The White House will soon nominate Mark Lippert, a close friend and trusted advisor to President Barack Obama, to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, according to sources close to the situation. Lippert will replace General Wallace “Chip” Gregson, who will depart April 1. Barring any unexpected glitches in the laborious background check that is now standard for high-level appointments, the Lippert nomination should be made public shortly. With his Capitol Hill experience as an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy and the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, and his presidential ties, Lippert should have little trouble winning Senate confirmation.
The tapping of Lippert, who was then-Senator Barack Obama’s first foreign policy advisor starting in 2005 and became an overall friend and confidante, comes at a critical time in Obama’s effort to craft his own doctrine for America’s role in the world. It’s a clear sign of the importance the president places on US ties with East Asia.
STRATEGIC REBALANCING: Even before taking office, Obama was influenced by a gnawing sense in much of the US foreign policy community that the US global posture was dangerously out of balance: a debilitating commitment of national power and prestige to two questionable land wars in Southwest Asia, alongside a mysterious lack of strategic investment of time, energy, and resources to an Asia-Pacific region that is anxiously witnessing the truly historic economic and military rise of China.
The first order of business was to extricate the huge US national security apparatus (planning, intelligence, troops, equipment, money, diplomacy) from Iraq and Afghanistan, which the Administration has been doggedly trying to do, but in both cases is proving easier said than done. (The White House really did not want to lose focus by getting sucked into Libya…)
Simultaneously, the Administration has been trying to reassert, and reconfigure, America’s role in East Asia. Some initial fanciful notions of a ‘strategic partnership’ with China have given way to the reality that Beijing is still somewhat clumsily seeking to define its role as an emerging regional and global power. Tensions have run high with China since the leadership in Beijing has resisted reining in its errant North Korean ally, and has haughtily asserted claims on territories controlled by Japan and some Southeast Asian nations.
Instead, the Administration is trying to foment a system of open and transparent economic and security cooperation in the region, defining the terms of engagement to which China has to respond. The economic component is the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade initiative. And the security component involves building on America’s traditional bilateral security alliances in the region to include a network of overlapping bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral security relationships from India, through Vietnam and Indonesia, to Australia, and up to Korea and Japan.
THE LIPPERT ROLE: One way or another, the President wanted Mark Lippert to play a role in this emerging strategic plan to rebalance America’s global position. Several months ago the White House was looking at Lippert to go to the Pentagon as a deputy assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict (SOLIC). These are the counter-terrorism operations that will become increasingly important as the US steadily withdraws ground forces from Afghanistan.
But the White House eventually settled on Lippert for the more senior post of assistant secretary for East Asia, which will require both a bold strategic vision and a deft ability to challenge some entrenched elements of the US military-security bureaucracy.
Lippert has no background in Asia. But there is no question that he will be speaking for the President.
A graduate of Stanford, with a degree in International Relations, Lippert quickly found work on the Hill with Senator Leahy, the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. He joined up with Obama in 2005.
Along the way, Lippert decided to pursue his lifelong interest in the military, and utilized a little-known but important Navy program that allows skilled foreign policy specialists to commission as Naval officers and work part time in Naval Intelligence or as a staff aide to senior officers. (Interestingly, Lippert’s soon-to-be counterpart at the State Department, Assistant Secretary for East Asia Kurt Campbell, served as an aide to the Joint Chiefs of Staff through the same program.)
Before the Obama presidential campaign entered full swing, Lippert served a tour in Iraq as an intelligence officer assigned to a Navy SEAL special operations unit. Upon his return, he resumed his position right next to Obama, alongside Obama’s other foreign policy alter ego, Denis McDonough, now the President’s Deputy National Security advisor. Even as the Obama campaign’s team of foreign policy advisors grew to over 300, including some establishment heavyweights, it was Lippert and McDonough who were rarely out of eye contact with Obama.
After the election, Lippert served as chief of staff for the NSC, nominally led by retired Marine General Jim Jones. The relationship was uneasy however because Lippert had much closer ties to the President. Lippert eventually left the NSC to serve another Navy tour, and returned to Washington a few months ago to once again work for Obama. General Jones has left the NSC, replaced by Tom Donilon, who shares the “rebalance toward Asia” perspective.
THE POLICY VISION: Once he takes office, Lippert won’t have to define policy as much as implement policy. With the strong backing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Administration’s emerging policy toward Asia has mostly been shaped by Kurt Campbell. The policy starts with the principle that the US-Japan alliance is the foundation of the US strategic position in the region. The US Kadena air force base on Okinawa, and the US naval base at Yokosuka are the keys to the ability of the US to project power and maintain stability. And, partly in response to the rise of China, Japan and other nations in the region are becoming increasingly comfortable with military-to-military cooperation. The beginnings of a broad security architecture are taking shape, not to contain China, but as a framework for the peaceful integration of China, and as a hedge in the event Beijing settles, even temporarily, on a more troubling posture in the region.
THE FUTENMA PROBLEM: Lippert’s most difficult, and important, task may turn out to be resolving the vexing problem of the US Marine Corps presence on Okinawa. Technically, the US and Japan have an agreement for roughly half of the 17,000 Marines now stationed on Okinawa with the III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) to relocate to Guam by 2014. As part of the deal, the US Marine Station Futenma, on Okinawa, would close, and its key operations (mostly involving helicopters) would relocate to a new facility to be built in the Henoko Bay area of Okinawa, close the Marine Camp Schwab. The key component would be a new runway built to accommodate the controversial V-22 Osprey, a tilt rotator vehicle that can land and takeoff either as a chopper or fix-wing aircraft.
Public opinion on Okinawa is firmly against the new facility. Tokyo signed the deal with Washington, but has been unable for 15 years to bring Okinawans on board. Washington insists the deal should proceed, and expects Tokyo to deliver its side of the bargain.
The issue is deadlocked. The Henoko project is essentially dead, though no official death notice has been issued.
Instead, the issue has continued to be a dangerous irritant that can easily be inflamed (as occurred recently when word emerged that then-State Department Japan desk chief Kevin Maher had made inappropriate comments about Okinawans; an otherwise unimportant incident took on outsized importance because of the backdrop of tension over Futenma.)
For a while, the Futenma issue threatened to disrupt the whole US-Japan alliance, overshadowing the critical roles of Kadena and Yokosuka, and the growing willingness of Japan to take on more regional and even global security responsibilities.
WISHING IT AWAY: Today, Washington and Tokyo have seen the wisdom of temporarily posting a resolution, confining Futenma discussions to working level meetings. The issue is in a state of unsteady equilibrium. Tokyo continues to voice unequivocal support for the project, so as to not rile American opinion in a way that would bring the issue back to the top of the bilateral agenda. In reality, virtually no political leader in Tokyo wants to touch the issue. In the wake of the recent tragic earthquake, that will be the case even more. And Washington continues to insist the plan must go forward, but does so in a more low-key style so as to not have it return to the top of the agenda.
This approach has two problems: Futenma remains open, and just one US aircraft accident among the heavily concentrated population surrounding the base could provoke such a backlash as to threaten all US bases in Japan, including the vital Kadena and Yokosuka installations. And as long as the two sides pretend the existing Henoko plan can still move ahead, there is no possibility to discuss alternative basing arrangements.
The Marines want to stay on Okinawa. It is convenient. Japan picks up much of the bill. And it is not clear where the money would come from to fund a transfer and permanent basing somewhere else, such as Guam or Hawaii.
With the White House focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, including continued heavy deployments by US Marines in Afghanistan, the President’s advisors have fiercely resisted having the Futenma issue reach his desk. The White House does not want to have any tension with the Marines over Okinawa, and does not want to have to go to Congress for the funds to finance an alternative basing plan.
Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has shared that reluctance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, careful to maintain her successful alliance with Gates on broader issues, has gone along.
But the stalemate can’t last forever, especially because it will continue to prove disruptive to the broader strategic vision of rebalancing the US global posture toward Asia, in cooperation with Japan.
NEW MARINE BASING ARRANGEMENT: The best solution would be for the US to scrap the 2006 “roadmap” with Japan that seemed to finalize the Marine realignment on Okinawa and Guam.
There is no compelling strategic reason for the Marines to be on Okinawa. They are a global force that can be based anywhere. They certainly are not critical to the US deterrent capability in Asia. During the tense moments with China last summer, it was the USS George Washington aircraft carrier out of Yokosuka, together with fleet air units and larger air capabilities out of Kadena that provided the US show of force in the region.
It makes no sense for the heavy Marine presence on Okinawa to cause the kinds of irritants that could ultimately threaten the vital continued US presence at Kadena and Yokosuka.
A workable solution could involve a phasing out of the III MEF from Okinawa, to be replaced by Japanese Marine units, trained by the United States, who would be responsible for the defense of Japan’s southern islands. To dispel any notions of a slip in US commitment to Japan or the region, the US could permanently base an Ohio-class submarine out of Yokosuka, and permanently base a unit of F-22 aircraft at Misawa or some other facility in Japan.
The Marines could be permanently based elsewhere, with preparations in place for the use of Japanese facilities in the event of a crisis, and visiting basing rights to be negotiated throughout the region.
A solution to the Okinawa problem becomes feasible in the context of the broader repositioning of the United States strategically in the region.
Lippert has just the kind of political clout that would be required to bring the Marines along. Nothing short of intervention by a strong defense secretary, or a person with clear White House backing, can break the current deadlock over Futenma.
Will Lippert adopt that role? If he does, he and Campbell could make a formidable team capable of reshaping the US presence in East Asia for years to come.
The danger is that he will choose to stick with the existing framework, hoping to avoid confronting the bureaucratic inertia in the military and on Capitol Hill. That would amount to presidential endorsement of the existing deadlocked plan, which would greatly inhibit the US-Japan alliance from evolving into a much more vibrant force for stability in the region anytime soon.