Being a superpower once meant never having to say you’re sorry. No more, however. The U.S. presence in Japan’s Okinawa island is drawing renewed protests that even the humblest apology will do little to arrest.

We may be living in a post-Cold War world, but the Clinton administration is determined to maintain every Cold War commitment. No matter how great the changes abroad, Washington must continue to defend every old client and several new ones.

The most obvious burden is felt by U.S. citizens, who must man the armed services and pay the military bill. But they aren’t the only losers. So are many of the people supposedly being protected.

Nowhere is this more obvious than Okinawa, set to play host to the upcoming Group of Eight summit. Two U.S. Marines were arrested in late June after getting into a fight with a taxi driver; in early July another marine was arrested for fondling a 14-year-old girl; a few days later, an air force sergeant was charged in a hit-and-run accident.

Violence against residents is nothing new. Five years ago, three marines raped a 12-year-old girl. The island exploded in protest, forcing Tokyo and Washington to promise to reduce the burden of the U.S. presence.

But nothing happened. So the cycle has restarted.

Once an independent kingdom, the Ryukyu Islands eventually fell under the control of an expanding Imperial Japan. On April 1, 1945, the United States invaded Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyus. An incredible 237,000 people, mostly Japanese, died. Half of the Japanese dead were civilians, creating bitterness toward the mainland that persists today.

Japan surrendered four months later and the U.S. signed a peace treaty with Japan in 1951. Washington retained control of the island, leaving Japan with only “residual sovereignty.” The U.S. seized private land at bayonet point to expand military facilities during the Korean War.

Japan finally regained formal control of the islands in 1972, but the U.S. continues to treat Okinawa as a private preserve. U.S. facilities take up one-fifth of the island and host some 30,000 servicemen and nearly as many family members.

The burden is particularly high in the more populous south. U.S. operations consume a majority of the land area of four communities — including an extraordinary 83 percent of Kadena. A normal life is impossible when fences topped with barbed wire line major roads and divide communities, and when businesses, homes, roads and schools abut U.S. bases. Many of the island’s air and sea lanes are controlled by the U.S. military.

It would be bad enough if island residents simply had to put up with the accidents, congestion and noise that normally result. But the heavy concentration of young, foreign males guarantees that Okinawans will suffer in other ways as well.

The 1995 rape was not the first such crime, but it seemed to awaken people’s frustrations. Taking the lead in articulating protest was Gov. Masahide Ota, a scholar and author elected on the platform of reducing the U.S. presence. Mass demonstrations led to the creation of a commission to examine the issue.

But five years later, the U.S. military continues to dominate the island. And U.S. troops continue to victimize local residents.

After the latest incident, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston visited Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine to make a formal apology. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley expressed his “profound regret” to the Japanese foreign minister. The military imposed a late-night curfew and strict limits on drinking.

But Washington’s official acts of contrition are far too little, too late. It’s time to bring the U.S. forces home.

The island was turned into a U.S. military stronghold in a very different era. America’s enemies have been disappearing and America’s allies have been growing.

Of course, all is not well: China menaces Taiwan; North Korea retains a threatening military; Indonesia is sliding toward bloody chaos.

However, the answer to the first problem is to arm Taiwan to defend itself, not risk war with a nuclear-armed power. The marines in Okinawa are not needed to defend populous and prosperous South Korea. Outside intervention, especially by a few thousand U.S. ground troops, offers no solution to internal instability like that in Indonesia.

Japan, South Korea, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other allied powers should take on responsibility for regional security. Leaving Okinawa would not mean a lack of concern about East Asia’s future. Washington should watch warily, prepared to act as distant balancer if a potential hegemon threatened to overwhelm America’s friends.

Okinawans have been extraordinarily patient. There’s no justification for demanding that they continue to bear a disproportionate share of the U.S. military burden. Washington should leave Okinawa to the Okinawans.

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