The Real Deal: RMI policy is adrift


Because of a leadership struggle in the ruling party that won the last elections, the old coalition collapsed and the opposition party was able to cobble together a weak coalition with a few independent members of parliament.   The new ruling party is headed by the Kwajalein chiefs.   The agenda of the party is singular and simple – more money for the Kwajalein chiefs.  

Accordingly, the new Foreign Minster is the member of parliament from Kwajalein, even though he is not really from Kwajalein at all, and was not eligible to run for a seat from Kwajalein until the chiefs gave him land rights so he could become their man in parliament.   Before that he was one of their paid lobbyists, and his campaign was funded by the Kwajalein chiefs.  

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the new Foreign Minister has stated publicly in the press that the base rights agreement ratified by the RMI national government when the previous ruling party was in power, and lease payments provided there under, are unacceptable.   Before the change in government, the base agreement was unacceptable to the chiefs as parties to the internal land use agreement, but now that the chiefs are in pwoer they are taking the position that the base agreement is also unacceptable to the RMI national government.  

What this appears to mean is that the new ruling party is prepared to renounce and repudiate the base rights  agreement already negotiated and approved  through the U.S.’s and RMI’s respective constitutional processes.   The U.S. needs to decide if it will accept repudiation of a treaty, when the two governments have ratified an agreement, and the demands of the chiefs as well as U.S. rejection of those demands are a matter of public record. 

But how much is enough for the chiefs?   The Marshall Islands Journal reports that the current Kwajalein base rights treaty provides $15 million annually for the chiefs, but the chiefs are demanding $19 million annually.   The funding that has been put in escrow due to lack of a land use agreement with chiefs and RMI is now more than $20 million.   Even if the chiefs want more, since they already have large amounts of money in the pipeline for Kwajalein atoll alone, wouldn’t getting more for health care into the pipeline for 10 atolls with nuclear victims be a better use of limited resources?

The Marshall Islands Journal has gone so far in its political support for the new ruling party as to take the editorial position that the new ruling party has a “mandate” from the people to make Kwajalein payments the highest priority.   Yet, as already noted, the new ruling party gained power because of a leadership struggle in the old ruling party, not because it won a majority in the elections.  Thus, one wonders how the Marshall Islands Journal could presume that the majority of people in the RMI would rather see the high chief of Kwajalein, already one of the richest men in the RMI, get richer still, instead of seeing the people of 10 atolls get a 20 year funding stream with inflation adjustment for health care.

A recent editorial in the Marshall Islands Journal argues that the U.S. should agree to increase payments to Kwajalein chiefs based on the “precedent” set when the U.S. recently agreed to restore RMI operations of the U.S. Postal Service that were reduced in 2003.  The editorial praises the current U.S. Ambassador for supporting restoration of USPS services levels, and implies that the American diplomat must now prove his effectiveness as steward of the RMI-U.S. relationship by repeating the success in the USPS matter, which, according to the Marshall Islands Journal, can be done by bringing about an increase in payments to the Kwajalein chiefs.    

The logic of the Marshall Islands Journal editorial is flawed.  USPS service was simply restored to the previous levels.   The increase of Kwajalein payments the chiefs demand is not only over and above previous levels, but over and above new levels that were already increased over previous levels.   Before buying into this logic, we need to realize that Congress purposefully and with the U.S. national interest in mind created a deadline for the chiefs of Kwajalein and the leaders of the RMI to show that they are reliable partners with the U.S. in the preservation of international peace and security.   That deadline was set in 2008 by Congress to give the U.S. Army 8 years before 2016 to relocate in the event the RMI is unable to deliver the base rights required by the U.S. due to the inflexibility of the chiefs, and/ or because the RMI determines that it is not willing or able to exercise eminent domain in the same manner other governments do when necessary to meet treaty obligations.

The RMI is a sovereign nation and is entitled to act in its own self-interest, as defined by the elected leaders through the constitutional  process of that nation.   Of course, the same is true for the United States.   If the deadline passes without an agreement that satisfies the law Congress enacted, then the U.S. needs to consider carefully whether it should act in its own self-interest by ending its reliance on the RMI and Kwajalein.   It may have a cost and be suboptimal in the short term, but the U.S. can not be held hostage by an ally that will not or can not live up to treaty commitments openly and freely agreed and ratified.

In the latest edition of the Marshall Islands Journal, deBrum expresses disdain for U.S. Air Force target bombing training exercises in RMI waters that are expressly authorized under the military base and operating rights agreement between the U.S. and RMI.   Even though the mid-ocean bombing practice involves dummy bombs that have no materials other than steel and comment, deBrum challenged the U.S. right to test by claiming the U.S. failed to conduct environmental impact studies.   The Foreign Minister of a nation is supposed to ensure that his nation’s treaty partners are able to act in accordance with applicable agreements, not propagandize against actions that are not only authorized but paid for generously by the U.S. taxpayer.   Mr. deBrum antics are more akin to those of a demagogue in a rogue regime than the conduct of a reliable treaty partner.

Clearly, any attempt to appease those with the same ideological perception of U.S. strategic program as those expressed by Mr. deBrum in his 2005 speech are only going to embolden and empower those who ultimately are hostile to U.S. leadership in the cause of peace and security.   Whatever additional time the U.S. could purchase through appeasement dollars will not avert even more unreasonable demands in the future.   The U.S. will soon realize that its time, efforts and funding can be better invested elsewhere, so that the U.S. Army can relocate operations and create the capabilities needed without being beholden to those in the RMI like deBrum, who by his own words has made it clear that the U.S. is not wanted there by the landowners and their chiefs.

A policy that seeks to appease Mr. deBrum and his ilk will not resolve these issues.  There are important players in the U.S. government who believe it is time to test the integrity of the alliance between the RMI and the U.S. under the CFA.   If the U.S. can not stay at Kwajalein under the terms Congress agreed to in 2003, then the U.S. will soon realize it needs to make a few things very clear to the RMI.   If the U.S. must leave and have to deal with unplanned impediments to U.S. strategic interests, it is only logical that unraveling of the strategic partnership under the CFA will also require re-evaluation of the entire political end economic relationship defined by the CFA, including the possible phase out of free association between the U.S. and the RMI.

That may be exactly what Mr. deBrum wants, and he has been put in the position to speak for the people of the RMI, so it is time to find out if that is really what the people of the RMI want as well.   If so, then the people of the RMI need to decide if Tony deBrum really speaks for them, and the U.S. has to determine what course it must take in relations with the RMI to protect the best interests of the American people.      


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