How the Pentagon is quietly transforming its overseas base empire and creating a dangerous new way of war.
Unknown to most Americans, Washington’s garrisoning of the planet is on the rise, thanks to a new generation of bases the military calls “lily pads” (as in a frog jumping across a pond toward its prey). These are small, secretive, inaccessible facilities with limited numbers of troops, spartan amenities, and prepositioned weaponry and supplies.
Around the world, from Djibouti to the jungles of Honduras, the deserts of Mauritania to Australia’s tiny Cocos Islands, the Pentagon has been pursuing as many lily pads as it can, in as many countries as it can, as fast as it can. Although statistics are hard to assemble, given the often-secretive nature of such bases, the Pentagon has probably built upwards of 50 lily pads and other small bases since around 2000, while exploring the construction of dozens more.
Washington still easily maintains the largest collection of foreign bases in world history: more than 1,000 military installations outside the 50 states and Washington, DC. They include everything from decades-old bases in Germany and Japan to brand-new drone bases in Ethiopia and the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean and even resorts for military vacationers in Italy and South Korea.
A lily pad on one of the Gulf of Guinea islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, off the oil-rich west coast of Africa, helps explain what’s going on. A US official has described the base as “another Diego Garcia,” referring to the Indian Ocean base that’s helped ensure decades of US domination over Middle Eastern energy supplies. Without the freedom to create new large bases in Africa, the Pentagon is using São Tomé and a growing collection of other lily pads on the continent in an attempt to control another crucial oil-rich region.
A proliferation of lily pads means the creeping militarization of large swaths of the globe. Like real lily pads—which are actually aquatic weeds—bases have a way of growing and reproducing uncontrollably. Indeed, bases tend to beget bases, creating “base races” with other nations, heightening military tensions, and discouraging diplomatic solutions to conflicts. After all, how would the United States respond if China, Russia, or Iran were to build even a single lily-pad base of its own in Mexico or the Caribbean?
For China and Russia in particular, ever more US bases near their borders threaten to set off new cold wars. Most troublingly, the creation of new bases to protect against an alleged future Chinese military threat may prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: such bases in Asia are likely to create the threat they are supposedly designed to protect against, making a catastrophic war with China more, not less, likely.....