Adm. Blair finds himself at center-stage
The two best pieces of news, if true, for U.S. allies in Asia came this week from Adm. Dennis Blair, who runs the U.S. Pacific Command from his headquarters here at Camp Smith.
Blair forecast that:
The United States will place increased emphasis on security matters in Asia.
The forward presence of the U.S. military in Asia will "stay pretty constant."
We say forecast because the Pentagon hasn't been speaking with a single voice on this subject. Earlier this year the New York Times quoted Blair as publically opposing a proposal in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's ongoing strategic review to move U.S. troops back from their forward bases in Asia, undertaking to guarantee America's treaty obligations instead with long-range weapons.
At the time, Blair correctly said that a pullback from U.S. bases would disastrously undermine Asian faith in U.S. commitment to the region.
One part of the review apparently is complete; Rumsfeld says he wants to reduce the requirement on the military from being prepared to fight two major wars at once to fighting one major war while mounting holding actions elsewhere. That should be a relief to at least some military brass, who were wondering how they would pay for ongoing operations in light of the hefty Bush tax cut and increased spending on missile defense.
But it's not clear whether Blair's remarks in Tokyo on the American presence in Asia will reflect the strategic review's conclusions or merely his druthers. In a related issue, Blair has welcomed a limited remilitarization of Japan. While that would surely help him stretch his limited Asia-Pacific resources, we wonder whether he appreciates the more subtle regional effects it would cause.
The other question involving Blair is whether he may be in line to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Two Air Force generals are mentioned as his competition. Blair's chances are said in some quarters to be enhanced by his reaction to the April collision between an American EP-3 surveillance aircraft and a Chinese jet fighter.
If Bush wants this appointment to reflect the evident preference of a faction in his administration, championed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, for a more competitive approach to China, Blair's tough response to the collision, denying any American fault and demanding the immediate return of the EP-3 crew, may fill the bill.
Another view from Colin Powell's State Department, however, is that Blair's early words made the final settlement, including return of the crew and the damaged aircraft, much more difficult.
From our perspective, Blair at the Joint Chiefs would on balance be a smart move, increasing the appreciation for Asia's importance at the Pentagon while allowing room for a stronger diplomat-in-uniform at CINCPAC, where in recent years tact has at times appeared to be underappreciated as an essential job requirement.