by Joseph Gerson*
The Conference on U.S. Foreign Military Bases was held in Baltimore (2018/01/12-14), convened by the Coalition Against U.S. Foreign Military Bases. The conference, organized under the leadership of the U.S. Peace Council and UNAC (United Anti-War Coalition,) with the participation of Veterans for Peace, World Beyond War and other traditional peace movement organizations. It served to place foreign military bases back on the U.S. anti-war movement’s agenda.
Roughly half of the panel presentations provided specific background about the history and impacts of specific U.S. and NATO foreign military bases and resistance to them, while others stressed the enduring legacies of U.S. imperialism, its roots in racism and capitalism, and appeals to revolution and engaging the working class (Videos of the conference can be seen at https://youtu.be/mTYfXwPLUbE).
Professor David Vine, author of Base Nation, provided the overview of the history and impacts of U.S. foreign military bases – now numbering about 800 in 40 nations – and resistance to them. Unlike most other speakers, he also raised questions of strategy, asserting that this is “an unprecedented opportunity to close a significant number of [US] bases abroad.” Three 2016 presidential candidates, several senators and retired senators, libertarians, and sectors of the liberal and conservative media have urged reductions in the number of U.S. foreign military bases. As one retired general put it “We’ve got too many daggone bases … There’s money to be saved by closing them.” Vine also noted that in many cases, US forces can be deployed from its domestic bases almost as quickly as from those abroad.
Addressing strategy, Vine pointed to lessons in successful anti-base campaigns: mobilization of diaspora communities, perseverance, use of celebrities, law suits, civil disobedience and the use of art and win Pointing to the post-Cold War base closures ordered by Presidents GWH Bush and Clinton, he noted that Congressional action is not required to close U.S. foreign military bases. And he urged organizers to compare U.S. school closures, unheated schools and the decaying U.S. infrastructure to photos of modern schools, comfortable housing and other fancy facilities on U.S. bases. He stressed the need for multi-pronged legislative, activist, legal, economic and other campaigning.
Marie Cruz Soto of New York Solidarity with Vieques described the 1999-2003 nonviolent resistance campaign that won the removal of the Navy’s practice bombing range on that small Puerto Rican island whose 10,000 inhabitants were trapped between U.S. military installations. Many factors contributed to their victory: political space opened by the end of the Cold War, Puerto Rican nationalism being delinked from independence campaigning, a core of seasoned activists, the rise of the Internet and mobile phones, transnational networking, civil disobedience camps on the live fire range, and active diaspora engagement – including civil disobedience by Puerto Rican members of Congress.
As in the cases of Okinawa, and the Philippines, described by Professor Patricia Hynes, the former Vieques base site remains littered with unexploded ordnance, and military toxins have poisoned the ground water.
Bruce Gagnon opened the Asia panel with references to the Obama/Trump military pivot to Asia and the Pacific, describing it as the military arm of corporate capitalism designed to contain China and prevent the emergence of a multi-polar world.
Leaving aside the ominous preparations for a second Korean War and more hopeful Olympic Truce diplomacy, Hyun Lee, reviewed the history of the U.S. occupation of South Korea that led to the imposition of military dictatorships, the U.S.-ROK military alliance which violates the 1953 Armistice Agreement, and the 83 US military bases and 23,000 troops now in the ROK. As with most bases in the Global South, the SOFA (status of forces agreement) leaves Korean authorities unable to punish GI’s perpetrators of rape, sexual violence and other crimes.
Lee described successive waves of anti-bases protests: 2002, when two girls were killed by a US tank and the SOFA prevented the soldiers from being held accountable; 2004-07 resistance to the creation of the Pyeongtaek base with 900 days of continuous resistance before the police and army removed farmers and seized their land; 2007-2016 resistance to the construction of the Jeju naval base which now serves the U.S. Navy; and the recent Seongu THAAD resistance. Even Seoul, where the Yongsan military base has been abandoned, 750 acres and ground water remain contaminated, with no agreement about who is responsible for cleanup.
Will Griffin, who grew up on military bases, spoke with admiration for Okinawans who “lead” the world movement against military bases. With 18% of Okinawa occupied by U.S. bases, the small island is a U.S. base. Since its occupation in 1945, it has served U.S. strategic ambitions and military interventions in Asia and as far as the Middle East, and suffers all the abuses inherent to foreign military bases.
Griffin focused world’s most dangerous air base, Futenma, which is surrounded by the schools and homes of Ginowan City. For 20 years, Okinawans have resisted construction of a massive replacement air and naval base at Henoko on pristine Ora Bay with nonviolent demonstrations, civil disobedience, legal challenges and the elections of an anti-base mayor, governor, prefectural assembly and parliamentary delegation.
Nick Dean of the Independent Peaceful Australia Network addressed the conference via video. He referenced Australia’s history of being drawn into U.S. wars and focused on one of the most important U.S. overseas bases, Pine Gap, provides signals intelligence, nuclear targeting, real time battlefield support, US and Japanese missile defenses, targeting for drone attacks and arms control verification. The U.S. now deploys its Darwin garrison, 2,500 marines, in close the strategically critical Malacca Straight, the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Substituting for the former diplomat Matthew Hoh, Media Benjamin gave a brilliant extemporaneous speech which focused on the U.S.-Saudi alliance, the largest U.S. Middle East base in Qatar, and secret and new U.S. bases in Israel. Perhaps most striking was her quotation of statement by Osama bin Laden in which named the U.S. bases established in Saudi Arabia in the prelude to and following the 1991 “Gulf War” as the primary reason he launched his murderous “jihad” against the United States.
Along with the environmental and Asia panels, the NATO panel was among the conference high points. Phil Wilayto, of UNAC’s executive committee reviewed the duplicitous history of NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders and its provocative military exercises. He focused on the coup in Ukraine, the ways that Ukraine is now a member of NATO in all but name, and the 2014 Odessa massacre by fascist Ukrainian militia forces. Wilayto also introduced Professor Alexander Prigarin of Odessa University, who he met while on a delegation to Ukraine. Prigarin spoke about hopes for justice and revenge for the massacre, described the presence of the U.S. Navy in Odessa, U.S. training of Ukrainian officers, and the total repression of the opposition in Ukraine, which led him to envy the freedom of expression he had witnessed in the conference.
John Lannon, of Shannonwatch, rooted Irish opposition to the U.S. use of Shannon airport for its Afghanistan and Iraq wars and extreme renditions, in Ireland’s constitutionally mandated neutrality. In what was news to most conference participants, Lannon described the increasing unification of European militaries under the umbrellas of the Lisbon Treaty and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO,) into a major E.U. military force independent from, but linked to, NATO. Some in Europe envision a “grand area for Europe” including Africa, the Caspian Sea and into East Asia. This process was blessed by the W. Bush Administration as a new military that can act where NATO chooses not to act.
Along the way, Elsa Rasbach of the Campaign Stop Air Base Ramstein explained the importance of U.S. bases in Germany. Ramstein is the largest U.S. foreign air base and serves as a logistical hub for U.S. wars in the Middle East, Africa and is central to U.S. pressure on Russia. Ramstein serves as a satellite relay station for drone strikes and 80% of US troops and material for Afghan war through Ramstein. She described the recent major demonstration at Ramstein, with another one scheduled for June. She also denounced the US Africa Command in Stuttgart, where classical musicians have organized protests which are difficult for the police to repress.
Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, closed out the NATO panel praising the conference’s coalition building, but advising that it can’t just be UNAC, that to be successful it must be based on a more participatory process. With NATO expansion already well covered, McGovern gave a riveting speech about white supremacy as the foundation of U.S. foreign and military policies turning to the current assault on what remains of U.S. democracy, McGovern drew on 20th century German history to warn that “there is such a thing as too late”, that we must act now if evil is to be overcome.
Other substantive presentations, including those focused on U.S. bases in Columbia and AFRICOM, with the Black Alliance for Peace distributing a very helpful resource outlining the “Invasion of Africa” via AFRICOM and its bases.
In the brief closing session of the conference three resolutions were adopted calling for convening a Global Conference Against U.S. and NATO Foreign Military Bases, a February 23 global day of actions against Guantanamo, urging return of the base to Cuba, and a call for a national day of anti-war action this coming spring.
Then several caveats: Except for David Vine’s talk, discussion about movement strategy was almost entirely absent. With few speakers from so-called “host” nations, the voices of the most informed base opponents were sorely lacking. Sharing the stories of their lived experiences and their analyses would have deepened understandings about why the bases must go and would have opened greater possibilities for solidary actions. And, while it is true that the U.S. has four times the number of foreign military bases as Russia, France, Britain, Turkey, China and Japan combined, most of their war fighting roles and “abuses and usurpations” are not unlike those of the United States. Our movement’s legitimacy would have been enhanced had its opposition to foreign military bases been universalized.
*Dr. Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau, and editor of The Sun Never Sets Confronting the Network of Foreign U.S. Military Bases.