It was coincidental, but no less poignant, that Mark Lippert was on Capitol Hill this week for Senate consideration of his nomination to be US ambassador to South Korea.
Currently serving as chief of staff for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Lippert is one of President Barack Obama’s closest friends.
Rightly or wrongly, Obama’s foreign policy is under intense criticism; among other questions, whither the ‘Asia pivot’?
And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is about to authorize issuance of a report on the “Comfort Women” controversy that is sure to further antagonize relations between Japan and South Korea, the two key US allies in East Asia.
Critics of his overall foreign policy notwithstanding, Obama has made clear that the United States wants to help ease the frayed relationship between Tokyo and Seoul.
Obama and Abe do not get along; the US criticism of the prime minister’s visit to the divisive Yasukuni Shrine last December is just the public side of below-the-surface animosity. But Obama made clear during his visit to Tokyo in April that he wants to work with Abe, with the caveat that the prime minister shelve any unnecessary nationalist actions likely to stir anger in China or Korea.
Meanwhile, Obama gets along well with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, while knowing that the ROK’s own domestic brand of nationalist politics exacerbates her understandable wariness of Abe.
With surprisingly-clear instructions from the White House, US diplomats in Tokyo and Seoul have been working overtime to facilitate improved ties between the ROK and Japan, following up on the trilateral “summit” that Obama arranged in The Hague in March that brought Abe and Park together for the first – and thus far only – time.
US diplomats report privately that Japanese officials have often been “kicking and screaming” when pressed to meet their Korean counterparts.
This is where Lipper comes in: his presence is a clear sign that the White House intends to keep up pressure on Abe to revive communications with Seoul.
Lippert has worked as a top foreign policy advisor to Obama since the then-future president arrived on Capitol Hill as a US senator in 2005. A graduate of Stanford who studied at Peking University, Lippert was a veteran Democratic foreign policy advisor, and quickly developed a close personal relationship with Obama. The president has often referred to Lippert as his “brother.”
Initially, some analysts misunderstood the appointment, thinking that Korea was not receiving the same attention as Japan and China. Obama named Caroline Kennedy, from the famous Kennedy family, as his ambassador to Tokyo. And he named Max Baucus, a long-time US senator, as ambassador to Beijing. By contrast, Lippert is not well-known to the public.
The key is Lippert’s personal relationship with the White House, and his extensive knowledge of the inner workings of the National Security Council and the Pentagon.
Unlike most US ambassadors, he is likely to have extensive influence on US policy toward Northeast Asia.
As chief of staff for Hagel, Lippert has worked on every issue that crossed the defense secretary’s desk. But he has paid particularly close attention to US relations with South Korea, including the ongoing drafting by the two countries of new operational plans to deal with a crisis on the peninsula. Lippert has a close working relationship with the commander of US Forces in Korea, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti.
He has also served as the key link between the White House and the Pentagon.
Before becoming right hand man for Hagel, Lippert served as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.
Lippert, 41 years-old, is widely-credited with helping shape Obama’s thinking about foreign affairs, including Iraq. To some these days, that might be a dubious distinction. But it is a sign of the close ties between the two.
In July 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama visited Iraq. Hagel, then a US senator, was along on the trip, as was Lippert, who had just completed one year as an intelligence officer assigned to a unit of Navy SEALS, the elite special operations branch of the US Navy. Lippert spent parts of 2007 and 2008 in Iraq.
After Obama won the 2008 presidential election, Lippert served as deputy director of the incoming administration’s foreign policy transition team, and then became chief of staff for the National Security Council. After one year, Lippert returned to active duty with the Navy, serving once again with a SEAL unit. When he left the NSC, Lippert was replaced as chief of staff by his close friend Denis McDonough, who is now Obama’s chief of staff in the White House.
It is unusual these days for an American ambassador to exercise much influence over policy, but Lippert is widely expected to be an exception. Obama has a good relationship with Park Geun-hye. By naming his friend as ambassador to Seoul, Obama will strengthen that relationship, and signal to Tokyo that the president is supportive of Park’s stand that Japan should make a major effort to resolve the “comfort women” issue.
The White House has long been concerned that tension between Tokyo and Seoul is harmful to regional security, inhibiting effective trilateral US-Japan-Korea cooperation against North Korea.
Any time officials in Washington consider Korea issues, Lippert’s voice will be heard. In addition to his personal relationship with Obama and White House chief of staff McDonough, Lippert is close with Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor and a fellow Stanford graduate. Rice, who worked in the Clinton administration, was one of the first foreign policy specialists to endorse Obama’s presidential run, and she worked closely with Lippert during the campaign.