QUIET SOLDIER-DIPLOMATS WORK BEHIND
THE SCENES IN ASIA
By Tom Plate
June 22, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- Diplomacy isn't
often the military’s strong suit, and of late the U.S. military's image,
thanks to the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, has taken some serious hits. But
the fact is that the best of our warriors regard the use of force as the
final, almost always undesirable option. So, historically, some of our best
diplomats have been soldiers, for they have the ultimate motive to succeed:
to preserve the lives of the people with whom they work.
"Everyone in uniform was absolutely
appalled by the prison scandal," U.S. Air Force Gen. William J. Begert told
me the other day. "You didn't need any training to know it was wrong. Those
who did it knew it was wrong." This anguished veteran combat pilot
understands that the misconduct, televised throughout the Arab world, has
made terrorist recruiting easier and thus, as the general put it, "prolongs
Begert is one of those quiet
soldier-diplomats working behind the scenes across Asia. The commander of
all U.S. Air Forces in the Pacific hangs his four stars at Hickam Air Force
Base in Hawaii. In the last several years he has traveled to Asia almost
monthly. His counterparts at Pearl Harbor, especially his boss Admiral Tom
Fargo, the Pacific Commander, have been similarly active.
Military diplomacy is generally
military-to-military; Begert says that his most interesting assignment
recently has been the time spent with officers of the Indian air force.
Notice that the Indians and the Pakistanis are starting to talk again about
serious matters, and that's a good thing. For the first time in years,
they're discussing their respective nuclear arsenals and one of the oldest
South Asian tension points: Kashmir. To be sure, the new discussion arises
primarily out of each government's calculation that reducing the risk of war
on the subcontinent is in the national interest of each. But, additionally,
their neighbors have also been urging India and Pakistan toward
reconciliation, and that pressure has helped bring the two parties together.
And some of the most persistent pressure has come from the far-off U.S.
Pacific Command in Hawaii, where the top people have been working hard to
bring India and Pakistan together. They just haven't been public about the
The general believes U.S.
diplomatic influence in Asia has not been eviscerated by the Iraq
engagement. "In my trips to Asia," says Begert, "I don't get the degree of
anti-Americanism that the media has been reporting. I certainly don't get it
from the air forces of Japan or South Korea or Singapore, or even on the
streets. I just don't get that feedback."
The general denies that military
morale has suffered because of Iraq and the prison scandal, at least in the
U.S. Air Force. Officer re-enlistment is actually so high, he says, that the
Air Force has had to develop new buyout programs and other measures to keep
the overall numbers down: "Fundamentally, the good morale goes back to 9/11.
The men and women in our service appreciate what we are trying to do, and
thus understand that what they do is very important.”
Begert paints an optimistic picture
of military-to-military relations in Asia, especially with Australia, South
Korea ("highly motivated and professional"), Singapore ("so well organized
... I love Singapore") and Japan, whose military policy is "really
changing." During the USAF's campaigns in Afghanistan, the Japanese air
force quietly ran air-ferrying missions in the region to allow U.S. planes
to focus on Afghan objectives.
The operations received very little
publicity, "fortunately," emphasized the general, since Tokyo is sensitive
to domestic nervousness. "Japan officials say, 'Be patient with us, we can't
do everything you want, our public has to be brought along.'" Even so, the
fact is, Junichiro Koizumi's Japan is doing more and more, month after
month. "Perhaps for us," says Begert, "their air ferrying, against the
larger picture of our operations in the region is only a drop in the bucket;
but for them, it was huge." Given Japan's history of military aggression in
Asia, it's not only the Japanese public that has concerns; the whole region
watches nervously, too. But Begert, who after four decades in his country's
service will retire next month, is optimistic that the re-emergence of a
major military profile in Asia will be a force for good.
Then again, Begert is optimistic
about just about everything. That, after all, is the nature of the American
patriot. It's an astonishingly potent quality, and if only we could bottle
and sell it, it might prove to be our No. 1 export.