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Friday, Jan. 16, 2009

Right place for a command of composure


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Dennis Blair, the man who is to become the new U.S. director of national intelligence, distinguished himself as chief of the U.S. military's Pacific Command, an important fact behind his appointment by President-elect Barack Obama. He will oversee all U.S. intelligence organizations.

The admiral, now retired, was the top dog over U.S. military forces in the Asia-Pacific from February 1999 to May 2002. He did very well. There are about a dozen major worries in the position, with China being roughly Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4. India, Pakistan, North Korea and others are on the worry list, but none can hurt the U.S. as much as China.

In April 2001 Blair and the U.S. government was hit with the notorious EP3 spy-plane crisis. A scrambling Chinese fighter flew too close to a lumbering U.S. surveillance plane hovering off China's coast, clipped its wings (presumably accidentally), and went down. The Chinese pilot's body was never recovered. When the U.S. crew somehow made a "Mayday" landing at a Hainan Island military airfield, the Chinese made a big propaganda deal of the incident. The U.S. crew was not immediately released.

Directly involved in inducing Beijing to come to its senses and return the airmen and the plane was Adm. Blair and Joseph Prueher, his equally impressive predecessor in the Pacific Command job whom President Bill Clinton had named ambassador to China. Prueher worked from Beijing and Blair worked from his desk at Camp Smith (Pearl Harbor, Honolulu) to defuse the crisis.

With the hyper-nationalistic U.S. news media seemingly on the verge of declaring war, I phoned Blair at Pearl Harbor to ask when the airmen might be returned. Blair, composed as a Mozart string quartet, said something like: If everyone acts sensibly and keeps the public-opinion posturing to a minimum, it could all be over in 10 days, give or take a day.

Ten days later to the day, the Chinese government released the crew (the plane itself came home later — in parts). The precision of the admiral's prescience was not that surprising. Ever since the Pearl Harbor debacle in 1941, the U.S. military establishment has always been keen to assign its best officers there.

When you think of the U.S. military, you may reflect on American militarism. But America's best officers are far more sophisticated than that. Prueher wasn't sent to Beijing as ambassador because he was a hawk; he went because of an exceptional professional record and a thick file of contacts in the upper ranks of the People's Liberation Army.

In the tense Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, then-Pacific Commander Prueher came to appreciate the vital need for preventive diplomacy. Miscommunication and misunderstanding were volatile fuses that could have turned a minor crisis into a major conflagration. After China stood down from intimidating Taiwan, Prueher quietly visited China to develop counterpart relationships with the Chinese military commanders. Five years later when the EP3 crisis surfaced, Prueher was behind his ambassador's desk in Beijing flipping through his Rolodex of PLA contacts as Blair in Pearl Harbor helped to make calls.

Military leaders of the caliber of Blair and Prueher are not that rare in America. They seem to rise to the top of the U.S. military at least as noticeably as talent does in the U.S. Congress.

Consider Army Gen. David Petraeus, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and now chief of the all-important U.S. Central Command. Even many of the Iraq war's most righteous critics count him as a virtual American idol and national treasure. It was no coincidence that Petraeus was the top graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in 1983. Blair himself was a Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford.

The incoming intelligence chieftain will certainly want to draw heavily on his experience at Pearl Harbor. Having a man in this key job who knows the Pacific in general — not just China but Indonesia and the Philippines and the Koreas — is a tremendous plus. And having a military man who is not a militarist in that sensitive spot is vital.

In congressional testimony in 2007, Blair said: "The use of large-scale military force in volatile regions of underdeveloped countries . . . has major unintended consequences and rarely turns out to be quick, effective, controlled."

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International policy. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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