Though the U.S. is beginning to focus its attention on the Far East, the Marine Corps delivered a message Monday that the Middle East is still critical to our nation's security.
Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, a three-star general, will now have sole responsibility for Marine Corps Forces Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. In the past, the commander split time between MacDill and Camp Pendleton in California, home of the 45,000-strong I Marine Expeditionary Force.
Making the MacDill command a stand-alone operation is a signal the Marine Corps wants to focus on the Middle East, even as U.S. forces are scheduled to turn over control of security in Afghanistan to local forces in 2014.
"You might ask, why do this now…?" Neller said. "Well, I would say the events of the past week kind of answer that question by itself."
Those events include attacks on U.S. embassies, one of which left a U.S. ambassador dead, and unrest that some have tied to a movie denigrating Islam.
Neller said he hopes to gauge allies' response to the decision about the command as he travels the region during the next month.
"I'll find out if this resonates with them and they still understand we have that commitment to them," he said.
The command oversees about 15,000 Marines in one of the world's most dangerous regions: a 20-nation swath controlled by U.S. Central Command, also based at MacDill. The region includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Egypt.
Centcom commander Gen. James Mattis said that as the U.S. presence in the Middle East shifts from land-based campaigns to operations focused on the Navy, Marines and Air Force, the Marine Corps Forces Central Command "will be crucial."
While the decision to make the command a stand-alone operation is intended to have global ramifications, there won't be much impact locally in terms of jobs.
The command, which began in 1990 and came to MacDill in 2005, has about 150 Marines working for it and will continue to maintain those numbers even with the new designation, according to command spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Kloppel.
"We don't anticipate a change in the staff," Kloppel said.