Rumsfeld also took the lead in revamping the U.S.-Japan military relationship. Japan agreed (among other things) to spend billions of dollars to defend itself against North Korean ballistic missiles, and to host the first nuclear aircraft-carrier strike group to forward-deploy overseas (a notable development for a country neuralgic about nuclear weapons). This was painstaking micro-work for Rumsfeld: moving carrier air wings—pilots and their families—from Atsugi, where the Japanese wanted them out, to more-spacious quarters in Iwakuni. The Marine Air Corps Station at Futenma, in a very congested part of Okinawa and a target of Japanese hatred for the American military, would be relocated to Naga, in the less populous north of Okinawa. Meanwhile, the Marine presence on Okinawa overall would be reduced from 18,000 to 10,000, with the difference moving (at Japanese expense) to Guam, which Rumsfeld was building up with submarines, aerial tankers, fighter jets, bombers, and so forth. Although the Clinton administration had started expanding facilities on Guam, here again was another instance in which Rumsfeld’s intervention was critical to forcing change.
The Philippines was a major focus of Rumsfeld’s attempt to recast American strategy in Asia, and it is one whose importance has been underestimated. In 2002, U.S. Special Operations forces teamed up with the Philippine military to clear the south of the country of Islamic terrorists linked to al-Qaeda. The operation on the strategic island of Basilan was successful, and in 2005 it was extended to the island of Jolo. The U.S. military, mainly Army Special Forces, trained the Filipinos, helped gather intelligence, and conducted humanitarian relief, even as the Filipinos did the actual fighting. By using the indirect approach, the operation raised the stature of the U.S. military in the Filipino media for the first time since the 1992 closure of American bases there, opening the door to a new bilateral defense relationship.
Rumsfeld threw his support behind a plan to deploy more aircraft-carrier strike groups in the Pacific rather than keep them hugging the shores of the continental United States. He concluded a strategic framework agreement with Singapore and played a large, very deliberate role in the post–Cold War U.S. rapprochement with India: selling the amphibious ship U.S.S. Trenton to the Indian navy, offering F-18Super Hornets to the Indian air force and P-8Poseidons as replacements for India’s P-3Orion surveillance planes, and boosting the number of naval and air-force exchanges.
By the middle of this decade, just as a new, more flexible, austere, and far-flung basing constellation was emerging worldwide, empowered by a more centrally controlled command structure, troubled relationships with crucial Asian allies were on the mend. Such developments, as Rumsfeld saw them, would help the United States react in expeditionary style to unforeseen emergencies, prosecute the war on terrorism, and hedge against a rising Chinese military without unnecessarily provoking it. These are aspects of Rumsfeld’s legacy that any new administration will quietly adapt or reengineer to its own needs, rather than repeal outright. Barry Blechman, a distinguished fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington who is respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, credits Rumsfeld for these changes, which he notes that Congress has also supported. In a note to me, Rumsfeld categorized these decisions as “tough, sometimes criticized, and even condemned, but necessary and, I believe, enduring.”
A Transformation, of Sorts
Why was Rumsfeld, by many accounts, more astute in dealing with Korea and Japan than with Iraq? Ironically, the quagmire that Rumsfeld helped create in Mesopotamia also had the effect of turning these once-inviolate Asian relationships into second-order issues open to renegotiation. Rumsfeld also had more-immediate access to area expertise. He himself had been a Japan aficionado since the early 1960s, with his own longtime contacts, a passion that came from having a father aboard a carrier in the Pacific during World WarII while the family lived in Coronado, California. Moreover, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 2001 to 2005, Air Force General Richard B. Myers, who was in over his head when dealing with Middle Eastern insurgencies, had commanded U.S. forces in Japan. On the whole, thanks to the half-century-long presence of so many American troops in Korea and Japan, people around the table in the ERing knew what they were dealing with when it came to the Far East—something that could not always be said of their encounters with the Muslim world.