Time to Rethink US Bases in Asia (Page 2 of 3)

Believing that the United States was impeding normalization efforts between North and South Korea, and that it had been a supporter of military crackdowns against pro-democracy efforts, students directed violent, flame-throwing protests at US military installations in South Korea.

In Japan, meanwhile, the situation was less violent but politically more severe. In September 1995, three US military servicemen brutally raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. The senior US Commander in the region remarked that the soldiers should have just procured a prostitute, triggering the largest anti-American protests in Japan since 1960. Okinawa, Japan's poorest prefecture, nonetheless hosts the majority of the US military capacity in Japan, with 39 distinct US military facilities on the island.  

During the Cold War, the sacrifice made by Okinawa in ‘carrying the burden’ of hosting these bases and US personnel was more easily justified. Since then, the rationale has shifted from everything from deterring North Korea to them being a bulwark against growing Chinese power—anything to keep the huge land assets of the Pentagon in the Pacific in place.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

When I spoke to South Koreans and Okinawans at the time, I regularly heard comments along the lines that they felt ‘occupied.’  Indeed, before a revision in security guidelines between the United States and Japan after the rape incident, the US controlled more than 80 percent of Okinawa's air space. One senior activist told me that while the protests of the Okinawans would be peaceful for the most part, in the long run the United States should worry about groups self-organizing and possibly beginning to throw Molotov cocktails at US trucks and installations—and threatening personnel and their dependents. This didn't happen (or at least hasn't happened yet), but counting on docility ‘permanently’ may be a major blind spot of Pentagon planners. While suicide terrorism wasn’t brewing in Okinawa, the impulse to reject the logic of large-scale, long term basing of US troops on Japanese soil was.

But in parts of the world less accustomed to US military personnel, the reaction has been more virulent.  

Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago and the director of the new website mega-data base on suicide terrorism the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (CPOST), is now being sought out by the highest levels of the US military and intelligence bureaucracies to share his research.

The Pentagon's leadership prides itself on hearing not just material that supports its current course, but being open to alternative scenarios to consider military threats—and it’s most easily convinced by solid empirical data.

So Pape and his co-author Feldman have broken down every recorded suicide terrorist incident since 1980, and noted an eruption of such incidents since 2004. From 1980-2003, there were 350 suicide attacks in the world, only 15 percent of which were anti-American. But in the five-year period since, from 2004-2009, there have been 1,833 suicide attacks, 92 percent of which were anti-American.  

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief