took a year of his efforts, but today he finishes off his portrait of the garrisoning of a whole continent in a new way with a look at the basing policies of U.S. Africa Command. "Does Eleven Plus One Equal 60?" is a piece that couldn't be more important or hard-won, and it offers us our first look at how a continent is being prepared for what Turse, in his latest book, has called "tomorrow's battlefield."

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