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Keeping troops overseas isn't as trouble-free as McCain says

A rally in Okinawa, Japan, denounces U.S. troops after police arrested a Marine accused of raping a 14-year-old girl in February.

Associated Press

A rally in Okinawa, Japan, denounces U.S. troops after police arrested a Marine accused of raping a 14-year-old girl in February.

Sen. John McCain's Democratic rivals have tried to portray him as a warmonger because of his comment that "it's fine with me" if U.S. troops remain in Iraq for 100 years.

Widely ignored is the rest of McCain's quote: A 100-year stay is fine "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed." And, McCain noted, "We've been in South Korea, we've been in Japan for 60 years."

That's true, give or take a few years. But neither case is a ringing endorsement of extended U.S. military deployments on foreign soil.

On the Japanese island of Okinawa — where most of the Americans have been based since World War II — countless rapes and other crimes committed by U.S. troops have embittered the populace.

"The hatred of the U.S. in Okinawa is palpable," says Chalmers Johnson, president of California's Japan Policy Research Institute. "They've been living next door to young, arrogant Marines who believe it's a sexual playground."

And to many South Koreans, the long American presence in their country is a reminder of tacit U.S. support for a series of ruthless despots.

"South Korea between '61 and '89 was ruled by some of the worst military dictators created during the Cold War," Johnson says. "Finally the Koreans got rid of them and have quite a healthy democracy now. But all the credit goes to the Koreans — there is a terrible tendency for Americans to mislead themselves about the good things they have done in East Asia."

The deployment of millions of U.S. troops after World War II and the Korean War undoubtedly helped stabilize the region and protect other countries from feared Chinese or North Korean aggression. But Johnson argues that the entire region today is so driven by the quest to make money that the threat of serious hostilities is virtually nil.

"The fundamental challenges now are that China is the largest and fastest-growing economy and the nature of the game is economics," Johnson says. "The attempt to deal with this with the 7th Fleet and cruise missiles is simply outdated."

If the 73,000 troops in East Asia have outlived their welcome, the U.S. military is still viewed with great fondness in at least one country — Germany. Since 1945, as many as 15-million Americans have been stationed there, bolstering the German economy and creating bonds that turned onetime enemies into close allies.

The Germans, who were physically divided by the Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989, also regard the continual U.S. presence as a big factor in the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reunification of East and West Germany.

But the positive U.S. experience there doesn't mean a long troop stay in Iraq would yield similarly good results.

"One of the ways that Iraq and Germany differ is that when we went into Germany we had hundreds of thousands of soldiers all over the country so there was no way for any kind of insurgency or attack or blowing up of buildings," says Jackson Janes, executive director of German studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"Germany also had a history of democratic government in contrast to Iraq. The Germans were able to get back up and running."

The fragility of the Iraqi government — it's on its third prime minister in five years — is a potential pitfall for the United States in the current negotiations to provide long-term security for Iraq, another expert warns.

"It's really important in signing an agreement that we're not perceived as tying ourselves to a particular Iraqi regime," says Alexander Cooley, a Barnard College professor and expert on U.S. bases. "One of the things that's gotten us in trouble before in places like Korea or the Philippines is that we're perceived to be supporting an unpopular regime."

Johnson, the Japan expert, thinks both Iraqis and Japanese are too dependent on American troops. In the case of Japan, which pays the United States about $2-billion a year to defend it, the Japanese have received the benefits of the world's most advanced army with few of the responsibilities.

"They've gotten used to a free ride," Johnson says. "I've had senior Japanese say to me, 'I'm scared to death you might leave because it's been so long since we've made our own decisions about security or anything.' "

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

The world's policeman

As of September, U.S. military personnel were stationed in 149 countries. These are the top bases and the year of original deployment:

Iraq 218,500* (2003)

Germany 57,080 (1945)

Japan 32,803 (1945)

South Korea 27,014 (1950)

Afghanistan 25,240 (2001)

Italy 9,855 (1955)

United Kingdom 9,825 (1941)

Djibouti 2,100 (2001)

Turkey 1,594 (1951)

* In and around Iraq

Source: Defense Department

Keeping troops overseas isn't as trouble-free as McCain says 04/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 3:33pm]
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