Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 28, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to ease anxiety over an ever-rising global “turmoil and strife” by pointing to an eyebrow-raising fact. “I state unabashedly to every single one of you: The United States of America is more engaged in more places with greater impact today than at any time in American history,” he reassured the audience. “And that is simply documentable and undeniable.”
Kerry made it clear that when he talks about “engagement,” war is a key part of the equation. “We’ve been working with countries to support a new Government of National Accord in Libya,” he said, referencing a dubious state that the U.S. is moving to heavily arm. “I was recently in the United Arab Emirates. I think we’ve come to a common understanding of how to strengthen that government and go after Daesh in Libya. We’re supporting Afghanistan in its fight against extremists and support a sovereign and democratic Ukraine.”
Kerry’s observation of unprecedented engagement may, in fact, be an understatement. As David Vine, the author of the book Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, noted in 2015, the United States “probably has more foreign military bases than any other people, nation, or empire in history.” The roughly 800 U.S. military bases around the world compare to a grand total of zero free-standing foreign bases on U.S. soil, Vine reported.
Meanwhile, Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command, told journalist Nick Turse that, by the 9th month of 2015, special operations forces had already deployed to 135 countries—or 70 percent of all the nations on the planet. This compares to about 60 countries under the George W. Bush years. The Government Accountability Office concluded that special operations funding has ballooned from $3 billion in 2001 to just under $10 billion in 2014.
And then there is the steady creep of AFRICOM. Journalist Nick Turse wrote in November 2015, “in recent years the U.S. military has, in fact, developed a remarkably extensive network of more than 60 outposts and access points in Africa. Some are currently being utilized, some are held in reserve, and some may be shuttered. These bases, camps, compounds, port facilities, fuel bunkers, and other sites can be found in at least 34 countries—more than 60% of the nations on the continent—many of them corrupt, repressive states with poor human rights records.”
The Pentagon even runs an estimated 170 golf courses around the world.
Tallying up the list of U.S. direct or proxy wars is no simple task. In a May 2013 article published in the journal Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, Linda J. Bilmes and Michael D. Intriligator noted:
Today U.S. military operations are involved in scores of countries across all the five continents. The U.S. military is the world’s largest landlord, with significant military facilities in nations around the world, and with a significant presence in Bahrain, Djibouti, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Kyrgyzstan, in addition to long-established bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and the UK. Some of these are vast, such as the Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar, the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command, which has recently been expanded to accommodate up to 10,000 troops and 120 aircraft.
The authors ultimately concluded that the U.S. was directly or indirectly involved in wars in 74 countries at the time.
As recently as May 2016, New York Times reporter Mark Landler observed that Obama is the “only president in American history to serve two complete terms with the nation at war.”
Kerry is certainly correct to point out that U.S. engagement in vaster than it ever has been before. But as militarized intervention drives the greatest crises of human strife and displacement since World War II, this observation is no comfort at all.