Pentagon’s Asia leadership team missing in action

Pentagon’s Asia leadership team missing in action

As North Korea prepares to launch a missile, the Asia team in the Obama administration is working around the clock. But over at the Pentagon, several top Asia policy positions are completely vacant, forcing lower-level officials to pick up the slack.

The most glaring vacancy atop the Asia team at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, the position of assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, has been empty for a year. Last April, Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson left that job unceremoniously and President Obama nominated his close confidant Mark Lippert soon after. Lippert’s nomination is stalled indefinitely, first due to a hold by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that was lifted in February and now due to a hold by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) that remains in place. Cornyn said last month the White House won’t even deal with him on the Lippert hold, so that job will remain vacant unless the White House changes its tune or pulls the Lippert nomination and nominates somebody else.

Below that level, former intelligence official Peter Lavoy serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense (PDAS) for Asian and Pacific affairs. He does not hold the title of "acting" assistant secretary but is performing the duties of an acting assistant secretary, such as testifying on Capitol Hill, while also doing the day-to-day management that befalls a PDAS. (Asia hands have praised Lavoy for his handling of the two jobs.) Meanwhile, his PDAS predecessor Derek Mitchell is set to be named the next U.S. ambassador to Burma.

Lavoy’s job is made more difficult by the fact that two of the three deputy assistant secretaries under him have left their posts in recent weeks. Former DASD for East Asia Michael Schiffer moved to the Hill to take a job as a senior advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. DASD for South and Southeast Asia Bob Scher moved out of the Asia shop to become DASD for Plans under Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Kathleen Hicks, replacing Janine Davidson. That leaves David Sedney as the only sitting DASD for Asia. He covers Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.

Both Schiffer and Scher’s jobs are being covered by capable career officials who worked under them. Principal Director Dave Helvey is the acting DASD for East Asia and Brig. Gen. Rich Simcock, the principal director under Scher, is now acting DASD for South and Southeast Asia. But while capable, they are pulling double duty: holding down their old jobs while tackling the work that should be going to political appointees yet to be named, without getting the added benefits.

The Asia shop isn’t the only place with vacancies at OSD policy. Jim Miller is serving as the acting under secretary of defense for policy, overseeing the entire staff while still holding the title of principle deputy under secretary until he gets confirmed by the Senate. Hicks has been chosen to succeed Miller as principal deputy under secretary, a position that needs no confirmation, and is said to be doing the job on a day-to-day basis. But she can’t take that title or even be named acting principal deputy under secretary until or unless Miller officially vacates the post.

The departure of Sandy Vershbow from the post of assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs — he’s now Fogh Rasmussen‘s top deputy at NATO — has left another senior vacancy in the Pentagon’s policy leadership. NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been nominated for that job, but his nomination sits on the pile with dozens of other senior national security nominations awaiting action by the Senate.

These vacancies often accumulate toward the end of a presidential term as officials tire out and the leadership searches for new blood. Some of the blame can be laid at feet of the Senate, according to critics of the current nominating process, which they say abuses its power to hold nominees over unrelated issues.

But the Asia shop at the Pentagon is suffering from a lack of senior personnel not found in other crucial national security offices, especially at a time when the United States is "pivoting" toward Asia, which includes new U.S. basing in Australia, a renewed focus on Pacific naval power, increased military ties with Southeast Asian countries, and a revitalization of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is not filling the political slots left vacant by the recent departures at OSD, which insiders say sends the wrong message to the region and to those who watch Asia, and tips the balance of power inside the administration from the Pentagon to the State Department, for better or worse.

Over at State, former senior advisor Nirav Patel has started work as the deputy assistant secretary of State in the bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for strategy and multinational affairs, a newly created position.

UPDATE: Pentagon Press Secretary George Little sent The Cable the following statement:

"There are highly qualified nominees who are ready to take on policy roles for this important regional portfolio, and while we await their confirmation, there’s a strong team in place that is doing great work to guide the Department’s work in this area."