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Living at the tip of the spear: Guam and restraint

Can restraint in foreign policy include the goal of decolonization for Guam? Can it be in the U.S. national interest to allow Guam to choose between becoming a state of the union, a freely associated state such as the Republic of the Palau, or an independent country?

Analysis | Washington Politics

I live at the tip of the American military’s spear — also known as the island of Guam in the western Pacific. I grew up with U.S. military jets flying overhead, jet fuel flowing and sometimes leaking from a pipeline that cuts through the island, and fences marking whole swathes of the island off with “U.S. Government Property: No Trespassing” signs.

The U.S. military occupies almost a third of my 212-square mile island home with Andersen Air Force Base in the north and Naval Base Guam in the south. The military lives in the island’s bloodstreams. Our economy revolves around military projects. Our people join the U.S. military at an exorbitantly high rate, with Guam being called a recruiter’s paradise. Our main road is named “Marine Corps Drive.” Many here are thankful and view the military presence as our economic lifeline and protection from outside forces. Yet the underbelly to this military presence deserves to be brought to light.

A significant amount of current military land was taken from the indigenous Chamoru people during World War II. Militarization of the island has been responsible for environmental contamination, with toxic chemicals and heavy metals sludging through the island’s arteries. Politically, the island is an unincorporated territory or colony of the United States. This means that we have no vote in the Electoral College, no representation in the U.S. Senate, only non-voting representation in the House of Representatives, and are under the “plenary” — or complete — power of Congress.

We are one of only 17 non-self-governing territories left in the world. Many of us are waking up to the reality that military presence is not a river of free-flowing benefits without costs. Many of us have decided enough is enough. We deserve to keep the military accountable. We are a colony with no power. This is the price we continue to pay. And that price may become too much real soon. We may be faced with the reality that U.S. military presence puts a target on our back rather than protects us. We may once again become the center of “fire and fury” tensions. We may soon realize that the tip of the spear is always the bloodiest.

As I write this, tensions are heating up in the Indo-Pacific. Over the past few months, the continuous bomber presence in the island has ended in favor of a dynamic employment of forces. In outlining the reason for this, some analysts have said “Guam has become overly vulnerable to Chinese military power.” The USS Roosevelt was docked here during its coronavirus outbreak. We had paratroopers from Alaska drop over our skies as a “show of dominance,” B-1s take off from here to the South China Sea to “demonstrate strength,” and a nuclear-capable B-52H returning to the island to “demonstrate commitment to stability” in the region.

The Department of Defense has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Singapore to establish a fighter jet training detachment here, with plans to do the same with India, Australia, and Japan. Perhaps the most visible sign of our perceived strategic importance to Washington is the relocation of Marines from Okinawa to Guam over the next decade. This required the construction of a new base, which has involved clearing of important cultural sites. This was an agreement made between the United States and Japan, for which Guam was not at the table.

All of these developments occurred just in the past year. As tensions continue to escalate in the region, many of them prompted by U.S. military actions taken from and in Guam, I am quite certain this list will grow, especially if the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which seeks to “fund resources on key military capability gaps, reassure U.S. allies, and bolster the credibility of American deterrence in the Indo-Pacific,” comes to life. In the coming years, I am afraid things will get worse for the people of Guam unless restraint enters the picture.

Guam has a key place in a framework of restraint. I have always seen my home being served up on the altar of deterrence and forward posturing, even amongst restraint's advocates.

In a piece on the withdrawal of overseas forces, John Glaser makes compelling arguments for the multiple benefits of reducing the U.S. military footprint. However, he ends his piece identifying Guam and Diego Garcia as two important bases that should remain operational. In Glaser’s words, “Guam, therefore, serves as a convenient location for a low-cost, fully capable military base that avoids the strategic baggage of in-place forces on foreign territory.”

Stephen Walt, who like Glaser, hits the nail on the head with his critiques of U.S. foreign policy, argues in his latest book that regarding offshore balancing, Asia may be the one place where American leadership is indispensable. While not specifically naming Guam, it is surely the case that Guam would serve a pivotal role in this attempt at American leadership.

One of Guam’s former non-voting representatives in Congress, Ben Blaz, once said of our island, “We are equal in war, but not in peace.” I think he was only half-right. While we are clearly not equal in peace, as no colony can be, we are NOT equal in war. We in Guam bear the brunt of U.S. power projection in the Indo-Pacific, both as provocative threat and as a target. The task of securing a “free and open” Indo-Pacific is disproportionately on our backs.

The quest for power and influence in the region has interrupted our lives for decades as the military has intertwined itself into the fabric of our society. American leadership in this region has given us some benefits in the form of paychecks, federal funding, and the feeling of security, but has come at a giant price. So, I write this to introduce you all to my home. I write this to begin a conversation on whether we in Guam are destined to live a Groundhog Day of militarization over and over.

Or alternatively, can advocates of restraint in foreign policy help argue for and bring about a new liberation day for my island home? Can restraint in foreign policy include the goal of decolonization for Guam? Can it be in the U.S. national interest to allow Guam to choose between becoming a state of the union, a freely associated state such as the Republic of the Palau, or an independent country? Can the demilitarization of Guam be viewed as a necessary step in the reorientation of foreign policy?

Lastly, in a time that the U.S. is seeking to address the racial injustices in its history, maybe it is time to revisit the justice of holding a military base colony with 160,000 disenfranchised people in the middle of the Pacific.

This is life at the tip of the spear. But it need not be. Surely, the people of Guam deserve to be in control of their destiny.

An aerial view of U.S. Naval Base Guam Sept. 20, 2006. Naval Base Guam supports the U.S. Pacific Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
Analysis | Washington Politics
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