Democracy Thwarts US Base Plans

This March, the Obamas will touch down in the U.S. territory of Guam, en route to Australia and Indonesia. It’s a big deal for this tiny Pacific island seven-and-a-half hours by plane from Hawaii and, according to airport placards, “where America’s day begins.” Two senators from Guam, Judith P. Guthertz and Rory J. Respicio, have already written to ask the president “to meet a few of your fellow Americans,” instead of the typical orchestrated “pit stop” behind the gates of Andersen Air Force Base.

Obama’s stop-over may be designed to smooth the difficult road ahead for the U.S. military. The Pentagon is shifting bases and soldiers in the Asia Pacific — not surprisingly, without consent of the residents of these countries. But it’s not just local people in Guam, South Korea, Okinawa, and elsewhere who are affected by the increased militarization of the region. The natural environment is at risk through military contamination and through the high military use of oil, a possible factor in climate change.  

Guam-Okinawa Connection

The Bush administration made plans to shift 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa (Japan) to Guam. In addition to support staff, contractors and family members, the total number will be closer to 50,000 people.

This overall deal between the United States and Japan is estimated to cost $26 billion, with the tab largely picked up by Japan. According to the agreement, the Japanese government must fund a new state-of-the-art Marines base to be built alongside an endangered coral reef in Nago (northern Okinawa). This new facility would replace Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, which is currently situated in a dense urban area. The land would then return to Okinawa — presumably after the cleanup of environmental contamination — and 8,000 Marines would go to Guam.

Okinawans have been campaigning for years to be rid of U.S. bases, which were established at the end of World War II. These bases have been the source of noise and environmental pollution, accidents, and crime committed by U.S. soldiers, including violence against women and girls. In a 1998 referendum, Nago voters opposed the new base. When Japanese authorities tried to go ahead with the plan, activists took to their kayaks and fishing boats to block construction, and ultimately disrupted exploratory drilling of the coral reef. The Japanese government tried to find another location in Okinawa or even mainland Japan, but no community agreed to have the new Marines base in their area.

Despite the efforts of the two governments, democracy continues to get in the way of this multi-billion dollar deal between Washington and Tokyo.

On August 30, 2009, the patient and determined campaigning by the Japanese peace movement paid off. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which promised to review the U.S.-Japan military alliance, defeated the ruling coalition that had been in power for over 50 years. Many of the newly elected representatives criticized Japanese acquiescence toward U.S. foreign policy; others resented U.S. “occupation mentality.” In response, both U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama made hasty visits to Tokyo, invoking the importance of the alliance and pressing the new government to keep the Okinawa-Guam deal afloat. But the tide of public opinion had turned; the Japanese media branded Gates a “bully” and bridled at such “high-handed treatment.”

The political momentum against the relocation of the U.S. Marines base has continued to build. At the end of January 2010, Nago voters elected a mayor who is also against the base. Japanese representatives came to Washington to meet with their congressional counterparts, while in Tokyo thousands protested the proposed Marines base, thus reopening what the military assumed was a done deal.

Resistance in Guam

Despite increasing opposition to the transfer of thousands of U.S. troops, the people of Guam are constrained in their ability to influence the political process. Since the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States has controlled Guam (or Guåhan in the Chamorro language). With a population of 173,456 represented by one non-voting delegate in the U.S. Congress, the island is one of 16 remaining non-self-governing territories listed by the United Nations. Residents are U.S. citizens, but they are not entitled to vote in presidential elections. Most federal-territorial affairs are made in Washington, nearly 8,000 miles away.

The voices of the Guam Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders have been elevated in this process. In their view, the militarization of the island is the only viable boost to Guam’s weak economy. Contractors, from Washington, DC and Hawaii to the Philippines and Japan, are jockeying for a piece of the action. "On Capitol Hill, the conversation has been restricted to whether the jobs expected from the military construction should go to the mainland Americans, foreign workers or Guam residents," says Democracy Now reporter Juan Gonzalez. "But we rarely hear the voices and concerns of the indigenous people of Guam, who constitute over a third of the island’s population."

The U.S. military already takes up a third of the island. The additional troops will bring this up to 40 percent. Formed from two volcanoes, Guam’s rocky core constitutes an unsinkable aircraft carrier, 30 miles long and eight miles wide. Not only is the economy geared toward servicing the military, the bases are now occupying once productive land. Prior to WWII, Guam was self-sufficient in agriculture. Today, the island imports 90 percent of its food.

Listen to the People

Following the Nago election, The Washington Post quoted Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, commander of U.S. Marine forces in the Pacific as saying, "National security policy cannot be made in towns and villages."

Really? Do national security and military objectives trump democracy?

Obama is both commander-in-chief of the U.S. military and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. His experience growing up in Hawaii and working as a community organizer also uniquely qualify him to listen to Guam senators and community members such as We Are Guåhan, a grassroots organization. We Are Guåhan include the voices of people from diverse ethnic and professional backgrounds, who advocate for transparency and democratic participation in decisions regarding the future of their island. Obama should hear their deep concerns about the impact of 50,000 extra people on their already weak infrastructure, fragile ecosystem, and island culture. These have been much expressed in town-hall meetings and in community responses to the military’s 11,000-page environmental impact statement.

Obama should also listen to respected historians like Hope Cristobal, a former Guam senator, and to women professional and community leaders active inFuetsen Famalao’an, who came together out of concern over the military buildup. He should visit the Hurao School that teaches young children Chamorro language and culture. He should hear the Chamorro people’s deep love for their land as they seek to honor their ancestors and provide for their children.

The president should do more than just listen, of course. The Obama administration should rethink the expansion of bases in Okinawa, Guam, and South Korea. Washington has repeatedly stated that the transfer of 8,000 Marines to Guam will “reduce the burden” on Okinawa. So then why does the military want a new Marines base in Nago?  The United States should stop the building of yet another base in Okinawa and not redirect Okinawa’s burden to Guam.   

The Obama administration should do more by allocating a small fraction of the $700 billion-plus Pentagon budget to underwrite job training across the entire nation, including Guam. This money could provide residents of Guam with needed medical facilities, clean up contaminated water supplies (Andersen AFB sits on top of an underground aquifer), and provide for sustainable projects.

The U.S. Congress can also play a positive role by amending the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include Guam on the list of “downwind” areas affected by atmospheric nuclear testing in Micronesia in the 1950s. At the same time, Congress should support the Republic of the Marshall Islands Changed Circumstances Petition for adequate compensation for personal injuries, property damage, medical care, and radiological monitoring related to nuclear testing conducted in the Marshall Islands.   

Elsewhere in the region, the United States should rethink the imminent plan to build a new U.S. Navy base on Jeju Island in the southern part of Korea. Villagers of Gangjeong have resisted this construction by blocking roads until their arrest by South Korean police in January 2010.  This proposed base would house Aegis destroyers, outfitted with missile defense systems to target China. It would also destroy local people’s way of life and coral reefs designated by UNESCO as world heritage environmental sites.

More generally, the United States must commit to policies that support sustainable use of resources, rather than using military means to secure oil supplies and other scarce resources. The U.S. military is the greatest consumer of oil worldwide. It makes no sense to fight for oil so that the military can guzzle even more of it. Such a new policy on sustainable use of resources also requires Washington to move beyond the stalemate of the Copenhagen summit.

Obama: Be the change you promised. Someone has to have the courage to initiate a paradigm shift, using the Earth’s resources and people’s skills to provide for genuine security.

(Foreign Policy In Focus)

Author: Christine Ahn

Gwyn Kirk is a founder member of Women for Genuine Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Christine Ahn is a policy and research analyst with the Global Fund for Women and a FPIF columnist.