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Applying leverage to Uncle Sam


Leaders of U.S. territories and freely associated states testify before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources during a field congressional hearing on Aug, 23, 2023. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

These Islands By Robert A Underwood

August was a busy month for federal travel to Guahan. The island was treated to the “scoping” meetings on the Enhanced Integrated Air and Missile Defense System on Guam. This occurred over three days in early August. The event was well-managed and well-staffed. We had representatives of the Missile Defense Agency that included flag officers and devoted advocates for the system.


The organization of the events in poster sessions rather than townhall-style helped provide in-depth information but also avoided a public question and answer session. I suspect that having a town hall meeting was seen as too risky. It was well-organized and the use of CHamoru in printed form was remarkable. I was impressed.


But the criticisms of the planned EIAMDS were inevitable and on-point. The island is being offered a group of 20 “candidate” sites with little explanation about the actual uses of the sites and the intrusions they would make on our day-to-day lives. There was no explanation about which sites were just shooters or radar or sensor sites. There was no explanation about limitations made on uses of airspace and lands near the candidate sites.


There was a lot of discussion about how the island needs protection from ostensible Chinese missiles and the estimation of potential conflict was rated from probable to inevitable. We were told that we live in a dangerous world in which Chinese initiatives are rearranging the geopolitical character of the region.


At the end of the day, we weren’t being asked about whether we agreed with this assessment or how much of our lives and island we were willing to leverage in order to deal with this ominous trend. We were asked to make comments on the “environmental impacts” of the proposed activity. The basic decision is out of our hands as a colony of the United States.


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Many Guahan elected officials privately told me that “leverage” is the key word. We shouldn’t worry too much. We will be able to leverage this massive intrusion into our lives in order to benefit the island. Leverage is the key word.


Paraphrasing Isaiah in the Bible, we can turn these Pentagon swords into Guam plowshares for our people. I could hardly wait for the opportunity to start leveraging the EIAMDS into hospitals, schools, jobs and businesses. Maybe we could throw in a little political empowerment. Not too much to ask for a vitally important colony which we were constantly told is part of the U.S. homeland. In the discourse over missile defense, Guam is part of America.


The first public opportunity came in the form of another group of visitors from Washington D.C. The House Committee on Natural Resources held an oversight field hearing on Aug. 24 at the Guam Hilton. The title of the hearing was “Peace Through Strength: The Strategic Importance of the Pacific Islands to U.S.-led Global Security.” Called to testify were Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and CNMI Gov. Arnold Palacios. The three freely associated states were represented by Foreign Ministers Kaleb Udui Jr. of Palau, Ricky Cantero of the Federated States of Micronesia and Jack Ading of the Marshall Islands.


The purpose of the hearing was basically to build regional support for the U.S.-led Global Security efforts in this part of the world. This means that the Chinese threat across the board demands dramatic American action in order to stabilize the environment and continue U.S. hegemony. The role of the Micronesian islands is key to this effort, especially the recently concluded financial agreements between the United States and the three freely associated states.


In order to ensure approval of these agreements by Congress, the identified rationales are the threats posed by China and the necessity of U.S. dominance. This field hearing will be used as part of the corpus of justification for approval of the compacts. The robust financial arrangements that have already been concluded can be seen as the “leverage” that our Micronesian neighbors have been able to exert in Washington D.C. When and how was the leverage going to be applied by the territories?


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The hearing itself was not very dramatic except for the protestors who attempted to interrupt the proceedings. Their efforts were dealt with in much the same way that they would be handled at congressional hearings. They pretended not to notice the Kafkaesque sign on the door going into the hearing. The sign said, “no signs are allowed.” It was hotel policy.


For Chairman Bruce Westerman and eight other members of Congress including our territorial delegates, Jim Moylan and Kilili Sablan, the roles were pretty clear. They listened to the testimonies and then they asked questions from the witnesses about Chinese threats and activities. Taking center stage were illegal fishing activities by the Chinese, descriptions of Chinese economic penetration in the CNMI and Palau and allegations of bribery of officials in the FSM. Disruption of telecommunication cables in Palau and in Guam were provided by the panel in response to questions from the committee.


It was pretty clear that the plan was being fulfilled. The committee asks questions to dramatize the nefarious presence of China. The Republican majority of the House of Representatives is so fixated on making this case, that it has even organized a Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. Almost all House committees are gathering information on Chinese activities when they aren’t busy tracking Hunter Biden’s activities.


I kept wondering when the “leverage” was going to be exerted by the island representatives. Gov. Leon Guerrero did attempt to redefine the meaning of security beyond just concern with China. She referenced the need for economic security and American investments. But much of this was wrapped up within rhetorical flourishes about peace, democracy and partnership. She did mention at the end of her statement investment in Guam’s infrastructure, COFA (compact impact aid) reimbursement, the H2-B visa program and a hospital. If you wanted to understand how leverage was being applied in this hearing one had to connect the dots. It wasn’t obvious.


Gov.Palacios took a similar tack in his statement when he spoke about economic security and stability for the islands and the connection to the lives of islanders. These comments were wrapped up in rhetorical flourishes about a vast corridor of peace and security of 3 million square miles of ocean. Of course, both governors have to be artful in how they present their own plans and desires, but these points sounded more like polite, muted requests than leveraging.


Leverage is when you point out to the other side the negative consequences of not going along with your plan. There was no leverage, just the usual typical kind of hat-in-hand request, which many Guam officials have done for decades.


There were a couple of interesting but rehearsed questions and answers between the delegates and governors for Guam and the CNMI. Delegate Sablan and Gov. Palacios took the opportunity to raise their specific concerns about infrastructure through the “702” talks required between the U.S. and the CNMI as well as deal with labor shortages required by the so-called “touchback” provisions currently required of foreign workers in the CNMI.


Gov. Leon Guerrero and Delegate Moylan asked about Guahan’s impending request to be part of the Pacific Island Forum. The request was characterized by the governor as being valuable from both a “freedom and democracy” perspective as well as Guam’s capacity to contribute to other islands economically.


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Lost in the overall tone of her answer is that Guam could learn a lot from other islands. It was mentioned only in passing. It came across as condescending.


There is a rhetorical pattern that many island leaders can’t seem to shake. They think that loving Uncle Sam is a viable strategy for getting respect and assistance. The use of World War II experiences was vital to this approach. There was some of that in this hearing as well. Recounting her experiences as a child during the Japanese Occupation, Mrs. Irene Sgambelluri did her part in filling this role. She did this with grace and a great sense of humor and timing.


But there is a lesson which everyone needs to know now. In the 21st century, asking Uncle Sam for assistance because we are poor, but loyal islanders neither attracts attention nor does it get rewarded. It is just old hat in Washington D.C. and actually has been since the time of Congressman Antonio B. Won Pat, who did use it effectively for a few years. But he had an audience in Congress that consisted of World War II veterans. That Congress does not exist anymore.


The disruption caused by the ascendency of China is real. It has political, economic and strategic dimensions. It is unfortunate that in response to Chinese economic penetration, the primary antidote that Washington D.C. can think of for us is an anti-missile defense system. It took former National Guard General Rod Leon Guerrero to remind us that diplomacy should come first and that the EIAMDS should be a last resort. It isn’t exactly the message of the protestors, but it was closer than all of the other words uttered that day by our leaders.


Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to anacletus2010@gmail.com.




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