Anti-military activists overseas are learning what American peaceniks have found out over the course of the past 18 months: Despite President Obama’s feel-good rhetoric, strategic realities sometimes do win out over peace-movement platitudes.
The latest blow is the decision by Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to keep U.S. forces on the island of Okinawa under the terms of an agreement reached in 2006. Some on the island had hoped U.S. troops would be removed. Expectations were high after the 2008 U.S. election, when the Obamamania tsunami swept over the island. “We hope that the new U.S. administration will give a full consideration to the voices of Okinawa, who do not want a replacement airport for Marine Corps Air Station on the island,” said Zenshin Takamine, speaker of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, in December 2008. Expectations soared when Mr. Hatoyama, a charismatic, left-leaning Japanese Democrat, became prime minister in September 2009 after mounting his own hope-and-change campaign in which he promised to find a way to remove U.S. forces.
But Mr. Obama was not the hoped-for agent of change, and Mr. Hatoyama has backed off his campaign promise. More than 90,000 disappointed Okinawans took to the streets last month to rally against the American presence, and Mr. Takamine denounced Obama policies that treat Okinawa as a “U.S. colony.” Some members of Mr. Hatoyama’s party are suggesting he resign for breaking his pledge.
National security won out over local politics. Mr. Hatoyama apologized for breaking his campaign promise and told Okinawans, “I can’t allow the deterrent power of the U.S. forces in Japan, including the Marine Corps, to decline, given that the security environment in East Asia remains fragile.” Okinawa, located between the southern tip of Japan’s main islands and Taiwan, is prime strategic real estate; Marine Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder said Okinawa is “in the perfect place in the region.”
Recent events have demonstrated that the Asian part of the Pacific Rim remains a dangerous neighborhood. The crisis over North Korea torpedoing the South Korean gunboat Cheonan in March is a case in point. The potential looms for a wider conflict that could involve Japan and America. Tokyo is also wary of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which represents a potential threat to the Japanese mainland, all of which is within range of Pyongyang’s missiles. China raised further concerns when it sent eight destroyers and two submarines on an apparent training cruise near Okinawa last month. Given ongoing squabbles between the United States and Japan over Okinawa, this was an uncharacteristically maladroit move on Beijing’s part. China was making the case for the Marines to stay put.
The 65-year-old U.S.-Japanese alliance, which improbably was forged after bitter conflict in World War II, is durable, useful and necessary. Both countries have significant mutual security and economic interests in East Asia, and Okinawa is a prime location for basing a credible deterrent force with the capacity to respond swiftly to any military threat. The alternatives - such as moving the force to mainland Japan, which already hosts around half of the U.S. commitment of about 50,000 troops in Japan; or simply withdrawing altogether - would diminish the deterrent capacity of the U.S. presence and consequently increase the potential that they might have to actually fight.
Maintaining U.S. forces on Okinawa may not please some of the locals, but it’s in their interest and the interests of their country. Maintaining the U.S.-Japanese alliance is an unexpected show of vigor in Mr. Obama’s otherwise shaky approach to national security. Perhaps the O Force will bring this sense of realism to other, less successful aspects of its global strategy.