By BRET STEPHENS, WSJ
"We're under great threat because we occupy so many countries. We're in 130 countries. We have 900 bases around the world."
So spoke presidential hopeful and libertarian favorite Ron Paul at this week's GOP debate in Florida. But is it true?
You might think so, given how often the figures get bandied about on the Internet. In 2008, the late Chalmers Johnson claimed the U.S. deployed troops in no fewer than 151 foreign countries and operated 761 military bases. These figures were the basis for his claim that since 9/11 the U.S. has "undergone a transformation from republic to empire that may well prove irreversible."
The reality is a tad less alarming. The Pentagon's 2010 Base Structure Report notes that the U.S. maintains a total of 662 bases abroad. But of those, only 20 were listed as "large sites" and another 12 as "medium sites." The rest (630) were listed as either "small" or "other" sites. That's one reason the total number of bases changes from year to year.
Then there's Mr. Paul's line about U.S. forces being "in 130 countries." Really? The truth is that American soldiers are in even more countries than that—but only if you count the small Marine detachments that provide security for our embassies world-wide. By that measure, we're in every country from Albania, where we have eight Marines, to Zimbabwe, where we have nine.
In fact, according to figures compiled by the Defense Manpower Data Center, as of September 2010 the bulk of U.S. forces deployed overseas (not including those on ships or in transit) are stationed in just seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Japan, South Korea, Germany, the U.K. and Italy, all of which are home to at least 9,000 troops. Aside from Afghanistan and Iraq (which may soon drop off that list) all of these are World War II and Cold War legacies. Another five countries—Spain, Turkey, Belgium (the headquarters of NATO), Bahrain and Djibouti—have between 1,000 and 1,500 troops. The next largest deployments are Portugal (703), Qatar (555) Honduras (403) and Greece (338).
There's an intellectually respectable argument to be made that perhaps the U.S. doesn't need so many troops in rich and peaceful countries like Germany or Japan. But to say, as Congressman Paul does, that we're in 130 countries isn't just factually inaccurate. It's absurd.