On The Political Consequences of US bases abroad

Alex Cooley has a thoughtful piece in the latest Foreign Affairs on the political consequences of basing US troops in foreign countries. (Subscription required for full article.)

This past July, the government of Uzbekistan evicted U.S. personnel from the Karshi-Khanabad air base, which Washington had used as a staging ground for combat, reconnaissance, and humanitarian missions in Afghanistan since late 2001. The government in Tashkent gave no official reason for the expulsion, but the order was issued soon after the UN airlifted 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania — a move that Washington supported and Tashkent opposed. . . The showdown was the latest in a series of confrontations since a much-criticized crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijon last May.

These events illustrate the enduring problem that U.S. defense officials face as they try to promote democratic values abroad while maintaining U.S. military bases in nondemocratic countries. Although some in Washington acknowledge this tension, they generally argue that the strategic benefits of having U.S. bases close to important theaters such as Afghanistan outweigh the political costs of supporting unsavory host regimes. With the Pentagon now redefining the role of the U.S. military in the twenty-first century, moreover, its officials insist even more on the importance of developing a vast network of U.S. bases to confront cross-border terrorism and other regional threats. Some of them also turn the objections of pro-democracy critics around. They claim that a U.S. military presence in repressive countries gives Washington additional leverage to press them to liberalize. . .

Such arguments have merit, but they do not tell the whole story. For one thing, the political complications sometimes associated with dealing with democracies are ephemeral. For another, setting up bases in nondemocratic states brings mostly short-term benefits, rarely helps promote liberalization, and sometimes even endangers U.S. security.