“We don't need to pay all this money to keep troops all over the country, 130 countries, 900 bases. But also, just think, bringing all the troops home rather rapidly, they would be spending their money here at home and not in Germany and Japan and South Korea, tremendous boost to the economy.”
— Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Feb. 7, 2012
This comment by GOP presidential aspirant Ron Paul after Tuesday night’s caucuses caught the ear of our editor. Paul’s phrasing could have left the impression that he thinks there are 900 bases in 130 countries, but normally he makes it clear he is talking about two different things.
For instance, in the GOP debate Sept. 12, Paul said: “We're under great threat, because we occupy so many countries. We're in 130 countries. We have 900 bases around the world.”
We will lay aside Paul’s loose definition of “occupy” — which denotes taking away a country’s sovereignty. You could also quibble with the concept of a “base,” but we’ll accept that he’s talking about any military facility.
Are there any facts to back up these eye-popping figures?
First of all, Paul needs to update his rhetoric. He is still using the same numbers now that he used in September, but since then, the United States pulled out of Iraq, closing scores, if not hundreds, of facilities. So one would have to scratch Iraq off the “occupy” list. (A Paul spokesman did not respond to a query.)
In any case, the Defense Department every year publishes a list of military facilities in the United States and around the world. As of Sept. 30, 2010, the DOD list shows a list of 611 military facilities around the world (not counting war zones), though only 20 are listed as “large sites,” which means a replacement value of more than $1.74 billion.
Most of these — 549 — are small sites, sometimes very, very small.
In fact, some sites appear to be double-counted. There is Spangdahlem Air Force base in Germany, which houses the 52nd Fighter Wing and is counted as a large site. But a separate “base” on the list is the sprawling Spangdahlem Waste Annex, all of three acres, with four buildings totaling 6,500 square feet.
The DOD list does not include war zones, but we know that Iraq has no U.S. troops now, so that would just leave Afghanistan. GlobalSecurity.org, a comprehensive Web site for military information, lists 106 U.S. military facilities in Afghanistan. So, it is hard to see how one gets the list above 750 overseas military facilities, and that’s only if one generously concludes even waste dumps and the like as “military bases.”
The DOD report also shows that these bases are housed on the soil of about 40 countries. (Again, you can quibble over whether Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or certain military-only islands count as foreign countries.) So how does Paul get to the claim that U.S. troops are in 130 countries?
Another DOD document tells the story. This one lists how many personnel are based in the United States and other countries.
For instance, as of Sept. 30, 2011, there were 53,766 military personnel in Germany, 39,222 in Japan, 10,801 in Italy and 9,382 in the United Kingdom. That makes sense.
But wait, scanning the list, you also see nine troops in Mali, eight in Barbados, seven in Laos, six in Lithuania, five in Lebanon, four in Moldova, three in Mongolia, two in Suriname and one in Gabon. Most of the countries on the list, in fact, have puny military representation.
Not only that, but we count 153 countries with U.S. military personnel, actually higher than the 130 cited by Paul.
What’s going on here? The answer is that the list essentially tracks with places where the United States has a substantial diplomatic presence. (The United States has diplomatic relations with about 190 countries.)
In other words, Paul is counting Marine guards and military attaches as part of a vast expanse of U.S. military power around the globe. (In fact, under Paul’s logic, dozens of other countries are “occupying” Washington when they send attaches and other military personnel to their embassies here.) But this document indicates that only 11 countries actually house more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel.
The Pinocchio Test
As evidence of the United States occupying “so many countries” or the “all this money” spent on the military, Paul’s statistics barely pass the laugh test. He has managed to turn small contingents of Marine guards into occupying armies and waste dumps into military bases. A more accurate way to treat this data would be to say that the United States has 20 major bases around the world, not counting the war in Afghanistan, with major concentrations of troops in 11 countries.
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UPDATE: For alternative view, check out this rebuttal.