Global economic crisis may affect U.S. policy on Kwajalein

The U.S. and global economic crisis may increase American resolve to carry out the already clear and firm U.S. policy on Kwajalein base rights funding. The U.S. may want and need Kwajalein in the future, but it already has been demonstrated on numerous occasions that the U.S. military mission at Kwajalein can be carried out using alternative sites and existing capabilities not based at Kwajalein.

With new limitations on U.S. budgetary resources, even the Department of Defense will be forced to do more with less in some programs. Many in the U.S. government and Congress responsible for budget priorities may now view use of Kwajalein at increased cost as less desirable.

If it can be accomplished under the terms already agreed, the U.S. would like to stay. But Kwajalein may not be so essential that the RMI can hold out for even further increases that add to long term costs, without risking a U.S. decision to walk away in 2016.

Even before the current economic crisis it appeared the U.S. deadline of December 17 for a final RMI base rights agreement was not negotiable. Now any RMI strategy for seeking increased payments, other concessions, or even extension of the deadline to try to negotiate a better deal, seems even more certain than ever to backfire.

The 2003 U.S. law ratifying the treaties that govern RMI-U.S. relations provides that increased U.S. lease payments to the RMI for the base at Kwajalein would be held in escrow from December 17, 2003 to December 17, 2008. Over $20 million in increased payments have accumulated in the escrow account.

That $20 million will be paid along with all current lease payments until 2016, and after 2016 the lease payments will continue at the increased levels agreed to in 2003. However, if the feudal land barons of Kwajalein do not sign an agreement extending the U.S. base rights beyond 2016, the $20 million escrow funds irrevocably revert to the U.S. Treasury on December 17 of this year.

In this context, it is significant that the new RMI leadership that gained power in 2008 represents the political party controlled by the feudal land barons of Kwajalein. Securing even further increases in U.S. payments has become the controlling priority of the RMI government under the current leadership.

So it is not surprising that all other RMI-U.S. bilateral issues pending in Congress have been cast aside or put on hold by the new RMI leadership and its lobbyists. That way, no other funding needs of the RMI people and the nation as a whole would compete with the demand for larger for payments to the land barons of Kwajalein.

In the past, the U.S. officials responsible for RMI-U.S. relations might have been frustrated by the new RMI regime’s repudiation of its treaty obligations, but willing to make some concessions to ensure that the base rights agreement is implemented. However, even before the current economic crisis the U.S. had rejected RMI demands for increased payments above and beyond the increases already agreed to in 2003.

Even the RMI’s fall back strategy of linking compliance with the 2003 base rights agreement to other forms of U.S. assistance to Kwajalein have been rejected. While there are energy projects and other initiatives that could benefit Kwajalein and the RMI as a howl that the U.S. was already considering, the clumsy RMI attempt to create linkage of those proposals in order to extort benefits for the Kwajalein land barons has been rejected by the U.S. government.

Thus, the U.S. seemed unlikely to make concessions as a condition to good faith RMI compliance with its treaty obligations, and may be even less likely to do so now that budgetary resources will be even more severely restricted than before the economic crisis of 2008. Federal officials who previously might have wanted to extend the December 17 deadline to buy some “breathing room” for the RMI may now have reasons to let the Kwajalein base rights lapse in 2016 and allocate future resources elsewhere.

Since the purpose of the $20 million in escrowed payment increases was to make the extension of base rights after 2016 acceptable to the RMI, loss of that $20 million by its return to the U.S. Treasury would be of little long term significance to the U.S. government. This would be especially true if the U.S. decides it could realize savings needed for other operations in the event the Kwajalein facilities can not be counted on because the RMI is an unreliable strategic treaty partner.

There is another factor that may make it very risky for the RMI to play chicken with U.S. on the December 17 deadline. The U.S. law in which Congress created the deadline makes the return of the escrow payments to the U.S. automatic “unless otherwise mutually agreed” by the two governments.

It appears the RMI may be counting on the U.S. to agree to extend the deadline in order to create a negotiation process with yet another deadline. That might be a plausible scenario if the RMI had been working in good faith to carry out its treaty obligations and there was a constructive process that had just not reached completion.

However, the U.S. is well aware that the RMI government is captive of the Kwajalein land barons, and the RMI leadership is actually an agency of the feudal oligarchy of Kwajalein. The U.S. also knows that increased land payments will not be distributed evenly among the entire landowner community.

Rather, most of the U.S. payments go to the ruling class, and distribution of lease payments through the lesser chiefs is accomplished under a trickle down system in which many so-called “commoners” never receive any significant benefits. While the U.S. has held its nose in the past and looked the other way, by overplaying its hand and demanding even more increases in lease payments the RMI has called attention to corruption in the Kwajalein lease payment distribution scheme.

Many in the U.S. are beginning to ask if the Congress should reward with increased payments extorted by blackmail by the RMI government, especially when it is now controlled by the landowners who will benefit for increased payments. The current President, Foreign Minister and majority of the Cabinet in the RMI national government are members of the political party organized to secure more payments for Kwajalein land use.

The head of the local party that controls the RMI government is the “king” under the feudal landowner system in the RMI. Many of the “commoners” receive little or nothing from their “king” out of the many millions he keeps for himself each year.

The lobbyists for the “king” receive millions too, including former U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston and his son Hunter, even though Johnston was the chairman of the U.S. Senate committee that approved the are 1982 Kwajalein agreement. Ironically, the new RMI government denounces that 1982 lease agreement that Johnston approved as a “rip off” that must be rectified by the further increases demanded by Johnston and the ruling class of Kwajalein.

For these and many reasons it seems unlikely that the decision of whether the U.S. should agree to extend the December 17 deadline will rise to a high level in the U.S. government. Some believe the real decision was already made in 2003, when Congress, and the federal agencies like the State Department and the Defense Department, decided that the U.S. had already agreed to pay what Kwajalein is worth to the USA.

That decision meant the U.S. could accept loss of Kwajalein in 2016, if the funding approved by Congress was not sufficient for the RMI to secure land use rights required to extend base rights beyond 2016.

Thus, the ”unless otherwise mutually agreed” provision in the U.S. law creating the December 17 deadline was not intended to create leverage for the RMI to hold the U.S. hostage as the deadline approached, and extort more lease payments for the feudal lords. That language was included to give the U.S. the flexibility to reach agreement with the RMI, well in advance of the deadline, on mutually beneficial terms for implementing the base rights agreement.

The “unless otherwise mutually agreed” provision also was intended to give the U.S. and RMI the ability to agree in advance on the disposition of escrow funds, without reversion of the funds to the U.S. Treasury, in the event the RMI was acting in good faith to comply with the treaty, but there were unforeseen delays in getting the land use agreements required under local law finalized.

For example, the U.S. Congress wanted to take into account all possibilities, such as a situation in which the land use agreements required under local law were signed, but were being challenged in local courts, or even U.S. courts. In that kind of a scenario, an agreement to ensure the funds would not revert would be justified because the delay might be beyond the control of the RMI government.

However, it was not contemplated by Congress that the RMI government could use the “unless otherwise mutually agreed” provision to enable the land barons of Kwajalein to run out the clock, and defy the deadline as a tactic to force the U.S. into a negotiation under a new deadline, created by the RMI instead of Congress.

There are rumors that the land barons and lesser chiefs of Kwajalein are clamoring for the “king” to sign the land use agreement (LUA) needed to meet the deadline, but that the king has influenced – or even commanded – that the current Foreign Minister of the RMI hold out, and try to force the U.S. into a new deadline agreement, and a structured negotiation process more favorable to the RMI.

These rumors seem plausible, because the RMI Foreign Minster was quoted in the Marshall Islands Journal as stating that he takes his negotiating instructions from the “king” of Kwajalein, under the feudal land system of the RMI. Although obedience to the “king” is more a convenient excuse to do things that are not rational or prudent, it clarifies the actual nature of this policy making process to point out that “king” Imata Kabua is also the head of the Foreign Minister’s political party.

In any event, earlier this year RMI Foreign Minister Tony deBrum stated that deBrum stated that the Tomeing administration will base its policy on Kwajalein on the “8-Point Declaration of Demands” made by the Kwajalein High Chief and the titled landowner chiefs of Kwajalein.  In Tony’s own words about the landowner leaders and their role in controlling RMI policy, deBrum said:  “If they see movement both on the U.S. and RMI side, they will give us instructions to go talk to the U.S. government.”

This confirms that the RMI national government’s highest priority in dealing with the U.S. government is to get what the Kwajalein chiefs want as landowners, no matter what the cost is to the RMI as a nation.  It also confirms that the high chiefs under the feudal landownership system are giving the orders to Tomeing and deBrum, and that deBrum looks to High Chief Imata Kabua for his “instructions” instead of the President and Cabinet.   Has the Cabinet agreed to take its order from “King Kabua” too?

In this context, we also have heard reports that the land barons and lesser chiefs have singed the LUA, but that is being kept secret so the RMI can be ready to notify the U.S. that the deadline has been met if the U.S. calls the RMI bluff.

These political games may prove to be a costly miscalculation for the land barons, but Foreign Minster deBrum has gone of record that he would consider it best if the U.S. pulls out of Kwajalein.

In the face of this kind of bad faith conduct by the RMI, the U.S. may already have decided that anything other than unconditional RMI compliance with December 17 deadline, securing landowner agreements needed to finalize the 2003 base rights agreement and release the escrowed funds, is unacceptable.

As it stands today, the RMI has adopted a policy supporting the refusal of Kwajalein feudal land barons to sign the LUA, in an attempt to force the U.S. to agree to further increases in U.S. payments for lease of Kwajalein.

This reminds us all of the RMI miscalculation on nuclear test compensation legislation in the U.S. Senate this year. As we all know, the RMI attempt to salvage S. 1756 failed because it was too little too late.

Because of the U.S. ad global economic crisis the chances of getting Congress to pass S. 1756 in 2009 are much worse than 2008. That means the RMI passed up a very good chance of getting the bill out of the Senate in early 2008, which would have made approval by the House of Representatives possible.

By the time RMI lobbyists, former Senator Bennett Johnston and his son, told the Congress the RMI supported S. 1756, the best that could be done is to approve the bill at the committee level and with to next year.

Although the out-going Bush Administration could punt, and leave this issue to the next President, it may be that any attempt at this late stage by RMI to avoid loss of increased payments for U.S. use of Kwajalein after 2016 may also be too little too late.

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