Is Tokyo Going Wobbly On Iraq Shengetsu

Is Tokyo Going Wobbly on Iraq?

The Shengetsu Newsletter follows:

‘ Newsletter No. 508 News-Analysis February 6, 2007


Just two weeks after Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma described the US invasion of Iraq “based on an assumption that weapons of mass destruction existed” in Iraq a mistake, comes a new remark from the somewhat more surprising source of Foreign Minister Taro Aso.

On the 3rd, local media in Kyoto reported Aso to have said that the US “launched a very immature operation that did not work so well, and that is why there is trouble.” This comment was then picked up by the national and international media, and broadcast around the world. Beleaguered Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki tried to explain, “I understand what he meant to say was that soft policies should have been used more skillfully… I think the word ‘immature’ was inappropriate, but I think his true intention was to suggest using Japan’s knowledge in building peace.”

An interesting interpretation of this event has been presented by Steven Clemons of The Washington Note:

“Prime Minister Koizumi — at one time believed to be a populist-leaning prime minister who would assert a new, more robust yet healthy nationalism based on Japanese interests rather than American designs — actually went the other direction. When Bush set the US towards a new war against Iraq, Koizumi sacrificed Japanese sovereignty and re-fixed Japan as a lapdog of US interests. The dog is out of the lap, apparently. And Taro Aso — a grandson of the famed post-WWII bureaucrat turned prime minister Shigeru Yoshida — is testing the waters of a less-tethered Japan.”

Is Clemons correct that the “dog is out of the lap”? Not even close.

I appreciate that Steven Clemons has now come to realize how disastrous the Iraq War has been for global US interests. On that point he is absolutely correct. But like many others on the left of the US political establishment (although he considers himself a ‘radical centrist’), Clemons is eager to see in Kyuma and Aso’s comments the signs of a major change in Tokyo’s appraisal of the Iraq War. But this is simply not the case — at least, not yet.

In the first case, Kyuma has always been a skeptic on the war. His personal opinion never really changed. In the second case, Aso simply talks too much, and is too eager to be seen as a clever fellow. He was never really deeply committed to the war, nor is he deeply against it now.

Iraq is a simply sideshow for most LDP politicians and MOFA bureaucrats. They only became involved in Iraq to please Washington, and now that Washington itself is divided and weak, they are waiting for clearer signals to emerge about the future of US policy.

The dog may be sleepily looking around the room, but it is still firmly in its master’s lap.

Tokyo has not “gone wobbly” on the US-Japan Security Alliance. In all likelihood, that theme will not appear until some years in the future, probably based on political developments in East Asia, not the Islamic world.

What has “gone wobbly” is the premiership of Shinzo Abe. His handling of a series of domestic issues has been remarkably inept, and his popularity is plummeting (just as I predicted it would in Shingetsu Newsletter No. 391 in September 2006). Now, Abe’s own colleagues are sensing his weakness, and they no longer fear him. That’s why their discipline is breaking down.

Kyuma is just speaking his real mind. Aso is trying to position himself as Abe’s successor, and is groping for the political formula that will put him in the Kantei. But neither man represents a real sea change in Tokyo’s attitude toward the United States.

The Shingetsu Institute for the Study of Japanese-Islamic Relations Website: 1-10-203 Wakafuji-machi, Kokurakita-ku Kitakyushu-shi 802-0063 JAPAN
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