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Let’s Push Democratic Presidential Hopefuls to Address U.S. Bases on Okinawa

If Democrats want to cut back on our 800-some overseas military bases, there is no better place to start than Okinawa.

People raise "Never Surrender" signs at a rally against Henoko relocation at Okinawa Cellular Stadium Naha, May 1, 2015.

As Democratic presidential contenders gear up for the next debate on December 19, they are addressing many issues around foreign policy. However, it seems that all of them are neglecting to even discuss one major issue.

Roughly one in eight overseas U.S. troops are in Okinawa, Japan. The U.S. maintains 31 military facilities there, all without securing Okinawa’s consent. A new base — supposedly replacing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in another part of the island — is under construction at Henoko. In two consecutive gubernatorial elections, candidates opposing the base won by landslides, and in a prefectural referendum this February, 72 percent of Okinawan voters said “no” to reclamation for the base. The right-wing Japanese government (and ours) ignores all that, persisting with the environmentally ruinous construction.

Okinawans continue almost daily efforts to obstruct — however briefly — the reclamation, objecting to heinous crimes, including rape and murder, committed by U.S. personnel; aircraft incidents and accidents; disruptive noise; toxic leaks; the harm done to Okinawa’s economy by bases occupying the best land; and the militarization of their islands that makes them an inevitable target in any regional conflict. To make matters worse, Okinawans are effectively denied any say in these matters deeply impacting their lives. The Okinawan government fights back in Japanese courts, but the latter almost invariably act as a rubber stamp for the central government in matters impinging on security.

While protesting Okinawans are not being mowed down in the streets, they’ve been mistreated by both police and the Japanese Coast Guard. Protest leader Yamashiro Hiroji was subjected to a cruel five-month detention under harsh conditions. And the fact that U.S. participation in Okinawans’ subjugation has gone on for over seven decades should count for something. How long must they wait for us to pay attention?

As on most issues, President Trump is primarily focused on financial matters. Hence, he reportedly proposed seeking compensation from Tokyo for the transfer of Futenma to Henoko, imagining it to be “a sort of land-grab.” He is also demanding sharply increased payments of “host-nation support” by Tokyo for U.S. bases in Japan (which are concentrated in Okinawa). No doubt, the obscenity of forcing Okinawans to pay higher taxes for the bases that afflict them escapes him.

No foreign policy that tacitly accepts the infliction of a military base on a population that repeatedly and resoundingly says “no” can be called “progressive.”

Organizations like Veterans For Peace and dissident writers Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein have shown solidarity with Okinawa, but the needle won’t move until political leaders speak out. As it stands, no national-level U.S. politician in living memory has shown any qualms about imposing a crushing burden of U.S. bases on the people of Okinawa. Given the bipartisan consensus for this policy, the corporate media are mostly silent as well. On the rare occasions that mainstream media do cover Okinawan resistance, they either portray the U.S. as an innocent bystander to a conflict between Okinawa and Tokyo, or give the last word to U.S. officials who insist that the bases are crucial to national security. It’s no accident that a few months of protests in Hong Kong have gotten far more column inches in The New York Times than have decades of protest in Okinawa.

When we don’t even talk about an issue, we give the government free rein to do as it pleases.

This wall of silence won’t be broken until a prominent political leader has the courage to speak out about Okinawa. Only then will presidential candidates be asked for their views on the debate stage. Only then will Americans have a chance to confront our injustice toward Okinawa. Only then will U.S. officials be forced to defend their indefensible policy, and if pressed hard enough, abandon it.

Pressuring Democrats to Address Okinawa

The short-lived presidential campaign of Mike Gravel was notable for a platform calling for closure of all overseas military bases, specifically mentioning those in Okinawa. Aside from Gravel, the only Democratic candidate known to have addressed the Okinawa base issue is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who in 2016 employed the aforementioned innocent bystander to a domestic dispute dodge: “Of course, the U.S. government is not going to get involved.” But the U.S. is deeply involved in Okinawa’s oppression, and having Japan as a collaborator does not lessen our responsibility, any more than in the case of our collaborations with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

While many of the candidates advocate progressive stances on domestic issues, most hew closely to establishment orthodoxy on national security. For them, whatever the Pentagon says goes, and there is little reason to hope that Okinawa would be an exception. Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren, while opposing endless wars, has shown little concern for the foreign victims of U.S. foreign policy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, however, has taken bold progressive stands on Yemen, Palestine and Bolivia. For his foreign policy based on a commitment to human rights that won’t evaporate at the merest invocation of the magic words “national security,” Sanders deserves a great deal of credit. But his supporters deserve credit as well, for without the pressure they applied, he might not have taken these stands. Time and again, after an event like the coup in Bolivia, supporters take to social media, asking “Where’s Bernie on this?” And a day or two later, Sanders comes out with a strong statement.

But like the other candidates, Sanders has yet to speak out on the issue of U.S. bases in Okinawa.

The Democratic presidential hopefuls must call for an immediate stop to the construction at Henoko and for the expeditious closure of Futenma, with no replacement on Okinawa. This is not a radical position, as the strategic case for siting the base there is paper thin.

If Democrats want to cut back on our 800-some overseas military bases, there is no better place to start than Okinawa.

No foreign policy that tacitly accepts the infliction of a military base on a population that repeatedly and resoundingly says “no” can be called “progressive.” Sometimes, even the most courageous politician needs a gentle push. Let’s not miss the best chance we’ve ever had to achieve justice for Okinawa.

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