by Jim Lobe
Yesterday’s New York Times front-page story, “Pentagon Seeks to Knit Foreign Bases into ISIS-Foiling Network,” is hardly surprising in terms of content. But the phrasing of the headline provoked a flood of memories recalling some of my favorite Bush administration officials, specifically Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.
Here’s the beginning of the article:
As American intelligence agencies grapple with the expansion of the Islamic State beyond its headquarters in Syria, the Pentagon has proposed a new plan to the White House to build up a string of military bases in Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East.
[S]enior military officials have told the White House that the network of bases would serve as hubs for Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives who would conduct counterterrorism missions for the foreseeable future. The plan would all but ensure what Pentagon officials call an “enduring” American military presence in some of the world’s most volatile regions.
This reminded me of what I wrote in June, 2003, shortly after the completion of the Iraq invasion in an article entitled “Pentagon Moving Swiftly to Become ‘GloboCop’.” This was my lede:
Much like its successful military campaign in Iraq, the Pentagon is moving at seemingly breakneck speed to re-deploy U.S. forces and equipment around the world in ways that will permit Washington to play “GloboCop,” according to a number of statements by top officials and defense planners.
While preparing sharp reductions in forces in Germany, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, military planners are talking about establishing semi-permanent or permanent bases along a giant swathe of global territory – increasingly referred to as ”the arc of instability” – from the Caribbean Basin through Africa to South and Central Asiaa and across to North Korea.
The latest details, disclosed by the ‘Wall Street Journal’ on Tuesday, include plans to increase U.S. forces in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa across the Red Sea from Yemen, set up semi-permanent ”forward bases” in Algeria, Morocco and possibly Tunisia, and establish smaller facilities in Senegal, Ghana and Mali that could be used to intervene in oil-rich West African countries, particularly Nigeria.
These bases were referred to at the time as “lily pads,” and the search for them under Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz went beyond the new “arc of crisis” as currently defined by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and other radical Islamist groups. The Bush administration actually launched this initiative, which was truly global in scope, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, dispatching Special Forces to Mindinao and rapidly securing base rights from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in preparation for the Afghan campaign.
The Pentagon’s New Impetus
But thanks to the Bush administration’s efforts back then, as well as Obama’s own “pivot” to the Asia/Pacific (and rising tensions between China and its maritime neighbors of which Washington has sought to take advantage), the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz dream of securing bases all around Eurasia and oil-producing parts of sub-Saharan Africa appears well on the way to full realization.
The Bush administration’s drive, consistent with the notorious Defense Planning Guidance of 1992 (see reproduction of the 2003 article below), was to intimidate any emerging peer rival, even if al-Qaeda was used as the pretext at the time. The Pentagon’s new impetus, meanwhile, is purportedly confined to (and justified by) countering or pre-empting threats from IS and similar groups. As far as strategic planners embedded in the national-security bureaucracy and foreign-policy establishment are concerned, however, this might be a distinction without a difference.
Here’s some of what the Times reported, although you should read the whole article.
The White House declined to comment about continuing internal deliberations. The plan has met with some resistance from State Department officials concerned about a more permanent military presence across Africa and the Middle East, according to American officials familiar with the discussion. Career diplomats have long warned about the creeping militarization of American foreign policy as the Pentagon has forged new relationships with foreign governments eager for military aid.
Officials said the proposal has been under discussion for some time, including this week during a White House meeting with some members of President Obama’s cabinet. Shortly after General Dempsey retired in September, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter referred to the plan in a little-noticed speech in Washington. “Because we cannot predict the future, these regional nodes — from Morón, Spain, to Jalalabad, Afghanistan — will provide forward presence to respond to a range of crises, terrorist and other kinds,” Mr. Carter said. “These will enable unilateral crisis response, counterterror operations, or strikes on high-value targets.”
…Officials said that the Pentagon’s proposed new architecture of bases would include four “hubs” — including expanding existing bases in Djibouti and Afghanistan — and smaller “spokes,” or more basic installations, in countries that could include Niger and Cameroon, where the United States now carries out unarmed surveillance drone missions, or will soon.
The hubs would range in size from about 500 American troops to 5,000 personnel, and the likely cost would be “several million dollars” a year, mostly in personnel expenses, Pentagon officials said. They would also require the approval of the host nation.
The military already has much of the basing in place to carry out an expansion. Over the past dozen years, the Pentagon has turned what was once a decrepit French Foreign Legion base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, into a sprawling headquarters housing 2,000 American troops for military operations in East Africa and Yemen.
Similarly, the American military has been using a constellation of airstrips in Africa, including Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft, to collect intelligence about militant groups across the northern part of the continent.
The Pentagon plan also calls for a hub in the Middle East, possibly Erbil, in northern Iraq, where many of the 3,500 American troops in Iraq are based.
The Lily Pad Strategy
Although geopolitics has, of course, changed quite a lot since 2003, it all sounds so familiar. Here’s the rest of the article I wrote back in June 2003:
Similar bases—or what some call ”lily pads”—are now being sought or expanded in northern Australia, Thailand (whose prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has found this to figure high on the bilateral agenda in talks here this week), Singapore, the Philippines, Kenya, Georgia, Azerbaijan, throughout Central Asia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Qatar, Vietnam and Iraq.
”We are in the process of taking a fundamental look at our military posture worldwide, including in the United States,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on a recent visit to Singapore, where he met with military chiefs and defense ministers from throughout East Asia about U.S. plans there. ”We’re facing a very different threat than any one we’ve faced historically.”
Those plans represent a major triumph for Wolfowitz, who 12 years ago argued in a controversial draft ‘Defense Planning Guidance’ (DPG) for realigning U.S. forces globally so as to ”retain pre-eminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our own interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which could seriously unsettle international relations.”
The same draft, which was largely repudiated by the first Bush administration after it was leaked to the ‘New York Times’, also argued for ”a unilateral U.S. defense guarantee” to Eastern Europe ”preferably in co-operation with other NATO states,” and the use of pre-emptive force against nations with weapons of mass destruction – both of which are now codified as U.S. strategic doctrine.
The draft DPG also argued that U.S. military intervention should become a ”constant fixture” of the new world order. It is precisely that capability towards which the Pentagon’s force realignments appear to be directed.
With forward bases located all along the ”arc of instability,” Washington can pre-position equipment and at least some military personnel that would permit it to intervene with overwhelming force within hours of the outbreak of any crisis.
In that respect, U.S. global strategy would not be dissimilar to Washington’s position vis-à-vis the Caribbean Basin in the early 20th century, when U.S. intervention from bases stretching from Puerto Rico to Panama became a ”constant feature” of the region until Franklin Roosevelt initiated his Good Neighbor Policy 30 years later.
Indeed, as pointed out by Max Boot, a neo-conservative writer at the Council on Foreign Relations, Wolfowitz’s 1992 draft, now mostly codified in the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the USA, is not all that different from the 1903 (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted Washington’s ”international police power” to intervene against ”chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society.”
Remarkably, the new and proposed deployments are being justified by similar rhetoric. Just substitute ”globalization” for ”civilization.”
The emerging Pentagon doctrine, founded mainly on the work of retired Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, chief of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, and Thomas Barnett of the Naval War College, argues that the dangers against which U.S. forces must be arrayed derive precisely from countries and region that are ”disconnected” from the prevailing trends of economic globalisation.
”Disconnectedness is one of the great danger signs around the world,” Cebrowski told a Heritage Foundation audience last month in an update of the ”general loosening of the ties of civilised society” formula of a century ago.
Barnett’s term for areas of greatest threat is ”the Gap”, places where ”globalisation is thinning or just plain absent”. Such regions are typically ”plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and—most important—the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of terrorists”.
”If we map out U.S. military responses since the end of the Cold War, we find an overwhelming concentration of activity in the regions of the world that are excluded from globalization’s growing Core—namely the Caribbean Rim, virtually all of Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and much of Southeast Asia,” Barnett wrote in ‘Esquire’ magazine earlier this year.
The challenge in fighting terrorist networks is both to ”get them where they live” in the arc of instability and prevent them from spreading their influence into what Barnett calls ”seam states” located between the Gap and the Core.
Such seam states, he says, include Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Those nations, the logic goes, should play critical roles, presumably including providing forward bases, for interventions into the Gap.
At the same time, if states ”loosen their ties” to the global economy, ”bloodshed will follow. If you are lucky,” according to Barnett, ”so will American troops.”
On the eve of the war in Iraq, Barnett predicted that taking Baghdad would not be about settling old scores or enforcing disarmament of illegal weapons. Rather, he wrote, it ”will mark a historic tipping point – the moment when Washington takes real ownership of strategic security in the age of globalisation”.
Observers will note that Barnett’s arc of instability corresponds well to regions of great oil, gas and mineral wealth, a reminder again of Wolfowitz’s 1992 draft study. It asserted that the key objective of U.S. strategy should be ”to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”
If Obama had not become president in 2008 and won re-election in 2012, matters would be quite different. For one thing, the accumulation of bases by the Pentagon would probably have been more extensive. And the State Department may not have even been consulted, let alone been able to raise reservations and objections. Nonetheless, even though the targets and the personnel implementing U.S. policy have changed, one can see a certain continuity over the past dozen years.