Is Jim Webb freelancing again?
The Virginia senator just got back from Japan, where he expanded his ever-increasing involvement in Asia policy making by taking a "listening tour" and weighing in on the basing dispute that has become the main issue of tension in the U.S.-Japan relationship. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee, Webb’s trip to Tokyo, Okinawa, ...
The Virginia senator just got back from Japan, where he expanded his ever-increasing involvement in Asia policy making by taking a "listening tour" and weighing in on the basing dispute that has become the main issue of tension in the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee, Webb’s trip to Tokyo, Okinawa, and Guam comes at a time when the U.S. and Japan are negotiating how to implement the 2006 agreement to move the U.S. Marine Corps base at Futenma to another Okinawa location. The new Japanese ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan, campaigned with a promise to alter the agreement, but the U.S. side is resisting large-scale changes.
The negotiations are in somewhat of a holding pattern, administration officials tell The Cable, while the Obama team waits for the DPJ to come up with its new position on the issue. The DPJ is facing a slew of domestic crises of its own, and the U.S. side doesn’t want to force party leaders to take an unpopular stance that could undermine them politically.
But in a press conference in Tokyo Feb. 17, Webb said that a solution needed to be found quickly "on the Futenma issue for the well-being of the citizens in that area." He added, "I am open to listening to all suggestions from the Japanese government and also the people of Okinawa."
So is the administration upset at Webb? Not this time. "He’s the only person on Capitol Hill that cares about Asia," said one official speaking on background basis. "He is trying to be helpful and wants to make sure the alliance does not flounder on the details of a military base."
Some observers said that Webb’s involvement in a sensitive diplomatic dispute could create problems.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Honolulu branch, said that "Webb is no doubt well-intended and knows the issues, but certainly appears to be off-message … It’s been my long-held view that nothing makes things worse than attempts by Congress (individually or collectively) to make them better."
Webb doesn’t seem to be negotiating directly, but his interactions with the people of Okinawa (who overwhelmingly oppose the base relocation plan) might be more of the Japanese government’s responsibility, a Washington-based Japan hand said.
A former Bush official who worked on Asia said that Webb was pretty much in line with the administration. "He hasn’t said anything outrageous; he is pretty close to the administration’s message on this," the former official said, noting that Webb’s activity does create, "potential for miscalculation and confusion."
Webb did emphasize the separation of powers within the U.S. government, tempering his statement that "there could be a number of practical options" by adding, "I don’t want to outline those options today because I don’t want to cut short the discussions that we’re going to have."
Webb’s first year as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee has been a torrent of activity. Multiple Obama administration Asia officials told The Cable that they view Webb’s travel and interest in East Asia as a refreshing reassertion of congressional interest in the region, which had been somewhat ignored on Capitol Hill for years.
They also acknowledge there’s a risk that by adding one more strong voice to the carefully calibrated relationship, there could be added confusion and complication in working out thorny issues such as the basing dispute centered on Okinawa. But the Obama administration is adjusting to what they now see as his sustained and influential involvement.
"It is a good thing when the chairman of the subcommittee takes an active interest in the U.S.-Japan alliance, that’s not usually the case," the former official said. "He’s doing his job."
The former official contrasted Webb’s Japan trip with his August trip to Burma, where he seemed to get out ahead of the State Department’s policy review by meeting with junta leaders and pressing for reengagement.
Webb, who sits on the Armed Services committee as well as Foreign Relations, could be an important vote if and when issues related to the Japan dispute come before Congress. For example, the relocation of Marines to Guam is somewhat dependent on resolving the Futenma issue and Congress deals with that in their defense authorization bills.
The senator was unavailable for comment before this article was published.
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin
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