Saturday, April 26, 2008

Guam: An object lesson on the U.S.'s designs on Iraq

Rolling blackouts. Serious environmental issues. Resentment of an obtrusive U.S. military presence. An impotent "elected" government consisting of local oligarchs with no legal standing against the U.S. government. An infrastructure facing buy-out by outside investors. Am I describing Iraq? No, I'm describing the island territory of Guam.

The parallels between Iraq and Guam have recently become apparent to me. The glaring difference is the lack of organized resistance against the U.S. military's presence on Guam. The people here largely welcome us here, if begrudgingly at times, whereas in Iraq they were more inclined to shoot rockets at us on their way home from work.

(An aside: even the protesters here are friendly; the first time I saw a group of protesters outside the main gate on my way home from work, I waved at them, and they waved back. It's all good; we know that we're both pawns in this big game, so a healthy perspective on the big picture tends to diffuse any hard feelings which might exist. It's the people with delusions of self-determination who generally get all worked up about these things. Frankly, if anybody should understand the frustration of having their lives dictated to them by an over-reaching, seemingly omnipotent and impersonal bureaucracy, it's a member of the United States military. But I guess some people like being serfs; it's certainly easier than thinking.)

Here's an article from the Pacific Daily News:

The Defense Department has been considering a $1 billion road that would link Andersen and the Navy base on the other side of the island.

But the U.S. military buildup's draft master plan does not include the billion-dollar road.

Bordallo said military planners still are considering whether to build the Andersen-Navy roadway.

Retired Maj. Gen. David Bice, executive director of the Joint Guam Program Office, which oversees the buildup efforts on Guam for the Defense Department, said yesterday the proposed Defense Access Road is not off the radar screen, Bordallo said.

But the road, Bordallo said, "will be considered in the context of decisions yet to be made on housing, training, storage and maintenance areas."

The proposed Defense Access Road could be a helpful way to mitigate traffic with a new, north-south corridor, but the road will have a major environmental impact, too," she added.

You think? As of right now, the drive from Andersen to Big Navy takes nearly an hour during peak traffic times, and significantly less when the roads are clear. It's not abundantly clear whether this "Defense Access Road" would be open to the public or not; I'm betting not. If you look at the history of these major build-up plans, you'll see that GovGuam's role in this has not been "advise and consent", but rather, "Would you like fries with that?"

Shift to Iraq. Anybody who's been there and been briefed at all on the long-term plans for Iraq knows that the U.S. government has no aims on leaving. I think it would be unrealistic to expect any of our Presidential candidates to completely withdraw our troops out of Iraq (including my candidate of choice), mainly because the plans for Iraq are much like our plans for Guam: it is to become the central hub of all U.S. military activity in its part of the world.

When I was at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), there was a big push to build up the base as a long-term presence. Sather AB was transitioning from tents to trailers. While I can't go into too much more detail than that, the larger push was to build up, not draw down. Let me be clear: from my observations on the ground, any talk about troop draw-downs are political theater. There was no talk of turning the bases over to the Iraqis at any point. Period. Those bases are for us.

Let's look at some of the other similarities. The government of Iraq is incapable of keeping the peace on its own. Indeed, that very inability is pointed to as the main reason we have to stay. Similarly, the incompetence of GovGuam is pointed to as a big reason why Guam needs to remain a U.S. territory, since clearly they'd be lost without us. I've gotten the impression that many of the locals believe it, too. That, in addition to the horrible treatment they received at the hands of the Japanese during WWII, is a big reason why so many are happy to have us here. But who taught GovGuam how to manage itself? The U.S. Similarly, the U.S. went into Iraq and disbanded all of its existing government infrastructure, even scattering its army to the winds to join on with various militias. Mistake? I don't think so. I think it had its desired intent: justifying our presence in the country by pointing both to its lack of an organized army and to the threat posed by the roving militias. And, of course, neither Iraq nor Guam have a reliable power grid.

Part of self-government depends not only on having people with the management skills necessary to run the government, but also the technical skills to maintain infrastructure. Indeed, it's a truism of any institution that the wrench-turners are and always will be more important than the bean-counters. While Guam does have a number of good technicians (the military bases couldn't run without them), there aren't nearly enough for the island to effectively run as a sovereign nation, or even as a state. Most of the employment opportunity on the island is either on the military bases or in various shops and bars around the island (such as the one I'm typing this blog from now). Just from looking around, there's a lot of wasted potential here, and it's clear to me that the U.S. has intentionally created a cycle of dependency here by never fully enabling the people to take care of themselves.

You want to put Guam on the path to self-government (we know the U.S. government doesn't, but let's just say for the sake of argument)? The first step is a major push to provide children with quality schools. The schools I've seen on island are a disgrace, and that's largely because they're managed by the money pit known as GovGuam. The Department of Education needs to step in and say, "Okay, this is how you run a school district. This is how you maintain a school." Build schools which are conducive to a quality education. Southern High School has been without full air conditioning for 480 days (yes, you read that correctly; nearly a year and four months). Can you imagine trying to pay attention in class in a tropical environment without A/C? It would be unthinkable back home, but it's come to be accepted as the status quo for GovGuam. But this is how the U.S. government wants it. They've even come to building schools on the bases rather than sending the children of military personnel to the local schools.

The next step is a major push for technical education not only in high school, but at the post-secondary level. Two years vocational programs should be offered free of charge to all high school graduates, and they should offer the type of training that would be offered at a technical college in the mainland U.S. I can't speak to the quality of the vocational training at Guam Community College, but based on the major infrastructure problems I see on the island, it's clear to me that GCC isn't adequate to the island's needs.

Meanwhile, individuals looking for a quality liberal arts education should not have to leave the island to find it. The University of Guam nearly lost its accreditation in 2002, and while it's made strides since then, more work will continue to be needed.

Of course, this is all common sense, and nobody needs me to point all of this out. I'm certainly no expert on Guam, having lived here less than two years. But my point is that these problems, and their solutions, are apparent even to somebody like me, who's been here all of 22 months (minus four spent in Iraq). There can only be one conclusion: the powers that be don't want Guam to stand on its own two feet -- neither the federal government, nor the local power brokers who have a vested interest in facing no meaningful challenge.

Far from being a well cared-for territory, what I see around me is poverty reminiscent of East St. Louis with all of the prime real estate being gobbled up either by the military or outside investors. Tumon Bay is hardly visible for all of the hotels which have lined up along side it. Simply put, the island does not belong to the islanders in any meaningful sense, and the only reason I can think of that there isn't more organized resistance to this state of affairs is the amount of crystal meth floating around. (I'm amazed there hasn't been more of a push to drug the population of Iraq; this would be the quickest way to shut down the insurgency. Or are they? See, and I thought it was just the troops we were drugging.)

Of course, the U.S. is a much-more entrenched power on Guam than it is in Iraq. The island is much more accustomed to colonial rule than Iraq, having been a Spanish colony for hundreds of years before the U.S. took over, whereas Iraq had been a sovereign (if emasculated following the Gulf War) nation for a while after shaking off British colonial rule. And, of course, Guam does not possess the means to stage a military resistance against the U.S., but they some are attempting to stage a civil resistance to their subordinate role through the United Nations, although it is doubtful that anything meaningful will come of that.

Rather, I would implore local activists to take advantage of the upcoming Guam caucuses to highlight their dubious political status to the rest of the nation, and to the two Democratic candidates vying for Guam's four pledged delegates. With the amount of press attention on every contest, Guam has a unique opportunity to grab some national press attention. Most Americans do not even know that Guam is part of the country, and I think a lot of people would be stricken by the inherent lack of fairness in this group of U.S. citizens not even having a vote in Congress or a say in selecting our President, despite the fact that many have fought in this President's war in Iraq.

I'll close by apologizing for the many digressions in this particular blog, but there were a number of issues I wished to highlight beyond similarities between Guam and Iraq. That particular topic is fairly self-explanatory, and I think it's clear that if you examine those similarities, you'll also start to see them popping up in other U.S. foreign endeavors: create a facade of democracy without helping the local government become self-sufficient and use that lack of self-sufficiency as an excuse to remain in place. In truth, the governments of Guam and Iraq will never become truly self-sufficient until Uncle Sam either helps toward that end or at least gets out of the way.


Froggie said...

I know I'm a bit late in replying here, but thought I'd share a comment about the proposed "Defense Access Road".

Found this YouTube video which is from a KUAM-TV newscast last fall, with a lot of talk from some Navy admiral on Guam. In it, he mentions the proposed "Defense Access Road", and two bits of interest in particular: that it will be "like the H3 in Hawaii", and that it will be a public road. Those bits tell me that the road proposal is basically for an Interstate linking the naval base with Anderson AFB, and that outside of the bases proper it will function just like a regular Interstate freeway.

Thought I'd share that.

laurelephant said...

Great parallel. I'd never looked at the two situations side by side before. With regards to a lack of organized resistance by the people of Guam, I think one major thing Iraqis might have going for them is a clear idea of their culture.

One of the reasons residents of Guam don't see the U.S. as an occupier is because American culture has more or less become modern Chamorro culture (e.g. red rice at KFC or Chamorro Chip Cookies), and that kind of assimilation makes an occupier nearly invisible.

CarbonDate said...

Froggie, thanks for the tip. Sorry being late in replying.

larelephant: The Chamorro Chip Cookies always cracked me up. What, are they made with chips of Chamorros? Maybe Stephen Colbert wasn't so off base when he said, "Chamorro... that sounds delicious."