Mark Lippert, the assistant secretary of defense for Asia and one of President Barack Obama’s closest friends, was close by Chuck Hagel today when the US defense secretary met in Washington with his Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.
In a few days, Lippert will still be at Hagel’s side, but no longer as head of the Pentagon’s Asia shop. Hagel announced 10-days ago that he had asked Lippert to be his chief of staff, a move widely-seen in Washington as beneficial to the Administration because it should ensure smooth communication between the White House and the Pentagon. The move takes effect on May 1.
Lippert is not only close to Obama, but came to know Hagel well when Obama and Hagel formed a strong bond while serving together in the US Senate.
But what of the Administration’s much-ballyhooed “rebalancing” of US strategic posture toward Asia? Who is running that show?
Lippert’s move to the Pentagon’s front office leaves two of the Administration’s top three Asia policy positions empty. Earlier this year, the influential Kurt Campbell departed after four years as assistant secretary of State for East Asia, and he has yet to be replaced.
At the National Security Council, the senior director for Asia, Danny Russel, is on loan from the State Department, and is reportedly in the running to be Campbell’s replacement. That would seemingly solve one problem but create another: a vacancy at the NSC, which is arguably the most influential of the three Asia-related posts in an administration that tends to centralize decision-making in the White House.
Some analysts argue that these vacancies are not all that important because the core of the Administration’s Asia policy – the “rebalancing” – is set in stone, and run from the very top by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and President Obama himself. Both the Pentagon and State Department have highly-competent staffs in the respective Asia shops, fully capable of managing day-to-day affairs. And, largely because of heightened tensions with North Korea, high-ranking Administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey, recently have spent considerable time in region.
Others warn that the effectiveness of policy in Asia is tied to the credibility with which senior American officials named to top Asia policy posts are viewed by governments in the region. From this standpoint, the Obama administration is falling woefully short by leaving key positions unfilled.
Take the recent alarming deterioration in relations between two key US allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea. Critics, of which there are many, argue that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has unnecessarily exacerbated the tensions by encouraging visits by Japanese law-makers to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and with his accompanying nationalist rhetoric.
The State Department was sufficiently disturbed that it recently summonsed a diplomat from Japan’s Embassy in Washington to informally register the Administration’s concern.
Still, it remains unclear if Abe is fully aware of the unhappiness in Washington, which has led to a lot of discussion among Asia specialists that the Administration would be wise to use quiet but firm diplomatic means to ensure that the message gets directly to Abe and his inner circle. That, in turn, raises the question of who in the Obama Administration would have the “political juice” to effectively deliver the message.
One former government official who remains in close contact with Asia Hands in the administration says: “Strong communication through private channels is really needed, but I can’t think of who a credible interlocutor would be for Tokyo, especially since Lippert is moving up and out of the Asia business. The Administration has clearly not invested in relationships in Tokyo that put them inside the political decision-making loop.”
When relations with Tokyo are running smoothly, there is usually a senior official at the NSC, the State Department, or the Pentagon who is in daily contact with the Chief Cabinet Secretary, or a deputy chief cabinet secretary, in Tokyo, ensuring that messages at the highest level travel back-and-forth unhindered. That is not the case right now.
At the Pentagon, it’s widely believed that the acting assistant secretary for Asia, Peter Lavoy, will be nominated as Lippert’s permanent successor. Lavoy, who is a South Asia specialist, is highly-respected for his professionalism and expertise. But he is not considered a heavyweight in policy-making circles.
At State, the nomination of Russel as Campbell’s permanent replacement is now considered a foregone conclusion, though Secretary of State Kerry is reportedly resisting White House pressure, hoping instead to name his own person. Russel, who has been with the Obama NSC from the beginning, has been senior director for Asia since 2011, and is favored by President Obama’s inner circle.
A move by Russel to State would not be problem-free. While highly-respected for his expertise, especially in Japan and Korean affairs, Russel is said by numerous Foreign Service colleagues to be very political, with a knack for forming tight bonds with political appointees. His presence as chief of the East Asia bureau could create an awkward working situation with the bureau’s top career specialist, Jim Zumwalt. Also a Japan and Korea expert, Zumwalt is technically senior to Russel within the Foreign Service.
Moreover, with Caroline Kennedy reportedly in line to be the next US Ambassador to Japan, the US Embassy in Tokyo would need a strong deputy chief of mission. Reports are already circulating at State that Zumwalt could be asked, for the “benefit of the Service,” to return to Tokyo as DCM.
(After the initial publication of this report, Mr. Zumwalt forwarded the following comment: "We have an extremely competent DCM in Tokyo: Kurt Tong. He is doing a great job, and we have every confidence that he will help the new Ambassador to Japan get off to a strong start. I have no plans to leave my present job in Washington.")
Meanwhile, a Russel move to the State Department would open up the top Asia spot at the NSC. National Security advisor Tom Donilon presumably would want to name a strong, trusted person to that key post. Within the tight fraternity of Asia specialists in Washington, it is anyone’s guess who that might be.