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Time to Bring the Troops Home | The Nation

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Time to Bring the Troops Home

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The United States is today virtually the only nation on earth that maintains large contingents of its armed forces in other people's countries. After World War II and during the cold war, the United States built a chain of military bases stretching from Japan and South Korea through Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia to Diego Garcia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, England and Iceland--in effect ringing the Soviet Union and China with thousands of overseas military installations. In Japan alone, following the Korean War, there were 600 US installations and approximately 200,000 troops. There are still today, ten years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, some 800 Defense Department facilities outside the United States, ranging from radio relay stations to major air bases. To those unlucky enough to live near them (sometimes dependent on them for work or customers), these military outposts often appear less like "peacekeepers" than occupiers.

About the Author

Chalmers Johnson
Chalmers Johnson is the author of more than a dozen books, including Revolutionary Change (Stanford), Blowback: The...

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The United States no longer has the capability to remain a global hegemon, and to pretend otherwise is to invite disaster.

As Congress and Obama wrangle over the cost of much-needed domestic expenditures, no one suggests that closing some of these unpopular, expensive imperial enclaves might be a good way to save some money.

In East Asia, the United States maintains massive and expensive military forces poised to engage in everything from nuclear war to sabotage of governments that Washington finds inconvenient (for example, the government of former President Suharto in Indonesia, which in May 1998 the US government helped to bring down via troops its Special Forces had trained). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States still deploys some 100,000 military personnel and close to an equal number of civilian workers and dependents in Japan and South Korea. These forces include the Third Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa and Japan; the Second Infantry Division in South Korea; numerous Air Force squadrons in both countries (Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa is the largest US military installation outside the United States); the Seventh Fleet, with its headquarters in Yokosuka, Japan, patrolling the China coast and anywhere else that it wants to go; and innumerable submarine pens (for example, White Beach, Okinawa), support facilities, clandestine eavesdropping and intelligence-collecting units, Special Forces and staff and headquarters installations all over the Pacific.

From approximately 1950 to 1990, the US government invoked the cold war to justify these so-called forward deployments--actually, in less euphemistic language, imperialist outposts. During the late 1940s, when it became apparent that the Chinese Communist Party was going to win the Chinese civil war, the United States reversed its policy of attempting to democratize occupied Japan and devoted itself to making Japan Washington's leading satellite in East Asia. The United States entered into an informal economic bargain with Japan: In return for Japan's willingness to tolerate the indefinite deployment of US weapons and troops on its soil, the United States would give it preferential access to the American market and would tolerate its protectionism and mercantilism. These were advantages the United States did not extend to its European allies or Latin American neighbors in the cold war.

Oddly enough, this policy is still in effect some fifty-four years after it was first implemented. In return for hosting 40,000 US troops and an equal number of dependents in ninety-one US-controlled bases, Japan still has privileged access to the US economy and still maintains protectionist barriers against US sales and investment in the Japanese market. The overall results of this policy became apparent in the 1970s and led to acute problems for the US economy in the 1980s--namely, huge excess manufacturing capacity in Japan and the hollowing out of US manufacturing industries. The costs for the United States have been astronomical. During the year 2000 alone, it recorded its largest trade deficit ever, of which $81 billion was with Japan. During the mid-1980s, Japan became the world's largest creditor nation and the United States became the world's largest debtor nation, thereby turning upside down the original assumptions on which US economic policies toward Japan were based. But neither the United States nor Japan made any changes in its old trade-for-bases deal, despite occasional and futile protests by US business interests.

Meanwhile, from the point of view of US elites committed to maintaining hegemony on a global basis, the sudden and unpredicted collapse of the Soviet Union in the period 1989 to 1991 was a disaster. They had to find some new justifications for their overseas presence, particularly in East Asia, where Japan's inherent power and the emergence of a commercially oriented China offered implicit challenges to the old American order. Among these justifications, one of the cleverest was the so-called two-war strategy, which requires the US military establishment to be able to fight two large wars on opposite sides of the globe at the same time. The beauty of this formulation is that it avoids specifying which nations might conceivably want to go to war with the United States and ignores the historical fact that in America's most recent wars--Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Yugoslavia--no second nation (on the other side of the globe or nearby) challenged it.

More concretely, Pentagon strategists have tried to find replacement enemies for the former USSR by demonizing North Korea and muttering ominously about China's successful transition from a Leninist command economy to a state-guided market system resembling the other successful capitalist countries of East Asia. Until June 2000, North Korea was routinely described as an extremely threatening "rogue state." Then, on the initiative of the South Korean president, the two Koreas began to negotiate their own reconciliation without asking for US permission. The possibility that North and South Korea might achieve some form of peaceful coexistence totally undercuts the main US rationale for a "national missile defense" and a "theater missile defense."

Regardless of which ventriloquist is in charge of him on any given day, George W. Bush shows no sign of comprehending these matters. In March, when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, last year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, visited Washington to ask for help in pursuing his country's rapprochement with the North, the newly designated "leader of the free world" rudely brushed him off. Korea policy has become a plaything of Congressional Republican mastodons, and the Bush White House seems much more interested in pleasing them than in the situation in East Asia. It is easy for the United States to attempt to bully both the North and South Koreas; it has been doing so since 1945.

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