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Resetting the Pacific game board

If only top congressional lawmakers would telegraph news stories more often! Just as Sens. Carl Levin, John McCain and Jim Webb warned this week, the U.S. and Japan announced a new basing agreement late Thursday that would move some some 9,000 Marines out of Japan.

Those troops will stay in the Pacific, likely in Guam and Hawaii, leaving a smaller force of about 10,000 Marines on Okinawa. The forces that remain there will be important, including the headquarters elements of III Marine Expeditionary Force; the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing; the 3rd Marine Logistics Group and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The deal puts about 5,000 Marines on Guam, which also will host the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade HQ; the 4th Marine Regiment and some of III MEF's squadrons, ground and support units, according to the official announcement. The rest of the troops coming out of Okinawa will go back to the U.S. or be part of the rotational Marine Air-Ground Task Force that trains down in Darwin, Australia.

Japan will pay about $3.1 billion of the overall $8.6 billion cost for the new laydown, Pentagon officials say, but it isn't fully settled yet: Okinawans still want the Marines' air base on the island gone, but that wasn't part of the agreement announced this week.

The other shoes still yet to drop could come from Levin, McCain, Webb and their Hill colleagues, who are due some analysis about Pacific force posture and, as we saw this week, jumped ahead of the Defense and State Departments' announcement to remind Secretary Panetta of that. Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee; McCain, the Arizonan who is its top Republican; and Webb, a Virginia Democrat, issued their own cautious statement Thursday after DoD's rollout:

We appreciate the willingness of the Departments of State and Defense to accommodate some of our concerns by adjusting the language in certain portions of the U.S.-Japan Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee. We still have many questions about the specific details of this statement and its implications for our force posture in the Asia-Pacific region, and we will continue to work with the administration and the Government of Japan to achieve the objectives we all share: a mutually beneficial, militarily effective, and fiscally sustainable agreement regarding the realignment of U.S. forces on Okinawa and Guam. We will also continue to await the findings and recommendations of the independent assessment on U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region, as required by the Fiscal Year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.
So -- what does that mean? Thursday's announcement is the product of years of diplomatic work between the U.S. and Japan and was rolled out in advance of a visit by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ... this doesn't sound like a situation in which the Obama administration wanted to test the waters and then change its approach depending on the response. It may be that the report Levin, et al. expect by the end of June miraculously endorses a construct very much like this one.

There is a litte wiggle room in this week's agreement, however. The State and Defense Department statement said the Marines' move off Okinawa "is to occur when appropriate facilities are available to receive them," -- a pretty elastic standard. It continues, politely: "Recognizing the strong desires of Okinawa residents, these relocations are to be completed as soon as possible" -- then more elasticity -- "while ensuring operational capability throughout the process."

That means no date certain for the transition and perhaps a little space for lawmakers to have their say about how all this should break down.

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