The Cable

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."

The Cable

Obama won’t budge on drug policy in Colombia

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Colombia this weekend, but they won't give any ground on the demand by several regional leaders to move toward a different approach in the war on drugs.

The issue of decriminalizing and perhaps even legalizing cocaine, heroin, and marijuana after decades of fighting a bitter and bloody war on drug cartels in the region will be the "gorilla in the room" when regional leaders meet April 14 and 15 in Cartagena, Colombia for the first Summit of the Americas since 2009, according to regional experts. The issue is not on the official agenda, but several regional leaders plan to raise it, much to the chagrin of the Obama administration.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina demanded a more public debate over Latin American drug policy in January, calling for a regional strategy for decriminalization "as soon as possible." In an April 7 editorial, Perez said, "Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions. And legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls."

Several other regional leaders have followed suit, seeking to adjust what they see as a failed policy and shift more responsibility toward the world's number one drug consuming country, the United States. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is hosting the summit, agrees that a having a new drug strategy must be on the agenda.

"Colombia, and I myself, have put this issue on the table, because if there is any country that has suffered more from drug trafficking, that has shed more blood, it's Colombia," he said in a speech last month.

But a White House official said Wednesday that the Obama administration is only willing to discuss law enforcement and drug education, not a wholesale reform of the current approach to drugs.

"U.S. policy on this is very clear. The president doesn't support decriminalization, but he does consider this is a legitimate debate. And it's a legitimate debate because it helps to demystify this as an option," said Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council's senior director for Latin America, on a Wednesday conference call with reporters.

Restrepo referred back to last month's comments by Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled to Mexico and Honduras and said that a drug policy debate was "legitimate" but not likely to change the U.S. position. He also said drug consumption is not just a U.S. problem.

"As the consumption of drugs spreads throughout the Americas, the responsibility to address this challenge needs to spread," he said. "This is a shared responsibility... Brazil is the second largest cocaine consuming country in the world."

According to the 2011 World Drug Report, prepared by the U.N. office of drugs and crime, Brazil has about 900,000 cocaine users, roughly 0.7 percent of adults aged 15-64. In the United States, about 2.4 percent of adults in that age range use cocaine, a total of 5 million people.

Restrepo said the United States would be willing to discuss how to reduce crime and violence surrounding drugs, but not decriminalization or legalization. He also said there was no consensus on the issue in the region one way or the other.

"This is not a debate where one country is standing in a very different place than all the other countries," he said. "The United States is among the countries who does not see this as a solution and does not see this as a viable option because of the problems that come with it and because it won't end transnational crimes."

(The website InSight Crime has put together a map of the drug decriminalization and legalization positions of all the countries in the region.)

On the call, Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes tried to dispel the notion widely held around the region that the president has neglected Latin America and failed to live up to promises he made early in his presidency, such as progress in relations with Cuba and Venezuela.

"Over the course of the last three years, President Obama has significantly bolstered the image of the United States in the region and U.S. leadership, in survey after survey, is far more welcome and respected throughout the Americas," he said. "And we believe that has opened the door to greater economic and security cooperation with the countries of the region."

Cuba's Fidel Castro won't be at the Colombia Summit; Cuba is banned from participating. Venezuelan ailing President Hugo Chávez will be there, but don't expect Obama to shake his hand, as he did at the last summit in 2009. The only U.S. senator confirmed to attend is Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).

On the way to the summit, Obama will give a speech at the port of Tampa, FL, to talk about trade and export opportunities between the United States and Latin America. He arrives in Cartagena the evening of the 13th and will have dinner with the other regional leaders. On Saturday, Obama will attend a "CEO Summit of the Americas" with Santos and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

The summit plenary sessions will run through the afternoon of the 14th. On the morning of the 15th, there will be a leaders' retreat, but not before the official photo is taken. Many are watching to see if Obama dons one of the signature "guayaberas" that are being tailored specifically for him to wear on his visit.

Before heading home, Obama will meet with Caribbean leaders and then have a bilateral meeting with Santos, a press conference, and one final event at a local church.

Clinton will stay on in the region, traveling to Brasilia April 16 and 17. On April 16, she will lead the U.S. delegation for the third U.S.-Brazil Global Partnership Dialogue. On April 17, Clinton will join with Rousseff at the first annual high-level meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which is an effort to share technology that reduces government corruption.

Clinton will then go directly to Brussels April 18 and 19 to participate in a joint meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers and to hold a bilateral meeting with Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders. She will also participate in a foreign ministers' meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on April 19.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images