09/26/11 (LWN-Commentary) Even as U.S. politicians and media regularly discuss cutting governmentprograms to benefit the poor and elderly, the cost to maintain hundreds of overseas military bases rarely garners any attention. Much of the public remains unaware of the size and extent of these facilities, many of which have remained in place since World War II or the Gulf War.

The U.S. holds a "permanent presence on all seven continents" by operating just over seven-hundred military installations overseas, according to 2004 data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). They consist of almost 45 thousand separate buildings. This figure only counts structures owned by the U.S. military, not buildings leased from foreign governments. Facilities exist in over one-hundred countries, although precise numbers remain unclear.

The military maintains bases in such countries as Honduras, El Salvador and Curacao, according to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). It also possesses access agreements with at least three countries in South America. CBO data indicates that over 100,000 American troops remain stationed in Europe. Other nations with U.S. bases include Thailand, Korea, Japan, Bahrain and Kuwait. A base lingers in Cuba despite Cuban requests for its removal.

Military statistics don't reveal the exact yearly cost of operating the overseas facilities, but an estimate from Foreign Policy in Focus puts it at approximately $250 billion (roughly 1/3rd of the military budget). How does this compare to other parts of the U.S. federal budget? When combined, the "big government regulators" at the EPA, CPSC, NRC and OSHA receive 1/23rd as much. Annual aid to all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean totals less than 1/59th of this cost.

When anyone questions the necessity or cost of a military base, supporters of the policy will often warn that China or some other rival power would invade other countries if the bases shut down. Yet China has not invaded neighboring Taiwan, which does not host any U.S. military bases. It's not clear who would have the desire or potential to invade many of these countries supposedly in need of protection, such as Germany, Holland or Honduras.

Most foreign militaries have no overseas bases, including those of major countries like China. U.S. allies France and Britain operate much smaller numbers of foreign bases, primarily in Africa and Asia. Russia closed many of its overseas bases and established a less militaristic foreign policy at the end of the Cold War. Isn't it about time the United States followed suit?