Obama confidant Mark Lippert nominated for top Asia post

Obama confidant Mark Lippert nominated for top Asia post

The Obama administration late Thursday formally announced the appointment of Mark Lippert as the next assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Lippert was one of President Barack Obama‘s earliest and closest advisors on foreign policy, having been with Obama since his days as a senator. He was a key figure in Obama’s presidential campaign and served as chief of staff of the National Security Council (NSC), a position that had not existed in George W. Bush‘s administration but which Obama resurrected in 2009.

Lippert was pushed out of the White House after an internal struggle with then National Security Advisor Jim Jones, who blamed Lippert for a series of negative leaks to the press about Jones’ mismanagement of the NSC.

“In July [2009], Jones laid out his case to Obama and others. All seemed to agree that it was rank insubordination. Obama promised to move on Lippert,” Woodward wrote. “On October 1, the day of the McChrystal speech in London, the White House press secretary issued a three-paragraph statement that Lippert was returning to active duty in the Navy. The statement made it sound as though this had been Lippert’s choice. ‘I was not surprised,’ Obama said in the statement, ‘when he came and told me he had stepped forward for another mobilization, as Mark is passionate about the Navy.'”

Jones was later pushed out himself, after being blamed by top White House officials for a series of leaks to the press about the White House’s top advisors, whom he called “the water bugs, the “Politburo,” “the mafia,” and the “campaign set,” according to Bob Woodward‘s book Obama’s Wars.

While serving overseas on multiple tours, Lipper was an intelligence officer for the Navy Seals and participated Navy Special Warfare missions in Africa.

The Lippert nomination was an open secret in Washington as early as April, but the nomination never came. The rumor was that Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not want Lippert, a close confidant of the White House clique, burrowed inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Now, with Gates gone, that obstacle has apparently been removed. The Cable reported in July that Lippert was never removed from the White House payroll system, although an administration official said he did not receive his White House pay and benefits while on active duty.

If confirmed, Lippert will succeed Gen. Chip Gregson, who resigned in April. Following a reorganization of the Pentagon’s policy shop in 2009, Gregson’s office was given a portfolio that includes China, Japan, North and South Korea, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Gregson, who focused mostly on the Northeast Asia part of that portfolio, was known as a knowledgeable and competent official who nonetheless played a less prominent role in diplomacy than his State Department counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

Privately, administration sources told The Cable that Gregson ultimately could not keep pace with the ambitious political agenda set by the State Department, which is seen as the locus of administration power in much of Asia. He is said by these sources to have fallen somewhat out of favor with Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, a close confidant of Campbell’s. Flournoy and Campbell founded the Center for a New American Security before entering the Obama administration.

Unlike Gregson, Lippert has no experience working in the Pentagon and no direct experience working on East Asian diplomacy. Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report, an insiders’ newsletter on Asia policy, presented the administration’s case for Lippert in his report on Thursday.

“During the Campaign, he was the principal liason (sic) between the Asia advisory team run by Jeff Bader, who became the Senior Director for Asia at the NSC, and the candidate; Second, his exhaustive, face-to-face involvement with the President, and senior NSC, State and DOD staff, on all Asia related matters during his year at the NSC,” Nelson wrote, adding that Lippert “still has the deepest trust of Obama and his folks.”

In April, it was reported by Nelson that when the Lippert nomination was first floated, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) objected, “due to Lippert’s well-known opposition, while at the White House, to Obama’s ‘surge’ in Afghanistan.” Neither McCain nor Graham has ever publicly expressed an objection to the Lippert nomination.

We’ve called around, and there aren’t any Senate offices that are pledging to hold up the Lippert nomination — yet. However, one senior Senate GOP aide told The Cable in July that “Mark Lippert’s nomination to be assistant secretary of defense for Asia would be tremendous hold bait and an opportunity for the Senate to get a hearing on all of the president’s China and Taiwan’s policies.”

The Asia policy shop in the Pentagon had been run by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Mitchell, until he was tapped to become special representative and policy coordinator for Burma. Now the office is run by acting Assistant Secretary Peter Lavoy, who came over from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.