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 Uzbek government wanted the refugees to return home, but the international community did not, fearing that they would be detained and tortured by Uzbek security personnel.) 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. And, they argue, relying on democratic hosts for military cooperation can present problems of its own -- such as the 2003 parliamentary vote in Turkey that denied the United States the chance to launch its invasion of Iraq from there.

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. Engaging authoritarian leaders by striking basing deals with them has done little for democratization in those states because these leaders know that, at bottom, U.S. military planners care more about the bases' utility than about local political trends. The practice can also imperil U.S. strategic interests. Even as authoritarian leaders flout U.S. calls for liberalization, they often manipulate basing agreements to strengthen their personal standing at home. And when one of these autocrats is eventually ousted, the democratic successor sometimes challenges the validity of the deals the former regime had struck.

Basing agreements made with mature democracies involve far fewer risks. Such deals come at no cost to U.S. legitimacy, and they tend to be more reliable since security commitments approved and validated by democratic institutions are made to last. As U.S. military planners design a global network of smaller, more versatile military facilities abroad, they would do well to reconsider whether the limited benefits of establishing bases in nondemocratic countries are worth the costs those arrangements inevitably generate.


Historically, the United States has had little success leveraging its foreign bases to promote democratic values in host countries. After World War II, Washington established bases in both democracies and those nondemocratic states that resisted Soviet influence. U.S. officials consistently defended their deals with nondemocratic countries by claiming that engagement could gradually lead to their democratization. In fact, the United States accomplished little by engaging dictators in this way -- except to tarnish its reputation by virtue of the association.

Consider three basing agreements -- with Spain, Portugal, and the Philippines -- struck in different decades and by U.S. administrations of different ideological leanings. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration signed a bilateral defense agreement with Spain, then under the rule of the dictator General Francisco Franco. The agreement granted the United States the use of a network of air bases, naval stations, pipelines, and communications facilities in Spain in exchange for a $226 million package of military and economic assistance. It was immediately criticized within the United States and by U.S. allies in Europe for giving Franco legitimacy and material support just as other states were trying to exclude his regime from international institutions such as the UN and NATO. U.S. officials long insisted that the U.S. military presence in Spain did not imply official support for his regime. But the Spanish politicians who succeeded Franco after his death in 1975 accused Washington of having tacitly condoned his repressive policies and his secrecy.

In the 1960s, even the idealistic Kennedy administration was quick to temper its calls for decolonization throughout Africa once the prime minister of Portugal, António de Oliveira Salazar, threatened to curtail U.S. access to important bases in the Azores (Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic). Lisbon was concerned about calls for self-determination in its African colonies, including Angola and Mozambique. Salazar considered the counterinsurgency in Angola a matter of domestic politics, and he was incensed when in 1961 Washington backed a UN Security Council resolution calling for reform and a UN inquiry. Under mounting pressure from the Pentagon, which did not want to lose the mid-Atlantic facilities, the White House changed its position in early 1962. But the Portuguese government kept the bases' status in abeyance throughout the 1960s to keep its leverage over Washington.

This pattern repeated itself elsewhere in the 1970s and the early 1980s, perhaps most visibly in the Philippines under strongman Ferdinand Marcos. The presence of two major U.S. military installations in the Philippines, Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval station, kept U.S. criticism of Marcos in check. Even the Carter administration, despite its determination to promote human rights abroad, softened its stance when the time came to renew a base agreement in 1979. As Marcos asked for ever more U.S. economic and military assistance, Washington complied, effectively helping to prop up the dictator and his cronies until their ouster in 1986.

In all these cases, U.S. engagement did little to promote genuine political reform because the host governments correctly calculated that Washington cared more about its bases than about political liberalization. At the same time, by repeatedly ignoring violations of democratic principles in order to preserve its outposts, the United States exposed itself to charges of opportunism and hypocrisy. Throughout the Cold War, pragmatists in the White House might have answered the accusations by pointing to an overriding strategic purpose: defeating the Soviet Union. But now that the war on terrorism has replaced the war on communism, the costs of such a bargain are much greater.


If the first problem with establishing bases in nondemocratic states is that doing so can interfere with local democratization, the second -- and less appreciated -- problem is that it has serious strategic costs for the United States.

First, U.S. support for authoritarian governments can breed just the kind of opposition or radicalism that U.S. bases are indirectly designed to stem. Basing agreements offer propaganda opportunities for both legitimate opposition groups and extremists. And the presence of a U.S. base in an nondemocratic state can generate more extremists than it stops. Take, for example, the case of Saudi Arabia. The 1996 terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers, where U.S. troops were housed, emboldened Islamic extremists to call for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Arabian Peninsula. The attack raised security concerns for Washington but also suggested to the Saudi government that the U.S. military presence was a domestic political threat. Ultimately, in 2003, Washington was compelled to withdraw 5,000 troops from Saudi Arabia.

Second, nondemocratic regimes are inherently unreliable hosts. It is sometimes assumed that entering into agreements with dictators guarantees the deals' longevity because such regimes are less vulnerable than democracies to shifts in public opinion. But many political scientists now believe that operating without the restrictions of a constitution, an independent judiciary, and an elected legislature actually makes it easier for authoritarian regimes to violate treaties such as military basing agreements. Agreements with an authoritarian state last only as long as the ruling regime does -- if even that long -- because the status of such treaties is subject to the regime's fortunes rather than to a lasting institutional framework. In the past, the United States has been expelled when its autocratic allies have been toppled from within: Washington lost access to Wheelus Air Base in Libya in 1969 when Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi took power, as it did to electronic listening posts in northern Iran when Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's regime collapsed in 1979. Even when authoritarian governments do honor basing agreements, they can revise the terms of the deals unilaterally, on a whim, to better serve their domestic purposes or extract material concessions from Washington.

Third, when democratic governments eventually take over in authoritarian countries, U.S. bases there are vulnerable to various forms of backlash. In post-authoritarian elections in Thailand (in 1975), Greece (in 1981), and South Korea (in 1997 and 2002), for example, opposition leaders won office by campaigning against the U.S. military presence, explicitly linking U.S. bases to Washington's support for previous nondemocratic regimes. Sometimes, too, civic groups and media outlets in a state undergoing a democratic transition denounce basing agreements signed with the authoritarian government as symbols of the previous regime's abuses. Worse, in some cases, new democratic governments challenge the validity of preexisting basing agreements, precipitating a severe curtailment of U.S. rights, sometimes leading to expulsion. In the late 1980s, the Spanish Socialist Party (known as the PSOE) refused to extend a basing agreement with the United States for access to the Torrejón air base, near Madrid. And in 1991, the newly empowered post-Marcos Philippine Senate rejected a plan to extend the lease of Subic Bay, terminating the long-standing U.S. military presence there. In these and other cases, the domestic backlash against the U.S. basing presence inflicted considerable operational costs on the U.S. military.

These types of strategic costs all relate to the political difficulties that arise from concluding agreements with nondemocratic regimes. Although U.S. officials have often believed that the United States was unfairly accused of supporting its authoritarian hosts, such perceptions became commonplace in countries where it maintained a military presence. From a practical perspective, separating operational military needs from the local political context has proved difficult.

In consolidated democracies, on the other hand, governments continue to honor their commitments to basing agreements because those deals are guaranteed by an established legal order. Even though the government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodrìguez Zapatero withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq shortly after he was elected in March 2004, it continued to honor a preexisting agreement, which effectively allowed the United States unhindered use of its naval station at Rota and its air base in Morón in support of the Iraq campaign. The same is true of other base-hosting democratic allies, such as Germany and Greece, which also opposed the invasion of Iraq and yet allowed operations connected to the war to take place on their soil.

Some have argued that Turkey's refusal to let U.S. troops use its territory to launch an offensive in northern Iraq in 2003 is proof that democracies can be fickle partners. In fact, however, the episode revealed the institutional weaknesses that characterize democratizing states or young democracies. Although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Turkish parliament's close vote against granting the United States access into Iraq a victory for democracy, it was largely the product of his party's relative inexperience at managing its new parliamentary majority and its antagonistic relationship with the country's influential military. (Erdogan was in favor of granting access, and the military reportedly wanted to see his party embarrassed.) The Turkish vote mirrored the uncertainty that characterized Turkish domestic politics at the time. But as democracies become increasingly consolidated and institutionalized, they are able to commit more credibly to their external agreements. Over the long term, democracies make for more predictable and stable base hosts than authoritarian states.


The question of how the United States can best use military bases abroad to ensure its security has resurfaced since the Defense Department started rethinking the overseas deployment of U.S. troops after the attacks of September 11, 2001. To support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the United States established air bases in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan and signed agreements for refueling rights and airspace access throughout Central Asia. In 2003, to compensate for the loss of access to Turkey, the United States used airfields and ports in Bulgaria and Romania to support its military campaign in Iraq. And over the next few years, the Pentagon will implement the 2004 Global Defense Posture Review (GDPR), which outlined plans for the most fundamental change in U.S. basing strategy since World War II.

The GDPR calls for increasing the number of overseas U.S. facilities by replacing and supplementing large Cold War-era bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea with smaller facilities known as forward operating sites, or FOSs (small installations that can be rapidly built up), and cooperative security locations, or CSLs (host-nation facilities with little U.S. personnel but with equipment and logistical capabilities), both of which can be activated when necessary. These FOSs and CSLs will be used against sources of regional instability, covering areas where the United States has traditionally been absent. They are likely to be established in eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania) and Africa (Algeria, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, São Tomé and Prìncipe, Senegal, and Uganda), although the exact location of these facilities is still under negotiation. The U.S. expansion in Africa is especially noteworthy, as it is accompanied by increased military-to-military cooperation, such as the Pan Sahel Initiative, under which the U.S. military is assisting Chad, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania in efforts to stem local terrorism. These FOSs and CSLs will be designed to have maximal operational flexibility with minimal political downsides and few limitations on U.S. access. The hope is that by maintaining a lighter footprint, Washington will avoid some of the problems that have periodically arisen in connection with the large U.S. deployments in South Korea and Okinawa, Japan, such as traffic accidents and crimes involving U.S. military personnel.

The GDPR's reforms have already been criticized, especially for their cost, their impracticality, and the dampening effect they could have on traditional U.S. alliances. Yet few critics have pointed out that a considerable number of new facilities are planned in countries with weak or nondemocratic political systems. Washington planners envision that even a small U.S. military presence will help guard against terrorist threats, secure important U.S. economic and energy interests, stabilize the countries hosting bases, and normalize regional politics. More likely, however, the governments of these countries will label both extreme and democratic opposition groups as regional security threats and embroil the United States in domestic political disputes and low-intensity clashes in which it has no compelling interest. Before it sets up more bases in authoritarian countries, the Defense Department would do well to consider some of its recent experiences.


Since the September 11 attacks, Washington seems to be repeating some of its old mistakes. When, in October 2001, it set up the Karshi-Khanabad air base (also known as K2) in southern Uzbekistan to launch operations into Afghanistan, it was hardly concerned by its host's democratic deficit. In March 2002, President Bush and Uzbek President Islam Karimov signed a broader strategic cooperation agreement, calling for a partnership in the war on terrorism and establishing ties between U.S. and Uzbek military and security services. In addition to paying $15 million for use of the airfield, as a tacit quid pro quo, in 2002 the United States provided $120 million in military hardware and surveillance equipment to the Uzbek army, $82 million to the country's security services, and $55 million in credits from the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The Uzbek government, for its part, pledged to speed up democratization, improve its human rights record, and promote greater press freedoms. With the exception of some human rights organizations, few in the West criticized the agreement; it was widely hailed as a necessary step in the Afghan campaign.

While operations in Afghanistan continued throughout 2002 and 2003, U.S. officials largely ignored the Uzbek government's failure to fulfill its commitments. In January 2002, Karimov arbitrarily extended his term until 2007, but U.S. authorities held back from denouncing him and praised the new cooperative relationship. They turned a blind eye to the steady increase in political jailings that Uzbek security services were conducting in the name of counterterrorism. And as part of the Bush administration's practice of "extraordinary rendition," they ordered dozens of terrorist suspects shipped to Uzbekistan knowing that law enforcement officials there routinely employ torture.

Signs of open discomfort within the U.S. policy community began to surface in the summer of 2004. In July of that year, the State Department rescinded $18 million in aid to Uzbekistan because of human rights violations. But a month later, during a visit to Tashkent by General Richard Meyers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Defense awarded Uzbekistan $21 million in weapons transfers and military assistance.

Matters came to a head with the Andijon crackdown of last May, which highlighted the political compromises Washington was making to maintain access to K2. Uzbek security forces attacked thousands of demonstrators, led by armed militants, who were protesting the conviction of 23 Uzbek businessmen accused of being Muslim extremists. Uzbek government officials claimed that the militants led a prison break, captured a local police station and a military barracks, and took several hostages. But human rights organizations have reported that the demonstration comprised mostly unarmed citizens protesting local political and economic policies. According to witnesses, Uzbek security forces fired indiscriminately into the crowd, mowing down waves of civilians as they tried to flee the scene. International nongovernmental organizations such as the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch have estimated the death toll at 700 to 800, well above the official figure of 180, and have accused the Uzbek government of covering up details of the incident by intimidating journalists and witnesses.

Still, fearful of losing access to U.S. bases, some U.S. officials were reluctant to criticize the Uzbek government. The Bush administration initially balked at any condemnation; U.S. defense officials at NATO opposed the alliance's issuing a joint communiqué calling for an international probe. Soon after, however, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly backed an international inquiry, and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators launched an investigation to determine whether any of the Uzbek security troops involved in the crackdown had received U.S. training or equipment. In response to the scrutiny, Uzbek authorities began to limit nighttime and cargo flights to and from K2 and to complain about payment issues and environmental damage relating to use of the base.

Last July, the relationship finally soured for good. After the United States backed the UN effort to airlift Uzbek refugees from neighboring Kyrgyzstan to Romania against the wishes of the Uzbek government, Tashkent activated a termination clause in the K2 base agreement that required the U.S. military to close the facility within 180 days -- dispelling any lingering illusion that the Uzbek regime was a reliable security partner. By ordering the shutdown, Karimov subordinated his commitment to the United States to other geopolitical and domestic goals: expelling the United States ingratiated him with Moscow and Beijing and may have given him a chance to consolidate public support in the face of U.S. meddling in local affairs.

Washington's decision to establish a base in Kyrgyzstan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom has proved similarly complicated. U.S. officials have faced tricky political tradeoffs related to the operation of Ganci Air Base, established in 2001 with the consent of then President Askar Akayev. Prior to the basing agreement, Akayev had increasingly entrenched his rule and let democratization efforts backslide. The basing agreement gave Akayev's regime new international credibility by distracting Western attention from his political abuses and anointing him as a partner in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The small Kyrgyz economy also significantly benefited from the fees and business generated by the air base, which account for five to ten percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz security services, who obtained military hardware and surveillance equipment as a result of the deal, began emphasizing -- and exaggerating -- the threat of Islamic extremism to secure continued U.S. assistance. In November 2003, they claimed to have uncovered a plot to bomb Ganci Air Base and allegedly caught three members of a radical Islamic organization with explosives and blueprints of the base. But U.S. officials and Kyrgyz political observers are skeptical about the details of the plot and the circumstances of the arrests.

Now that the Akayev regime has fallen, Washington may face difficulties with his successors. After Akayev was swept out of power in March 2005 by public demonstrations following disputed parliamentary elections, the question of the U.S. military presence was suddenly thrust onto the political agenda of the new Kyrgyz government. In a joint statement issued on July 5, 2005, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, declared that the U.S. military bases in Central Asia had outlived their purpose of supporting the Afghan campaign and should be closed. In his first press conference, a week later, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that the Kyrgyz government would press Washington about the necessity of keeping the base; later, he pledged that he would pursue an "independent" foreign policy. Questions about the orientation of the new regime in Kyrgyzstan remain, but it is already clear that the loss of K2 in Uzbekistan has made Ganci Air Base all the more important to U.S. planners.

In addition to possibly relocating some activities from K2 to Kyrgyzstan, U.S. officials are exploring other options in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, where the United States has occasionally used airfields for refueling stops. A visit by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Azerbaijan in August 2005 increased speculation that Washington may be considering establishing a military presence there, too. In its determination to maintain a strategic foothold in Central Asia, the United States is once again considering striking deals with nondemocratic regimes -- thus giving material support and legitimacy to autocrats and exposing its operational presence to local politics.


While Washington struggles with political difficulties in Central Asia, its future presence in the Black Sea region -- negotiations are under way for bases in Bulgaria and Romania -- promises to be more stable politically. Bulgaria and Romania offer a number of attractive large-scale facilities, such as ports on the Black Sea, airfields, and training ranges. Future bases in these countries would not only help safeguard U.S. security interests in the Black Sea region but also serve as important staging grounds for operations in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The recent democratic consolidations of Bulgaria and Romania and the countries' integration into Western international institutions are also likely to create a favorable operating environment for years to come. Both countries supported the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq over the objections of some other European states (confirming their allegiance to Washington) and then in 2004 became NATO members (formalizing their strategic alignment with the West). To secure NATO membership, Sofia and Bucharest had to implement important domestic institutional reforms: they strengthened civilian control over their militaries, downsized and modernized their armed forces, and improved transparency in defense-related matters. Although some political parties in both countries, including the recently elected Socialist Party in Bulgaria, have promised to take a tougher line with the United States, no party with a significant share of the vote actually opposes the idea of a U.S. presence. The Bulgarian and Romanian publics appear to back strongly the prospect of U.S. bases, and many people view these bases as an important political counterweight to the EU's influence.

Any negative reaction that may arise in Bulgaria or Romania to the U.S. bases is most likely to result from unfulfilled expectations about the benefits of the United States' presence there. Consistent with the Defense Department's new basing posture, permanent U.S. deployments will likely be relatively small -- no more than 1,000 troops per country -- and so the overall economic impact of future bases may not meet the lofty expectations that now prevail. Although both countries' political systems are consolidated, moreover, their media are relatively new and fiercely competitive. Base-related incidents and scandals involving U.S. personnel are sure to draw media attention, as well as public scrutiny over criminal procedures and other legal aspects governing U.S. bases. Nevertheless, given their advanced state of democratization and their integration into the West, Bulgaria and Romania are unlikely to generate the type of internal political pressures that have threatened the U.S. presence elsewhere.

With so much of the United States' international legitimacy now tied to how well it promotes democracy abroad, resolving the tension between its commitment to democratic values and its need for overseas bases must become a priority for Washington. Some U.S. officials have tried to characterize the expulsion from K2 in Uzbekistan as proof of Washington's commitment to democracy, but it was too little too late: the ouster followed several years of apparent unconcern about the abuses of Karimov's regime, and the damage to U.S. credibility had already been done. Additional Uzbekistan-type imbroglios related to basing rights would only hurt Washington more. If the Defense Department is serious about best preparing the United States for a new type of war by redeploying its troops, it would do well to pick stable and democratic places to root.

Planners might object that a threat's location often forces the United States to establish a presence in areas where it otherwise would not choose to go. Even in such extreme cases, however, there is a difference between establishing a base out of necessity and maintaining it after major combat operations are over. Take the case of Uzbekistan. Although the U.S. military has insisted since the fall of 2001 that K2 is vital to U.S. operations in Central Asia, the base's strategic value has considerably diminished over the past several years. Yet at no point between 2001 and the first talk of ousting the United States from K2 this summer did the Pentagon publicly reexamine the base's purpose. The Pentagon's failure to distinguish the strategic justification for establishing a base from the organizational reasons for maintaining one is another impediment to assessing the real costs of various U.S. basing strategies.

Full-on operations such as the war in Afghanistan are less likely in the future, and so as the United States sets out to establish a vaster but lighter presence in various regions, it has more freedom about where exactly to set up its bases. In deciding where to redeploy troops, Pentagon officials should seriously consider the political implications of their choices. They must recognize that by setting up military bases abroad, Washington will inevitably become enmeshed in the domestic politics of its hosts, even if it intends to keep a low profile and a light footprint. Setting up bases in nondemocratic states can be accomplished relatively quickly and easily, but in the long term it undermines Washington's commitment to democratization abroad and its strategic interests. Setting up bases in democracies may generate some media scrutiny, political debate, and public criticism at first, but democracies invariably turn out to be more reliable hosts in the end. Understanding these tradeoffs is essential, especially now that even within strategically important regions the Pentagon has real choices about where to establish its outposts.

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  • ALEXANDER COOLEY is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and was a Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in 2004-5. He is the author of "Logics of Hierarchy: The Organization of Empires, States, and Military Occupations."
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