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Senate moves to halt U.S. force changes in East Asia

The Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled a new bill on Friday that includes provisions to halt the Obama administration’s plans to reshape the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, Guam, and South Korea. Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), along with Jim Webb (D-VA), called for an entirely new plan for ...

The Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled a new bill on Friday that includes provisions to halt the Obama administration's plans to reshape the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, Guam, and South Korea.

Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), along with Jim Webb (D-VA), called for an entirely new plan for basing U.S. troops in East Asia on May 11, arguing that the current plans were no longer feasible or cost effective. They proposed halting the realignment of U.S. troops in South Korea, scaling back the plan to drastically increase the U.S.  military presence on Guam, and changing the plan to relocate the controversial Futenma Air Base on Okinawa to a new facility elsewhere on the island.

Today, the committee's bill put many of those ideas in play by including them in its annual policy bill. If the bill is approved by the Senate, and if these ideas then survive negotiations with the House, the administration's already troubled plan would be placed on hold.

The Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled a new bill on Friday that includes provisions to halt the Obama administration’s plans to reshape the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, Guam, and South Korea.

Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), along with Jim Webb (D-VA), called for an entirely new plan for basing U.S. troops in East Asia on May 11, arguing that the current plans were no longer feasible or cost effective. They proposed halting the realignment of U.S. troops in South Korea, scaling back the plan to drastically increase the U.S.  military presence on Guam, and changing the plan to relocate the controversial Futenma Air Base on Okinawa to a new facility elsewhere on the island.

Today, the committee’s bill put many of those ideas in play by including them in its annual policy bill. If the bill is approved by the Senate, and if these ideas then survive negotiations with the House, the administration’s already troubled plan would be placed on hold.

"The current plans for maintaining our troops there are unsustainable. They are incredibly expensive," Levin told reporters on a Friday conference call. "The costs… are out of sight and can no longer be sustained."

Specifically, the bill does four things. First, it prohibits funding the realignment of U.S. Marine Corps forces from Okinawa to Guam until the commandant of the Marine Corps provides an updated plan, and requires the defense secretary to submit a master plan to Congress detailing construction costs and schedules. Second, the bill requires the Department of Defense to study the feasibility of relocating some of the Air Force assets at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to other bases in Japan or to Guam, and moving Marine Corps aviation assets currently at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Kadena Air Base rather than building an expensive replacement facility at Camp Schwab, another base located on Okinawa. This idea is extremely unpopular in Japan.

Third, the bill would cut approximately $150 million in military construction projects requested for the realignment of U.S. Marine Corps forces from Okinawa to Guam. And fourth, the bill would prevent the obligation of any funds for "tour normalization" on the Korean Peninsula until the secretary of the Army provides Congress with a master plan to complete the program. Tour normalization is the term for allowing service members to bring their families to South Korea to create a more "normal" long-term lifestyle for them there.

In total, these moves are all a part of the senators’ goal to scale back the ambitious Okinawa-Guam relocation plan and cut costs by preventing the build up of more military infrastructure in South Korea.

"These recommendations are workable, cost-effective, will reduce the burden on the Okinawan people, and will strengthen the American contribution to the security of the region," Webb said in a statement.

President Barack Obama and members of the National Security Staff rejected the senators’ ideas when Obama met Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the sidelines of the G8 last month in France.

"The two leaders agreed that it’s important for Japan to continue its efforts to follow through on the agreement of last May to implement the realignment road map on Okinawa in order to ensure that the U.S.-Japan alliance and the basing arrangements are on a solid footing as we continue to work to enhance, revitalize and modernize our alliance," NSC Senior Director Dan Russel said after the meeting.

But Levin said there was no point pretending that the current plans were either implementable or sustainable and that he was determined to use the Congress’s power of the purse to force the administration to explain its plans in more detail and then change them if necessary.

"We are basically putting these changes on hold in all three places, Korea, Guam, Okinawa, while this major review is taking place," he said. "We are not withdrawing or reducing our presence, we are trying to streamline it… we do this is a way which is honest and which is sustainable."

For Levin, the move is part of his overall effort to show that his committee is budget conscious. "The problem is the current plan isn’t affordable, not workable. And on the Okinawa part with Camp Schwab, it is so expensive, so massive, so unachievable, and so unwise."

Overall, the Senate bill, which was negotiated behind closed doors, would provide $682.5 billion for national defense in fiscal 2012, including $117.8 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  and $18.1 billion for national security programs in the Energy Department. The funding would be $5.9 billion less than requested for the base defense budget.

You can also read a very long summary sheet on the bill compiled by the committee.

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 josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

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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