Column: Guam is overlooked asset in Asia
Threatened by the North Korean regime, this island suddenly found itself in the news.
Talking heads all name-checked the two military installations that make up Joint Region Marianas: Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam.
Lost in the discussion was the very important fact that Guam is more than just an island with vital military assets. Some 150,000 Americans live beyond the fences encircling the bases.
That’s a point Guam’s governor, Republican Eddie Calvo, made in a special address to the people of one of the United States’ five territories. “An attack or threat to Guam is a threat or attack on the United States,” Calvo said.
Being forgotten is nothing new for Guam, even though Old Glory has flown here since the Spanish-American War, when the United States acquired Guam.
Despite North Korea’s threat, few in the nation’s capital — let alone the TV talking heads — can find Guam on a map.
I was last on-island in June, when I met with Calvo, Lieutenant Gov. Ray Tenorio and others. Even then North Korea was talked about.
What struck me most was the steadfast loyalty of Guam, despite what Tenorio called Washington’s “benign neglect.”
Denied a vote for president and lacking both senators and a full vote in the House of Representatives, Guam and the other territories have little political capital to spend when clout and influence-peddling mean everything in D.C. (For purposes of the primaries and caucuses to select the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, the two major parties consider Guam and the other territories a state.)
Yet Guam shouldn’t be viewed merely as a geo-political asset under the Pentagon’s realm.
The island is America in Asia. It’s a unique melting pot of diverse cultures with a strong economy based in tourism. The tourists you find here aren’t from the mainland. They’re mostly Japanese and South Koreans, who come for a slice of American pie and drive Ford Mustangs or Chevy Camaros emblazoned with a “Guam, U.S.A.” license plate.
Guam has tremendous potential as a major economic asset in a region home to the world’s fastest-growing economies.
North Korea’s threat presents a unique opportunity for the federal government to simultaneously fly the flag while empowering Guam to promote the national interest, be it economically or diplomatically.
To make that happen President Donald Trump needs to reinvent the way the federal government oversees the territories.
At present, four of the five territories fall under the obscure, under-funded Office of Insular Affairs within the Department of Interior. Only Puerto Rico is treated like a state.
While Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke understands the importance of the territories — his first major visit was to the Virgin Islands — bureaucrats in his department know more about national parks, oil exploration on federal lands and wild horses than the millions of Americans living, working and doing business in the territories.
And unlike past administrations of both parties, Trump knows Guam. In fact, one could argue that Trump wouldn’t be president had it not been for the territories, which were pivotal in securing him the Republican nomination.
It’s time to use broad authority of the president to transfer Guam and the territories from Interior to a new, standalone cabinet-level agency.
This would promote American’s national interest in the Pacific at a time when North Korea and China are a major threat.
Dennis Lennox was U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s man in the territories during the 2016 primaries and caucuses before endorsing Trump. He was executive director of the Republican Party of the Virgin Islands.