WESLEY CLARK AND RICHARD HOLBROOKE ARE MAKING A MISTAKE in their criticism of President Bush’s military realignment plan. Clark went the farthest in a DNC arranged conference call, by saying that the proposal “will significantly undermine U.S. national security.” All of a sudden, leading national security democrats are becoming base-huggers, and this is bad for the Democratic Party and country.
There are more than 750 U.S. military installations outside of the United States — and many of these are anachronistic remnants from the Cold War. Many in Europe and Japan are just not necessary any longer, and many underestimate the negative impacts that long term U.S. bases can have on local host populations.
Bush’s own proposal is confused and has many wrong-headed points, particularly in focusing on troop withdrawals from South Korea when in fact we should be focused on scaling down our presence in Japan, particularly by withdrawing the 3rd Marine Division from Okinawa — and consolidating those functions into Guam, Hawaii, or San Diego. Japan, despite a well-known anti-war clause (Article 9) in its constitution, spends more on military armaments and defense than any other nation in the world except the United States. It even beats China for the time being.
But the U.S. has maintained bases in Japan since 1945, and many Japanese argue that to some degree America’s occupation of Japan (which officially ended in 1952; and ended in 1972 in Okinawa) never fully ended because of the continued presence of about 47,000 U.S. troops there.
In 1995, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Joseph Nye launched what came to be known as the “Nye Initiative,” which was to reassure allies in Asia and Europe that America would not draw down troops beyond roughly 100,000 in each region. This shocked many in Japan, and particularly Okinawa, a small island, which hosts more than 80% of the entire American troop presence in 39 separate military facilities there. Okinawans, and particularly then Governor Masahide Ota, had wanted the U.S. presence on Okinawa to shrink because the Americans simply occupied too much of the available land and air space on the island. Until just a few years ago, the U.S. military controlled 85% of the air space around Okinawa.
Things began to change, slightly, after the brutal rape of a 12-year old school girl by three American servicemen. The largest civil protests in Japan against the U.S. presence since 1960 were ignited by this incident and other crimes by American military personnel — and America agreed to a set of base reduction commitments that have gone significantly unfulfilled.
One of the worst grievances that Okinawans have with American bases is the controversial Futenma Air Station, a Marine facility located in the middle of Ginowan City near Naha, Okinawa. I have been to this base — and the congestion of overcrowded urbanization surrounding this air installation is quite remarkable. The noise which the Okinawans complain about is no joke. I could not speak with or hear my guides while standing on a small hill overlooking the installation — and the chance of accidents by helicopters or other aircraft is huge — and this just happened this last week on August 13th when a Marine helicopter crashed into Okinawa International University.
The point is that there have been numerous high quality analyses that the 3rd Marine Division ought to be moved off of Okinawa — and even Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Japan desk National Security Council advisor to the President Michael Green, and even Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz intimated that such flexibility with regard to the Marines should be pursued in the so-called “Armitage Report,” which was published just before the 2000 election. I will link both the report and my own critique of it, but the point remains that these policy hands signed on to a strategy that pointed to the importance of Japan being at the forefront of some serious realignment.
Instead, it seems that Bush’s team has mostly avoided Japan; and to the degree that realignment is being discussed, they are proposing that base functions from some Okinawa installations be moved into Japan’s main islands. This will make local populations on Honshu and elsewhere explode as they worked for decades to get the U.S. military largely moved off of the main islands of Japan and squeezed down into Okinawa. These kinds of discussions only further the sense that many in Japan have that the country is not really sovereign and is in fact a subordinate to rather than a partner of the United States.
When bases are established abroad, there may be very understandable rationale for those basing decisions — which both host nation and the U.S. understand. But over time, that rationale erodes. Over time, the bases that seem at first to be anchors of stability in unstable regions later become instigators of instability and flash points that radicalize host populations.
This was clearly the case in Saudi Arabia — but the same is true in less toxic terms in Okinawa. Okinawa was once an independent nation and is historically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from Japan. It has the poorest economy of all Japan’s prefectures and carries 80% of the hosting responsibility for U.S. troops. This seems to me to be an unhealthy situation — particularly when the U.S. troop presence has been there for nearly 60 years.
Michael O’Hanlon and Michael Mochizuki did a good study some years ago of U.S. troops in Japan and noted that when American forces were on high alert during a 1994 crisis involving North Korea, which Jimmy Carter later diffused, the Marines on Okinawa were not on alert and would not have been used in a conflict in North Korea, other than clean up operations. Instead, forces at Camp Pendleton and in Hawaii were being mobilized — thus exposing the irrelevance of these Okinawa-based troops.
We need to get out of our Cold War architecture — and a modernization and realignment plan, the right one, makes sense.
Wesley Clark, Richard Holbrooke and other stalwarts of the “we believe in a strong military” wing of the Democratic Party need to debate the details of a base realignment — not whether to do it or not. The dollars that American taxpayers pump into the Pentagon amount to nearly 55% of what the entire world spends on defense, which means that we spend more than all other countries in the world on defense. We should get greater returns for our investment — which means changing how we achieve stability and security.
Bush gave no sense of what basing priorities matter most in his VFW speech and has a big blind spot when it comes to weighing the irrelevance of bases in Japan vs. the more symbolically and substantively important deployments in Korea. He disingenuously criticized Kerry for calling for U.S. troop levels to be drawn down in Iraq after six months and then argues himself for a global troop draw down and pull back to U.S. based installations.
So Democrats, run with this and beat Bush to the punch. Get behind Department of Defense reform and base realignment that generate greater security deliverables for the nation.
Bush still hasn’t articulated this well — and John Kerry and his advisors could score some important points here.
But bland base-hugging is stale, outdated, and a losing strategy.
— Steve Clemons