WASHINGTON — The United States faces a growing crisis over its efforts to maintain a worldwide network of military bases--a crisis with far-reaching implications for American foreign policy, defense strategy and the federal budget.
Even as U.S. defense officials are identifying a growing need for overseas bases to help bring troops to places such as the Persian Gulf, foreign governments are becoming increasingly reluctant to permit American bases on their soil and are demanding more and more money and political commitments in exchange.
U.S. foreign policy has felt the squeeze.
This spring, for example, when U.S. policy-makers tried to decide how to oust Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega, Defense Department officials cautioned against using U.S. military installations in Panama in a way that might suggest to other governments with U.S. bases, such as Greece and Spain, that the same thing could happen to them some day.
Whoever is elected President in November soon will find himself being urged by the Pentagon to persuade foreign governments to let U.S. forces stay in their bases and to persuade Congress to approve more money for the installations.
It probably will be up to the next President to decide how far the United States is willing to go to preserve its bases in the Philippines, the most strategically located facilities in the Pacific. The next President also will have to decide how much to ask America's allies, such as Japan and West Germany, to contribute toward the costs of the American installations that help protect them.
In the process, the United States will have to decide whether its global system of bases fits modern-day military needs or has now become too much of a political and economic burden.
With Cold War fears fading overseas, "There's a growing disparity between what the United States sees as the importance of its bases and what foreign governments believe is the value to them," says James Blaker, a former Defense Department official now working for the Center for Naval Analyses.
"As the overall number of American bases has declined, the value of each one to the United States increases, and this gives each foreign government great leverage in negotiations," Blaker says. "The issue for the future is this: What happens if we're not willing or able to accept the costs being asked for our bases?"
Recent events already have demonstrated the pervasive nature of the base problems:
-- Spain announced in December that it will expel the largest American air unit in the Mediterranean from Torrejon Air Base near Madrid. The 72 F-16 fighter-bombers of the 401st U.S. Tactical Fighter Wing are responsible for protecting the southern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and U.S. defense officials are now scrambling to find a new European home for them.
-- Portugal informed the Reagan Administration in February that it wants more money than Congress has been willing to approve in exchange for continued U.S. access to Lajes Air Base in the Azores. The site is a vital mid-Atlantic refueling point for planes flying from the United States to the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
-- Greece is now in the midst of testy negotiations over whether to allow the United States to continue using four bases on its soil. There have been signs that Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou may ask the United States to leave the Hellenikon Air Base outside Athens, a base from which U.S. planes have conducted surveillance of Libya.
-- In the most important negotiation of all, the Reagan Administration has just begun talks with the Philippine government of President Corazon Aquino over the future of Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base, the two largest American military installations of their kind outside the continental United States. They provide the largest American ship repair facility anywhere outside this country and a vital stop-over point for flights from the continental United States to the Middle East.
Flurry of Controversies
U.S. officials say it is a fluke of bad luck or planning that so many high-profile base controversies have cropped up in so short a time. Yet they admit that even if these current disputes are settled, there will be more in the near future. In the next few years, the United States will have to renegotiate access to military facilities in places such as Kenya, Somalia, Oman and Liberia.
"In the 1990s, the (South) Koreans will be able to defend themselves," and the U.S. troops stationed in the country "will be there essentially for us, not for them," says a State Department official. ". . . Will the Koreans want to charge us rent? We just don't know. This is an issue we're just starting to look at with them."
Some critics of American defense policy argue that the actual value of having U.S. military outposts scattered around the world is now greatly overrated.