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Cornyn threatens hold on Lippert nomination over Taiwan arms sales

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) threatened today to place a hold on the nomination of President Barack Obama’s confidant Mark Lippert, who has been nominated as the Pentagon’s top official for Asia. Lippert, who had his hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday for the position of assistant secretary of defense for Asian and ...

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Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) threatened today to place a hold on the nomination of President Barack Obama’s confidant Mark Lippert, who has been nominated as the Pentagon’s top official for Asia.

Lippert, who had his hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday for the position of assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, is a close confidant of the president: He was the top foreign policy advisor in Obama’s Senate office, and a key campaign advisor during the presidential campaign as well. Lippert served as National Security Council chief of staff, until he was reportedly pushed out by then National Security Advisor Jim Jones over a dispute regarding negative leaks about Jones in the press, which Jones thought came from Lippert.

Since then, Lippert had been deployed to the warzone in his capacity as a reserve Naval officer. But now that he’s back, he’s poised to take over the Asia office inside the Pentagon’s policy shop at a crucial time — assuming Congress gives him the green light. Some critics have pointed out that Lippert is light on experience dealing with East Asia and there is some bad blood left over in GOP circles from the 2008 campaign — but Cornyn’s threatened hold is about the administration’s Taiwan policy, not Lippert personally.

Cornyn has been leading the congressional drive to pressure the administration to sell Taiwan the 66 new F-16 C/D fighters its government has been requesting. He’s still unhappy about the result of the last time he used his Senate holding power to force administration action on the issue. In July, he successfully pressured Secretary of State Hillary Clinton into publicly announcing the sale of retrofit packages for Taiwan’s aging fleet of F-16 A/B fighters, in exchange for Cornyn lifting his hold on Deputy Secretary of State nominee Bill Burns.

But the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it is still under consideration.

At Thursday’s hearing, Cornyn pressed Lippert on the issue (watch the video here) and then introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that seeks to force the administration to sell Taiwan new F-16s. That amendment has been voted down in the Senate once before.

When asked if he had an opinion on Taiwan’s air defense needs, Lippert said he didn’t, but he felt confident the Obama administration was fulfilling its responsibilities to provide for Taiwan’s defense as mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act.

"That’s based on the decision to upgrade the F-16 A and B’s. That’s based on the $12 billion in sales over the last two years to Taiwan, and that’s based on the close coordination and consultation with the Taiwan government," Lippert said.

Apparently, that didn’t satisfy Cornyn. He wrote a letter threatening to hold the Lippert nomination unless he gets some satisfaction on the issue.

"I remain disappointed by your de facto denial of Taiwan’s request to 66 new F-16 C/D fighter aircraft, and I believe it sends a damaging message to nations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond that the U.S. is willing to abandon our friends in the face of Communist China’s intimidation tactics," Cornyn wrote. "I hope to be able to support the confirmation of this nominee (Lippert). However, I ask that you decide on a near term course of action to address Taiwan’s looming fighter shortfall and provide me with the specific actions you plan to take."

Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved two bills this week aimed at supporting arms sales to Taiwan, the Taiwan Policy Act of 2011, and the Taiwan Airpower Modernization Act of 2011. Both bills support the sale of F-16 C/D fighter planes to Taiwan, and were authored by the committee’s chair, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and foreign operations. 

Ros-Lehtinen criticized what she saw as the administration’s "regrettable and short-sighted decision not to sell the next generation of F-16 C/D fighters to Taiwan, despite growing evidence of China’s increasing military threat to the island."  

"Taiwan needs those F-16s and she needs them now to defend the skies over the Taiwan Strait," she said. 

Also this week, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan commission that advises Congress, argued in its new annual report for the sale of new planes to Taiwan. The commission recommended that Congress "urge the administration to sell Taiwan the additional fighter aircraft it needs to recapitalize its aging and retiring fleet."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) threatened today to place a hold on the nomination of President Barack Obama’s confidant Mark Lippert, who has been nominated as the Pentagon’s top official for Asia.

Lippert, who had his hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday for the position of assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, is a close confidant of the president: He was the top foreign policy advisor in Obama’s Senate office, and a key campaign advisor during the presidential campaign as well. Lippert served as National Security Council chief of staff, until he was reportedly pushed out by then National Security Advisor Jim Jones over a dispute regarding negative leaks about Jones in the press, which Jones thought came from Lippert.

Since then, Lippert had been deployed to the warzone in his capacity as a reserve Naval officer. But now that he’s back, he’s poised to take over the Asia office inside the Pentagon’s policy shop at a crucial time — assuming Congress gives him the green light. Some critics have pointed out that Lippert is light on experience dealing with East Asia and there is some bad blood left over in GOP circles from the 2008 campaign — but Cornyn’s threatened hold is about the administration’s Taiwan policy, not Lippert personally.

Cornyn has been leading the congressional drive to pressure the administration to sell Taiwan the 66 new F-16 C/D fighters its government has been requesting. He’s still unhappy about the result of the last time he used his Senate holding power to force administration action on the issue. In July, he successfully pressured Secretary of State Hillary Clinton into publicly announcing the sale of retrofit packages for Taiwan’s aging fleet of F-16 A/B fighters, in exchange for Cornyn lifting his hold on Deputy Secretary of State nominee Bill Burns.

But the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it is still under consideration.

At Thursday’s hearing, Cornyn pressed Lippert on the issue (watch the video here) and then introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that seeks to force the administration to sell Taiwan new F-16s. That amendment has been voted down in the Senate once before.

When asked if he had an opinion on Taiwan’s air defense needs, Lippert said he didn’t, but he felt confident the Obama administration was fulfilling its responsibilities to provide for Taiwan’s defense as mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act.

"That’s based on the decision to upgrade the F-16 A and B’s. That’s based on the $12 billion in sales over the last two years to Taiwan, and that’s based on the close coordination and consultation with the Taiwan government," Lippert said.

Apparently, that didn’t satisfy Cornyn. He wrote a letter threatening to hold the Lippert nomination unless he gets some satisfaction on the issue.

"I remain disappointed by your de facto denial of Taiwan’s request to 66 new F-16 C/D fighter aircraft, and I believe it sends a damaging message to nations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond that the U.S. is willing to abandon our friends in the face of Communist China’s intimidation tactics," Cornyn wrote. "I hope to be able to support the confirmation of this nominee (Lippert). However, I ask that you decide on a near term course of action to address Taiwan’s looming fighter shortfall and provide me with the specific actions you plan to take."

Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved two bills this week aimed at supporting arms sales to Taiwan, the Taiwan Policy Act of 2011, and the Taiwan Airpower Modernization Act of 2011. Both bills support the sale of F-16 C/D fighter planes to Taiwan, and were authored by the committee’s chair, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and foreign operations. 

Ros-Lehtinen criticized what she saw as the administration’s "regrettable and short-sighted decision not to sell the next generation of F-16 C/D fighters to Taiwan, despite growing evidence of China’s increasing military threat to the island."  

"Taiwan needs those F-16s and she needs them now to defend the skies over the Taiwan Strait," she said. 

Also this week, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan commission that advises Congress, argued in its new annual report for the sale of new planes to Taiwan. The commission recommended that Congress "urge the administration to sell Taiwan the additional fighter aircraft it needs to recapitalize its aging and retiring fleet."

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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