As the post-World War II rules-based order comes under the most serious assault since the Cold War, it is essential for Washington to have the defense infrastructure to project power where force is most needed. Unfortunately, a 20th-century framework serves only to address 20th-century problems. It is time to adjust America’s overseas basing in order to enable the United States to remain the leader of the free world.

By Michael Rubin

The USS Gerald R. Ford remains deployed off Israel’s coast, in theory, to provide assistance to the Jewish state but also perhaps to contain the spread of war.

The latest outbreak of conflict in the region sustains the pattern by which every administration that seeks to pivot away from the Middle East finds itself drawn back to the region. But it also focuses a spotlight on the military infrastructure that the United States has, and what it needs to pursue U.S. interests in the region.


As global challenges shift, American basing often remains static. Congress constrains the defense budget during times of peace, leading the Pentagon to shutter some bases, only to regret their absence when crises erupt. The footprint the United States now has is geared more to 20th-century challenges than 21st-century needs.

Lajes: Unwisely Abandoned

Consider, for example, Lajes Field in the Azores. Founded in the 1920s, the base became an important hub during World War II for both anti-submarine operations and air patrols to protect U.S. and allied shipping. Following the war, refueling aircraft based at Lajes helped extend the range and endurance of American air operations as the Cold War accelerated.

After an Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack began the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Nixon administration launched Operation Nickel Grass, an operation to airlift emergency supplies to Israel. Lajes Field became the central logistical node where aircraft could refuel on their way to Tel Aviv. The Obama administration’s decision to abandon the field, however, means the United States no longer has a base in the middle of the Atlantic — a base that could deny space to China in the region just as surely as it could serve as a logistical hub. Compounding that deficit is the drive of both China and the Russia-backed Wagner Group to establish themselves on Africa’s Atlantic Coast.

Incirlik: Time to Leave

In 1955, the United States established its presence in Turkey’s Adana Air Base, today known as Incirlik. While Incirlik did not play a role in the 1973 war, the United States relied on it both in the 1991 effort to liberate Kuwait and then to establish a no-fly zone to protect Iraqi Kurds.

After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Incirlik became a hub for operations against the Taliban. Turkey, however, is no longer a reliable ally. Not only do Turks openly threaten and even fire upon American forces, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also accused the USS Gerald R. Ford of serving a malevolent purpose in the region.

“What is the U.S. aircraft carrier doing in Israel? It will start to carry out serious massacres thereby striking, destroying Gaza,” Erdogan said on Oct. 10. Erdogan’s frustration also reflects his embrace of and open support for Hamas. Turkey may be in NATO, but it is not an ally when it matters.

Today, Turkey exploits Americans stationed at the Incirlik Air Base for populist political gain. After the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, Erdogan-supporting mobs surrounded the base, baying for the American officers inside, whom they falsely accused of complicity. In the past week, Turks again turned against the American presence with violence. Turkey, meanwhile, demands veto power over missions flown from the base.

While Incirlik was important during the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force presence at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania and the logistical presence at Alexandroupolis in Greece make Incirlik redundant. Greece has also expanded Souda Bay, a Greek and American naval base, giving the United States greater support and assets in the region. It is unfortunate that the Biden administration, for fear of upsetting the mercurial Erdogan, turned down offers by Greece to host another facility in Skyros.

Regardless, with gas fields coming online annually, the Eastern Mediterranean is strategically crucial to Western energy markets, in much the same way that the Persian Gulf was in the 20th century. But Incirlik is more a liability than an asset. The United States should leave.

The U.S. Military Has A Basing ProblemAl Udeid: Scale Back

The current crisis also shines a spotlight on Qatar. After 9/11, Qatar expanded the al-Udeid Air Base to host the regional headquarters of U.S. Central Command and to allow the United States to station forces there. In hindsight, Qatar may have invited the American presence less out of ideological sympathy and more as a way to immunize Qatar from the consequences of its dalliance with violent Islamist militant groups ranging from the Taliban to al-Shabaab and Hamas.

With Hamas leadership ensconced in Qatar, the U.S. relationship with the Persian Gulf emirate will be under the spotlight, especially with inevitable disputes about Qatar’s willingness to extradite Hamas leaders to stand trial for the murder of Americans. Qatar may have offered al-Udeid without cost, but there is no such thing as truly free.

While Al Udeid was an asset in the war against the Taliban, the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw and leave Afghanistan to the Taliban obviates the need for the base. Qatar’s strong economic and financial ties to Iran make it unlike Doha would ever allow the United States to use the base in any military operation against the Islamic Republic. Nor do the assets stationed at Al Udeid make the facility irreplaceable. More U.S. aircraft operated from Bahrain’s Isa Air Base during Operation Desert Storm, for example, than utilize Al Udeid.

Lemonnier: Time to Decamp for Berbera

While the State Department and Pentagon divide the world into neat geographical bureaus and commands, the national security concerns they face do not fall so evenly. The same terror threats that undermine security in the Middle East are also present in Africa.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush’s defense team established the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa to coordinate and conduct regional stability operations and then to oversee counterterrorism operations in both Yemen and across the broader region.

The task force is based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which was a logical choice. Djibouti, a former French coaling station, sits astride the Bab-el-Mandeb, one of the world’s great naval chokepoints. It can support American ships transiting the Suez Canal 1600 miles to the north, and serve as a staging point for Marines and Navy SEAL Teams.

Today, however, the problem is China. Not only has Beijing saddled Djibouti with debt, it has also established its own naval base in the tiny country, close enough to Camp Lemonnier to interfere with American aircraft and other operations. Should any crisis erupt, China has leverage over the Djiboutian government to shut down American operations.

The United States should maintain a presence in the region. Both the Islamic State and the Wagner Group threaten failed and poorly governed states across the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Eritrea and Somalia remain sources of instability, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s tendency to instigate military crises and set ethnic groups against each other keeps Ethiopia constantly on edge. The recent coup in Niger makes the future of the U.S. drone base in Agadez uncertain.

Perhaps it is time for the Pentagon to again consider Somaliland and its port and airfield at Berbera. The United States has had no military presence there for more than 30 years, and it does not recognize Somaliland’s independence from Somalia. During the Cold War, however, Berbera was a frequent port-of-call for the U.S. Navy. NASA considered its airfield an emergency landing strip for the space shuttle program, and President Jimmy Carter used the base as a launch pad and logistical base for his Rapid Deployment Force.

Against the backdrop of the Yemen War, the United Arab Emirates refurbished the Berbera airport, while Dubai World and British investors have transformed the deep-water port into a state-of-the-art facility able to accommodate more ships than the Port of Mombasa in Kenya. Importantly, Somaliland is both pro-American and a democracy. It allies with Taiwan, while authorities in Mogadishu have cast their lot with the Chinese Communist Party.

The active phase of the Israel-Hamas war will last weeks, but the lessons the war highlights will run deeper. Vacuums are malignant. Terrorists exploit them. As the Middle East and Africa teeter on the brink of open warfare, and the Wagner Group runs rampant across the Sahel, it is essential that the United States have the facilities it needs to quickly respond to challenges without empowering the very states financing the chaos.

As the post-World War II rules-based order comes under the most serious assault since the Cold War, it is essential for Washington to have the defense infrastructure to project power where force is most needed. Unfortunately, a 20th-century framework serves only to address 20th-century problems. It is time to adjust America’s overseas basing in order to enable the United States to remain the leader of the free world.

Michael RubinAbout Michael Rubin

Senior Fellow

Research Areas

Arab politics, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Horn of Africa

Bio & Experience

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.

A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.


    • Foreign Military Studies Office: Contract Analyst, 2012–present
    • Naval Postgraduate School: Senior Lecturer, 2007–21
    • Middle East Quarterly: Editor, 2004–09
    • Coalition Provisional Authority (Baghdad): Political Adviser, 2003–04
    • Office of the Secretary of Defense: Staff Adviser, Iran and Iraq, 2002–04
    • Council on Foreign Relations: International Affairs Fellow, 2002–03
    • Hebrew University (Jerusalem): Fellow, The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, 2001–02
    • Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs: Fellow, 2000–01
    • Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok (Iraqi Kurdistan): Visiting Lecturer, 2000–01
    • Yale University: Lecturer, Department of History, 1999–2000
    • Iranian Studies: Assistant Editor, 1994–97


Ph.D. and MA in history; BS in biology, Yale University


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