By Albert Short

Following election of a new government in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) earlier this year, an article in the Economist grossly oversimplified the question of whether the U.S. Army will have continued use of its missile-defense-system testing facility at the RMI's Kwajalein Atoll after 2016. That is when the old lease dating back to the 1980s expires. The misleading article suggests that the United States can simply make a concession by increasing payments to satisfy demands of the landowners, thereby securing future base rights at Kwajalein.

The Departments of Defense and State and the Congress carefully considered this issue in 2003, during negotiation and approval of an extended base rights agreement between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. To secure base rights long into the future if needed, the United States agreed to increase payments as requested by the RMI, coming as close as was reasonable to meeting landowner demands. But American lawyers and lobbyists for the traditional chiefs of Kwajalein demanded still more.

After the U.S. reached its cost-benefit choke point, Congress approved the increased payments agreed upon by the two governments, but mandated that the increased amounts be held in escrow contingent on landowner acceptance of the new agreement. Congress also provided that the increased payments in escrow would revert to the U.S. Treasury if no agreement is reached by December of 2008. Further, the president must report to Congress on "the intentions of the United States with respect to use of Kwajalein Atoll after 2016, on any plans to relocate activities… and on the disposition of the funds and interest held in escrow." There is nothing ambiguous about the U.S. position as prescribed by Congress. Yet, on the advice of Washington lobbyists, the chiefs who control Kwajalein landowner interests have publicly stated that they will never accept the terms approved by Congress and their (RMI) government.

Indeed, a new RMI leadership aligned with the landowner chiefs and their lawyers recently took office. The new president and foreign minister have publicly repudiated the RMI base-rights agreement already ratified by Congress and the RMI parliament. In addition, they are supporting demands from the chiefs for increased payments, backed by open threats that the strategic facility could be turned over to China if it is the "highest bidder".

This is both because the chiefs wanted more money, and also because they demanded that the United States negotiate directly with them, instead of with the sovereign constitutional government of the RMI. U.S. worldwide policy is to deal only government to government to secure foreign military rights. This precedent should not be broken.

For one thing, the United States should not become entangled in RMI land-use customs, an essentially feudal system in which the chiefs (along with their lawyers and lobbyists) get the largest share of land-use payments, while the actual landowning community, or, "commoners," get only what trickles down. If that is how the RMI political and legal system operates under the national constitution, it should be treated as an internal matter in which the United States should not become involved.

Although Kwajalein is important, if the RMI proves an unreliable treaty partner, the United States may have to phase out operations by 2016. If that happens, the recent reductions in programs and personnel at Kwajalein will be just the beginning. Recent important missile tests have been conducted from Hawaii and Alaska and from ships at sea without Kwajalein, and congressional delegations from states with alternative defense sites are eager to have Kwajalein operations relocated to their jurisdictions.

So, this is about more than throwing additional taxpayer dollars at the "Kwajalein Problem," as the Economist suggests. There are other arguably more important issues arising under the free-association compact that has defined a special RMI-U.S. bilateral alliance for 20 years. These include the RMI nuclear-testing claims and the impact of rising energy costs on the fragile island economies, as well as social and public health issues arising from migration from the islands to the United States under the compact. RMI's renunciation of its agreement on Kwajalein will not create an atmosphere conducive to making progress on these other bilateral issues. This is the context in which the United States needs to understand recent political developments in the RMI, the viability of its base at Kwajalein and the future of our bilateral free-association relationship with RMI could well hang in the balance.

Albert V. Short, a retired Army colonel, served on the Reagan administration negotiating team for the Compact of Free Association and as chief negotiator for renewal of those treaties.

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