Can the U.S. Create a National Park on the Moon?

The Hill is reporting the rather startling news that Reps. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) have introduced legislation to create a National Historic Park at the Apollo landing sites on the moon. "As commercial enterprises and foreign nations acquire the ability to land on the Moon, it is necessary to protect the Apollo lunar landing sites for posterity," the bill reads.

On first reading, you might wonder -- as I did -- how the United States can establish a national historical park outside of its borders. Neil Armstrong may have planted a flag on the moon, but that doesn't mean we own the place. 

This is probably why the "park" established by the bill would consist only of the "artifacts left on the surface of the moon" as part the Apollo 11 through 17 missions, including the lunar modules and various other equipment. This makes more sense: U.S. ships are generally considered part of American territory, so why not spacecraft? The bill also specifies that the U.S. must ask UNESCO to designate the Apollo 11 site as a World Heritage site. 

But what's to stop some rogue state from mining for Helium-3 right next to Apollo 11, ruining the Sea of Tranquility's atmosphere of ... tranquility? Would it be possible to simply annex a little enclave of the moon to protect it from rapacious space traders?

Not at the moment. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the United States is a party,  specifies that "Outer space and celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." But in a 2012 FP article speculating on what would happen if China ever attempted to annex lunar territory, political scientist John Hickman argued that it wouldn't be too hard to get around this: 

Although the 1967 space treaty asserts common ownership of the entire universe beyond Earth's atmosphere, it also permits signatory states to withdraw from its terms with only a year's notice. And there's no law governing whether you can fly a rocket to the moon and land a ship there.

After renouncing the treaty, Beijing could annex regions of the moon and justify its actions with two arguments: First, in allowing states to withdraw, the treaty implicitly recognizes the possibility of claiming sovereign extraterrestrial territory. Second, after withdrawing from the treaty, China could declare any annexed lunar land terra nullius -- territory belonging to no one and therefore subject to national claims; Article 70 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties says that states renouncing or withdrawing from multilateral treaties are released "from any obligation further to perform" the terms of the treaty. Besides, most international law on the question of sovereignty claims defers to self-determination -- the wishes of the inhabitants. Since, as far as we know, there are no inhabitants on the moon, this doesn't apply.

The bill in question here obviously doesn't go nearly that far, but if we really want to establish a lunar Yellowstone, a little bit of aggressive unilateralism might be required. I can think of one GOP heavy-hitter who might want to take this project on.

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National Security

The Best Bluffs of the U.S.-Afghan Relationship

As the Obama administration considers what the residual U.S. force in Afghanistan will look like after its planned drawdown in 2014, the general consensus has been that some troops -- particularly special forces for counterterrorism missions -- will be staying behind. But amid a new spate of disagreements between U.S. officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai following his withdrawal from tentative peace talks with the Taliban last month, the New York Times reported this morning that the Obama administration is increasingly considering the "zero option" -- a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

Since a particularly contentious meeting with Karzai on June 27, the Times reports, "the idea of a complete military exit similar to the American military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario -- and a useful negotiating tool with Mr. Karzai -- to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul."

Or, then again, it could be a bluff. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that Washington has stared down its nominal ally in Kabul, or the other way around (despite Obama's insistence that he doesn't bluff). Just last year, Karzai told reporters that the United States was playing a "double game" and threatened to find a new weapons supplier, name-dropping India, China, or Russia.

And Karzai knows a thing or two about double games. He never followed through on his threat to buy arms from U.S. rivals, but that's a modest bluff compared to some of his bolder, more outlandish claims:

  • In May 2011, after a NATO airstrike killed 14 civilians, Karzai issued "his last warning to the US troops and US officials" on NATO operations and civilian casualities, according to a statement from his office.
  • In March 2012, Karzai demanded that U.S. forces withdraw from villages to major bases, saying, "This has been going on for too long.... This is by all means the end of the rope here."
  • And then there was the time Karzai threatened to join the Taliban. In April 2012, an exasperated Karzai told a member of the Afghan Parliament, "If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban."

Domestic politics enter into these statements as well. Karzai's threats have frequently come in response to civilian casualties, as he tries to appeal to the Afghan population. But there's also a strong element of negotiating brinksmanship. In some respects, Washington threatening a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces -- like Karzai threatening to join the Taliban -- is the diplomatic nuclear option. Now, expect the push for a compromise to commence.

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