Congress to Look for Ways To Make Military Bases Safer
Temporary facilities abroad are more at risk than permanent ones
It has a quality of deja vu. More than a decade after the bombing in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen, Congress this week will again ask how safe are military bases overseas.
In the wake of the bombing in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago that claimed the lives of 19 American military personnel and wounded hundreds of others, congressional hearings are being convened to review security at military bases overseas and look at the June 25 bombing, an attack that bears ominous similarities to the Beirut tragedy.
Following the 1983 truck bombing in Beirut, an investigatory commission warned that the Pentagon was "inadequately prepared" for such assaults. "Much needs to be done, on an urgent basis," the panel insisted "to prepare US military forces to defend against and counter terrorist warfare."
Again, Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees are likely to hear that security efforts some places are inadequate. The committee members will likely be told by Defense and Intelligence officials that steps taken to protect US bases are determined by local commanders and depend on the political climate of the countries where they are located. Makeshift bases, such as the one in Dharan, are considered more at risk than permanent facilities, such as those in Germany or Japan.
"Where we are permanently located, usually you have good security and pretty good arrangements with the host nation," says former assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb, now director of the Center for Public Policy Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"There really aren't any patterns here," says Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department official and expert on terrorism, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It works on a country by country basis."
"Where there is an entrenched violent cadre of terrorists and extremists who have strong incentive to drive the US out of an area for ideological reasons and as the best way of attacking a regime, then the US is going to face the threat of terrorism," says Mr. Cordesman.
Accordingly, while the potential for terrorist attacks is high for some US troops, particularly the 20,000 in the Gulf region, the military's overall exposure is lower than in the recent past. The reason is simple: large-scale closures of US facilities overseas as part of post-cold-war military cutbacks.
Since 1990, the Pentagon has closed or scaled down operations at more than 900 bases worldwide, including major facilities in Europe and Asia. The number of US military personnel stationed abroad has fallen from a high in fiscal 1988 of 541,000 to 238,000 in fiscal 1995. Of that total, about 100,000 were in friendly European countries and a similar number posted in Asia, most of them in the US allies of Japan and South Korea.
American personnel deployed in the Gulf to ensure the free flow of the world's largest oil supplies are perhaps the most at risk because of the prevailing political conditions in the region, dominated by tensions with Iran and Iraq and growing domestic opposition in some of the pro-West Arab petroleum kingdoms.
"American forces are going to be exposed as long as there is a presence [in the Gulf]," says Judith Yaphe, a Middle East expert at the Pentagon's Institute for National Strategic Studies. "We're the target of opportunity. The real goal of hitting us is hitting at the regimes who are seen by opponents as being corrupt and non-Muslim because of their links to us."
Many experts believe that was the motive behind the Dharan attack and a car-bombing last November at a US-run training facility in Riyadh. By attacking some of the estimated 5,000 US military personnel in Saudi Arabia, opponents of the autocratic royal family seek to exploit popular indignation over the presence of foreigners in the home of Islam's holiest shrines, they say.
Ms. Yaphe says the US should be concerned about the possibility that the same motivation could drive dissidents in Bahrain, a small island linked to Saudi Arabia by a causeway, to attack the sizable US force based there.
"It's surprising that there is not more of an anti-American flavor there," she says. "I think over the past couple of years we've been lucky. You have a pattern of attacks that lead to the conclusion that you have to be careful."
She also expresses concern about the safety of the small number of US military personnel in the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven sheikdoms. Three of those sheikdoms provide the American military with access to facilities.