Early in his tour as commander of US forces in the Pacific and Asia, Admiral Dennis Blair was asked in a Congressional hearing what he sought to accomplish with military exchanges with China.
The admiral said he wanted the Chinese to understand two things:
First, they should be reassured: “We’re not sitting here planning to attack China. We’re not sitting here planning to contain China. We’re not sitting here dying to pick a fight with China.”
Second, he intended to warn the Chinese against miscalculation, the message being: “Don’t mess with us.”
Thus it is not hard to imagine the tall, lean, and plain-spoken retired admiral, who has been nominated by US president-elect Barack Obama to be the nation’s top intelligence officer, looking the president right in the eye during a crisis and delivering a candid report: “Mr President, here are the facts as best we know them.”
As Director of National Intelligence, Blair would be responsible for setting objectives and standards for 16 disparate agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, and for coordinating their sometimes conflicting operations.
Blair, who must be confirmed by the Senate, began his intelligence career as a young officer whose collateral duties included taking pictures of other nation’s ships in ports his destroyer visited or encountered at sea.
As a senior officer, he was an associate director of intelligence at the CIA, with a desk in the executive offices on the seventh floor at Langley, the agency’s headquarters across the Potomac from Washington.
Blair’s main link with intelligence, however, has been as a consumer. He absorbed intelligence on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) in the White House, as director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon and especially as commander of the Pacific Command.
From the headquarters in Honolulu, he ran the world’s largest command with 300,000 people operating from the west coast of the US to the east coast of Africa.
Blair’s experience includes extensive exposure to Asia, having travelled widely as Pacific commander, and some to Europe as a member of the NSC staff.
He majored in Russian studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.
He has had less contact with issues in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America and will necessarily rely on others in those fields.
A recent essay Blair wrote for the National Bureau on Asian Research in Seattle provides clues to his thinking on military power in Asia.
“China, India and Japan will not match the power projection capability of the US,” he wrote.
Even so, they are “all developing the ability to deploy forces with the military capacity to threaten US power projection task groups.”
Blair asserted that “rather than initiating a scramble for power and influence in the region, the major nations in Asia seem more likely to use their power projection capabilities for symbolic purposes.”
He said, however, “a scramble for power and influence among major Asian powers would be likely if a drawdown of the US forward deployed military presence occurs in Asia.”
After he took charge of the Pacific Command’s headquarters in Honolulu in 1999, Blair showed that he was a demanding, if quiet, taskmaster.
Dissatisfied with the command’s war plans, he ordered them updated to account for China’s acquisition of modern Russian warplanes and ships.