Much outrage has been expressed in recent weeks over President Donald Trump’s White House invitation to Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, whose “war on drugs” has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings. Criticism of Trump was especially intense given his warm public support for other authoritarian rulers, including Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (who visited the Oval Office amid presidential praise weeks earlier), Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who got a congratulatory phone call from Trump on the recent referendum victory that cemented his powers), and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha (who also received a White House invitation).
But here’s the strange thing: The critics generally ignored the far more substantial and long-standing support US presidents, Democrat and Republican, have offered to dozens of repressive regimes over the decades. These regimes have one striking thing in common: They are all on an autocratic honor role of at least 45 nations and territories hosting scores of US military bases—from tiny outposts to installations the size of a small city. All told, these bases are home to tens of thousands of US troops.
To ensure basing access, American officials regularly collaborate with regimes and militaries that have been implicated in torture, murder, suppression of democratic rights, systematic oppression of women and minorities, and countless other human rights abuses. Never mind Trump. These collaborations have been the status quo for nearly three-quarters of a century. In fact, since World War II, US administrations have often shown a preference for maintaining bases in undemocratic and/or despotic states—Spain under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, South Korea under Park Chung-hee, Bahrain under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and Djibouti under four-term President Ismail Omar Guelleh, to name just a few.
Many of our 45 undemocratic base hosts qualify as fully “authoritarian regimes,” according to a democracy index compiled by the Economist. Which means American installations and the troops stationed there are effectively helping block the spread of democracy in countries like Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kuwait, Niger, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
This support for dictatorship and repression should trouble any American who believes in the principles of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. After all, one of the long-articulated justifications for maintaining US military bases abroad has been that our military presence protects and spreads democracy. Far from it, such bases tend to help legitimize and prop up repressive regimes, while often interfering with genuine efforts toward political and democratic reform. The silencing of the critics of human rights abuses in base nations such as Bahrain, which has violently cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators since 2011, has left the United States complicit.
During the Cold War, such bases were often justified as the unfortunate but necessary consequence of confronting the “communist menace.” Yet in the quarter-century since the Cold War ended, few of those bases have closed. So today, while White House visits from autocrats generates indignation, the presence of American military installations in the same countries receives little notice.
The 45 nations and territories with little or no democratic rule represent more than half the roughly 80 countries now hosting US bases—countries that often lack the power to ask their “guests” to leave. They are part of a historically unprecedented global network of military installations the United States has built or occupied since World War II.
While there are no foreign bases in the United States, we have around 800 bases in foreign countries—almost certainly a record for any nation or empire in history. More than 70 years after World War II and 64 years after the Korean War, there remain, according to the Pentagon, 181 US “base sites” in Germany, 122 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea. Hundreds more dot the planet from Aruba to Australia, Belgium to Bulgaria, Colombia to Qatar. Hundreds of thousands of troops, civilians, and family members occupy these installations. By my conservative estimate, manning and maintaining these installations costs US taxpayers at least $150 billion annually—which is more than the budget of any government agency other than the Pentagon.
For decades, our leaders in Washington have insisted these foreign bases spread American values and democracy—and that may have been true to some extent in occupied Germany, Japan, and Italy after World War II. But as base expert Catherine Lutz suggests, the subsequent historical record shows that “gaining and maintaining access” for our outposts “has often involved close collaboration with despotic governments.”
Consider the Philippines: The United States has maintained military facilities in the archipelago almost continuously since seizing it from Spain in 1898. America only granted the colony independence in 1946, conditioned on the local government’s agreement that the United States would retain access to more than a dozen military installations there.
After independence, a succession of US administrations supported two decades of Ferdinand Marcos’ autocratic rule in the Philippines, ensuring the continued use of Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, two of our largest overseas bases. The Filipinos finally ousted Marcos in 1986 and ordered the US military to leave in 1991, but five years later, the Pentagon quietly returned. With the help of a “visiting forces agreement” and a growing stream of military exercises and training programs, it began to set up surreptitious, small-scale bases once more. A desire to solidify this renewed base presence, while also checking Chinese influence in the region, may have driven Trump’s White House invitation to Duterte. It came despite the Filipino president’s record of joking about rape, swearing he would be “happy to slaughter” millions of drug addicts just as “Hitler massacred six million Jews,” and bragging, “I don’t care about human rights.”
In Turkey, President Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule is only the latest episode in a pattern of military coups and undemocratic regimes interrupting periods of democracy in Turkey. Since 1943, however, US bases have been a constant presence in the country, where they have repeatedly sparked protest—throughout the 1960s and 1970s, prior to the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and more recently, when US forces began using them to launch attacks in Syria.
Although Egypt has a relatively small US base presence, its military has enjoyed deep and lucrative Pentagon ties since the signing of the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1979. After a 2013 military coup ousted a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, the Obama administration waited months to withhold some forms of military and economic aid, despite more than 1,300 killings by security forces and the arrest of more than 3,500 members of the Brotherhood. According to Human Rights Watch, “Little was said about ongoing abuses,” which have continued to this day.
The United States also has maintained deep connections with the Thai military, which has carried out 12 coups since 1932. Both countries have been able to deny they have a basing relationship of any sort, thanks to a rental agreement between a private contractor and US forces at Thailand’s Utapao Naval Air Base. “Because of contractor Delta Golf Global,” writes journalist Robert Kaplan, “the US military was here, but it was not here. After all, the Thais did no business with the US Air Force. They dealt only with a private contractor.”
In monarchical Bahrain, which has had a US military presence since 1949 and now hosts the Navy’s 5th Fleet, the Obama administration offered only the most tepid criticism of the Bahraini government despite an ongoing, often violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. According to Human Rights Watch and others (including an independent commission of inquiry appointed by the Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa), the government has been responsible for widespread abuses, including the arbitrary arrest of protesters, ill treatment during detention, torture-related deaths, and growing restrictions on freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. The Trump administration has already signaled its desire to protect the military ties of the two countries by approving a sale of F-16 fighters to Bahrain without demanding any improvements in its human rights record.
This is typical of what the late base expert Chalmers Johnson once called the American “baseworld.” Research by political scientist Kent Calder confirms what’s come to be known as the “dictatorship hypothesis”: that “the United States tends to support dictators in nations where it enjoys basing facilities.” Another large study concluded that autocratic states have been “consistently attractive” as base sites. “Due to the unpredictability of elections,” it added bluntly, democratic states prove “less attractive in terms of sustainability and duration.”
Even within what are technically US borders, democratic rule has regularly proved “less attractive” than preserving colonialism into the 21st century. The presence of scores of bases in Puerto Rico and the Pacific island of Guam has been a major motivation for keeping these and other territories—American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands—in varying degrees of colonial subordination. Conveniently for military leaders, they have neither full independence nor the full democratic rights—voting, representation in Congress—that come with US statehood. Installations in at least five of Europe’s remaining colonies have proved equally attractive, as has the base US troops have forcibly occupied in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since shortly after the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Authoritarian rulers are well aware of the desire of US officials to maintain the status quo when it comes to bases. As a result, they often capitalize on a base presence to extract benefits or help ensure their own political survival.
The Philippines’ Marcos, former South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee, and more recently Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh have been typical in the way they used bases to extract economic assistance from Washington, which they then lavished on political allies to shore up their power. Other autocrats have relied on US bases to bolster their international prestige and legitimacy, or to justify violence against political opponents.
After the 1980 Kwangju massacre—in which the South Korean government killed hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-democracy demonstrators, strongman General Chun Doo-hwan explicitly cited the presence of US bases and troops to suggest that he enjoyed Washington’s support. Whether that was true remains a matter of historical debate. What’s clear, though, is that American leaders have regularly muted their criticism of repressive regimes lest they imperil US basing rights. And the US presence tends to strengthen military, rather than civilian, institutions because of military-to-military ties, arms sales, and training missions that generally accompany the basing agreements.
Opponents of repressive regimes often use the bases to rally nationalist sentiment, anger, and protest against their ruling elites and the United States. In some such cases, fears in Washington that a transition to democracy might lead to base eviction leads to a doubling down on support for the undemocratic ruler. The result can be an escalating cycle of opposition and US-backed repression.
While some analysts defend the presence of US bases in undemocratic countries as necessary to deter bad actors and support American interests (primarily corporate ones), backing dictators and autocrats frequently leads to harm—not just for the citizens of the host nations, but for US citizens as well. The base buildup in the Middle East is the most prominent example. In the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution the same year, the Pentagon has built up scores of bases across the Middle East at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. These bases and the troops stationed in them have been a “major catalyst for anti-Americanism and radicalization,” according to former West Point professor Bradley Bowman, who cites research noting a correlation between the bases and Al Qaeda recruitment.
Outposts in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan have helped generate and fuel the radical militancy that has spread throughout the Greater Middle East and led to terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. The presence of US bases and troops in Muslim holy lands was a major recruiting tool for Al Qaeda, and part of Osama bin Laden’s professed motivation for the 9/11 attacks.
With the Trump administration seeking to entrench the renewed base presence in the Philippines, and the president commending Duterte and similarly authoritarian leaders in Bahrain and Egypt, Turkey and Thailand, human rights violations worldwide are likely to escalate, fueling unknown brutality and baseworld blowback for years to come.