Statistical Abstract of the United States intermittently reports the number of US military personnel deployed in selected countries overseas. The selection of countries for which data is released changes every time, creating a major headache for anyone analyzing the data. I compiled all the data available. The general pattern is that Defense was more forthcoming until 2002 when it released data on the number of military personnel posted in 163 countries. Since then, they have been more tight-lipped. In this year’s report, data on only 50 countries has been released. We begin by mapping the forward deployment of US forces in 1989-2001, according to the 2002 edition of Statistical Abstract. These numbers should be thought of as lower bounds. And it must be kept in mind that the problem of missing data is acute: Defense does not reveal numbers for classified and sensitive locations.
This is the quiet period of US foreign policy. Between the fall of the Berlin wall and the attacks of 2001, US forces were deployed for combat operations in only a small number of places, such as Bosnia and Somalia. But force deployment is much more than combat. The redeployment of forces into a region can be manipulated to reassure allies, to signal resolve, to deter, and to intimidate. US forces may also be deployed in support of covert operations. The rebalancing of forces deployed overseas thus provides a very strong signal of US politico-military engagement in different regions of the world.
The main engagements are easily documented with this data. In the graphs that follow, we have also included the data from the 2019 edition, where available. Absence of data does not mean no US forces were present. Nor is there any guarantee of comprehensive coverage. Defense is not allowed by law to release data on armed services personnel deployed in classified locations.
In Somalia, the 1993 intervention was large — the US sent in a brigade or two. But the effort was abandoned immediately.
In the Balkans, we can similarly trace the temporal pattern. US forces are deployed to Bosnia, Hungary, and Croatia in 1996.
And they entered Serbia in 1999. We are given no numbers from 2001 onward.
But there is much more action going on. The most striking pattern is the escalation in the Middle East in 1999-2000. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States had deployed two divisions in Saudi Arabia under Operation Desert Shield, for which we don’t have data. After the war, US forces were drawn down. By 1993, if Defense is to be believed, there were fewer than 1000 armed forces personnel in the Kingdom. There is a slight increase after the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996. From 1,722 in 1998, the number jumps to 5,552 in 1999 and 7,053 in 2000. When the series picks up again in the late-2000s, only a few hundred servicemen are left in the Kingdom. These numbers presumably do not include those at the secret CIA facility in the desert; most are likely attached to the embassy.
We see the jump in 1999 in Oman and the UAE numbers as well; although the numbers are much smaller. The UAE began to host many more US armed forces personnel in this decade.
The 1999 escalation is not reflected in Kuwait, suggesting that the purpose was not simply to deter Saddam. Kuwait hosted vast forces during the Iraq war. The numbers have since come down dramatically. But Kuwait still hosts about ten thousand US military personnel.
What we seem to have uncovered is a signature of the secret air war of 1999. ‘In the last eight months,’ New York Times reported on August 13, 1999, ‘American and British pilots have fired more than 1,100 missiles against 359 targets in Iraq’. Throughout the 1990s, the United States and its Western allies were economically strangulating Iraq and conducting covert operations and airstrikes to degrade Iraqi military capabilities. There was wall-to-wall bipartisan support for containing Saddam in Washington. This crucial part of the story is often missed in the accounts of the Iraq war. The war did not emerge from the Bush White House ex nihilo; it was already being prosecuted. Bush was following the path of least resistance when he resolved to depose Saddam.
There is a lot more going on still. In 1994, there is a massive intervention in Haiti. The US sends a whole division to put Aristide back in power.
In order to get a handle on ‘the Clinton cycle’, we look at the number of US military personnel overseas, excluding Korea, Japan, and Europe. It is meant to capture the ‘discretionary component’ of forward deployed forces. By the time Clinton steps into office, forward deployed forces outside the core areas had been cut down to fewer than 23,000. In 1993, 6,345 soldiers are ordered to Somalia, but this escalation is drowned out by the draw down elsewhere. In 1994, 17,485 troops are sent to Haiti. That’s more than the jump in the overall number, meaning that the US was still disengaging elsewhere by our measure. No major deployments are evident in 1995, giving us a baseline residual of some 17,000 troops outside the core. That’s the basic force posture of Pax Americana.
What follows in 1996 is a massive jump in forward-deployed forces. The discretionary component deployed overseas jumps by 28,067. An additional 4,351 troops are sent to Japan and Korea to intimidate China during the Taiwan Strait Crisis. Some 25,506 troops are sent to the Balkans to deter Milošević from further ethnic cleansing. At the same time, 4,760 armed forces personnel are sent over to Kuwait, presumably to intimidate Saddam and reassure the Kuwaitis. Most of these forces are withdrawn the next year. But 4,780 additional troops are rotated within Centcom to Egypt, presumably largely from Kuwait, where 3,891 troops are withdrawn.
Defense credulously reports that there was zero change in personnel between 1997 and 1998. That’s virtually impossible. It may be a clerical error. But who knows? The year after, in 1999, 6,397 US troops enter Serbia from neighboring countries. And 6,858 troops are sent to Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia, presumably to intimidate Saddam.
In 2001, Bush steps into Clinton’s shoes and immediately escalates. Eleven thousand troops are sent off to Uruguay, six thousand to Seychelles, five thousand to Senegal, and two thousand each to Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka.
The table allows us to identify 23 instances during the Clinton administration, and a further 6 in the first year of the Bush administration, when there was a significant increase in the number of US military personnel in a given country. It serves as a sort of crisis or intervention indicator. But we must be careful to analyze it and not simply presume a US intervention. Most of these redeployments were at the invitation of the host government, although, to be sure, many of these hosts are US dependents.
|US Military Deployments in Selected Countries. Major additional commitments in bold.
|United Arab Emirates||37||39||38||25||20||30||23||22||22||679||402||10|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||0||0||0||9||0||1||15,003||8,170||8,170||5,800||5,708||3,116|
|Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States.|
It may look like hyperactivity but this was a period in which the United States had to be dragged kicking and screaming to intervene in the Balkans, when US forces exited at the first sign of trouble in Somalia, and when the US had absolute discretion to choose whether to engage or not in any given crisis. This extraordinary wiggle room in foreign policy vanished in 2001, when the confrontation with Salafi jihadism ensued. The catastrophic mistake to invade Iraq would call into question the politico-ethical foundations of US foreign and military policy. It would play no small part in the breakdown in elite-mass relations.
Even now, calls to end endless war play extraordinarily well, at least in Democratic circles. Just today, Stephen Wertheim, a personal friend, wrote in New York Times, that ‘American war-making will persist so long as the United States continues to seek military dominance across the globe’.
While I agree that the United States should follow a considerably more restrained foreign policy, that question is distinct from what sort of military instrument the United States should field. A military policy of ‘armed supremacy’ (ie the de facto 2-power standard) does not imply a hegemonic foreign policy—ie the US taking it upon itself to police any and every region without any regard to US interests. This is of great significance to the Quincy project, for while they can certainly get very far by criticizing US interventionism at the present conjuncture, they will be dismissed as credulous and ignored if they demand gutting the military without spelling out the logic of an alternate military policy.
I do not buy the argument that America’s endless wars result from the desire to sustain armed supremacy. Cramer and Thrall are wrong. The decision to attack Iraq had nothing to do with maintaining military primacy. Indeed, endless war has eroded and distorted the military instrument. If you want to prolong U.S. military primacy, you should want to avoid stability operations in places of little interest altogether. And you should want the military instrument to be geared towards great power rivals, not “rogue states”.